Erhabor Asa Emokpae: Being An Orphan, Looking After 18 Siblings, I’ve Climbed Many Mountains



Contentment and sense of fulfilment radiate around him as Erhabor Asa Emokpae welcomes this reporter into his Anthony Village, Lagos office that sunny afternoon.  Looking smart in his grey suit; apart from tiny grey hairs, his sharp and robust outlook contradicts a man who would be 60 in a few days. The Emokpae dynasty’s name rings a bell in advertising community where the Elder Emokpae left an indelible mark before his death in 1984. Born into a relatively comfortable family of Edo origin on April 4, 1958, the younger Emokpae began his primary education at Corona School, Ikoyi, Kings College and the then University of Ife, where he read Economics. His parents died in quick succession between 1982 and 1984 and with 18 younger siblings to look after, he had no time to waste. According to him, in life, one should never take one’s pedigree for granted. A visionary with an entrepreneurial spirit, he embraced his world with a determination to succeed. In his 20s, with his business partner then, Ituah Ighodalo, they dabbled into the business of film production and pioneered the video rental library in Lagos which generated newspaper headline as: ‘Whizkid to look out for.’ Not to relent on his laurels, he went into computer business and founded MBS, he would later seize the opportunity of new apple computer technology introduced in the late 90s where he used newly introduced desktop publishing to put many publications on a new pedestal. Emokpae has recorded many successes in his endeavours and look forward to conquering many terrains. Currently chairman at Lowe Lintas where his father once held sway, as he clocks 60 on Wednesday, he speaks with Funke Olaode about his journey through life and lessons learnt

Early Journey in Eastern Nigerian
Ihave had a fulfilled life and looking back I don’t have any regret. I was born in Enugu on April 4, 1958, on Good Friday so my birthday usually falls around Easter but my parents are from Benin in Edo State. My paternal line cuts across Nigeria.  One of my great grandmothers was Fulani and another one was from Ilorin in Kwara State. I would say like many other Nigerians my orientation is a fairly national one having lived in Lagos all my life and grew up in cosmopolitan environments, my mind is cosmopolitan. By the time I was born my mother was working as a Nurse and my father was employed by Eastern Nigerian Information Service. They eventually moved to Lagos in 1960 when I was barely two years old.

Reminiscing the Lagos of Old
I recall my early years living in a house on Mabo Street in Surulere. It was wonderful growing up in Lagos of old. It was a nice and clean place. My parents later moved to Ebute Metta and eventually moved to Itire Road. My childhood memories and where we lived is very much intact because those buildings are still there. I remember vividly living in Itire where I spent my early life. I ran around Surulere barefooted. I knew every nook and cranny. While growing up I was a bit rascally.  I heard over and over that, I was rascally. I combed the entrée Surulere with my bare feet. As soon as I came back from school the next thing was to take off my shoes. I just didn’t like shoes. I played with tyres around Surulere with my friends.

As a matter of fact, I was my mother’s ‘mobile telephone’. Any errand my mother wanted to run I was readily available. Lagos then was safe because we used to go out at night without entertaining any fear. One insight that came to me recently when I was growing up the British had just left for barely seven years which is why everything worked. Unfortunately, when we make progress in some of our national life we regressed in many areas. Nowadays you don’t expect to drive around and see good roads. Back in the day, every year, the public works department would come, dig the road and resurface it. Not that the road is bad they are on a maintenance schedule. Again, people talk about sanitation inspectors of those days called ‘wolewole’ who ensure that people don’t have a dirty compound and dirty gutter. And of course, the population was much smaller. It was a nice beautiful place to live in.

Factors That Shaped My Life
I was raised in a relatively comfortable home because I didn’t face any extreme adversity.  The major privilege I had as a child was the first school  I attended, Corona School, Apapa where most of our teachers were Whites and it shaped my early life and exposure to things around me and gave me a fairly cosmopolitan beginning. Again, parental influence in no way was significant in my early life which also plays a key role in my adult life. And having become a parent myself I have come to realize the value of good parenting. My parents instilled discipline in us. I remember in my primary school days it was a norm to have your either father or mother’s signature on your homework.

One of those days I had forgotten to tell my father to sign it and as a naïve child, I decided to help myself by engraving my father’s simple ‘E’ on my homework. But my teachers saw it and asked me ‘who signed this assignment?’ I told her convincingly that it was my dad. Little did I understand that his handwriting was distinct from my own. Though a simple ‘E’ I couldn’t produce it. She then sent a letter to my parents through my sister. When I got home my mother opened the letter – and behold, I got the beating of my life! She was beating me and saying all sorts of things: ‘You want to be a forger? Do you want to be a robber? I would not allow that.’ My parents also inculcated the value of humility. Even when we had home helps you dare not put your clothes down for somebody to come and wash for you. You pick and wash your plate after eating.  Those were values that remain with me.

A Cosmopolitan Beginning
I was six years old in 1964 when I was enrolled at Corona Primary School Papa. Before then I went to a nursery school run by a lady called Mrs. Garthwaite. It was a beautiful experience for me as a child. I remember the egg-hunt competition. She used to hide eggs at every corner and we would be asked to go and find them. I had spotted her placing one somewhere and when we were asked to hunt for the eggs, I just rushed to where she hid one of them and brought it out. I enjoyed that experience. After my nursery school, I went to Corona where we were taught mostly by the Whites. I can recall my little sweetheart, Linda. She was a cute little White girl. I was about six years and had this affection for her.  From Corona Apapa, I was moved to Corona Primary School in Victoria Island when the traffic was becoming unbearable. My parents were working on the Island at a time and my mother was at Massey Hospital on the Island and it was a task for them to drop me off at Apapa every day. Corona Victoria Island had just opened in 1967 or thereabouts and some pupils were transferred from Ikoyi and Apapa to form a nucleus of the newly opened school. I was there until I entered King’s College in 1970. I had a wonderful time in that great school.  Some of my friends were Victor Gugong. He was an average cricketer and a builder from Kagoro, Bayo Ibirogba, who recently retired as executive director at NNPC, Waheed Onigbanjo, and others who have done well for themselves.

Nursing the Idea to Become A Medical Doctor
Many ideas were flashing through my wind on career choice when I was in secondary school. But I used to say I wanted to be a doctor and held onto it with for a long time. After some time I said I wanted to be a dentist and my mother said I am being lazy that I should stick to my early decision. By the time I was finishing secondary school, I walked away from that early dreams because my subject combination had tilted towards the Arts. I ended up studying Economics at the University of Ife now Obafemi Awolowo University. I l almost didn’t study in Nigeria because I had gained admission to the University of Salford in the United Kingdom. Then news came in from Nigeria that I had been admitted at Ife. Of course, I preferred to study in Nigeria and within 48 hours I was back in the country and went straight to Ife. Going into Ife which was a mini-community of many young Nigerians was not my first time outside Lagos.

Going to the North for Advanced Studies
I left King’s College for my ‘A’ Levels in a newly established Federal School of Arts and Sciences in Mubi. At that time, the Federal Government established three additional Federal School of Arts and Sciences to complement the existing one in Lagos. One in Sokoto, the North West; another one in Mubi, that is North-East; and another one in the South-East, in Ogoja.  My preference for Mubi was because they had a French teacher and I desired to learn French.  But going to Mubi was an experience for me because my first day in that school I wanted to go back. I got to Maiduguri and by poor accident ran into somebody who asked me how I was going to get to Mubi. My first experience was the heat which slapped me in the face on arrival. We met a Good Samaritan who volunteered to help me and my friend, Gerrald Antai. I was 16 in 1974. This man who assisted us happened to be the governor’s brother. He took us to the governor’s lodge and on getting there I saw a familiar car that belonged to an uncle of mine, Mr.  Yemi Aderigbe. He was amazed to see me and asked me to stay with him in his guest house. That night we went to see the North-East Federal School of Arts and Sciences which is now the University of Maiduguri. It was a beautiful campus, beautiful setting; my hope was raised. But on getting to Mubi my hope and expectations were dashed because what we met on the ground was different from what we saw in Maiduguri. It was a dusty town. I was discouraged and decided to go back. I saw some boys struggling with food in a bucket of tuwo.  I managed to stay until the following morning. I took a bus back to Maiduguri and had planned to board the next available flight to Lagos. But my uncle whom I met earlier in Maiduguri waylaid me on my way back and persuaded me to stay until the end of the term since it was around November. He even promised to get a transfer for me. It was the best decision of my life. I went through adversities in that place but cherish the memories.

Navigating Through Life
I left Mubi in 1976 and ended up at the University of Ife in mid-1976. I left Ife in 1981 and was posted to Abeokuta for the mandatory one-year youth service. I worked for a while at the Ministry of Statistics and worked part-time as a television anchor at OGTV. It was a brief stint because I had to relocate to Lagos when my mother died in March 1982 barely one month after I started my youth service. I was transferred to Lagos as a corper and I served as a protocol officer at the Lagos State House of Assembly. I was part of the team that received the then Vice President of the United States, George Bush (Snr). My father died when I was 26 and left 18 children behind. I am the eldest. I grew up in the midst of polygamy. But my father raised us like one and my mother was awesome and treated everyone equally. We see ourselves as one. But my parents’ death placed a huge responsibility on me and there were this urge and determination to succeed.
After my youth service, I started my career in a company called Pacific Union, a Japanese company that was into marketing a line of electronic typewriters known as TEC. Manual typewriters were common in 1984. And between my youth service year and my foray with Pacific Union,  I started my own business,  a video production company and a rental company called, Video Serve, the first video rental library in the country. I started in Surulere and people would come from far and near to rent films from us. My best partner then was Itua Ighodalo who is now a big-time pastor. We were very complementary to each other. We had great synergy and we did some things together.

Going into Computer Business
You may wonder what an economist was doing in film production and all that. Well, I have always had that entrepreneurial spirit in me. Again, being an entrepreneur is about your knowledge, your ideas, ability to understand the environment and its needs. After my time selling typewriters with the Japanese company, I branched out and started a management company called MBS. Then computers were very new. Ituah and I ran a computer tutorial for young children in the mid-1980s and it was successful. I remember Ituah and I were interviewed by a magazine with the headline, ‘Whizkid to watch out for.’ It was a big thing because we were in our 20s. The MBS lured me into computers in my early days. I remember speaking to a guy called Ibrahim who had IBM computers. I didn’t quite understand what he was doing but he exposed me to it. Then Apple computers were just coming out with its new technology such as desktop publishing which means you can use your computer to do graphics layout and all that. I now started a company called Electoral Set which was basically doing graphics and setting of layout for publications and many of the leading publications were introduced to electronics typesetting and page layout through the services we provided. In the process, I got close to Nduka Obiagbena who was publishing This Week Magazine and we were doing page layout for his magazine and other major newspapers including Hints Magazine which was started by the current Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr. Ibe Kachukwu. My new role in the introduction of new technology made me have a connection with advertising.

Following in His Father’s Footstep
My father spent most of his career in Lintas until he passed away in 1984. After his passage, they (Lintas management) felt I should fill the vacuum of his interest in the company. I joined Lintas and became a director very early. But after a few years, in 1998 to be precise, I left to pursue other interests in the ICT. One of the business lines was online shopping called, The Catalogue, in conjunction with Sunny Anison, who incidentally is the founder of Red Star (FedEx). Basically, we provide services where people could order from Argos Catalogue and we would procure the items and deliver. It went on well until we had shipping problems and the economy wasn’t ready for that at the time and we closed it down. Eventually, I ended up in THISDAY where I became a director since inception in 1995. I remember bringing the first set of computers and software and first layout to its Ribadu Road office.  In late 1999, the company moved to Apapa and the idea of introducing colour printing was conceived.  I joined THISDAY in Apapa and was there for two and half years. In 2002, I returned to Lintas as the executive vice chairman; a position I held until 2014 when my late chairman and titan of the advertising industry in Nigeria, Chief Moemoke, passed and I assumed the role of chairman.

Lessons in Life
My parents’ death made me mature quickly that I assumed responsibility in my 20s. But beyond that I always advise young people; talk to them about my own experience. They should never limit themselves as they all have potentials. Often, we are limited by our circumstances and perspectives and we don’t push. People should always search what they have a passion for.  The life-blood of any economy is enterprise. Unfortunately, it is not promoted. We should be more enterprising as a nation and shouldn’t have the notion that something may go wrong. So, plan to take risks.

My Best Moment
I have had many best moments but in 2016, my daughter, A’rese, got involved in the maiden edition of Voice Nigeria singing competition and when she won the competition with a song, ‘Halleluyah’ by Jeffy Buckley, I was overwhelmed. I had encouraged her early on to put in her best. Honestly, her declaration as a winner brought me to tears. That was my best moment.

Romance and Marriage
I got married in 1987 to my wife, Christiana nee Ibekwe, a native of Onitsha in Anambra State. I met her when I was re-posted to Lagos as a corper. My wife had just returned from America and she was also posted to Lagos and we that were on the ground were trying to prepare the camp. The first day I saw her nothing happened. A few days later the interest grew and we just found that our chemistry jelled and here we are almost 31 years after.

The Aspiration to See A Great Nigeria
No man fulfils life’s aspiration because life is a journey and until one drops dead you continue the journey. My take is that when you aspire to be this or that don’t trample upon your fellow human beings; maximize every moment. I have continued aspiration to see Nigeria great even in my lifetime. So nobody can truly say his aspiration is fulfilled because as a being we never give up our aspiration. For instance, because of my passion to serve my people, I once veered into politics and in 2014 I sought my party’s (APC) nomination for Edo South to represent them in the Senate. It didn’t click. As 2019 is approaching if I am well received by my people I will make myself available to serve them.