Becky Damilola Oke:‘I went into estate management to impact humanity’
ENGR. Becky Damilola Oke is the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Bstan Group, an Abuja-based estate development firm. Beyond providing shelter through her company that has over 120 administrative staff and numerous other skill workers at construction sites across Nigeria, she’s also passionate about mentoring young people and helping them achieve their fu8ll potential. In an interview with BRIDGET CHIEDU ONOCHIE, she spoke on her career in the male-dominated sector, the need for government to partner private sector to provide affordable homes for Nigerians, and why the Land Use Act should be repealed.
As a woman, what motivated you into estate development business?
I believe in nation building and the need for every individual to contribute towards that goal. Shelter is a basic necessity and the need to provide this basic need inspired me to study Civil Engineering in my first degree, Construction Engineering at the Master’s level and Ph.D in Estate Management and Construction. So, it has always been engineering. I believe that through my field of study, I can impact my nation positively.
Although my first love was medicine, I believe that both shelter and medicine entail building lives one way or the other. While doctors protect lives through injection, I do so through bridges and blocks. However, it is not an easy task for a woman to be into engineering, but as an advocate for gender equality, I have to face it irrespective of gender.
Aside your career in real estate, you are also involved in mentoring the younger generation, what informed that move?
I have been mentoring young men and women since the past six years. I have been in the estate development business for about 14 years and within these years; I have struggled to get to the level where I could be able to lift other people up. To achieve that, I set up an academy, Mind of the Dream Catalyst (MDC Academy). It is a mentorship and life career coach; I mentor people online and off line. In the last two years, I have mentored over 1500 female youths. I go to NYSC camps to mentor female corps members on self-confidence and self-assertion. I also mentor people on business, entrepreneurship, education and career development.
I equally run Precasso Care Foundation, which is about giving back to humanity; we support widows and children. We have impacted over 12,000 children and established over 2,000 widows through financial support; we did all these without assistance from anyone. We don’t engage in public show of these activities and we have done it for years and will continue to do so.
There’s this issue of high cost of rent in major cities across the country, is there anything estate developers can do to ameliorate the situation?
House rent control is not in the hands of the private sector; it’s entirely in the hands of the government to come up with policies and regulations that will put house rents under check. But I personally advocate for sustainable and affordable homes. I don’t believe in building houses that people cannot afford to rent or buy; that means tying your capital down. So, what I personally do is to engage in provision of various sizes and classes of accommodation; most times, through mortgage arrangements that are friendly and affordable. My advice to state governments is to partner the private sector in providing affordable homes for the people. With that, you can reduce corruption, insecurity and other social vices across the country.
Are there specific steps government needs to take to reduce high cost rents in Nigeria?
The first step is by repealing the Land Use Act (1995). It is the reason things are the way they are in the housing sector; it is one major law that requires review. When this is done, it will impact on procuring Certificate of Occupancy (C of O), housing regulation and rent control. It will also help investors that want to develop estates in Nigeria. The cost of raw materials fluctuates regularly and this can scare prospective investors; the government can also address this. But once the Land Use Act is reevaluated, it will help in regulating a lot of things. I also urge developers to build what people can afford to buy. They inflate rents and cost of purchase at will because there is no clear-cut regulation. Individuals should also look out for mortgage facilities that they can afford; it is one way of reducing housing deficit.
What is your projection towards Post COVID-19 housing business environment?
The pandemic has greatly affected businesses, especially entrepreneurship. Government agencies can easily pick up from where they stopped, but for small and medium business owners, it is a challenge starting the business all over after the setback occasioned by COVID-19. The pandemic came when we were not expecting such. So, we are struggling to see how we can chart our course back.
How do you cope with managing large number of staff and this time?
Here in Bstan Group, staff welfare is key. Although I’m now the Chief Executive, I had once been in their shoes and I know how it feels to be at home for two months without pay. So, with 120 staff across Nigeria, beside 1000 skill staff, we paid all of them during the total lockdown; the lives of my staff are more important to me than my business. I was always calling them; talking to them through group charts and webinar just to be sure everyone was fine. I paid everybody 100 per cent salary, although they didn’t work; I felt we should be humans at time like that.
Has the Federal Government assisted you as an entrepreneur in any way since the lockdown?
That is a big problem. When you look at some other nations of the world, the government gave money and other incentives to their citizens because they have accurate data. They also provided soft loans and grants to small-scale business owners to enable them start their business all over. That is what is expected of a stable nation that understands that the soul of every nation is the entrepreneur. The entrepreneurs make things happen in a nation because they are the ones that create employments most. I don’t know about others, but we at Bstan Group didn’t get anything from the government. Rather, we have to ensure we protect the lives of our staff by providing facilities in our offices to ensure that the live of anyone coming in or going out of the office is safe.
While we were not receiving from government, we were giving out to people; we fed 2000 families in Abuja and 1000 families in Lagos during the lockdown. We also provided good welfare package for our staff during the same period because we understood that it was not a good time for anyone across the nation.
How exactly do you expect government to intervene?
We expected government to assist by way of business palliatives. A lot of money is coming into the nation from corporate organisations and international agencies; such monies should not be entirely channeled towards the health sector, but also to Small and Medium Scale Enterprises. We in the housing sector are parts of nation building because we provide one of the basic necessities of life, which is shelter; it is one sector that the nation should take seriously.
Here, government does not understand the imperative of shelter and that is the reason we have a lot of problems in our country. I attribute the high level of insecurity to housing deficit in Nigeria. It is when people lose their homes that they move to internally displaced people’s camp (IDP). Once government succeeds in providing them housing, they will take care of other basic needs in a short time possible. A good housing programme will impact other sectors of the economy.
So many small businesses have been affected by the pandemic. In your own view, what’s the way forward?
That takes us to the government again. It is only the government that can help them in resuscitating their businesses and not other business owners that also suffered the effect of lockdown. When you are crawling, you cannot lift anyone. It is only when you are standing right that you can afford to lift another person on the ground. The level of poverty in Nigeria is worrisome and if the government does not come to the aid of the people, time shall come when no one will be able to walk the street freely without molestation. We need a selfless government that will think about the welfare of the citizens above personal interest. If not, the poverty rate will continue to escalate.
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