Kennedy Okonkwo: It’s Never Too Late to be Happy in Life

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Dr. Kennedy Okonkwo was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. The prize fate awarded him for his determination is success. Dr. Okonkwo, the managing director/chief executive officer of Nedcomoaks, a property development company that operates within the Lekki-Ajah axis of Lagos, is one of the leading property entrepreneurs in Nigeria. His company owns the popular Victoria Crest project, the “affordable luxury” brand that targets the middle class. He speaks with Vincent Obia and Anayo Okolie about his life and enterprises

You can tell a lot about a person by the collection of things they display for others to see. Some display pictures of themselves with the strong and powerful. Others show treatises and works of art they love very much. As you walk into Dr. Kennedy Okonkwo’s Lekki office, in the highbrow district of Lagos, a visual collection comprising inscriptions of words of wisdom and family photographs is one of the remarkable things that greet you. They tell a whole lot about his background and walk to success.

Childhood
Okonkwo had a difficult upbringing. He was about 16 years old when his father died in 1993. That incident affected him deeply and changed many things about his life.  He says, “I realised that I was close to my dad. I had a dad who believed so much in academics. He believed he wasn’t going to leave you with anything better, that you can fall back on, than education. He believed what he could leave for you was the education you will live with.
“My dad saw that education was the only critical thing for survival. Intuitively, his passion was looking at what we were doing in school. He used to say this was the only thing you could do for yourself. He believed he could pay school fees but nobody will force you to read. Studying is one thing you must do for yourself.”
His father’s death also taught him interesting lessons, the most remarkable of which is that a man is responsible for his own happiness. “You are responsible for your happiness.” he says. “What you do is a function of where you want to be. So, if you wake up in the morning and think that somebody has put you in a bad mood and you end up being sad all day, you are hurting yourself by choice.“

Happiness
Okonkwo believes, “It’s ‘never too late to be happy’. When you wake up, that becomes your own morning. I can’t waste my time doing things that are not necessary all day, and then wake up in the evening to say that I have lost so much. If you didn’t get the opportunity of going to school very early in life, for instance, and you decide to make it up with evening classes, that’s the beginning of your own success story.”
He finds this philosophical idea of happiness, which he framed and keeps close to his desk, most interesting. It is what strengthens him in times of difficulty.
“I lost my father at an early age. It has shaped my life in a profound way. I grew up to realise that there were certain responsibilities that I thought my dad was supposed to carry out. But the man was gone. So I was left deep in water,” Okonkwo says.
The indigene of Ojoto town in Idemili South Local Government Area of Anambra State says another important thing he has also learned is, “God brings along so many people you will look up to as part of help in your life. It is left for you to recognise them and appreciate them. They may generally not be the people that will give you money, but they may be people that will give you words of encouragement, advice and direct you, even when you do not ask. That’s what fathers do. I miss my dad.”

Crossroads
Living with no home after his father’s death was a watershed in his life. He talks about the trauma his family faced.
“The major turning point in my life after I lost my dad was when my mum was kicked out of our apartment, and she and my siblings moved to her shop and lived there for a while before one Pastor David came to our rescue by providing us a temporary space at the Obafemi Awolowo Glass House, in Ikeja, where a boys’ quarter of a church was given to her to manage. These were before I could finish my school.”

Success
Okonkwo is today a successful entrepreneur. But his background gives him an uncommon perspective on success and achievement. Knowing what it feels like as a youth to not have a father around to provide necessary guidance, he has been passionate about his family as well as helping young people to achieve their potential.
“I have had many great achievements in life,” he says. “Some, some people may consider great and some they may not consider great. I think one of the most important achievements I have in life is having a family I can call my own.
“I also enjoy building a young and formidable team – bringing together young people with diverse religious, cultural, ethnic and educational backgrounds. I am happy seeing them succeed and doing what they are doing in life.”

Family Life
Unsurprisingly, then, Okonkwo says, “I enjoy spending time with my family.”
Growing up was not rosy, but he is now married to a lady, Uchechukwu, whom he calls “my friend, confidant and my partner who has helped complement me in what I have been doing in life.” Like they say, behind every successful man, there’s a woman. Okonkwo is proud of his wife’s role as a pillar of support.
He hardly nurses regrets, and he tries to run away from a life of regret and self-pity. “I rarely do have regrets because when things happen, I think of new ideas. I have learnt not to probe over issues for too long.”
But Okonkwo, who also has an MBA in Marketing, says if there is anything he would have done differently it is refusing to study psychology the first time he was offered admission into the university to study the course. He had waited for three years, only to end up studying the same course.
Though he does not work in a psychiatric hospital or the security services, he feels fulfilled having a degree in psychology. To him, “There’s a bit of psychology in everyday life. Like I always say, it’s never too late to be happy. Where I am, I am happy and this is what God has destined for me.”

Role Model
Okonkwo admires people who share his quiet mien. His role model in the property industry is Yomi Idowu. “I admire his humble demeanour. He is very humble. He has built a reputable company. It is one thing to be in business and it is another thing to have a reputable name.”
Another person he looks up to as a mentor is Chief Sylvester Okonkwo. “He saw me through school. He has a great giving habit and about the time I said he saw me through school, he was training about 14 students on scholarship.”

Projects
Okonkwo and his team have done a lot of projects in the property industry, but the one that really announced them is the Victoria Crest project. Tagged “affordable luxury”, it is a brand that targets the middle class. “When we talk about Victoria Crest, we talk ‘believe your dream’” he says. The about 168 units housing project marked a turning point for them in the industry. “After Victoria Crest one and two, now we have flagged off Victoria Crest three with 93 units and we are anticipating that subscribers will have the keys to their apartments from October this year.”

Advice
With 17 million housing deficit and a real estate industry worth over $13.65 billion, which accounts for nearly 8 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, the industry holds a lot of promise for investors.  But Okonkwo believes the industry is being ignored by government. He wants the federal government to properly fund the real estate sector by providing single digit interest loans to investors through the Federal Mortgage Bank and also encourage the commercial banks to do same. “There will be so many things that will benefit the economy when you do that because when you have many artisans and unskilled people getting employment, it helps to empower them and grow the economy.”
He also wants the state governments, which control land under the Land Use Act, to liberalise the land ownership process for genuine investors.
“If the state governments want to be sincere,” he says, “there is need to justify the capacity of the person you are giving land. There’s no need to give land to a non-developer who would keep it idle for years for speculative purposes.”