S.O. Babalola: I Came to Lagos with One Pound, 10 Shillings

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SATURDAY MEMOIRS

Alhaji (Dr.) Sakariyau Olayiwola Babalola’s story is that of a son of a cocoa farmer who rose to iconic heights in business. The name S.O. Babalola is synonymous with success and enterprise. Father of Dr. Rilwan Babalola, a one-time Nigerian minister in the country, his story is not a typical grass to grace one. Born in the early 1930s in Ede, Osun State, after attending school up to Standard Six, he sought greener pasture in Lagos in 1955. With just one Pound and 10 Shillings from his parents, Babalola braved the odds to become one of the wealthiest men of his time. His company, Telemobile Nigeria Limited, was the first indigenous company to deploy satellite communication in Nigeria. Babalola’s feat is not defined solely by his achievements as a successful businessman, he has equally distinguished himself as a religious leader. He is the President, Muslim Ummah of South-West Nigeria (MUSWEN) and in 2016, became the Deputy President-General (South) Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. As he is being honoured tomorrow by the Osun State Muslim Community for his commitment to God and humanity, Babalola, who was recently conferred with honorary doctoral degree by Fountain University, Osogbo, in this interview tells Funke Olaode about his life and why he has every reason to be grateful to his Creator

I Enrolled Myself in School at the Age of 11
How My Grandmother Prevented Me From Further Education

A Farmer’s Grandson, a Trader’s Son

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n Ede, present-day Osun State, in the early 1930s, a son was born and was named Sakariyau Olayiwola. At his birth, his grandfather was a peasant farmer and his father, being the only son was exposed to general trading.

“My father first started with his father and later went ahead to learn a trade in Ilesha. In the process, he had passion for planting cocoa as commercial farming and brought the seed to his father in Ede. He experimented and planted the whole seed. As time went on, the cocoa farming blossomed and my father had customers who came from all walks of life to buy cocoa produce. But he didn’t want be a produce buyer in addition to cocoa farming. He chose to be a produce buyer. He would buy and send it to Ile-Ife. Soon he bought his first vehicle, a lorry, to convey the cocoa product to Ile-Ife.

His father started trading with a German Company and when somebody from UAC saw the quality of his cocoa they offered better price. The older Babalola quickly moved his business transaction to UAC.

“Because of the success he recorded from his father’s farm, he ventured into full time cocoa farming and acquired large acres of land close to Ilesha for cocoa plantation. The cocoa was about germinating when a huge fire consumed everything. It was a huge loss and nearly lost his life. He came back to Ede in 1962 during the ‘Western wetie’ and went into local politics.”

Choosing Between Arabic and Western Education

Babalola says his father was born a pagan but later realised that paganism couldn’t take him anywhere. He converted to Islam and was the first person to accept Islam in the whole of Ile Bepo’s compound in Ede.

“My father converted almost everybody to Islam. Being the first son because of fear of being converted to Christianity through Western education I was enrolled in an Arabic school. But what spurred me to want to know the mystery behind this Western education was the time of the Empire Day which falls on May 24th of every year, the Queen Victoria’s birthday. When I saw those students in immaculate white marching with band I used to watch them. I said the parents of these students were not as rich as my father why couldn’t I go to school? I just made up my mind one day and enrolled myself. I was about 12. When I got to school, my first teacher, Mr. Odunlana, asked after my parents and I told him that my father had travelled. He asked me to join the class and that was the first day I started learning. He asked me to bring my parents later for confirmation and also buy school uniform called ‘kijipa’, a hand-woven aso-oke. When I got back home and told my paternal grandmother of my move, she screamed. My father eventually returned after a few days and my grandmother told him that I had gone to school. Of course, he was furious. But she pleaded with him and after much persuasion he succumbed to pressure under one condition that I would not jettison my Arabic school. That was how I began a new phase of life in a new setting and within three months I had double promotion. The news went everywhere that ‘Saka is doing well in school’.”

How a Dream Was Aborted

For Babalola, coming in contact with Western education was a wonderful experience. In fact, he became his grandmother’s account officer, who had a lot of debtors to deal with.

“When I was in Standard Four, I was appointed sanitary inspector for the whole school. I was doing well in school until I finished my Standard Six. The way the teachers were teaching us we assimilated well and education as you know broadens one’s horizon. It was not an era of technology but the quality of teachers we had was awesome. The teachers were dedicated and committed. I remember they told us and even predicted that very soon we would sit in our homes and we would be seeing people in America. There was no television then but we all had that vision in mind. I got the Primary Leaving Certificate with flying colours in the late 1940s and my father encouraged me to go further. I sat for Common Entrance and picked Osogbo Grammar School and other schools. I passed the examinations and was waiting for admission letter. I told my grandmother but she objected to that move.

She had lost many children and saw me as a replacement. She said, ‘You are my joy and I won’t allow you to go.’ But with the Standard Six your name would be heard all over the world.’ The day I employed the first expatriate in my business I remember her words and I wept. So I never had beyond Standard Six though I did some crash programmes here and there.”

Saka Goes to Lagos… with One Pound, 10 Shillings

The consummate businessman came to Lagos in 1955 after his grandmother’s death. He still remembers vividly how everything went.

“That very morning, my mother woke me up and asked me to seek my father’s blessing. I went to him around 5 am. He prayed for me and gave me One Pound (two Naira in those days) and my mother also gave 10 shillings and prophesied that ‘Saka, with this token you will not lack in life.’ I came to Lagos with only One Pound and 10 shillings. I was influenced to come to Lagos by a paternal cousin who had lived in Lagos for so many years. It was like a carnival the day this man came to Ede on holiday as all of us went to the railway station to welcome him. His children were impeccably dressed and the way they were speaking and everything about them was different. As the darling of the house (I won’t call myself a local champion) I interacted with them a lot and was inspired to go to Lagos. Actually three commercial cities came to mind: Ibadan, Lagos or Kano I decided to pitch my tent with Lagos.”

Saka Becomes a Man

Interestingly, while coming to Lagos one of his maternal cousins, Lawal Olagunju – who had won £75,000 lottery, a lot of money in those days – was around. Saka’s father talked to him to take him back to Lagos.

“I joined him and he engaged me as a pool clerk with a salary of £6 a month. I was staying with him in his house at 13, Kugbuyi Street, Idi-Oro, Lagos. I was already married and left my wife with my mother.

All of us ate communally and slept in his big sitting room. I woke up in the middle of the night one day and saw sea of heads with people snoring. I said I don’t belong to this setting. That very night I decided to go and look for a room so that I could bring my wife to Lagos. When I got back to the office the following day, I called my cousin, the late Bayo Ayoku, with other five people and suggested that we should start contributing five pounds every month (like cooperative). The first person took the contribution and I was the second person. Out of my 30 pounds, I rented a room at 38 Dosunmu Street. Whenever I made my own contribution at the end of the month I was left with One Pound. I would manage that one pound for a whole month because I wasn’t spent money on transport. I usually joined one of boss’s cars to the office. The day I missed his car I joined a public transport to Iddo and claimed to be a staff. When I got to Iddo I was asked to show the ID card. They found out that I wasn’t a staff and was pushed out of the bus. I had to trek from Iddo to Idi-Oro and got home around 12 midnight. It was a nasty experience that taught and guided me that whatever you do, do it with honesty.”

Becoming my own boss

He spent only two years with his cousin, Olagunju, and pulled out to start his own business in 1959. According to him, he had a co-tenant who was about his age and was working in UTC. The guy invited him one day to visit his office.

“In those days, UTC used to order T-shirts, shoes and so on for their customers. The customers would make deposit and when the goods arrived, they (UTC) would distribute and return the goods of those who couldn’t pay back into the warehouse. This co-tenant came with the items sample including double two shirts and asked me to take it round I may be lucky to find buyers. Luckily, where I was living at Dosunmu, Igbo traders used to come every Tuesday. I would show them the sample of those items that I have them in my store. I would not collect money from them until they had seen the goods. My friend would sign for me and would bring it to the house and they would buy everything. I would share the profit with this God sent friend. The UTC business exposed me to the top echelons of the banks, WWBA, now First Bank, and Barclay’s Bank. As time went on, another friend said he knew somebody at Esso Petroleum that they used to hire haulage to transfer their petroleum products to their various stations. So I followed him to Esso and that very day we were asked to carry kerosene from Apapa to Lawanson. I quickly went to hire haulage and did the first transaction. But my friend betrayed me he went behind and collected the money but lied to me. I was so furious that I went to harass the Esso people but they consoled me not to bother that I could start afresh with them. His betrayal was a blessing in disguise.

“I went there the following day and was given another business. That was how the news spread that S.O. Babalola had gotten a contract with Esso. Lorry owners now registered with me and my business boomed. I just said if I couldn’t do this successfully with Esso why couldn’t I go to Mobil, Texaco, British Petroleum (BP) and it clicked. Texaco gave me a big breakthrough and was given me their products to distribute in the North. The lorry owners from the North also struck a deal with me. If they came to Lagos with groundnuts instead of going back empty I would load my products in their containers.

Within one year, I built the first house of 16 rooms in Papa Ajao area of Mushin which was in the bush then. I later went into spare parts importation but quit due to undue competition from my eastern traders. I also went into importation of lace materials and tyres.”

The Diversification that Gave the Break

Alhaji Babalola dabbled into telecommunication business in 1985 when a friend introduced him to the then Inspector General of Police in his office on the 5th floor on Moloney Street, Obalende. He was asked to register a company and it all began.

“I was told there was need to purchase 60 walkie-talkies and I would have to submit quotation. I submitted it and I won the contract. Where would I buy it? An expatriate friend working with Okada Airline promised to get in touch with a friend in England. We sent a telex to the friend in London. Unfortunately, he had resigned to join another American company, Telemobile Ink USA. Richard, the guy in London, now promised me that when he got to Los Angeles he would spearhead it. He later sent a telegraph after two weeks that he had discussed the matter with the company. Right there, I made up my mind to visit the company in Los Angeles. I travelled to Los Angeles and met with the management and told them that the only condition to patronise them was to allow me to be their representative in Nigeria. They agreed and that was how Telemobile Nigeria Limited was registered. When the goods were loaded abroad I asked the police authority to carry out destination inspection to find out if it met the standard. They got the approval of the IG while I sponsored them to USA and the report was good. That was how I supplied the first order. That singular move made my company to be the first indigenous company to deploy satellite communication in Nigeria under the watchful eyes of Telemobile Ink USA. Telemobile Nigeria Limited is still waxing stronger 32 years after and was even a major distributor of Motorola products.”

The Man, His Religion

His commitment to God and humanity has not gone unnoticed. In 1987, he was made Aare Adinni Surulere (Original) Central Mosque while in 1990, he became Seriki Adinni Lagos Central Mosque. In 2014, he became the President, Muslim Ummah of South-West Nigeria (MUSWEN) and in 2016, was named the Deputy President General (South) Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. However, it has not been a smooth sail. His bid to be Baba Adinni of Lagos Central Mosque nearly caused schism within the group.

“I ought to have been installed as Baba Adinni of the Lagos Central Mosque but there was a leadership tussle. I was actually turbaned but it caused a lot of division. For me, I believe a leave cannot fall without the knowledge of Almighty God. And if God wants me to be Baba Adinni there would not be any controversy. When I knew that it was causing a division and pitting me against some certain group of people, I issued a press release published in the newspapers withdrawing my candidacy that I was no longer interested. We don’t need to fight one another because we are serving the same Almighty Allah. I have since put it behind me. Today, we are back as one big family. The new Baba Adinni, Sheik Hafeez Abou, is like a spiritual father to me.”

Saka’s Legacy

On his children, Alhaji Babalola has this to say:

“I have played my role well over my children. Having lacked the required education, I vowed that I must give them the best. They are well educated up to master’s level and not only that they attended best universities across the globe. Right now, my first daughter is a Senior Special Assistant to Osun State Governor on Federal Parastatals. She is a lawyer and had LL.M at the prestigious London School of Economics. My son, Dr. Rilwan Lanre Babalola, who once served as Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria went to the best school in the world.”

So much for the son of a cocoa farmer whose grandmother’s prophesy came into fulfillment with clinical precision.