Obinna-Ralph-Ekezie
Obinna Ralph Ekezie Wakanow CEO

Duro Ikhazuagbe

As a former American NBA player and son of a successful businessman Obinna Ralph Ekezie, 41, had been exposed to entrepreneurship at the highest level early in life. Little wonder that after an illustrious professional basketball career that saw him play in the NBA for eight seasons and was selected as the 37th overall pick in the 1999 NBA draft by the Vancouver Grizzlies, the 2.8meters hunk would delve headlong into creating a business venture rather than looking for another paid job. Although his basketball career got the wings at Maryland Terrapins between 1995 and 1999, Ekezie insists that his father’s organisational ability first endeared him to be independent in life.

Apart from learning the ropes from the senior Ekezie, the former NBA player looks in the direction of another former NBA player, Hakeem Olajuwon for inspirations. Playing for Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, was also very inspirational. He admitted taking every opportunity possible to learn from him. Today, Ekezie is the co-founder and CEO of Wakanow.com, the leading full-service, online travel company in Nigeria. His frustration from inability to easily book travel online between the USA and Nigeria and other parts of the world, largely informed the birth of Wakanow.com.

Having cut his teeth in the Nigerian travel sphere in 2010 when he took advantage of the FIFA World Cup Africa was hosting for the first time in South Africa, Ekezie can now boast of Wakanow.com having the required expertise to handle any sports related travel and tour event. With the 2016 Olympic Games barely two months away in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, how prepared is Wakanow.com? “Wakanow is an on-line travel agency,” observed Ekezie.

He stressed that as the leading online travel in Nigeria, “we sell flights, hotel and tour packages. We help customers secure their visas. We offer end-to-end solutions for travelers. We also offer services like the prepaid cards that enable customers to pay for their transactions abroad. Then, we also have travel sim cards that are global… that enables customers use one travel sim card globally and get the best rates. We accomplish all of these, using modern technology,” observed the Wakanow.com CEO with pride.

He points at the agreement his company signed with the Nigeria Olympic Committee (NOC) recently that gives him the right to sell tickets to Nigerians going for the Rio 2016 Olympics as an edge over competitors in the travel and tour business.

“We have been doing sports tourism since 2010 when we started with the South Africa FIFA World Cup. The Olympics is sports tourism. We did the London 2012 Olympics, the Brazil 2014 World Cup and now we are doing the Olympics. These all involve travels and people want to get to Brazil. So, we want to help them get the tickets, seamless air and land travels, book accommodation and generally make it easy for them to watch the events.

“We have different packages and anyone interested picks the package that is convenient for him or her. We have the package that caters for the opening ceremony and closing ceremony. It enables the tourist or fan to watch all the events. We also have follow my team, which enables the tourist to follow Samson Siasia’s Dream Team VI national Under-23 football team to the match venues. Nigeria is playing in Manaus and Sao Paolo, so anyone interested can follow the Nigerian team to watch its group matches. You can take three matches, two in Manaus and one in Sao Paolo. We also provide other logistic services for our clients,” Ekezie assured the Nigerian football community interested in going to Btazil in summer.

The Wakanow.com CEO however warns that visa applications and getting the Brazilian visa is the responsibility of the individual.

“Our job is to ensure the documentation is done correctly. Most of the time, the host country usually makes it easier for the traveler to enter their country.

“We encourage people to start the procedure early so that we can do the processing easier for them. We understand some people have difficulty in making full payment for the packages, so we have created a platform to help them pay for their packages in installments. We have been trying to encourage people not to wait for the last minute to start rushing for it to avoid creating a chaotic situation. That is why we encourage people to book early and secure their packages in good time,” he advised.

However, despite the optimism of basketball aficionados that the D’Tigers are going to Rio2016 to build on their poor debut performance at the London 2012 Games in Brazil, the former NBA star is not one to delude himself of Nigeria making it to the semi finals of the men’s basketball event.

“I don’t buy the idea that Nigeria can make it to the semi finals. My own experience in basketball shows that we have not developed the facilities and the talents to aspire to such heights. We have a situation where most of our players are based abroad and meet for the first time a few weeks to a competition. They don’t have the time to know their teammates,” he cautioned.

Ekezie recalled that when Nigeria featured at the World Championship in Greece in 1998, the players hardly knew themselves.

“Before the World Championship, we met ourselves just two weeks before the event. We had to practice for just two weeks, get to know how team members play before our first match. Coupled with the management issues we have, I will be impressed if we go beyond the second round.

“We can’t begin to aspire for the semi-final if we don’t create the platform to develop talents locally. In some other countries, the players know themselves from the youth set up such that by the time they get to the senior team, they are familiar with each other. Even when they go to play in other parts of the world, they still came back to play as a cohesive team. Germany, Lithuania, Greece, Australia, Spain, Turkey all have a consistent system that delivers quality players to their teams,” stressed the Wakanow.com chief.

He dismissed the general impression that because the team emerged African champion and has been playing as a unit since 2012, it is likely to have blended into a formidable force at the Games.

“They may qualify for the second round. If you start talking about semi-finals, what would happen to the United States? What about France, Lithuania, Greece, Spain, Russia, Argentina. There is no magic to it. I will say the best we can get is second round after that, any other thing is a bonus,” he noted with finality.

Despite the not too rosy picture of what to expect from the game that brought him fame and fortune, Ekezie insists he remains positive on the business side of the game.

“My interest in sports is on the business side and not as a community social responsibility. My interest is in investing in basketball; build a valuable business using basketball. It is unfortunate that we don’t have facilities where people can go to relax and watch their favourite sport. We don’t have a 10,000 seat capacity arena in a good location to draw the crowd to the sport. So, we need to invest in that so that we can conveniently host teams from other countries.

“When you talk about sports, you talk about tourism; you talk about people coming into the country to spend their money. Millions of people will be going to Brazil to spend money. They will stay in hotels, book flights, patronise local businesses during their stay in the country. These are the things our people should understand. Sport is a money-making machine, which should attract huge investments if we want to harness the sector very well.”

The former NBA player has a parting shot for those in charge of government and sports in the country.

“Sport has been reduced to a kind of charity event in Nigeria. It is not a charity event… it is big business. Some of the highest paying jobs in the world are sports related. It is only in Nigeria that sports have been treated as some kind of charity, which is why we still rely on government to fund it.”