Okonkwo . . . once slept under the bridge with his family

Kennedy Okonkwo, Chief Executive Officer of Nedcomoaks, is one of Nigeria’s finest real estate developers. With projects across Lagos Island, his 10-year forage into the industry has been a remarkable success. Gap toothed, suave and flippantly ebullient, he carries with him a papal charisma that wraps those around him in a cocoon. Recently, Solomon Elusoji had a chat with him at his Lagos office, where he shared parts of his life story and thoughts on Nigeria’s real estate

You recently signed a memorandum of understanding on solar energy. Can you tell us about this?

It was about our partnership with one of the leading energy providers in Nigeria, Forte Oil. The driving force behind that was the urgent need to start providing alternative power solutions to the houses that we build. We have an upwardly mobile middle income housing bracket that we serve; and to serve them we are always thinking of solutions that will last long and benefit the home buyers. Overtime we have had other companies provide such services but you end up with little or no after-sale solutions. So, in that light, we sought a new partnership which is expected to take us to the next level. We wanted a situation where as we give warranty on those houses, those warranties are also extended to the solar solutions. And only a reputable company like Forte can provide such service. We want our clients to start experiencing less noises from generators. If somebody buys a house and NEPA is able to provide about 12 hours of electricity per day, then the solar can fill in for the remaining 12 hours.

 

After 10 years, how would you describe the growth of the real estate sector in Nigeria?

I have witnessed a lot of real estate companies go down. Some of the leading companies that were around 10 years ago are nonexistent today; it’s just a handful of them that are still alive. But we are grateful to God. Today, we have a much more robust industry, in the sense that more people are coming into the sector. People are beginning to realise that the real estate sector is a major contributor to Nigeria’s GDP. The sector provides at least 7.2 per cent of the country’s GDP, according to statistics from the National Bureau of Statistics. It goes a long way that our industry is growing at a rapid rate. Despite that, there is still a huge gap of housing to be provided, both at the state and federal level. There are so many satellite villages that need to be connected via road infrastructure. There is also need to provide telecommunication, water and power infrastructure.

How were you able to earn the confidence of your first clients?

To build trust in the consumer does not come in one day. But one of the things we have tried to do is to under-promise and over-deliver. Anytime we tell our clients that we will deliver a house in nine months, when you come in the seventh month, that house is already being cleaned and tested. And that goes a long way to gain the confidence of clients.

You were not daunted by competition at the beginning?

There will always be competition, but there is always a space for everybody to play. In every sector, you have the very big players and the upcoming ones, but with innovation and creativity, there is so much we are doing with our houses. Today, we are one of those companies that provide uninterrupted after-sales support for the houses we have built. We are one of those companies that can actually boast of adding extra-value to our houses such as CCTV cameras, home audio systems, internet services and solar power systems. And we are looking to do newer things that will improve the lives of our subscribers.

How did the sector fare during the recession?

When they say the economy is out of recession, I’d ask, ‘is government spending the way they used to spend?’ ‘Has the price of the dollar gone to the price before the recession?’ The answer is no. Today, the price of cars and commodities are double what they used to be. Yet, the price of housing has not increased. What has happened is that the developers have lost their margins. The number of houses that will be churned out this year cannot equate the number that was churned out last year. The reason being that the funds are not available. So there is no sector that did not feel the recession.

How did you stay afloat?

This is the time for creativity. This is the time for organisations to bring out their innovative best. When the economy shakes, only great companies survive. We are a young, dynamic organisation and we try to be creative with what we do. We are delivering our Victoria Crest Luxury apartments. This same year, we flagged off our projects in Ikoyi, Oniru and Osborne. So we are doing our best to stay afloat and keep being profitable.

What do you think about standards in the real estate industry?

There is so much that the government is doing now to curb the influence of quacks in the industry and standardise the processes. Lagos State Government has employed over 2,000 hands into the Lagos State Building Control who go from site to site monitoring construction work. Today they have a material testing laboratory. They go around doing non-destructive testing on these buildings while construction is ongoing to ascertain structural integrity. We also have agencies such as the Lagos State Safety Commission that ensures constructions are carried out in safe environments. So there is so much the state government is doing.

What drives you?

I am passionate about our industry. I came across a report sometime that said Nigeria needs $363 billion to fill its housing deficit. Reading that alone, I have come to realise that there is so much if you keep building. And if you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, housing is an existential need. When you have food, the next thing you are looking for is shelter. So I realised anyone who is providing accommodation cannot go wrong. I believe there are so much opportunities in this industry.

At some point in my life, around 1994, we were kicked out of a shop that we called a house in Ikeja. We had to stay under the Ikeja Bridge for a few weeks before a Pastor helped us into his boys quarters. I was just about to get into the university then. Then I had to go live with my elder sister before moving in with a cousin of ours who trained me in school.

Seeing my family then, I knew that I needed to do something better when I left the university. I knew I had to work hard. After school, I had the privilege of living in Oniru; I got my first set of leases from the Oniru family; I did that while still holding my daytime job.

How did you get started in real estate?

Back then I used to have this cousin I was living with who used to do contracts with ALGON (the Association of Local Governments Association of Nigeria) and he was building local government headquarters. During my holidays, I supervised some works for him; and I enjoyed to see those projects. When I finished school, I did my first business and I made about N280,000 from where I bought my first car. So when I did that in 2001, I knew there was an opportunity in this sector to make money. So even while I was working, I still had my eyes on the sector. I was doing things like agency, build-operate-transfer: take long leases, build houses and then transfer them back to the owners. That was where I started from.

What other things excites you about life apart from real estate?

My family. I think that is one of the most fascinating gifts that God has given me. I have a young family and love to spend time with them. Those are moments that a billion dollars cannot buy.

What are your favourite books?

The bible fascinates me. I think there is a part that says when a man marries, they should give him a holiday so he can be with his wife for a certain period of time. It’s so strange that things like that are in the bible. I read all sort of books though. I had a privilege of reading a book Donald Trump collaborated on, Marketing 101, and I was fascinated that things like that were in a book. And I had not read it until he became president. So there is so much to read. As a young boy, I grew up using my feeding allowance to buy newspapers.