By Christy Anyanwu
Legal practitioner and Chairman, NACCIMA Export Group, Kola Awe is the chief executive of XPT Group of Companies, which has various subsidiaries that engage in export and export consultancy, import and haulage business activities.
As a legal practitioner, how did you get into export business?
I started in the mid-90s, a couple of years after graduating from Law school. That was when I came in contact with an Indian man who was into export of wood. He was a client of the law firm where I was working. He suggested that I could get into supply of wood and then gave me a local purchase order (LPO). So, I went to Ondo State and started procuring the wood for processing. For about two years, I lived in Ondo State, traversing the forests to source for logs of wood. From local supply, I graduated into export of wood. I practised law for about two to three years.
From exporting wood, I moved on to ginger, cashew nuts, sesame seeds and other agro commodities. I have been very fortunate to have done the major traditional export products of Nigeria apart from cocoa. Cocoa is one area I can say that I have not been able to touch. With experience gained from exporting commodities, I went into export of manufactured products. I opened the West Africa sub-region for Nigerian companies. I was one of the first persons that penetrated the market for companies like Vitafoam Nigeria Plc, which is a well-known brand in Ghana right now. I also made La Casera popular on the West Coast. I did the same for Dangote Noodles, before it was bought over by Tiger Foods. In the course of penetrating the ECOWAS market with Made-in-Nigeria products, I also got into the logistics aspect of it. This led to the acquisition of trucks to be able to move goods for Nigeria companies from Nigeria to the entire Sub-Saharan Africa region, which gave birth to XPT Haulage, which moves goods from Nigeria manufacturing companies to the West Coast.
At the initial stage of the haulage business, we depended on freight forwarders, and after experiencing some hiccups and setbacks, I decided to also dabble also into freight forwarding business. I worked for close to a year in the port, to gain the basic understanding of freight forwarding in export. Later I decided to float a freight- forwarding company called XPT Logistics, which is currently working for a lot of Nigerian companies and multinationals that move their goods to different parts of the world. XPT IMPEX is the import and export arm of the business. We started importing in the early 2000 and we still import till date. XPT has different subsidiaries.
What are your major responsibilities as NACCIMA Export Group chairman?
The major responsibilities are advocacy and training. We train our members on how to get into export business and to advocate in the areas of laws and policies that impede the success of an average export transaction. What we are also trying now getting involved in product development which has be- come essential in the face of Africa’s continental free trade area. So, we are supporting our members develop expertise in export transactions and provide access to market for them. Our members have participated in several trade fairs, within and outside Africa. We intend going to Morocco in March 2021; the reason for the Morocco Fair is to draw attention to made in Nigeria products in preparation for the commencement of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which is coming is up. Basically, we try to support our members in every area of the export business. In pursuit of our product development efforts, we have been able assist over 40 companies to register their products with the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC). We have also started rebranding their products and changing their packaging, because most of them are in the Small-Medium Enterprises sector. We created a packaging and labelling committee, to work with the companies and to advise them on global best practices. We advised them on the need to change from basic polythene bags to pouches, to enable them meet the requirements of f NAFDAC. Finance is also an issue; we realize there’s strength in number. We put in place a cooperative system where members voluntarily put money together and we are able to support them with their registration process, some of them are able to access funds for registration of their products. Our strength first of all is in advocacy, which is, letting the government know some of the issues that are impeding export business, such as the terrible state of the road, ports and other factors that are impeding export logistics. We train our members on how to meet export market requirements because for now they are producing for the domestic market, which is huge and can take anything.
What does it take to become an exporter?
Export business is not one you start just like that. What is most important is the passion. I say to people that if you are a tailor and you have passion for designing business, if you want to go into export the same passion that you have in your initial business is the same passion that you will transfer to the export business. Passion is one thing that can see you through setbacks, all difficulties and hurdles. Setbacks, difficulties and hurdles are inherent in export business because you deal with different climes, different laws, different procedures and different policies. So for you to sustain it, you need to have a clear cut knowledge and understanding in this entire process which is very important. So, it’s not enough that you have money; you need a mentor, someone that has gone through the process of export.
What was it like growing up? Was it your father that influenced what you have become?
I had a very exciting youthful life. My dad, Gabriel Ayoola Awe is late. There are some things you unintentionally and unconsciously imbibe from your father, and as you progress in life you see yourself manifesting those things. My dad had several companies in Nigeria. At a time, he was the sole importer of screw driver in the country and everybody was practically buying screw drivers from him. I was so passionate about becoming a lawyer. If I look back today, there are so many things I got from him. Like my father, I’m a serial entrepreneur. Lately, sometimes when I play Ebenezer Obey’s music, I see myself singing along. I ask myself, when did I ever have the time to memorise this song? I never thought of it. But you see, I would wake up in the morning, and my father would be playing Obey and singing the song. The thing would register in your head and start resonating. One other thing I admired about him is that a lot of the fathers of my friends were working in corporate environment and by 6.00am, their dads would already be out to work and my dad was still at home. Around9.00to10am,you would see him just coming out majestically out of the house, and the driver was already waiting in his uniform. My dad would get into his car and they would drive off. I used to admire the peace that the man exuded. He could stay at home that long in the morning while other parents were already at work at 6.30m. My dad was extremely tough. We named him Ghadaffi, he was a disciplinarian. That discipline has helped all of his children. I’m from a polygamous family and my father had many children. You hardly find any of us in any illegal business or immoral stuffs because we always remember the son of who we are. Growing up was exciting. I started school in Surulere Baptist School. It was bought over by Birch Freeman High School. Let me tell you how much my dad loved education. When Jakande came in and changed all schools to public schools, when we started having school 1, school 2, he personally felt that he could not afford to leave his kids in such environment, where there was overcrowding, he took all of us and relocated us to the Eastern part of the country, to school. I attended Government College, Owerri, along some of my younger brothers. Some of my younger ones schooled at Ihioma Girls, Orlu and others in Bishop Shanahan College, also in Orlu. He did that Just to take us away from the free education. He took my much younger siblings to Ilesha, my home town to attend school. That was how much my dad loved education and he preferred his children get the best. Then I went to Nnamdi Azikiwe University for my Law degree and later went to Law School.
Do miss practicing as a lawyer?
Yes. I miss law. There are no two ways about it. I practised for three years. To be honest with you, I will still go back to law practice. As it is said, a good golf player does not keep his eyes away from the ball. My eyes are still on the ball. My second son is in Law School right now, my third child and my only daughter is in 300-Level Law. I will definitely go back to law practise, it’s just inevitable. Our laws in Nigeria need to be rejigged in the area of remuneration. Good lawyers, wonderful and intelligent lawyers have left law practice because of the pay, which is one of the reasons I quickly took a dive. I needed extra money to
be able to stay put. That gap is what I’m going to fill up with my children. No matter what they are paying them, I can support in other ways so that they can stay.
What are the major challenges of export business?
The infrastructure deficiencies we have in Nigeria, port congestion and bad roads, have created a lot of problems. Agro commodities are very sensitive products; you can’t afford to lock them up in a place for too long. Today, a lot of agro commodities are being locked up in traffic for three long weeks and sometimes up to a month. Port congestion also reduces the traffic of vessel s. Vessels are not coming in as often as they ought to come. Goods spend some more days in the terminal before the cargo is loaded on the ship. And when the cargo is put on the ship it takes up to 40 days to get to the destination port – depending on where it is going – Europe, America or Asia.