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Chickens And Clothes On The Way To A Business Empire

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Alexander Chika Okafor

Alexander Chika Okafor has avoided the trappings of wealth that many in his position cling so desperately to. He answers his own phone, has no swanky corporate communication executive as a gatekeeper, and you won’t find conversations with him infused with trendy buzzwords. His response is precise and straightforward, with just enough color to paint a detailed picture so even someone with little knowledge of his business will begin to understand just how far he has come.

The 60-year-old Okafor is the executive chairman and founder of the Chicason Group, which has interests in oil and gas, mining, real estate, transport and manufacturing. Okafor maintains a hands-on approach to driving the business that has taken more than 36 years to build. That journey began as a street trader during the Biafran war in Nigeria.

“I came from a poor family. My mother was a fish seller and my father was a farmer and wine tapper. My mother valued education because she didn’t have the opportunity so she wanted all her children to have an education. I was in primary two, in 1966, when the civil war started but we still went to school until 1967 when they shut down all the schools,” he says.

Okafor epitomizes self-reliance. He had to fend for himself and his mother at the age of eight following the death of his father. Okafor started by helping his mother sell akara (bean cake) and before long expanded into more lucrative business ventures.

“During a month holiday, I went to a man who had an agency for newspapers to take me as one of the vendors to sell newspapers. I did that for one month and I was able to earn about $8, which was big money at the time. I sold newspapers, magazines and lottery tickets and used the proceeds from that business to establish a poultry business.”

Okafor was only 12 at the time.

“I started with 500 birds so, by the time we went back to school, I was already earning money. I would come back by 2PM, go to the market and sell magazines and use the proceeds to feed my birds. I used to have about 20 dozen eggs every day. So in the morning, between 5AM and 6AM every day, people will queue up to buy eggs from me before I go to school,” says Okafor.

His tenacity paid off and by the time he wrapped up his business he had $150 in savings, which he gave to his mother before beginning his journey as an apprentice with his uncle.

“That was where I learnt all the business tricks. That is the system we used in our culture. We call it apprenticeship. You must spend five to six years to learn any business and then you get some money to start your own business. You need to study under somebody for five years, without salary, and if you do very well he will give you something to go and start your own business,” says Okafor.

READ MORE: The Small Town Of The Super Rich

Rooted in this sense of tradition, Okafor built a sizeable business supplying fishing products to customers in Ghana by exploiting a gap in the market. At that time, Ghanaian fishermen only had one supplier of fishing products in Nigeria.

“I did this until 1978, when [Ghana’s former president Jerry John] Rawlings came into power. He closed the Ghana border and seized all foreign goods so I ran back to Nigeria and opened an electronics shop, Chicason Electronics. I would travel to Lagos to buy electronic equipment and fridges and opened a shop in Anambra State,” he says.

Okafor soon realized he had to do something more ambitious.

“I used to always tell my friends that I never want to enter a parked vehicle. Even if it is moving in the opposite direction, I will prefer to jump in and change later to one moving in the right direction. Along the line I saw people going to Hong Kong to buy ladies’ wear and clothing and these boys were driving big cars and they were my mates. They were throwing lavish parties every night. I also wanted that life.”

Armed with $50,000, Okafor began work on his new clothing empire. He jumped on a plane to Hong Kong and made contact with his competitors’ suppliers. That self-reliance came in handy yet again. With no knowledge of the area, Okafor asked the receptionist at his hotel about the best places to make his products and he was provided the business cards of the suppliers. That foray into women’s fashion was a turning point for Okafor. With profit margins of 100%, the money began to roll in and with that a diversification of his business portfolio.

“I never stay in the same place for too long. I have to always keep moving. I used to travel from Onitsha to Lagos every week for 13 years and even now I go to Abuja every Tuesday or Wednesday.”

READ MORE: Print Money?

By 1997, he started importing base oils for lubricant production and two years later established a large storage facility business. He followed this by dabbling in the commodities market with imports of rice and sugar before switching to edible oil and the importation of refined petroleum products. Today, the group has Nigerian brands ranging from lubricants, real estate, soaps and many more.

“Chicason Group is a homegrown and technology driven conglomerate, with a focus on showcasing the African entrepreneurship spirit which Okafor exemplifies. Since 1981, we have continued to diversify our portfolio with a strong focus on integrity and commitment,” says Ari Sengupta, Group Managing Director at the Chicason Group.

That spirit of entrepreneurship looks set to continue. As Okafor grooms his eldest son in the age-old tradition of apprenticeship, his eye is still on the bigger picture – a continued expansion and dominance of his business in every sector of the Nigerian economy and beyond. There is no limit to Okafor’s ambition.

Entrepreneurs

Why This 48-Year-Old Woman Is Building Ghana’s Biggest Solar Farm

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Chairman of UBI Group Salma Okonkwo. UBI GROUP

For more than a decade, one 48-year-old entrepreneur in Ghana has been quietly building up a multimillion-dollar oil and gas outfit called UBI Group. Salma Okonkwo is a rare woman to head up an energy company in Africa. “I don’t stop when the door is being shut. I find a way to make it work,” Okonkwo told Forbes. “That’s what propelled my success.”

She’s now expanding her reach across Ghana’s energy industry, working on an independent side project that may become the biggest in her career. Okonkwo is building Ghana’s biggest solar farm, called Blue Power Energy, slated to open in March 2019 with 100 megawatts of energy. It’s set to be one of the largest in Africa.

“Most of the multinational companies that come to Ghana don’t put in infrastructure. They operate a system where they invest very little and they take it away. They sell their products and leave,” Okonkwo says. “I’m hoping to provide employment and add to Ghana’s economy.”

Okonkwo grew up in Accra, one of 14 children born to a real estate agent and developer mother and a cattle dealer father. She often visited her grandmother in her family’s ancestral village. She’s a member of the Akan clan, whose women often sell products they make, like sandwiches or smoked fish, to make sure their children are provided for—and that left an indelible mark on Okonkwo. “The women didn’t know how to read and write, but they knew how to make a margin,” Okonkwo says.

After graduating from an all-girls boarding school with little running water, Okonkwo moved to Los Angeles for college at Loyola Marymount University. (Her family was able to pay her tuition.) She graduated in 1994 and briefly worked in California for a food brokerage company. Then oil and gas company Sahara Energy Group recruited her; Okonkwo returned to Accra in 2003 for the job.

Within a few years, Okonkwo realized that the firm could grow by opening up retail gas stations. She presented the idea several times over the years, but each time she was rebuked. Executives told her they wouldn’t change their business plan because it would be too political and would require too much of an investment in infrastructure.

At 36 years old in 2006, Okonkwo decided she’d heard “no” too many times and quit to try it herself, focusing on bringing liquified petroleum gas to the hard-to-reach region of northern Ghana, where many families still rely on burning firewood for energy. Because Okonkwo’s father was from northern Ghana, she knew firsthand how the business could change lives there. “It was just too hard to pass up the opportunity,” Okonkwo recalls. “It looked quite lucrative.”

But Okonkwo hit an early snag when she realized that she didn’t take into account a complicating factor: The North had few storage facilities for the liquified gas. To get it to the remote region, she’d have to build the storage herself, and she was already struggling to secure funding. So Okonkwo pivoted and started trading diesel and petroleum wholesale. A contract to supply fuel to Dallas-based Kosmos Energy came in 2007, followed by one with Hess in 2008. In the early days, she financed the operation by mortgaging some properties that her family and husband had inherited.

A UBI Group retail gas station in Ghana. UBI GROUP.

By 2008, UBI opened its first retail gas station. It soon owned 8 outright and managed another 20 through partnerships. That caught the eye of Singapore-based multinational firm Puma Energy, which had 2017 sales of $15 billion from operations in 49 countries. Puma acquired a 49% stake in two of UBI Group’s subsidiaries (retail gas stations and wholesale fuel distribution) in 2013 for about $150 million.

After the partial acquisition in 2013, Okonkwo says, she started developing her solar company. She estimates the company will spend about $100 million—financed by roughly $30 million in loans—to create 100 megawatts of solar power by early next year. Construction started earlier this summer. The plan is to add another 100 megawatts by the end of 2020.

Despite all the sunshine in Africa, solar power isn’t a prominent energy source on the continent. Most farms are concentrated in South Africa and Kenya. In 2009, Morocco announced plans to build one of the biggest solar farms in the world. The first of the project’s three phases opened in 2016. “I don’t know of another large-scale project like this in Africa that’s led by a woman,” says Arne Jacobson, who has been studying renewable energy with a focus on Africa since 1998 and is now the director of Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center. “Power is fairly expensive in countries like Ghana. If they can keep costs low, this is will be a profitable venture.”

The project is also personal for Okonkwo. Half of the solar farm will be located in her father’s village in northern Ghana. The rest will be spread out throughout the North, which is Ghana’s poorest region, according to Unicef. The organization says the area has seen the smallest progress in terms of poverty reduction since the 1990s.

There are so few employment opportunities in the north of Ghana besides farming that most women migrate to Accra looking for work. Many can only find jobs as “kayayo”—working in markets carrying goods for customers, sometimes known as “living shopping baskets.” They live in slums and regularly endure harassment, theft and even rape. Okonkwo, aiming to create a better alternative for some of these women, says Blue Power Energy has already created hundreds of jobs in northern Ghana and that more than 650 will be created upon completion.

Okonkwo’s ultimate goal is to bring cheap energy to northern Ghana through the solar farm, which she hopes will incentivize companies to create lasting jobs there. In the meantime, she is opening a day-care center in Accra for children born to kayayo women, where, as she explains, they can “get educated and hopefully break the cycle.”

“I want to bring support to my people in the north,” Okonkwo says. “Then there will be more Salma’s all over the place.”

 

– Chloe Sorvino

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The Bloodless Battle Against The Malaria

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With Africa having a big share of the global malaria burden, technologists are developing new, cost-effective ways to detect the disease – minus the needle.

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The Nigerian Who Runs His Business On Luck

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Don’t tell Akin Alabi there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything. He just might tell you off.

At 41, he has built multiple businesses and is making money and time for more.

Alabi is the founder of NairaBET, Nigeria’s first and leading sports betting platform, a company he started in 2009 after he identified what he calls “a starving crowd”.

By that, he means a customer base willing and able to pay for services enough for him to make a sizeable profit.

Besides NairaBET, Alabi owns a small football club, has a book-writing business, is into digital marketing, business coaching and seminars, and is also contesting for a seat in parliament in the 2019 Nigerian elections.

The entrepreneur-investor likes to spend his days identifying specific gaps in the market and providing solutions to address them.

READ MORE: Nigeria; Where Football Is Life

Over the years, he has identified many ‘starving crowds’. He found the first one just after completing a diploma in business administration in 2001. At the time, there was a growing desire for Nigerian youth to travel abroad, especially to Canada, in search of greener pastures.

According to data from the Canadian immigration service, as many as 27,625 immigrants from Nigeria were residing in Canada by 2011.

Alabi tried his luck too.

In 2001, after his visa got rejected, he decided to collate his experiences navigating the complicated visa application process and sell that knowledge online to first-time applicants.

“So anything I learned, I created the information pack and I put it online and sold it,”

“I started downloading information tutorials and videos about the Canadian application process. I put all the information together and said some people will be interested in this so let me put it out there for sale. So in January 2003, I launched my first business, which was selling information products, and the first information product was this Canadian visa package,” says Alabi.

The guide was an instant hit. Alabi was selling it at N10,000 ($28) per copy and over 100 copies later, he knew he had struck a gold mine. It was time to find other crowds. Alabi decided to share his experiences making money online through his new startup in another how-to guide, which also found demand. After the success of the two digital products, Alabi decided to register his company at the Nigerian Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC).

“I went there myself and I did everything myself and I was surprised I didn’t need a lawyer. So I created another information product – how to register your business with the CAC without a lawyer in 21 days or less. I put that out and people were buying. So anything I learned, I created the information pack and I put it online and sold it,” says Alabi.

He had stumbled on a booming industry. According to Stratistics MRC, the global e-learning market accounted for $165.21 billion in 2015 and is expected to reach $275.10 billion by 2022 growing at a CAGR of 7.5% during the forecast period. The flexible learning, low cost and easy accessibility of the market bolstered by the increasing proliferation in the internet during the dotcom boom, presented Alabi with a hungry market eager to grab anything offered online.

Akin Alabi. Photo provided.

Alabi’s story is one of organic growth. Setting goals and achieving them is a prominent theme in his new book Small Business, Big Money: How to Start, Grow, and Turn Your Small Business Into a Cash Generating Machine, where he presents a practical guide for startups looking to scale.

“As early as I can remember, I wanted to be rich. I was fixated on wealth because I did not experience wealth growing up. It is something I believe gives you freedom. Freedom to do things you really wanted to do and freedom to impact this world. You can help the less privileged and also give your family the basic comfort of everything they want,” says Alabi. “I know money is not the most important thing in life but it is reasonably close to oxygen in terms of importance.”

After the success of his digital offerings, business began to slow down, but Alabi wanted more growth. He decided he would venture out of Nigeria to the land of milk and honey, in search of that elusive wealth.

“I got to the UK and wanted to work. I looked at the potential of what I could make and after four months, reality dawned on me. I didn’t want to become an illegal immigrant and felt I was better off doing what I was doing in Nigeria. So I said ‘I had something going for me, it might not be big but there was potential’. I said ‘let me go back and make it bigger’. I was not investing in the business so it was time to do it properly.”

But before leaving the UK, a chance encounter with the bookers would lead to the serial entrepreneur’s most lucrative venture yet. His brother called him from London while he was in the town of Milton Keynes to make a bet in an online sports shop for a football game so they could win some money.

“So I played and I made some money and then I played again and I lost and I played again and I won. And I said ‘wow, anybody can do this and people in Nigeria will love it’. So I wrote down on paper, how to make money from football betting. It was just 14 pages and I put it online and I called my friend in Nigeria to help me go and run an advert in the local newspapers,” says Alabi.

He invested N200,000 ($555) in the advert and made N450,000 ($1,248). That demand was going to progress from online content to a new customer base wanting a platform to bet on sports.

READ MORE: Success Is In The Bag For This Entrepreneur

“So those that bought the information product from me started reaching out to me that the website I recommended they should bet on did not work in Nigeria. And I was like ‘wow, you people are actually taking this seriously’. They wanted to place bets from $100 to $750. So I got thinking, these people are actually sending money to me abroad to place bets for them. Isn’t there anyone in Nigeria that has a business like this? And there was no one. So I said to myself ‘I have to create this platform’.”

That was almost a decade ago. He could not afford the software to create the platform at the time, which cost almost $1 million so he used a local developer to create his first platform. Today, NairaBET, a major player in the online sports betting market, has steadily transformed itself from just a football betting platform to a 360-degree sports booking platform covering digital, SMS, apps and retail betting. And, they have a new million-euro software upgrade in place, according to Alabi.

The total value of the global sports betting market is difficult to estimate because of the lack of consistency in how it is regulated in some parts of the world. Betting makes up about 30% to 40% of the global gambling market, which also includes lotteries, casinos, poker and other gaming, according to a report in Reuters.

This has led to challenges regulating the sector in Nigeria with issues arising from double taxation from the Lagos State government. But Alabi is hopeful these issues will be resolved once there is proper legislation of the sector. In the meantime, he is betting on a career in Nigerian politics and the corridors of power.

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