By Ayo Alonge and Sijibomi Fatayo
Tope Agbeyo is Chairman, Cornfield Group, which comprises Media Concepts International Limited, Botosoft Technologies Limited, Cornfield Transnational Limited and FOAM Studio Nigeria Limited.
According to the Ekiti born business mogul, his success in business, over the years, is only a result of his passionate quest to meet basic needs of people, especially in the education and ICT sectors. In this interview, Agbeyo fields questions pertinent to his success story as well as volunteers his advice to the younger generation.
Why did you go into business?
I wanted to satiate people’s needs. When you are creating a product, you should be certain that it will be needed in the society, that it will solve a certain problem or problems and not that you’ll force it on the society. It should be what people will be happy to spend their hard earned money to buy. When you are buying it, you know that this is going to solve one or two problems, that it will fill a vacuum in your life.
To what extent have you been able to achieve the vision and mission of your company?
We have been in existence for over 10 years and we have never had a year of draught whereby we say let’s close down the business. If we are not achieving our vision and mission, we won’t be growing. If we have not satisfied our clients, there won’t be a reason for you to sit down here to interview me. We won’t have the guts to be thinking of making our company global, competing with other companies abroad and matching other products abroad. We won’t be thinking of exploring other sectors of the economy across the world, if we know that back home, we are not good enough. We won’t have the courage to do all that.
How did you get your start-up capital?
Oh, that was tough. It came up in 2005. Our first project was with the National Examination Council (NECO). We needed about N40 million to execute it and I had nothing. The only thing I had then was my God-given talent. I had to start looking for money. It was my aunty who staked her house as collateral. Her name is Ireti Olubunmi Borishade. She did so at Guardian Express Bank. She said, “Tope, I am ready to offer my house as collateral because of you.” Her thank you gift is who I am today. That I did not disappoint her. It’s not returning the property back to her; it’s not giving her N1, 000 but the joy of who I am today.
Are you for or against parental support for children who want to start up a business considering the likes of Donald Trump, Altai Aliko Dangote and Alhaji Rasaq Okoya of Eleganza who were given funds to start their businesses by their parents?
Good parents provide for their offspring and their generations to come. It’s a foolish parent that will see an opportunity to provide for his generations to come and ignore it. There is nothing bad in a child pursuing part of his/her inheritance. Those you mentioned are not the only ones that got money from their parents. Many people got money from their parents and squandered it. I know the kind of child my son is. I don’t need to deceive myself. If he were a child I can sell my property for, I would rather do it. My father did it for me. My father was not rich but he gave me what he never got from his parents, and that’s education. My mother didn’t have it. My father was old. At a point, he nearly sold his only cocoa plantation to train me. The money your parents give to you, bit by bit, is part of your capital for education but when you get to school, if you use the money on cultism, or you become a prostitute and you don’t go to school, you have failed. But if you graduate and you say daddy, I have XYZ business idea I need to explore and I know the kind of child I have, nothing stops me from giving that child money.
When you were a child, did you envisage you would be the businessman you are today?
I had a dream and once you have a dream, you need to mould your moral attitude. I knew that one-day, I would be great but I didn’t know how. That’s why I grew up like an adult. When I was in the university, I had no social life. Any little time I had, I was in my father’s farm at Aba-Ijesha havesting cocoa or kolanuts ready to sell. Every Friday, I was with my dad. If I had little money, I would buy palm oil and kola nuts and ask my mother to preserve it for me. When the commodities appreciated, she sold them for me. I resolved that whatever I did then would either make or mar me in future. Your character also determines who and what you become in life. I was always business-oriented.
You studied Dramatic Arts as well as Media and Communication. Why did you not work in the media? You could have been working in a newsroom or become another Femi Osofisan by now. Don’t you think you have a business out there writing?
I never wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a Lawyer. It was the person who submitted my application that God used to erase Law and put Dramatic Arts. He erased my first choice, which was Law and entered Dramatic Arts; for my second choice, he entered English and for my third choice, he entered Law. I scored enough to get me into Law but my wife-to-be later told me she would rather marry a dramatist than a Lawyer. She was my girlfriend then studying Nursing in Kano. She said, “If you study Law, I will not marry you”. I have no regrets I studied Dramatic Arts. I’m knowledgeable about all facets of life and disciplines.
Cornfield Group has four subsidiaries viz Media Concepts International Limited, Botosoft Technlogies Limited, Cornfield Transnational Limited and the FOAM Studio Nigeria Limited. What specific needs are they geared to serve?
When you create a group, its components or subsidiaries must complement each other. When we talk about Media Concept, it does examination brochures, information about examination rules and regulations. When there was a need for us to provide ICT services to our clients, we realized we needed to create a system whereby you can use your smart card to automate candidate’s attendance through a mobile terminal. You can also use it to report malpractice right on that same day that the candidate cheated. And then the issue of impersonation has to be dealt with, and then Botosoft Technologies came on board.
Another ploy students explore is that of mathematical set and calculator, because a lot of people can conceal a lot of things in their mathematical sets. And then, the calculators are like Google. They have Internet on them and they put many candidates at advantage above others. Those that cannot buy the high-end calculator will just buy a calculator required by the exam body. So, we said okay, why can’t we make these mathematical instruments transparent and we asked what kind of calculator the examination bodies needed. They told us and we started working and made everything a single object, then Cornfield Transnational Limited was incorporated for the purpose. These firms complement each other. FOAM Studio is into monogramming. It’s a corporate gift avenue, because we see that some of our clients need this. The main body of the company is abroad but we are moving down to serve clients in various parts of Nigeria.
What’s your advice for young entrepreneurs who want to be like Tope Agbeyo?
There are many challenges. First, you need to have a dream and then support the dream with a passion. Then you ask yourself if you’re solving a problem? If you can answer all these questions, then you talk about finance, then you talk about the factors that can make you do things that are fake and avoid them. If you can believe in yourself, you must also believe in your clients and trust your customers. If what you are going to give to them is what they will like, you can resolve those challenges. But we cannot all be entrepreneurs. It’s not possible. I want you to know one thing. If you are working with an entrepreneur, you are also an entrepreneur, because you are contributing something. It’s just that they are paying you salary. If you are starting up a business, because you want to be rich, you will never become rich. That business will never grow. My father always said, “Whoever loves too much money will never have money”. Youths of today should look beyond money and financial benefits. They should think of their identity and brand first and the quality of services they want to render to the customer and if they fail once, they should start all over again.
You will agree with me that one of the problems manufacturers and consumers contend with worldwide is counterfeiting. What can be done to check it?
It’s not peculiar to Nigeria. It’s everywhere. For every original bag or product you buy, there is a counterfeit. They are not of the same price but you can be certain you will get it at almost the same location. Go buy your favourite phones; you will realize fakes are there. Ask yourself where you’re buying your products and at what price. You know the price of the product. So, you don’t blame the manufacturer if you buy a fake product. You blame yourself. In our company, we have developed an application that’s widely accepted that you can put on your products or your certificate and would tell you this is original or fake. It’s being pioneered by our company in the UK and one of its kind globally. We call it Botoseal. It was launched in the UK on November 21st last year, because they have this similar problem of fake certificates and fake items everywhere. You know where originals are being sold. Go there! You know the prices of original items. Something is N100 and you buy it for N30. You have set yourself up for the counterfeit. All these things are affecting manufacturers. But with Botoseal, I believe counterfeiting has met its match.
What are your selling points? What makes yours different from others who offer these same services?
We may have the same IT firm but we have never copied any products or services. We create our own products. Everything we do, people do it after us. Our smart card, INEC copied from WAEC. WAEC used it before them. Not only that. For everything we produce, we were the first to produce it. I can show you facts to prove this. The calculator and math set produced is globally accepted today. Go and Google some of these things and see that we started them. By next week, we will be in Kenya and that’s how we are touching every shore of Africa and beyond.
How are the economic recession and the exchange rate affecting your company?
Nigeria is not in recession. Let me tell you that freely. This is happening to us, because we refused to save for the rainy day. We were sharing the excess crude reserve. If we had saved over $200 billion that we were sharing then, we wouldn’t have been in recession today. The problem is that our leaders have been very reckless. Any father that cannot create wealth for his descendants is not a good father.
So, how do we tackle the recession?
Recently, the naira has been appreciating and how did we achieve that? I can see how unreasonable some of our governors are today. All they want to build now are airports. Let’s stop building what we don’t need. Let’s build what we need. You don’t build an overhead bridge because someone else is doing it. How can you build a school with over N500million for just few students when you are supposed to spread it across many communities? We must ensure that every kobo counts and that is how we can grow.
Could you enumerate some government polices that facilitate entrepreneurship?
I am not a fan of APC or the PDP. But let me be sincere, this government has good policies like the one that encourages people to come with business ideas and then they start-you-up in business. If all you are producing is pure water and you have one million people to sell to out of the over 180 million Nigerians that’s good money for you. Let us have comparative cost advantage and see that people specialize in producing something unique. You can even go to Ghana to produce but the money still comes back to Nigeria. Only that today, there is a tendency of stealing intellectual property. You float a business idea and some cabals just hijack it and empower their relatives to start. You then see them driving exotic cars all around town. I don’t support government going into farming. Identify some youths and let them go into farming and you only have to create the enabling environment for them. When I see that there is a ready market for my produce, I’m encouraged to produce more. I also feel government should ban okada riders.
Why? So, they can become hoodlums in our streets?
Take them to the farm and let them farm. An average okada rider cannot fend for his family and as he keeps growing he soon develops health problems and his children turn to nuisance. Some have more than one wife and many children they cannot cater for. We need to make it difficult for people to steal, but if they eventually succeed in stealing, let’s make it difficult for them to spend their loot. That way, Nigeria will grow and become better.
You once said you can’t be seen dabbling into politics. You may have changed your mind now…
Let me put it this way. Any day you see my poster anywhere in town, just know I have a mental problem. Take me to the psychiatric hospital. I am not a fan of any political party in Nigeria. I support policies instead. Let’s look at policies that can help us as a country and let’s embrace them. I think the current government has enviable policies. How can our governors be sharing our excess crude reserve?
Could you tell us about your success story?
I have really gone through a lot. For two years, I didn’t have a television set. At a point, my younger brother came home with a spoilt computer, and I just hung it on my shelf just to beautify the house. At a point, my wife was almost going to take up a cleaning job. Most people are not ready to suffer first.
What core lesson can the younger generation learn from your rise from grass to grace?
I have said it before. Don’t let money be the reason you are in business. Let it be that you are in business because you want to serve. You can even do it free. When you do it free, people would then be willing to pay for your services. Being passionate is not enough, prostitutes are passionate too. See the way they package themselves for prospective clients. Even armed robbers are passionate about theft and killing but we all know that these are all anti-social. Therefore, you must be passionate about good ventures that can make not just you survive but also the society at large.