By Yemisi Suleiman
Dr. Kennedy Okonkwo is on a mission to provide affordable accommodation for the growing population of Nigeria. Through his company, Nedcomoaks Limited – an innovative market leader in property development, Dr. Okonkwo has been able to provide affordable housing solutions that exceed customer expectations.
Born 40 years ago, he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the prestigious University of Ibadan in 2001 and went on to bag an MBA in Marketing from the Lagos State University. Dr. Kennedy Okonkwo started his career at Chintos Technologies, where he worked with the Business Development and Marketing team. He went on to work with XL Group in the Strategy, Business Development and Human Resources division. He alsp had a short stint at Amazon Energy, where he was the Business Strategy Advisor to the CEO.
For one who has undying passion for nothing but the best in housing matters, Okonkwo set up Nedcomoaks few years ago and has built over 1,000 houses, some of which include Sandton Court, Kiryan Court, Dream Court I to VII, Alexandria Courts, Alexandria Dews and Victoria Crest I to 3, with a fourth on the way. As he turned 40 years last October, Dr. Okonkwo, who has been conferred with numerous awards for his contributions to housing development in Nigeria, shares his success story, housing for low income earners and challenges in the industry, amongst other issues.
What was your first entrepreneurship endeavour?
While I was at the University of Ibadan, where I studied Psychology, I also traded; from 1994 to 1997. You know, traditionally, the Igbo people usually give their kids out to learn a trade. I learned cosmetics and provisions business at Ikotun Market, Lagos. Afterwards, the man sent me to school; he is my cousin. I graduated in 2001.
I have an MBA in Marketing from the Lagos State University. I started my career with the man who trained me in school. I worked in his telecomm company. I went on to set up my own telecom company; a small one with a friend and the thing didn’t go as planned. So, I left telecom totally to go work at Excel Human Resources. Excel used to be a member of the Heirs Group. I managed the Excel-UBA relationship. I managed the Excel-Intercontinental relationship. Excel was an outsourcing service provider. I was one of the pioneer members of staff that worked on recruitment that Excel did at that time.
As a matter of fact, I was the Team Lead for Napak HR restructuring when we had Napak – sourcing for staff; when they had crisis that (had to do with) the Stock Exchange. I think they manipulated figures and the chief financial officer had to resign. I also worked on Mama Cass project when Mama Cass was working on coming to the floor of the Stock Exchange, which never came to pass. Afterwards, I thought I needed to do my own stuff because I was also doing real estate; I developed 23 bungalows at Oniru, Lagos.
How did you get to that point?
I did my first major transaction in 2001. Fresh from school, a friend of mine had someone who wanted to sell land; a house in VGC. I also helped him to source for clients. So along the line, I got people who got someone who wanted to buy and VGC was like the biggest estate around, back in the days. So we struck that deal. I went home with 280,000 naira and I bought my first car, a 1988 Nissan Sunny. With the remaining 40,000 naira, I bought some ‘okrika’ – second-hand clothes to clean up a little bit.
Initially, I wanted to rent a house but when I was paid, I didn’t think it was necessary because I was staying was my cousin who was my guardian then. I continued staying with him.
When that ended, I was still working in the telecoms sector; the company was selling prepaid calling cards and I was there as a senior marketing executive. Being on that job exposed me to a lot of opportunities. It made me to meet a lot of people. I was responsible for the Lebanese community; they were using so much recharge cards then. People couldn’t call overseas directly; everybody wanted to use one card or the other.
When I left Excel, I went to work for a company called Amazon Energy. I was Business Strategy Advisor to the CEO and while I was working there, I had a strategy section. I had a bank that I was helping to source for expatriate staff accommodation. I was still doing real estate and agency. I was still involved in ‘build, operate and transfer’ because we build, own the property for some years, make revenue from it and we transfer at the end of your lease. That structure was the basis for the airport, the Lekki-Epe Expressway and the concessioning that was done there. While I was at Amazon Energy, I was providing expatriate accommodation for one of the leading banks in Nigeria. I had a secretary and a personal assistant working for me at home. I had a, more or less, briefcase company; we were running a very mobile company from that point.
Unfortunately, we had some transaction; we had a meeting and I discussed with the person in charge then that I wanted to provide them a solution that would ease the stress of accommodation problems for their expatriates.
Instead of keeping expatriates in different locations, why not bring them together under one roof – in a comfortable apartment that would house several flats to cut cost on security and logistics. The idea was taken and I was asked to shop for a location. While I was busy shopping for a location, there was need to have a strategy retreat in my company then. At that strategy retreat, I needed to close the housing transaction but I wasn’t available to close it. For about four days, I was busy at the strategy retreat and board room meetings. By the time we finished, I realized that I lost that transaction because I was unavailable. I felt there was no need to continue to cheat myself, cheat my employers. I threw in the towel; it was three months into my career then. I left and moved on to start up and run the company. About a month after I left my last place of work, I got an office space at Lekki Phase One, Lagos and moved in.
What were the initial challenges you encountered after setting up your own company and how did you overcome them?
It was not really a smooth sailing journey all through. We had different challenges and, at a point, I ran into debts and started struggling to pay back debts that had piled up everywhere. With such crisis, we had to sell some properties to settle debts. I had to sell some cars, sold some of my landed property and I moved into a rented house. I was practically taking bikes to go around and there were times we had to take my children on tricycle to school.
Then, we had the opportunity of going to Chevron to build. Then, I met a man who introduced me to a person who is like a father to me. They gave me opportunity of buying land and paying in bits, over a period of time. It changed a whole lot of stuff though things were tough then. While we were building, we were paying debts and we were delivering to customers.
So, from building two houses, we moved to building six, to building twenty, to building 100 and, about two years ago, a co-operative from one of our asset management companies told us that they needed housing for their junior staff. We started working on the budget, worked on the design, tried to get the location. By the time we were through with that project, it marked a turning point that brought us closer to what people wanted – houses that were a little bit affordable.
We started our first set of Victoria Crest houses at the price of twenty two million naira and dollar sky-rocketed; yet, we still delivered the houses to subscribers. Then, we built Victoria Crest phase one, two, three and four is now on the way.
A lot of things changed for us after Victoria Crest because now, we have an estate that houses everybody; an estate that is secured and fully gated – with infrastructure, with central power and water, recreational facilities, to a large extent, quality drainage, and the rest of them. Those were the critical things that we felt, for us, were basic and essential for anyone who wants a house; whether the person wants a house in Ikoyi or Ikorodu, the person wants to have portable water, 24/7 power supply, uninterrupted power supply. He wants security, good drainage so his house wouldn’t be flooded.
Would you say Victoria Crest Estate is your biggest project yet?
Yes, it is at the moment because we delivered it in phases. We are working on Victoria Crest Three which is about 169 units. By the time we finish that, we are going to Victoria Crest Four which we anticipate will be about 405. Gradually, the numbers are increasing day by day; as we are finishing one set, we start another.
There have been issues of flooding, mostly on the Island. What are you doing to check that in your housing projects?
In the early part of designing an estate, it is important to understand the alignment of drainage, flow of water, existing infrastructure and how it will affect what we want to do. We spent a tremendous amount of money in building infrastructure around Victoria Crest. We have a very long drainage that is nearly about 600 metres, just to ensure that there won’t be any fault with the drainage system.
What are you passionate about in life? What keeps you going?
I am passionate about my family; my lovely wife who cheers me and supports my vision and three lovely kids that I am proud to be their father. Apart from my family, I love to solve problems of people around me and the society as a whole. I view success from the perspective of the number of people whose lives you have been able to touch; you can’t claim to be successful when even your immediate family can’t tell that there is someone who is successful in their family or poverty is written on the faces of people that work for you.
As much as people help in accomplishing your mission, as your organization grows, I believe that you should also be able to impact on their personal ambitions and objectives in life. I run a very dynamic team. I believe so much in the younger generation; whether you are male or female, you can be a great value to the organization if you work hard and you will also be well rewarded for your efforts.
My team is young. I am the oldest person in my organization. We have a maximum age of about 32 and 33; for us, we want people who are passionate about what they do and that has been the secret of our success.
There has always been the issue of fraud. What is the safest way to buy a house? What are the pitfalls you should look out for so that you are not swindled?
One of the most important things that I keep saying is that before anyone buys a house, you need to research – most importantly, the person you are dealing with. You need to ensure that the property you are buying is the same with the one that you have the Deed of Title for.
You also need to do due diligence on the developer; you need to know his antecedents. Is he someone who has delivered back to back? Does he have integrity? How many projects has he delivered and all that? Has he failed? Why did he fail if actually did?
You need to go to those project sites on your own, without any agent, just to be sure that you are not being staged managed to collect your money because, what happens is that, you tend to trust so much and you part with money without due diligence and your money is gone. I will always advise people: you have to do due diligence on the legal work; personal due diligence, check the structural stability of the building that they are buying.
What do you think should be done to find a solution for more affordable housing for low income earners?
Affordable housing can only be possible in parts of the world, where the government takes up the challenge of building infrastructure in the outskirts; the challenge of having good quality roads and erecting rail transportation service that can connect satellite towns with the city so that it will be easier for people to go and buy land in the outskirts of town and develop – like Epe, Badagry and Ikorodu – because you know that the distance between those places and Marina is 30 minutes to the city by rail and you don’t need to bother about traffic.
When you have those in place, I believe the prices of houses will come down and with newer technology for construction. At the moment, Nigeria is not adapting; they still want to use our conventional bricks, mortar and sand. By so doing, we are not engaging in new building technology. We can’t produce more housing using bricks and mortar as fast as using newer technologies in building thousands of units in a few months.
When you are not working, how do you take time off to relax?
I love reading. I love travelling and when I am not doing that, I love to stay with my kids; have the youngest one climb my back and I crawl around my bedroom with him. I love travelling a whole lot.
When it comes to fashion, what do you love to wear?
I love the smart, casual kind of outfit. I used to work in the corporate environment where every day, I wore shirt and tie. When I look at the collection of suits that I have, I keep asking myself: when will I wear a tie? I know that I wear ties three to four times in a year but, most times, I want to wear a blazer on a jeans. Smart casual most times because I go to sites, climb hills. I want to measure and if I am fully dressed in my corporate wear, I won’t be comfortable to do all of those. I am a hands-on person; my briefcase has my measurement tools.
What do you like to collect when it comes to fashion? Shoes, wrist watches…?
You just mentioned all of them but I love cars also and I love wrist watches.
So what is the latest one you are loving now?
Laughs… Not for the interview. I love good cars; from Mercedes to Rolls Royce.
Let me take you back to your job. We have issues of collapsed buildings in some areas. What would you say are some of the reasons why things like this happen?
The real estate industry in Nigeria has easy entry and easy exit. You find that engineers are building houses in Nigeria. It is only in this part of the world that it happens. We want to see more professionals get into the industry.
It is important to get the building control agency to be efficient.
Material testing is important; the division of the Ministry Of Physical Planning should go to sites to test materials, test the structure and stability of the buildings during construction – while slabs are being done.
What do you think of the government’s efforts at housing development in Nigeria?
Everything is possible; it depends on the level of involvement of the government. They can pay lip-service without government playing the lead role. Apart from Lagos State Government, I don’t see any other state in Nigeria doing that kind of work. Lagos State Government has moved a step further; they have housing schemes where beneficiaries pay 10% of the amount for the building and pay the rest over a period of time. This way, it’s easier for people to own their own houses without tears.
You just turned 40. How does that make you feel? Coming from where you started and all you have achieved?
I am indeed grateful to God. It’s all to His glory; one way or the other, He sees one and sharpens one’s life and gradually from that boy who studied Psychology, from that boy who was once a trader to the real estate developer.
If you look at my story, you will realize that God has been good. He is the one who has shaped my life, my experience. I am most grateful to Him for sparing my life because when I was approaching 30, I lost three of my favourite cousins. As a matter of fact, three of them and myself traded in the same store and we lived in the same room. They died one after the other. One year, after another (died) in a motor accident so that got me really scared.
I was ill at a time and doctors were sceptical about what was wrong with me. They said I had lung infection then, they said ulcer; they were not sure. They were doing a guess work. I went outside the country and it was diagnosed that what I had was synopsis. It tells negatively about the quality of health care we have in the country. Having lost three cousins and I was ill before my 30th birthday, I was so scared about life. I was so scared that I preferred to live for the moment as the clock was ticking. I clocked 30 and God sustained me. So, when I look back at the past ten years, I am grateful to God.