Leke Akinrowo: My Journey from Chevron to Nollywood


Super Saturday  

Calm, queer and fatalistic, occupation to him was viewed through the prism of a crispy soldier’s uniform and smart looks – he wanted to be a soldier. This desire kept changing with increased contact with other professions.  Historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolph Hitler captivated him. Hunger and inability to pay his bills made him abandon his love for the arts for a job at Chevron Nigeria Limited where he worked for 21 years before retiring to the chagrin of his wife. But when he left the theatre world in 1995, he never took his eyes off Nollywood. Leke Akinrowo tells Adedayo Adejobi about his early retirement and new life

• I Left The Arts Because Of Hunger

• I’m A Fatalist, Not Scared Of Death

As a child, what did you want to be in life?

As a kid, first I wanted to be a soldier, I guess that was because my mum worked as a caterer at a military barracks and I fell for the crispy soldier look. After that, I wanted to be several other things including engineer, lawyer, and lecturer. By the time I was going to enter the university, at my first Joint Admission Matriculation Board (JAMB) exam attempt, I chose the University of Jos, mainly because one of my elder twin brothers was schooling there. While processing the admission, I travelled to Jos for the first time, and my brother took me to see a play at the open-air theatre where the UNIJOS Theatre Arts students were having a performance. I wasn’t admitted at UNIJOS that year, but after that experience, there was nothing else I wanted to study but Theatre Arts. That was how I ended up studying Dramatic Arts at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, where my other elder brother was schooling.

Who or what shaped your outlook on life while growing up?

I’ll say my first world view was shaped by the many tortoise stories I heard as a kid. Growing up, like so many similar homes in the 70s, we had many aunties, uncles, house helps, and so on living with us, who came from our village with many of these stories. I always fancied myself an ijapa (tortoise) outsmarting everyone around. Then I started learning history in school and fell in love with the war aspects of history. I loved historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Joan of Arc, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolph Hitler, etc.  When I started studying Dramatic Arts at Ife, I took interest in the philosophical movements which developed in Europe in the aftermath of the two world wars. Some of those philosophical movements were quirky, but I took them all in. Finally, when I met Christ in my third year at the university, I fell in love with King Solomon’s slant to life and godliness, and that’s how I arrived where I am today.

Having studied Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife, why didn’t you work in the art sector?

Well, I followed it for a while. Right after youth service in October 1990, I joined Chuck Mike’s Collective Artists, first as an ad hoc staff, then later as a substantive staff. I was with Collective Artists until the end of 1991, after which I joined some of the staff to pull out and form Tempo Productions, led by Felix Okolo, where we had a fairly good run for a while. But truth is, as good as it was, we all still had to deal with the ever-present hunger. So, one after the other, we bailed out, until it was only Felix Okolo left holding the Tempo Productions touch. When I left, I found my way, first into an oil marketing firm, Westin Oaks Petroleum sometime in 1993, then an engineering firm, Oshea Projects Limited late 1994, and then back with Chuck Mike’s Performance Studio Workshop between February and June 1995. It was at this time that I met my wife, and one thing led to another until I found myself in Chevron Nigeria Limited, where I eventually worked for 21 years.

With 21 years’ work experience in Chevron, why did you take the plunge to retire early at a time the economy is in a recession?

I always knew I would retire early, but let me tell you a story. When I joined Chevron, I was 28. I used to watch the older employees who were in their 40s and 50s then, keep vitamins and all manner of medication in their drawers, and they would pull out these medications and throw them into their mouths morning and afternoon with the tea rounds. And I used to think to myself if these people are so tired, why didn’t they just retire and go home in peace. Guess what, just like overnight, I found myself also keeping vitamins in my drawer, which I threw in my mouth morning or afternoon with the tea rounds. That was a serious awakening for me. But more important, when I left the theatre world in 1995, I never took my eyes off the goings-on there. I saw Nollywood start from its very early days when everyone scoffed at it until it grew to the point of attracting foreign interest and even respect. All through that period, I grew in other areas myself. Chevron is a global company with world-class systems and processes. While there, I learnt a thing or two about the concept of world class, and I can relate it to practically everything I see around me. Now, if I wait until my mandatory retirement age of 60, I would have no more strength to bring that ‘world class’ into anything. I’d be exhausted and busted. So, that was why I left last year when I did. Recession or not.

Did you make the adequate exit plan for the life of an entrepreneur before leaving the paid job and how are you settling into the life of an entrepreneur?

I don’t think you can ever plan enough for retirement. In the end, you just have to take the plunge or wait till you are pushed out. Where I worked, if you decide to wait until age 60 before retirement, three months before the due date, you’ll receive a nice letter from HR saying sir, ma’am, here’s to let you know that you’re three months to your 60th birthday… In fact, before receiving that HR letter, your co-workers would have started reminding you like two years before the time in many ways. Some will adopt you as their office daddy or mummy. It’s all jovial and nice, but you won’t ever forget that your time is almost up. But for the life of retirement or entrepreneurship, you’ll never be ready. I’m still learning stuff every day. I’ll give you an example. To prepare for my entertainment business, I decided to learn from the best as much as I could afford. I attended several courses at the London Film School and the New York Film Academy, to learn what the film production business is at the highest level. I learnt the bolt and spanner as well as some strategic stuff about film production. But, even though I have a very good product in the shape of a movie script, which people at the London Film School and the New York Film Academy attested to as a potential world class movie, I’m learning now that, as a producer, you’re largely on your own in this industry. There are a million and one brilliant movie ideas which have all died because there’s no one to fund them. That has driven some reality and sense into me. If I learnt anything while working with Chevron, using the company’s money, it was that everything was world class or nothing. Now out in the business world on my own, it’s now world class, yes, but who’s paying for it?

Knowing women to be averse to risks, especially when it comes to what is considered as ‘job security’, how did your wife take your decision to resign?

Ah, I’m still trying to convince her that I took the right decision to leave. I’m actually under some pressure right now trying to prove that the decision I took was the right one.

With your early retirement from Chevron, has there been any form of rude awakening?

Yes! I attended the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where I hoped to network and meet all the right people with the right money to write a cheque and ask me to go shoot my world-class movie. I got my rude awakening when I realised there were thousands of people from all over the world, I mean from America, Europe, Asia and everywhere else also hoping to meet the right people with the right money to write a cheque for their world-class projects. I had the chance to pitch my movie to a few people there and they all liked it. But no one said can we meet over lunch tomorrow to discuss your idea further? Vision is what’s keeping me going now. I believe I’d still make the movie at some point, but I’m learning to take things slowly.

If you dropped everything to pursue your dreams, what would you be risking?

In my own case, I dropped a secure source of income to pursue my love for the entertainment business. What I’m risking is the middle-class comforts which come with regular salaries and emoluments, ability to maintain my family’s standard of living, and meeting my commitments at home, church, in the extended family, and so on.

Describe the next five years of your life and plans in a single sentence

In the next five years, I will no longer be worried where to start looking for partnership in any of my projects, I will know where to go, and they will be happy to welcome me and my ideas.

Do you consider yourself the hero or the villain in your story?

I’ve once been described as being queer by a friend because I seem enamoured by characters like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Mobutu Sese Seko, Adolf Hitler, Judas, etc. So, I like villainous characters, but in my own story, I think I’ll be the hero rather than the villain.

Which are your favourite books?

Even though I enjoyed history books while I was in school, I now prefer fiction. There’s too much reality in the news. If I want to read, I love the escape that works of fiction offer me. You didn’t ask me, but the books I hate the most are management and motivational books. I’d rather be lashed on my bare back or go for a root canal surgery than read those books.

What is your philosophy of life?

I love the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. It’s my favourite book. I’ll quote from it: Ecclesiastes 1 vs. 1 says, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” In v. 7 it says: “All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place from which the rivers come, there they return again.” And there’s no new thing under the sun. These basic attitudes form the underlying principles of my life.

Now that you are ready to pursue your dream, what is the single most remarkable thing that you are bringing to the table?

Like I mentioned earlier, I hope to bring my concept of ‘world class’ to the entertainment products I produce. Whether it’s a movie, a song, a theatre production or an event, I hope to produce shows which in content and form, can rank with the best anywhere in the world. Maybe not in terms of ostentation or money spent, but certainly in the form and depth of the subject.

What’s your plan for the Nigerian entertainment industry?

What I hope to bring to the table is the quality of form and subject. For example, most of our movies deal with mundane subjects like a man marries a woman, then runs into an old flame, and complications start, and it ends happily or tragically. What about all of our historical figures? Who is going to make movies about Awolowo, Azikiwe and Tafawa Balewa? What of colourful characters such as Jesu Oyingbo, Moshood Olabisi Ajala, of the Ajala travel all over the world fame? What of people like Dan Maraya Jos, Ebenezer Obey, Osita Osadebe, Sunny Ade? Who is going to preserve these stories for the upcoming generations? And not just some shoddy nonsense, but proper movies like those we see on Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, etc.

Any particular collaboration with industry stakeholders in and outside Nigeria?

Yes, I’m currently working with a Nigerian Hollywood veteran in respect of my first feature film. It’s an action story with a lot of gun battle scenes and explosions. You’ll agree with me that we don’t have many high-quality action movies coming out of Nigeria. I mean, we don’t even have the infrastructure to achieve a credible fighting sequence. Sometimes, to make a battle scene credible, you may need body doubles for some of your actors. We don’t have any such thing here. You need fight choreographers. We don’t have them. When you need to carry out an explosion, you need firefighters on the scene in case something goes out of hands. All these things require expertise, which we don’t have. So, if you’re going to make a good quality action movie in Nigeria, you need the services of people who have the expertise. So, I’m working with people from Hollywood in that regard.


If you have enough money without needing to work again, what will you spend your time doing?

Reading fiction and watching TV.

If today was the last day of your life, what will you do?

I’ll put a call through to all the people I have on my contact list, and tell them to watch out for something important coming up tonight.

What will you change about your life if you know you will never die?

I’ll make all our current crop of political leaders to sleep off. I’ll sleep for 50 years, by the time I wake up, Lagos will be Dubai, Akure will be Abu Dhabi.

If your entire life is a movie, what title will best fit?

‘Na So I See Am’, parts 1, 2 and 3.

How will you describe yourself?

Easy, calm, keen, and easy.

What are the chances you’ve passed up that you now regret?

Truthfully, I don’t recall any right now. The reason is that I’m fatalistic in my attitude to life. So, if it happened, it’s meant to be, so I forget it as quickly as possible. When I pass up that chance, I usually end up seeing it as a blessing in disguise.

What makes you smile?

My kids – just seeing how much they remind me of myself when I was their age, despite different circumstances of life.

What drives you to do something better?

When I love and enjoy it, I give it all I’ve got. If I lose sleep or money, no worries, as long as I love and enjoy it. If I don’t love or enjoy it, even the promise of reward is not enough to make me do it to the best of my ability.

What terrifies you the most?

Truthfully, I don’t know. I’ve heard people say they’re terrified of failure. I really don’t care that much about failure as long as it’s something truly beyond my power and ability. And death? Beyond the anthropological avoidance of danger and death, I don’t think I’m scared of death. I feel secure in Christ. Poverty? No, because I know both how to abound and I know how to be abased, according to Philippians 4 vs. 12. So, I really don’t know.

What are you looking forward to?

Success in this new phase of my career, and then retirement at age 60.