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.
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.”
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.