Young entrepreneur can start small, says Achigbu
Chief Lawrence Chibuike Achigbu, best graduating student in the pioneer set in Petroleum Engineering Department of the Federal University of Science and Technology, Owerri, Imo State, holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Lagos and was at Harvard Business School in the United States in 2010 for a three-year programme in Entrepreneurship and Leadership.
After graduation, he did his national service at Mobil Petroleum. He recalled that as a young graduate at 24, he used to go to work everyday at the oil platform by helicopter, which will drop him off and return in the evening to pick him up, with fishes in the surrounding ocean as company and had to hold on to the heated crude pipes whenever it rained while there alone to warm himself, with a radio as his only means of contact with colleagues.
After service and when he was not retained, he went to Lagos in 1989 in search of greener pastures, but getting a job was tough.
He had always wanted to start his own business, but to do that, he needed to have some working capital, which was not readily available.
Achigbu had to work his way through, trading in items sent by his elder brother studying in Russia then.
He recalled: “My brother and his colleagues there would send football boots to me and I was selling and remitting money back to them. It cost peanuts then and I was making good money and saving towards starting my own business.
“Every Monday, I would go to the office of the defunct Aeroflot and pick up the boots, and a dealer at the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos would come and clear everything.
“From boots, we went into lightings, chandeliers and wristwatches and within three years, I was able to gather enough money to start something.
“Coming from a poor background and without a paid job, I started thinking of what to do, because I didn’t want to go into the regular importation my people were engaged in.”
So, Achigbu travelled to Germany in 1992 on obtaining his first visa to purchase a gas tank to set up a gas refilling plant.
There, he met a young German who convinced him to buy his used tank, saying it would serve his purpose and he did not need to buy a brand new tank.
The man gave it to him almost free; he paid just a token for its transportation and shipment to start Chimons Gas Limited.
He set up a gas refilling plant in 2007 as one of the six pioneers, with cooking gas sourced from the refineries, which after a while, were not producing; hence importation, until a series of petitions made the government to mandated the IOCs to intervene.
The Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Company (NLNG), Exxon Mobil and other multinational oil companies picked it up from there.
Since then, the market has developed, stabilised and grown from 40,000 to 400,000 tons today, with the hope of reaching 500,000 at the end of the year.
“But again, the NLNG still sells to us at international market rate, using the official exchange rate,” he said.
Now, he is building a cooking gas terminal in Delta State.
Interestingly, he is still using the tank he bought second hand in Germany till date and he said it is still in good shape, 24 years after.
The business has grown, with four refilling gas plants across the country and by 2007, he had become big enough to be reckoned with as a major stakeholder in the industry when NLNG wanted to commence commercial sale of cooking gas locally.
Six firms won the right, including Achigbu’s Chimons Gas Limited, picked from every geo-political zone of the country. Today, there are 18 of them.
He has also moved into road construction is which he is handling some contracts in the Niger Delta region.
Asked if he is comfortable with the contract in that volatile area, he responded: “I am a businessman, when I see an opportunity, I move in.”
On the challenges and complications in starting a business in Nigeria, he bemoaned: “You see a good business opportunity, you approach a bank and they sometimes play some politics.”
Achigbu pointed to the problem of securing land in some parts of the country for business, including Lagos, where buyers have to put up with all manners of challenges, frauds and underhand dealings, even from the same owner-families, and the law enforcement agents appear helpless.
Did he envisage coming this far, even though as a student, he had big dreams while in school?
Achigbu said he has not even reached where he had planned to be, regretting, for instance, that he didn’t capitalise on some business opportunities when they presented themselves.
“There are some things I know now that if I knew then, I would have gone very far. I didn’t know and every week, I was going for one social event or the other. I made a lot of mistakes and it is now that I am beginning to put things in order.”
With the benefit of hindsight, what are those mistakes young entrepreneurs or businessmen/women still make?
“A whole lot of people don’t border to do feasibility studies that could even enable them spot some problems early enough. They hear or see that one or two persons are into a business and decide to also go into it without proper planning.
“Also, whatever business you are venturing into must have the market. If you are applying for loan, it is one of those things the banks want to know – the off-takes. There must be a serious business plan.
“You have to spend money to put some things in place; things people might not see and risks some people are not ready to take, but these are very important.
“There are still a whole lot of opportunities out there. People leave school and are looking for jobs, but they can start up small. That is what some schools, especially in the US, do – teach the young ones and inculcate innovations in them to stand on their own.”
Reminded of the difficulty in accessing even government loans and asked how to go about it, Achigbu advised: “Don’t do it alone if you don’t have the wherewithal (funds). Go into partnership with like minds and pull resources together.”
But that will involve some trust, and he said: “Even if you don’t have complete trust, at least have a framework, understanding and arrangement on how to go about it. Having like minds is more important than trust.
“Most businessmen don’t like people asking them for money, but if you come up with a good idea, they could be interested and buy into it.”
On allegations that some businessmen would turn back to execute such ideas, he insisted: “They would buy into it if you make it interesting enough. If not, don’t give up; talk to another person. At some point, someone will listen to you at the end. Perseverance is the watchword.”
Talking about operating environment, the entrepreneur identified electricity supply as the major challenge now, adding that until that is sorted out, manufacturing would remain low, just as he threw his weight behind the recent increase in tariff.
Achigbu’s entrepreneurial achievements have not gone unnoticed. Recently, the Commonwealth Investment Council (formerly called the Commonwealth Council) admitted his into its Advisory Board.
He recounted how it came about. “Last year when I attended a conference in Malta, with the Queen of England and President Muhammadu Buhari also in attendance, the Council was looking for someone from Nigeria to be on the Council.
“Following a reform in 2014, the Council was given a fresh mandate to create a common market for the Commonwealth member states.
“I was shocked when I was told my attention was needed at the Commonwealth, especially being the first time I was attending the conference. I was just concerned about why I was needed.
“So, I went and there, I was told that having looked at my CV and watched me for a while, they thought I could join them on the Board. They were picking one person each from the 53 member countries.”
He continued: “Of late, they have added more people to the Council, including Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, who was admitted as the Vice President, and president of the Nigerian Shipowners Association, Aminu Umar.
“The Council provides strategic direction to the Commonwealth in the area of business, which is put forward to the governments in order to free up the environment for business to thrive and improve each country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”
He disclosed that the common goal is to increase trading among the 53 countries of the Commonwealth and assist and connect people with businesses, thereby acting like a facilitator.
He also hinted that the Council would eventually set up an office in Nigeria and beginning to create awareness on how businessmen/women from member countries could access businesses in Nigeria and vice versa.