‘My motivation was to be rich, I knew I had to work very hard to get there’
Therefore, venturing into business demands proficiency, intelligence, creativity and recognising opportunities when they arise.
The combination of these business strategies are evident in one of Nigeria’s foremost industrialists, Chief Rasaq Akanni Okoya, Chairman of Eleganza Group of Companies, who turned 79 last Saturday.
Born on January 12, 1940, into the family of Tiamiyu Ayinde and Idiatu Okoya, and christened Akanni Razak, the billionaire industrialist last week celebrated the birthday at his palatial Oluwa Ni Sola (the Lord creates wealth) Estate on the Lekki/Ajah Expressway in Lagos.
Rather than roll out the drums, as he would ordinarily have done, Okoya chose to make it simple and spiritual, as he marked the day with a Jumat prayer at the private mosque in his estate with family and friends, who came out in their numbers to identify with the man many have described as kind, generous and humble.
Akanni, as he is fondly called by family members, did not have a formal education; he had his education in his father’s tailoring workshop, where his father sewed clothes and sold buttons and zippers.
The only formal education he had was elementary level at Ansar-un-deen Primary School, Oke Popo, Isale-Eko (Lagos Island).
Reflecting on what compelled him to go into business, which he started with an initial capital of £20, Okoya said: “In school, I often saw my teacher in torn and shabby clothes, while I also saw well-dressed businessmen of Dosunmu Street, the heart of business in Lagos then. So, it was easy for me to choose business life.
“After school, I worked with my father at his tailoring shop, where he sewed clothes for people on demand and also ready-made for sale, as well as sold tailoring accessories. After working with him for a while, I started to do a few things on the side on my own.
“I used to mend shirts and trousers for a fee. For instance, I could turn long sleeves to short sleeves or trousers to shorts. I saved every penny I made. When I had saved about £20, I wanted to go into trading. Back then, ordering for goods directly from the manufacturers wasn’t popular, as most people bought goods imported into Lagos.”
He got hold of the catalogue of a manufacturer in Japan, whose products he liked. After making series of enquires on how to go about the business of importing the products, which was not popular in Nigeria at that time, he discovered that he needed £70 to be able to order and ship some of the products to Lagos.
“I had £20, which I had saved from the petty jobs I was doing while I worked with my father at his tailoring business. I was short of £50, so I approached my mother for the money and like a good mother would do, she asked what I wanted to do with it. I told her, but as a loyal wife, she advised me to get my father’s permission first, which I did. She gave me the £50.
“By the time my goods arrived, they were not only of better quality, they were also cheaper than what was available in the market. Of course, I sold out quickly and ordered for more.”
He drew a lot of inspiration from his father, who he said was a very good tailor and trader, recalling: “We didn’t wait for people to bring materials; we were making clothes and sewing everything to sell, from shirts to trousers and bicycle seats. My father was very industrious and enterprising.
“As a tailor, he was comfortable and owned a Chrysler car, which he regularly used to move around to see his clients living in Ikoyi and its environs. One of such clients was Chief Ojukwu, the father of the late Chief Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
“I used to go with him to see them, and seeing how beautiful and serene the place was, I used to tell myself that one day, I would live in one of those mansions or one like that. My main motivation was to be rich and I knew I had to work very hard to get there.”
The sporadic orders and sales sent his business growth on an aggressive run, helping him to raise enough money to venture into manufacturing.
He explained that as his business began to expand, he travelled far and wide and saw how different things were manufactured. His passion for manufacturing was further fueled after he learnt a new trick from Igbo traders about how ornamented buttons could be converted into earrings.
“Women love to wear jewellery and the ridiculous amount of money they spend in buying them will surprise you. My first wife, Kuburat, was obsessed with jewellery and would bring jewellery that cost so much. I used to be baffled at how much she said they cost. I felt it was ridiculous.
“These were metals that I felt we could design and at a cheaper price, especially as we had the metals available here in Nigeria. I always felt we could do as good, if not better than what I saw,” he reminisced.
Challenged by what he felt was a healthy demand, Okoya travelled abroad, bought the machines required to make such jewellery and came with some experts to help train his workers. That move birthed the production of Eleganza jewellery and buttons, which became instant hit in the Nigerian fashion market.
The company also provided avenue for people to wash their jewellery when it got dirty. The success was overwhelming. “We could not keep up with the demand, because the products were beautiful, durable and cheap,” he enthused.
With keen eyes for opportunity, the Aare of Lagos has shown beyond doubt that taking advantage of them early and breaking the market price can lead to the big breaks any entrepreneur or visionary businessperson could aspire towards.
Having seen the success of his jewellery and buttons manufacturing business, he decided to venture into shoe manufacturing.
He said: “I began to import shoes in large quantities. I will pay the factory to manufacture and import to Nigeria. On one of those occasions, after paying, the goods were not delivered. I waited a while and travelled to Italy to see the manufacturer.
“I arrived there and discovered that they had used my money to settle their bills. I was so angry that I decided there and then to begin manufacturing my own shoes, and that was what I did. I imported all the machines and brought in some experts who trained my workers. And that was how we began making shoes.”
Never tired of breaking new grounds, Okoya switched from manufacturing shoes to manufacturing coolers; hence the birth of Eleganza Industries, which produces a wide range of household goods and utensils, including cutlery, collieries, food warmers, ice chest, electric fan, cosmetics and ballpoint pen.
The factories are located in Oregun-Ikeja, Ajao Estate in Isolo, Suru-Alaba and Iganmu.
Asked what brought about the phenomenal success of Eleganza, Okoya said: “I am a very determined person. I hate to fail in whatever goal I set to achieve, and I thank God that it has always been possible. I always keep myself busy, looking for new opportunities; I like creating things, I like challenges. That is why even at 79, I still love to work, as it gives me pleasure.
“Production is my life; I go to the factory everyday, because I want to keep it great and going. I have done it many times, but the economy today is making it tougher. But we have to go through it to make sure we are successful.
“Government should create enabling environment for industries to thrive again in Nigeria. The level playing ground for industry is not yet there. There is problem of power and unemployment, which is very high in the country, as there are so many people looking for job today.”
He stressed the need to redesign the country’s educational curriculum to meet with the emerging trends of the world, noting that China is today a force to reckon with because, everywhere in China, cottage industries are scattered around the provinces.
“I believe in this great country and I believe that with good policies, it will be greater than before. Nigeria is a very big country with a lot of business opportunities and a huge market. I have travelled to China several times and I get inspiration from what I see there. We should emulate them.
“The reason why our youths are not employable is due to their lack of technical knowledge and skills. Most of them have no technical background, no research institute or centres where they can learn and become self-reliant.
“Our graduates should be technically inclined to fit into any manufacturing industry and reduce the number of foreigners coming in as expatriates.
“Government should make youths focus on self-employment by giving them the required technical knowledge. We need to go more into production, as it is the backbone of development. We should stop all these importations and encourage local industries to produce by fixing the power problem.”
The astute entrepreneur lamented Nigeria’s dependence on imported goods, despite the abundance of natural resources, harping on technical education.
“I have nothing against education. Sometimes, education gives people false confidence; it makes people relax, trusting in the power of their certificates, rather than working hard. We must go back to fix our schools to enable our children meet with the trends of time.
“You do not do business for the ego value; you go for what the people can afford. In business, you have to ensure that the masses are able to afford the cost of your products. That is one of my secrets,” he said
On the secret of his business stability and sustainability, Okoya said: “I keep to myself, I do not look at other people; I am contented with what God has given me. I don’t look for cheap money. Sometimes, it is good to take bank overdraft, but with high interest rate, it is difficult and frustrating. I am not interested in contracts and I do not expose myself to intrigues and politics.”
Despite the smile on his face, he is worried that the business empire he had toiled to build to this level might one day fade away like most notable family businesses, as children of their founders could not sustain them. He noted that his children, particularly the older ones, are not interested in his kind of business.
“That is a big problem to me; my hope is now on the younger ones, reason I am still in the factory. If my older children had taken interest in the family business all along, I wouldn’t still be in the factory at 79. I don’t want the factory to die that is why I am still there.
“Thank God for my wife, Shade, who is very much interested in the factory. She wakes up 6am, get prepared and doesn’t come back until sometimes 8pm. She has devoted a lot to the factory and is one of the pillars that have kept it going. Experience cannot be bought, as you only grow into it.”
For Okoya, fulfillment is when you are able to establish something that puts smile on peoples’ face and food on their table.