Abisola Raolat Isokpehi: My Vision Is to Turn Computer Village into Africa’s Silicon Valley

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Abisola Raolat Isokpehi. PHOTO: Aduragbemi Akinpelu

Her foray into the information and communication technology world was not that straightforward having trained as a linguist at the University of Benin where she graduated in 1990. Yet, from her undergraduate days, Abisola Raolat Isokpehi, the Iyaloja of Computer Village’s life has always revolved around ICT. The boom in information technology in the late 90s further stamped her feet as one of the main dealers in computer accessories which led to the establishment of her company, Laptop Galleria, in 1997. A woman of vision, her exceptional grasp of leadership and administration led to her being installed as ‘Iyaloja’ of Computer Village in 2019. She tells Funke Olaode about her mission and vision

Can we have an insight into who you are?
I am from Olowoogbowo Area on Lagos Island. I was born in Sierra Leone and was brought to the Surulere area as a baby. My families relocated from Apongbon when the Apongbon bridge was being constructed in the 60s. I went to Government Demonstration Primary School, New Era Girls Secondary School, Surulere and Federal Government Girls’ College, Shagamu in Ogun State for my ‘A’Levels after which I proceeded to the University of Benin, Edo State where I studied Linguistics, graduating in 1990. I actually wanted to study Mass Communication but Uniben didn’t offer Mass Communication at that time so I settled for Linguistics.

How would you describe your growing up in Lagos back then?
It was a wonderful experience under loving and caring parents. My mother was a businesswoman. She used to ship stockfish from Sierra Leone while my father was a public servant with NITEL. It was a comfortable beginning because I didn’t have a difficult childhood because we were well-taken care of. Growing up in Lagos of old was superb. When we were growing up, there were no corner shops or supermarkets what we had was UTC on Adeniran Ogunsanya and Leventis on Akerele. So we go to malls to shop for basic needs. We ate the best because the consumer products are always there for my parents to bring home. My father was working with NITEL.

With one naira or one kobo, we would head to Leventis to buy ice cream and all sorts which have now become a luxury for today’s children. I went to a public primary school where we had free lunch. They would give us milk and fruits in the morning and we would have a proper launch in the afternoon. It was stopped in 1979. Back then you don’t have to have money to live a decent life because the system was working well for everybody. What we had in my primary school back then would cost you thousands of naira in a private school because they are no longer there.

A linguist-turned-ICT-dealer: when did the journey begin?
It was a passion that began consciously or unconsciously. I remember as an undergraduate I just developed a passion for it. After Uniben, I went to Compute Rite Computer School for a diploma course in computer. And before then I had a diploma because during Gen. Babangida’s era in 1989, there was a time the universities went on five months strike and instead of staying at home I went for a secretarial course at Grace Institute of Secretariat Studies in Surulere, Lagos and by the time I graduated I was loaded with skills both in secretariat study and computer in addition to my degree so it was easy for me to get a job. After my youth serve in Ibadan, I joined Type Technologies on Norman Williams Street, Ikoyi, Lagos, a Printing and publishing outfit. I was in charge of graphic design. I spent a year after which I joined a construction company, Alma Beach Estate, the owners of Alma Beach Estate Properties as a personal assistant to the managing director. I was there for sometime before I joined my then-fiancé who was into computer business because he studied Computer Science. This was between 1990 and 1995.

We got married in 1995 and had our company in Victoria Island. Sometimes when I wanted to buy some accessories I would come down to Awolowo road in Ikeja to buy. There was a particular day I couldn’t get accessories to buy and I was directed to Otigba in Computer Village. I met only two people then, Tunde and IK, and they encouraged me that ‘madam, you buy things a lot why don’t you import all you need and in case you are unable to finish it you can bring it to us to sell.’ That was how I started the business here in 1997. In 1997, Computer Village was a residential area with only three companies. But there were a group of engineers who were into repairing computers. That was how we started and people started coming until it became what it is today. The laptop was the reigning thing and was very scarce. I established my own company in Computer Village called Laptop Galleria. That was how the journey as an entrepreneur began.

Having spent 23 years doing business inside the market, at what stage did you decide to vie for the position of ‘Iyaloja’?
I became Iyaloja of Computer Village in May 2019. Well, my appointment wasn’t a misstep because I was part of this market from the inception when only three shops were here. I can say that I am the most qualified to be Iyaloja. When I entered we were very few and when the number began to grow and decided to have an association I spearheaded the move to form the first association in 1999. There is no history of Computer Village that you would write that my name would not appear. When they decided to form the Community Development Association (a body formed by the landlords) I was part of it and when the business owners formed Computer and Allied Dealers Association of Nigeria, a body that would be controlling the market, I was involved.

But some people rose and said the association was dominated by the Yoruba and formed their association and this led to over seven associations within the market. So there is this tussle or arguments that the landlords have sold out their buildings and can’t come back and still be calling the shot. It was difficult to make any rules and regulations within the market. That was when some of us now said that constitutionally, the CDA cannot control the market. We now concluded that if we have the ‘Iyaloja’ it would be an administrator for everybody. That was the reason we had Iyaloja and Babaloja of Computer Village so that there would be a single authority in control and management of the market.

What is your vision for the market?
My vision for Computer Village is immense and to God be the glory. I am at the helm of the affairs now. I hope the village will be a conducive environment for investors and other people to do their business. We have embarked on some arrangements. Recently, the governor’s wife held a retreat for all the market leaders in Lagos State and to the glory of God, Computer Village was rated as the most organized market in Lagos State.

You mean despite the chaotic nature of the place?
The crowd is what makes the market. We got the rating based on our performance in terms of what time do you close? What time do you open? When you come here at night around 8 pm you would be surprised that everywhere would be cleaned and swept. LAWMA comes here every day and the gates are locked. We have a firefighter point in case of emergency and all the facilities needed for a market to run smoothly are on the ground. Our market is moving on smoothly according to how the state government wants it.

Again, this is an enclosed market. The challenge some people are having is that they want to move freely. Most people we have are customers. The reason the place is choked up is because of the parking space because we don’t have available car parks and almost 5,000 shop owners have cars and it is first-come-first-served. But Lagos State has just built a car park beside Computer Village that can take 500 cars and we have negotiated with the owners so that we make sure that everybody goes there to park. This move will ease the problem. In terms of SMEs, we have invited First Bank, Sterling Bank and a lot of our members have enjoyed the facility. Ecobank too has been here and recently, a few microfinance institutions have indicated interest to partner our people.

What effort is being made to make it a sub-regional hub for technology in West Africa?
Computer Village has gone beyond Lagos because people come from far and near do business. It is the largest ICT in Sub-Saharan Africa. People come from Gambia, Cotonou, Guinea to do business and if anything is coming to West Africa it comes to Computer Village first before it gets to other places. It is also a mini Nigeria because every tribe is represented here.

There is a negative perception of the market in terms of thuggery and theft. How do you think you can rebrand the market?
One cannot shy away from the fact that anywhere you find a large crowd there will be an element of bad eggs. But that doesn’t stop the fact that they can’t be controlled. We are trying our best to get rid of all the hoodlums within the computer village. The truth of the matter is that most of the bad eggs are not our members or business owners within the community. Again, it is not possible to start searching everybody that comes into the market. Most of them are always stationed at the edge where they can escape once they carry out their evil act. But as far as this village is concerned I can tell you that customers are safe. So we are trying our best to get rid of the criminals.

It was reported that the government is planning to relocate Computer Village. How feasible is that?
It is a fact and we have been on it. I was part and parcel of those who negotiated ‘Katanguwa’ area with the government during the days of our amiable leader, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, when he was the governor of Lagos State. We found out that the market was growing fast and we needed a larger space. We told him our challenges and he gave us the place. This was around 2005. It is a project that has been on for a very long time. It is not that the government just woke up one day and want to push us somewhere. If completed, it is going to bigger and better because we would have more space. We would be more organized.

Are you saying there was no resistance from your people?
Not at all. Who can resist the government when it is giving you something bigger and better? In terms of distance, it is okay. Computer Village has become a brand and when it is ready I am sure that our people will go there. It is a world-class structure that would look like Silicon Valley and they are on it already. What is now Computer Village was a residential area. There is a limit to which you can reshape somebody’s house or move it backward. In this new one, it would be a well-arranged, bigger and better market than Tejuoso Market. My vision is to make it the Silicon Valley of Africa.

For how long have you been married?
I met my husband as an undergraduate at the University of Benin and got married in 1995.

What was the reaction when you brought home an Edo man?
My father is educated and he is a Lagosian. Lagosians don’t discriminate. Apart from being an Edo man, he is a Christian. I was born a Muslim. My parents didn’t object to me marrying in a Catholic Church. They followed me to the church. I didn’t have a challenge because my husband is a good man, a perfect gentleman. The marriage is blessed with a child.

What does it take to be successful in business?
Honesty, transparency, accountability, and sincerity. For instance, our business is technical and we often advise our co-marketers to adhere to specifications to avoid conflict with customers. Honesty is the best policy that will take you very far in life.