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‘Not Necessary To Be Born Rich’

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One of West Africa’s richest men and a formidable force in banking, Jim Ovia conveys some key lessons for Africa’s entrepreneurs in his first book.

In Africa’s business and banking world, a man like Jim Ovia is a textbook case study.

As the founder and chairman of Zenith Bank, and with a net worth of $825 million according to FORBES, Ovia’s prolific banking career spans almost three decades.

His book, Africa Rise and Shine: How a Nigerian Entrepreneur From Humble Beginnings Grew A Business To $16 Billion, launched in August, which marked his debut as an author, details this trajectory, building the bank from the ground up, brick-by-brick. Ovia started with a single branch in Lagos on the ground floor of an impoverished residential duplex that he shared with a private tenant.

“At the time, there were no high-rise office structures in the area and we were not able to afford any standalone structures,” says Ovia to FORBES AFRICA when we meet him at the iconic Civic Centre building located on Ozumba Mbadiwe in Victoria Island, Lagos.

The sprawling high-rise office structure we occupy on this rainy Saturday morning is a far cry from the early years.

Ovia recalls erecting a signage and the company logo in the impromptu commercial space where they could carry out the banking business.

Photo by: Kelechi Amadi-Obi

He worked at Barclays Bank in Lagos from the age of 18 for three years as a clerical officer before enrolling to study business administration at Southern University, Louisiana, in the United States, and subsequently proceeding to the University of Louisiana, Monroe, where he completed his MBA.

After graduating, he joined Union Bank to complete his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). Ovia subsequently joined the Merchant Bank of Africa, which was then owned by Bank of America, and worked for over three years before applying for a banking license. And with that, came the birth of Zenith Bank.

“We knew it was going to be a bank that was well run. We knew it will be a bank that will be very efficient and we knew it will be a bank that will offer good and excellent service because that is one of the reasons we set up the bank in the first place,” recalls Ovia.

From those days, he had decided Zenith was going to be run differently from any other bank.

“When you go to many Zenith Bank offices, you will still not see any crowds in the banking hall, yet we are still providing the best quality service,” says Ovia.

The banking major is a London Stock Exchange-listed company with operations in the UK, China, the UAE, Ghana, Gambia, Sierra Leone, and with more than 400 branches and business offices in Nigeria.

The institution has become a byword for credibility in the Nigerian banking industry.

Many of his peers and competitors call the Zenith Bank success story one of hard work, grit and focus.

But what distinguishes Ovia from them is an abiding belief in his entrepreneurial instincts, one that has been validated many times over.

But that is not the reason he has a spring in his step these days. In Ovia’s new chapter as an author, he chronicles the key lessons entrepreneurs can learn from the meteoric rise of Zenith Bank.

“Among the most important of those lessons may be my experience that it is not necessary to be born rich or in influential circles in order to achieve success,” says Ovia.

It augurs well for a man who for 30 years has constantly adapted to changing environments and opportunities, whether it was being an early investor in the internet space, through his company Cyberspace in 1995, or setting up his telecommunications company Visafone and his expansive real estate portfolio. Ovia’s intuitive timing is something a lot of Nigerian entrepreneurs who look up to him as a mentor have been reading about in his book.

Says Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, in a blurb on the back of the book: “Jim Ovia’s entrepreneurial flair demystifies Africa. Africa Rise and Shine shows his meteoric rise from humble beginnings to building a formidable bank. This is a wonderful African success story,”

Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote, founder and president, Dangote Group, also echoes those sentiments.

“Jim Ovia has been my friend and a trusted banker over the last twenty-five years. Africa Rise and Shine lays bare the secrets to Zenith Bank’s success from one of Nigeria’s most respected businessmen. Jim’s inspirational tale of success against all the odds is an important lesson of how adversity can always be surmounted. His principles of doing business can be applied globally as demonstrated by Zenith Bank’s London Stock Exchange listing. This book is an essential read for anyone that wants to do business in Africa.”

Ovia believes it is imperative to rely on one’s own instincts in taking stock of one’s capabilities, and in evaluating new business opportunities.

READ MORE: The Nigerian Who Runs His Business On Luck

The book seeks to encourage entrepreneurs to seize the opportunity to invest in Africa by abiding by guidelines such as prudence, due diligence and being able to respond quickly by cultivating the capacity to react effectively.

“I think the readers of this book will gain the spirit of commitment, empowerment, focus, hard work and discipline. They will learn that if you are disciplined and work hard, definitely you will do well. The book is about passing on these principles and documenting how it is to do business in Africa, particularly Nigeria,” says Ovia.

He hopes his book, which is more like an entrepreneurs’ manual than an autobiography, will guide the next generation of industrialists and game-changers to change the narrative of Africa from a hopeless continent to a rising continent.

From boardroom deal-making to creating an impact in the lives of Nigerians, Ovia is a business icon who continues to evolve.

His book is a call to tomorrow’s titans to follow their gut instincts, so hopefully one day, they too can reach their zenith.

Arts

‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’

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A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.

Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).

In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.

Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”

How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?

“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”

A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.

“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.

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Current Affairs

True Sport: Gary Player On Family, Isolation And The Covid-19 Aftermath

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Gary Player is currently in lockdown in Pennsylvania in the US; image supplied

South Africa’s 84-year-old golf legend Gary Player speaks to FORBES AFRICA about the greatest honor of his life and on training like a 40-year-old at his daughter’s home during the lockdown in the US.

South Africa’s nine-time Grand Slam golfer, Gary Player, is currently in lockdown with his wife Vivienne in Pennsylvania, in the United States (US), where the couple are visiting their daughter Amanda-Leigh Hall and her family.

Player had also arrived in the US to receive what he calls one of the greatest honors of his life, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Donald Trump at the White House on March 23; some of the past recipients of the prestigious award include Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Mother Teresa, Toni Morrison, Tiger Woods and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

But the lockdown changed all plans.

So the golfer, best known for an illustrious playing career that included 165 professional victories, is now in his daughter’s home, “training like a 40-year-old”.

Elated, Player classifies the Presidential Medal of Freedom recognition as coming second to the honor of being a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

When asked how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected him, the world-renowned 84-year-old golfer, nicknamed the ‘Black Night’, says in a phone interview from the US with FORBES AFRICA: “We are living in extraordinary times. This is not life as we have come to know it. My heart goes out to people during this trying time.”

Player fears the aftermath of the Covid-19 virus could be devastating to all, as some are already beginning to suffer due to the inability to earn an income.

“The post Covid-19 world may cause humans to sink into an inevitable hole of depression, and I fear that people will be dying not of the virus, but of hunger and thirst,” he says.

Player says he prays numerous times a day to thank God for his blessings. This year, he celebrates being married to Vivienne for 63 years.

“I love her even more now than I did back then, I wouldn’t trade the last 63 years for nothing on this earth,” Player says.

Vivienne has traveled the entire “amazing” route with Player while raising the couple’s six children: Jennifer, Marc, Wayne, Michelle, Theresa, and Amanda.

“I can safely, and with confidence, say that my wife is my best friend,” adds Player.

Although in his eighties, and true to his second nickname, ‘Mr Fitness’, Player may be in  lockdown in his daughter’s home but he exercises diligently at the in-house gym.

Gary Player training at the gym in his daughter’s home; image supplied

He also ventures into the forested area on his daughter’s property for long, peaceful walks in solitude. There is also a simulator at the house where Player can tee off as though on a golf course.

Including him and his wife, there are currently nine people in his daughter’s home, and although being in isolation, this experience has brought the family even closer, he says.

“All of us participate in joint activities that were never possible before due to everyone’s busy lifestyles. I love my large family,” attests the man blessed with 22 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He is yet to meet his month-old great-grandchild born to granddaughter Antonia and who is the newest addition to his large family.

When the lockdown ends, Player hopes to return to normal life “as soon as possible”. As a businessman with a “hectic, hectic” schedule, he is eager to get back to doing what he loves and says that being patient is not an easy feat.

Commenting on his own future, Player says he wishes to be remembered as a man who tried to contribute to society despite the mistakes he made.

“When I die and pass away, I want people to know that I tried my best in life. And that I am sorry for all the mistakes I made. Admittedly, we all make mistakes.

“I want to be remembered as a man who loved his fellow men,” says the legend who has also recently been key to integrating golf courses into local communities back home in South Africa.

“I am convinced there is a black girl or boy in South Africa today with tremendous athletic prowess, with the talent. If they can just be incentivized, then there is a chance,” Player told FORBES AFRICA for a story on his new initiatives in November 2018.


Brandon Nel, FORBES AFRICA contributor

Like what you are reading? There are more such profiles of newsmakers and enterprising thought leaders driving decision-making in FORBES AFRICA. Download a digital copy today!

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Billionaires

How To Become A Billionaire: Nigeria’s Oil Baroness Folorunso Alakija On What Makes Tomorrow’s Billionaires

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One of only two female billionaires in Africa, with a net worth of $1 billion, Nigeria’s oil baroness Folorunso Alakija elaborates on the state of African entrepreneurship today.

The 69-year-old Folorunso Alakija is vice chair of Famfa Oil, a Nigerian oil exploration company with a stake in Agbami Oilfield, a prolific offshore asset. Famfa Oil’s partners include Chevron and Petrobras. Alakija’s first company was a fashion label. The Nigerian government awarded Alakija’s company an oil prospecting license in 1993, which was later converted to an oil mining lease. The Agbami field has been operating since 2008; Famfa Oil says it will likely operate through 2024. Alakija shares her thoughts to FORBES AFRICA on what makes tomorrow’s billionaires:

What is your take on the state of African entrepreneurship today? Is enough being done for young startups?

There are a lot of business opportunities in Africa that do not exist in other parts of the world, yet Africa is seen as a poor continent. The employment constraints in the formal sector in Africa have made it impossible for it to meet the demands of the continent’s working population of which over 60% are the youth. Therefore, it is imperative we harness the potential of Africa’s youth to engage in entrepreneurship and provide adequate assistance to enable them to succeed.

Several governments have been working to provide a conducive atmosphere which will promote entrepreneurship on the continent. However, there is still a lot more to be done in ensuring that the potential of these young entrepreneurs are maximized to the fullest. Some of the challenges young startups in Africa face are as follows: lack of access to finance/insufficient capital; lack of infrastructure; bureaucratic bottlenecks and tough business regulations; inconsistent government policies; dearth of entrepreneurial knowledge and skills; lack of access to information and competition from cheaper foreign alternatives.

It is therefore imperative that governments, non-governmental agencies, and the financial sectors work together to ameliorate these challenges itemized above.

The governments of African nations should provide and strengthen its infrastructure (power, roads and telecom); they should encourage budding entrepreneurs by ensuring that finance is available to businesses with the potential for growth and also commit to further improving their business environments through sustained investment; there must also be a constant push for existing policies and legislation to be reviewed to promote business activities.

These policies must also be enforced, and punitive measures put in place to deter offenders; government regulations should also be flexible to constantly fit the dynamics of the business environment; corruption and unethical behavior must be decisively dealt with and not treated with kid gloves. We must empower our judicial system to enable them to prosecute erring offenders with appropriate sanctions meted out. There should be no “sacred cows” or “untouchables”. The same law must be applied to all, no matter their state or position in the society; non-governmental organizations can also provide support for them through training and skills acquisition programs that will help build their capacity; they could also provide finance to grow their businesses; more mentorship programs should be encouraged, and incubators of young enterprises should be supported by public policy aimed at improving the quality of these youths and their ventures; and also, avenues should be created where young entrepreneurs will be able to connect, learn and share ideas with already successful well-established entrepreneurs.

What, according to you, are the attributes needed for tomorrow’s billionaires?

There is no overnight success. You must start by dreaming big and working towards achieving it. You must be determined to succeed despite all odds. Do not allow your setbacks or failures to stop you but rather make them your stepping stone. Develop your strengths to attain excellence and be tenacious, never give up on your dream or aspiration. Your word must be your bond. You must make strong ethical values and integrity your watchword. Always act professionally and this will enable you to build confidence in your customers and clients. 

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