Motivated by the conversations amongst engineers at a construction site many years back, young Chudi Kalu, a trainee plumber then, took a bold step to change his fortunes. As fate will have it, he met his luck in the real estate business. Ever since, it has been success stories for the Founder of Africa’s Property Investment Group. In this interview with Mary Ekah, he talks about how investing in real estate can change the life of every Nigerian for the better
What motivated your interest in real estate in the first place?
I grew up knowing a particular man called Baba Deborah, who actually instigated in me the idea for real estate. He couldn’t express himself in English but it was from him I first heard the word “quit notice” and he could not even pronounce the word properly but I realised that my father who could express himself very well in English was the one paying him rent and it was from the rent that my father paid Baba Deborah, who was just a carpenter, that he used to send his children to school abroad. My father would tell stories of how he was one of the engineers that built the National Theatre but he ended up becoming a security at the end of the day and couldn’t even afford his children’s school fees, but Baba Deborah had something that protected him till old age and all of his children are doing well today merely from a face-me-I face-you property he erected on a quarter plot of land in Ijesha, Lagos. And each time this man came to the compound, everyone will begin to shiver and that was when I actually realised that someone who invests on properties is actually the “Lord of the land”. So I felt then that if I was to also become the “Lord of the Land”, I needed to invest maximally in real estate.
Can you tell me your success story as a real estate investor?
I started as a plumber. I learned plumbing and while doing plumbing, I was worked on a construction site and usually observed the conversations between engineers and other stakeholder handling the project on the site and got so fascinated. I was a trainee plumber that also worked on the site with about 400 other people. What actually puzzled me and also motivated me at the same time, was how the person who owned the project was paying all the workers. We were more than 400 workers at the site and he kept making payments to us every week. I kept asking myself where the money was coming from because it was not the federal government that was making the huge payments to the workers every week. And then I later learned that some people put funds together to do the construction and so the money was from the pool of their resources. I also started reading a lot of books on how to get into real estate business and my motivation grew. Before then, I had done a lot of businesses that had failed. I started as a publisher, I had worked as a writer for some newspapers and all of that but I was not successful until I ventured into real estate and within three months, I was able to make my first three million naira. Thereafter, we got another project in which I invested in and that project generated about 300 million naira within another three months and that was when I was like wow! If I have been failing in everything, I have not failed here and so I will give this my best shot. And that is how my venture into real estate business started and thereafter, I decided to set up a 10-year goal to retire just within 10 years even though I am still in my 30s right now. And right now I am just two years away from that goal. It is not just for me alone but also for anybody who wants to be an investor in real estate. I see a lot of people make the mistake of buying a property that is not giving them residual income. So what people should now begin to do is to invest in properties that would fend for them in future. If I have a property somewhere in the village or in Agbara that does not fetch me money, then I am not working towards securing my future. And if a lot of Nigerians are making money right now through investments in real estate, then Nigeria will never be in recession because it is not the government of the day that is in recession but it is the country as a whole that is in recession and the country is the combination of every one of us. So if the people aren’t doing well financially, it will affect the general economy. I also discovered that because of the way we do a lot of things in Nigeria, we believe that we need to have deep pocket to invest in real estate. I didn’t start with deep pocket.
I actually went to inspect a property with ₦500 that was borrowed from my mother. As I inspected the property, people thought I had all the money but they never knew all I had was just a borrowed ₦500 in my pocket. After inspecting the property, I sold it to someone else. It was the money that I got paid from the transaction that I used in starting my investments in real estate. So wherever you start from is your platform. If you have N10, 000, you can get started. It is just for you to be able to look beyond your limitations and explore the opportunities that have been presented to you. So it is not about what you start with but about the deal that you get.
Why did you choose to be a plumber in the first place?
When I finished secondary school, my father decided that I needed to learn a skill and because he was working as a security man at a construction site, he just fixed me up and that was when I decided to learn plumbing work. I was just 15 years old then. The reality is that at the end of the day, I still decided that was the line I wanted to toe. I have done a lot of things that I have failed in – things which I thought would bring me money but never did. Not necessarily because they were bad businesses but because I was not doing businesses that were generating money on a regular basis. What people actually live on is cash flow. Cash flow enables people to invest and have piles of cash that they rely on as their source of livelihood and even help them to retire before the retiring age. The truth of the matter is that here in Nigeria, we think that we must get to certain age before we retire from whatever we are doing. But that is not true because if my income is higher than my expenses, I can retire at whatever age I want and also if I don’t need to go out and work on a daily basis but my income keeps coming, then I can retire. So what investment in real estate does to me is that if I have an investment somewhere that can protect me, it will help my dream to be fulfilled because most people forfeit their dreams because of the present economic hardship in the country. Some people are working in places that they are not fulfilling any of their dreams and are being frustrated on a daily basis; but once people get their financial lives straight, it will enable a lot of dreams to be fulfilled.
You started life as a trainee plumber at about 15 years of age just about when you delved into the real estate business, so when exactly did you make your first million naira?
It took me some time from then before I made my first million naira because after training as a plumber, I worked on all sorts of things. Like I mentioned earlier, I failed a lot of times and then by the age of 26, I decided to go fully into real estate. I have lost some friends and I have gained some friends in course of doing this but at the end of the day, I decided that this was what I wanted to do and here I am today.
How much are you worth presently?
I don’t know … (bursts into a long laugh). I am a real estate enthusiast. I like investing in properties again and again. I do collaborative investments whereby I join others to invest in a particular project. So I don’t actually know what I am worth, I don’t even know where some of the properties I invest in are but I know for sure that by the end of the day from whatever we generate, we are able to make more money from it.
What did you study at school?
I didn’t go to school. I am not a graduate. I never went to school and because I couldn’t finance my education then. So going to school became a challenge for me and so I could not attend the university at that point. My father went blind when I was 17 years old. My mother used to sell corn and what she had was not sufficient for her to send me to the university. At some point I was pushing wheelbarrow on the streets and I used what I got from pushing the wheelbarrow to pay for my younger ones school fees. If I didn’t do that, it meant that their education would have stopped like mine did. But today, even though I couldn’t study at the time, by the grace of God, I am privileged today and currently I’m running a programme in one of the best universities in the world. So it is not all about how you set out in life but it is actually about if you are able to continue with what you set out to do. I have been privileged to be one of the first set of people in this country to be invited by the United Nations to the Conference of the Parties (COP) Convention on Climate Change, where I was privileged to talk on real estate and the opportunities that it has for this country. During that period, I also met with a former governor of Delta State who was also invited for the programme amongst other dignitaries from Nigeria. Those are some of the rare opportunities that my sojourn in real estate business has afforded me. Now things have really picked up and this means that sometimes we will fall but we can always pick up ourselves and people need to be motivated inwardly for them to really succeed in life. And I will say it again that it is not where you start from – wherever you start from, is your platform. That is why I have always preached that if I am limited, it does not mean that I cannot think nor invest in projects. My limitation must not be what is stopping. Some people think that some people connive together to set themselves up for success but that is never the truth. The truth is that some people decided on their own that they are going to set themselves up for success. People say real estate business is supposed to be for the rich but I was not rich when I started. Anybody can invest and also make it in real estate. If others are investing, why can’t you too? If anybody is ready to pick up the challenge, he can rise above his/her limitations.
So how were you able to get to the stage of physical and intellectual reform that you are today?
I read voraciously. I was 15 when I read Ben Carson’s “Gifted Hands” and this particular book propelled me and my reading habit. There was a time that I read five books on a weekly basis. I realised that I learn very fast when I read on my own. I have grown with that habit and up till now I still read very widely. And it is whatever you deposit in the inside that you are able to give on the outside. So it is not a mere me doing this but those that have taught me through their books.
Are you married?
Yes, I am presently married to a beautiful wife and we have lovely kids. I am always proud and very excited to talk about them. I have a boy and a girl and that is all I want.
What would be your advice to Nigerians with regards to investment in real estate?
Basically, I will recommend that anybody who is investing in real estate at this time should not just buy plots of land but should invest for cash flow reason, being that it is the investment that you make money from that will pay you over time. Cash flow is simply when you are enjoying consistent income for your investment. There is a research that states that 80 per cent of people currently working will be broke and penniless by the time they get to 50 years old. To avoid being amongst these ones, it is advisable that now that you are working, you should be able to ask yourself, what you should invest in that would be fetching you money when you get to that particular age. Government won’t do that for you because you have to take up the responsibility of overseeing your finances. So real estate gives people leverage. Like I have said, real estate is not for the rich but an opportunity for people to be rich. So what we are creating now is a situation where you don’t need to have all the money but you can simply invest in a property and own a share in the property and also have something to rely on in future. So I would tell people that they should not just invest for emotional reason but for cash flow. We live in a country where people want to own their own houses before they invest in real estate and again, that you have a house does not mean that you are a real estate investor. That I own a house does not mean I am making money from the house. So I don’t necessarily have to be a landlord for me to invest in real estate. Now what my investment does is that, it helps me to be a Landlord that I want to be. Being a real estate investor does not mean buying a land and keeping it fallow for so many years without doing anything on it. Why not invest that money in a cash flow project through which I can earn money from it and I can channel it into building my own house knowing that at least my money is working for me. But what some people do is that they trap their money somewhere, the money trapped is not working for them but they are expecting that someday, the property will appreciate.