Wale Ajisebutu: At Age 12, I Was Selling Christmas Trees, Pap, to Support My Mother

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His aspirations were high; his dreams narrowed by circumstances. A man of many firsts, Wale Ajisebutu is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of 21st Century Technologies Limited, one of the biggest ICT firms in Nigeria noted for building the first data centre in the country. He is humble; a mentor to many youths. In this interview with Omolabake Fasogbon, Ajisebutu, who clocked 58 recently, talks about his life, his business, his grass-to-grace story, and the life-changing encounter he had with Chief Michael Ibru

Wale Ajisebutu’s story is familiar but peculiar: from a polygamous background, he had to bear the brunt of a misfortune suffered by his father who lost his means of livelihood.
“We needed to survive. My mother resorted to petty trading where I assisted her in hawking pap on the street. This was how I struggled till I gained admission to Yaba College of Technology in Lagos. At Yabatech, the struggle continued.”
Respite came his way when a well-to-do lady in his class took interest in him because of his exceptional brilliance –and, of course, his calm disposition.
“In my class, I lived a quiet life. I was an unnoticed person because I ran my affairs alone. So there was a day a lecturer came to the class and brought a question to the table which everyone was asked to solve. In the end, nobody was able to solve the question. I got it right anyway but decided not to call the lecturer’s attention to it. He lambasted everyone in the class and later solved the question which answer happened to be the same thing as mine. So this lady was beside me and realised that I got the answer right and was baffled why I decided to keep quiet. ‘But you got it right, why didn’t you talk, why did you allow the lecturer to rebuke us,’ the lady whispered. She became curious about my lonely life and offered to be a friend. We became friends afterwards and she carried part of my burden.”
Studying Ajisebutu life’s trajectory, it’s tempting to conclude he’s a child of destiny as his youth service experience would demonstrate.
In 1983, he served in one of the now defunct banks. There, fortune smiled on him as he came across the business tycoon, Michael Ibru.
“He is my number one mentor –may his soul rest in peace. He mentored me because I willingly offered to help and support his businesses without asking for monetary rewards in return. The little gesture from a poor 23-year-old meant a lot to him. Everyone tends to take advantage of rich people but I chose to act otherwise. He bought a new car for me and I lived in one of his flats in Apapa, Lagos for many years. He encouraged me to resigned from the bank and set up my own business. I learnt a lot from him. He was an enigma; the greatest and kindest entrepreneur I have ever known. He’s the most hard-working human being that ever lived. His death has left a vacuum that would be difficult to fill. I am a product of his business school and I tapped into his inestimable wisdom and counselling.”

Life and experience in 58 years
Life so far for the serial entrepreneur has been characterised by betrayals, disappointments and struggles but not without bubbling moments. He has been betrayed but not weighed down as that only taught him to be wiser and more careful with human creatures. As a young man, he was not in a haste to get to the top of the ladder even though he had the opportunity.
“At 58, I am most grateful to God for the gift of life and the good health I enjoy. More important, that I am privileged to take care of the needy in the society and blessed with lovely children. I feel great and spiritually looking forward to a promising future. My business life literally started at the age of 12 when I engaged in trading to support my late mother and to earn a living for myself. I had sold a lot of things like pap, Christmas firecrackers, ladies’ shoes, Colgate Palmolive, computer paper, furniture, generators, etc. As I grew up, I diversified into export and import of goods mainly fashion items with the majority of my customers on the Lagos Island. I’m a very popular merchant on the Island. To date, my customers want me back in the business as they claimed that they used to realise a huge profit when I was supplying them the products. Later on, I saw opportunities in ICT and I started with sales of the computer which culminated in 21st Century Technologies.”
Even when he was wrongly accused by the EFCC over a $1 million deal involving him and one of the banks, having all the evidence to prove his innocence and clear his image, he decided to be silent.
“It may surprise you that my lifestyle has not changed since  I  started the business over 35 years ago. I have been living in the same house for 27 years. I remain quiet, humble and dedicate myself to the promise of God. Naturally, I am a very quiet person and my entire family tend to mind their own businesses and lead a quiet life. My life is guided by the words of the Holy Book in 1 Thessalonians Chapter 4 verse 11 which says, ‘Make it an ambition to lead a quiet life. You should mind your business and work with your hand.’ I have tremendous regards for the media because they play important role in the society. It is true I am a very shy person. But at the same time do not believe I have done anything worthy of being celebrated or mentioned on the pages of the newspapers. However, I am presently working on a few projects that may qualify for a mention in the media.”
Even though he is a successful businessman, he is pained by the fact that he was not adequately prepared for some challenges. Unlike many prospective entrepreneurs who are limited by lack of access to startup capital, his major consideration is the people –the readiness to pursue their goals.
“In business, we need to prepare ourselves for high pain threshold because we are bound to encounter all sorts of issues, to the extent that happiness may disappear for a moment. The most important thing is to quickly recover and get back to happiness. This strategy also worked for us during the recession. We were able to survive it with the support from industry regulators and the government. We are the number one fixed line service provider in Nigeria with over 100,000 lines. Having gone this far, our future is well secured and very promising.”

Life Lesson and Future Plans
Life, they say, is full of lessons and for Ajisebutu who has come, seen, and conquered, he has drawn some lessons from life’s story.
“Above all, I have realised that experience is the best teacher and one shouldn’t try to change people –but oneself. I have also learnt things that matter in life such as happiness, resilience, giving, connection, gratitude as well as an open mind. I have come to conclude that the purpose of life is to be useful and make some difference that one has lived and lived well.” Highly ambitious and optimistic, the chartered accountant is obviously not planning to slow down anytime soon and as a matter of fact, his present achievement is just a tip of the iceberg compared to the largest e-commerce outfit in Africa that he plans to bring on board soon.
“My best is yet to come: if Colonel Sanders started Kentucky Fried Chicken, KFC, at 65 and the company today is global, then, I am still on ground zero on my mission. My ambition is to build a global company. As you are aware, for the first time in history, our capabilities have begun to catch up with our ambitions, while humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has a potential to significantly raise the basic standard of living for every woman, man and child on the planet. In light of this, I see myself taking advantage of emerging opportunities to employ technologies in addressing global issues, solve  problems that have long  been considered unsolvable, confront some organisations biggest challenges head-on and train the future leaders by building and academy fully  equipped with necessary tools, laboratory and brains.” Asked if he has any political ambitions to aid the realisation of his dream Nigeria, his response was utterly negative.
“No. I am not interested in politics other than to perform my civic responsibility by registering and voting when the time comes. However, I plan to realise my dream Nigeria using the tool of technology. “

Joyous Moment
For Ajisebutu, the gift of life is the most precious to him.
My happiest moment is when I wake up in the morning and stand on my feet ready to fulfil my purpose in life. Being alive and well is the greatest gift. However, I am thankful and express gratitude to God in all circumstances. I don’t belong to any social club and I hardly go out. However, I love football. I’m an Arsenal fan even though I don’t really have the time to watch their games. But I have watched them live a few times. Other than that, I just monitor results and ranking on the internet. In my quiet time at home, I engage myself with reading. I have a very big library in my house and I love to read books on technology, autobiography, philosophy and religion. I also love to watch television, spend time with my close friends and mentor my children. I love to travel too.

Life without a Mother
My mum was a symbol of what a good and loving mother should be. A mother to everyone she came across. She is passionately religious and totally committed to God. She lived so that others could experience the goodness of God. Generous to a fault, she touched the lives of so many people. She sponsored thousands of kids up to university level. Her doggedness was legendary; she courageous and pragmatic. She is a very rare mother and a gift to humanity –may her gentle soul rest in perfect peace. I miss her motherly role and kindness. She was my first business partner and I was very close to her. Her passing on to beyond has created a vacuum that cannot be filled by anyone.

Commitment to Society
We all have a moral obligation to help each other whether, in a position or not, everyone can bless the society in every conceivable way. In my own little way, I have built 12 classrooms to Lagos State and I am presently building a coding school for kids between ages 6 and 12. I am also building an academy to re-train fresh graduate. There are other numerous things that I have done quietly to help humanity.

Words of Advice to Youths
Nigeria is rich in opportunities. The country is blessed with all conceivable mineral resources. We have no reason to be poor. However, our resources are grossly uncultivated and we are sleeping on gold without truly realising it. God created today’s youths in Nigeria for a purpose and my strong advice is for them to take advantage of the present deficit in the country. In a country where we lack good roads, water, electricity, means of transportations, and the shortage of infrastructure, it is indeed a huge opportunity for the youths. For those who participate in filling this gap, the sky is definitely the starting points. Nigeria is waiting for the youth to take their rightful place in driving its economy.

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