Leo Stan Ekeh: Africa’s Digital Orphan at 65

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Ken Ugbechie

He likens himself to an orphan and only child. Not in the classical sense of having no parents and siblings, but on account of his independent-mindedness, the fate of having always to walk alone, act as his own adviser and being the first to take a leap, a trait that has set him apart as Africa’s foremost serial pioneer digital entrepreneur.
He’s our modern day Prometheus.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus, a Titan, was credited with innovation and creative abilities. He’s the forerunner of contemporary innovators and disruptors. His Olympian far-sightedness, skill and fecundity put him at the cutting edge of every competition. Little wonder he’s often described as the pathfinder of innovators, craftsmen, and persons in the creative industry.

Born on February 22, 1956, Leo Stan Ekeh, a native of Ubomiri, Mbaitoli Local Government, Imo State, a devout Catholic, former mass servant and chorister, has taken the digital world by storm, building one of the biggest ICT conglomerates out of Africa from a modest desktop publishing outpost. Today, he straddles a Group with interests extending from ICT, banking, oil, property to e-Commerce, with offices in Africa, United Arab Emirates (Dubai), Europe and Asia.

Before he set out to launch his first company, Task Systems, in 1988, he reportedly held a 6a.m. meeting with his parents, both entrepreneurs, during which he laid out his plans to confront the ICT world. It was like setting out on a suicide mission. He pleaded that he would wish to see himself as an orphan and an only child until he stabilizes his business. He also pledged to place himself as personal collateral to build his business purely on integrity. His father who was startled by his raw ambition blessed him and that was how his journey into the ICT world started.

A moment with Ekeh leaves you with the clear impression of a rebel, an iconoclast in every positive sense. He wants to change the world around him. He stirs himself in thought and in deeds. Former Nigeria President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, obviously impressed by his nationalistic fervour and unrelenting proclivity to beget a digitalised Nigeria named him ‘Icon of Hope’ on October 1st 2001, a fitting cap for an exemplar of the true Nigerian spirit of chutzpah, excellence, innovation and an ingrained ability to break limits.

Ekeh, a computer post-graduate dropout has broken limits in the complex but hitherto surreal computer marketplace, once a monopoly in the hands of the Western world. He demystified computers and computing, building ICT training hubs across Nigerian tertiary institutions in an ambitious project code-named Computerise Nigeria Initiative. It’s to his credit that young Nigerians from Damaturu through Owerri to Yaba have transformed to nerds and geeks in the global geekdom. He laid the foundation for the making of a new generation of Nigerian computer whizzes doing great things – from coding to the complex realm of Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality (AR) to the acclamation of the world. He put computers in Nigerian schools, in the hands of poor yet gifted students, who otherwise would never have been able to as much as boot a laptop in their undergraduate years.

Former Governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, once described him as a ‘Digital Militant’. He pursues matters of digitisation of Nigeria, nay Africa, with a militant spirit: aggressive and unrelenting. He wants all graduates out of Nigerian schools to be computer-savvy. He desires to see governance run on e-platforms. It’s just his nature to see things work efficiently.

In life, you need a bit of rebellion against the status quo to make a change. Lee Kuan Yew, author of ‘From Third World to First’ and father of modern Singapore acknowledged himself as a rebel who roused the people to pull Singapore out of the hatred they bore against the Japanese for their occupation of Singapore (1942-1945) and from the pains of British colonial rule. Ekeh’s iconoclastic spirit set him apart as a serial pioneer. He pioneered e-Commerce in Africa with the launch of BuyRightAfrica.Com in 2012. He pioneered desktop publishing in Nigeria and, singlehanded, automated Nigerian media: newspapers, publishing companies and advertising agencies. Courtesy of him, newspapers like Thisday, The Punch, Vanguard, Chronicles, Sketch, Tribune, Statesman, Daily Times, among others, embraced automation, jettisoning the dour and dull compugraphic machines. Early in business, he built a collateral of integrity which endeared him to both indigenous and international partners.

A genuine digital disruptor, he introduced WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) to Nigeria with the first hub in Yobe State in 2007, launched by then Minister of State for Information and Communication, Alhaji Dasuki Nakande, to the elation of the then Governor, Senator Mamman Bello Ali. Ekeh with the support of Total Plc (Elf Oil) pioneered the deployment of digital dispensing pumps after he was cheated at a petrol station at Ikeja.

Despite successfully pushing global brands like Apple, Microsoft, HP, among others deep into the Nigerian market, Ekeh remained listlessly discontented. He desired to create an African computer identity. And by 2001, he led his young and passionate team of outliers to birth the Zinox range of ICT products, the first indigenous computer to earn both Intel and Microsoft certification. It was the Holy Grail of his ceaseless questing, fuelled by his chance meeting in the United Kingdom in the mid-80s with the irrepressible Steve Jobs, the prodigious co-creator of the Apple range. Ekeh was part of a small audience of international students and potential entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom and there to address them was Steve Jobs. At that time, Jobs was already a household name after the roaring success of Apple computers which he co-founded with another whizkid, Steve Wozniak, a former electronic hacker. Jobs had wowed the audience with his digital sagacity, plotting a roadmap on how he intended to create an all-digital future. His encounter with Jobs birthed a dream in him. And he was good to his dream.

He soon returned to Nigeria after his first degree in India and post-graduate studies in the UK to give life to his dream. It was no coincidence that he was the man who first brought Apple to Nigeria and got the media industry buzzing with computers. Like most outliers, capricious yet focused, Ekeh’s rebellious zeal to change the status quo resulted in the creation of the most integrated ICT conglomerate in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The birth of Zinox (launched on Tuesday, October 9, 2001) marked a tipping point for the serial disruptor. In no time, many multinationals, Nigerian corporates, tertiary institutions, ministries, departments and agencies standardised their operations on Zinox. It also fulfilled Ekeh’s dream to make Zinox a Nigerian, nay African, computer identity.
At various times, Zinox was deployed as the ICT backbone for the hosting of some major international events in and outside Nigeria. A few cases would suffice. Between October 5 and 17, 2003, Nigeria hosted the 8th All Africa Games codenamed COJA 2003. Zinox computers were among the global brands that powered the event.

It also powered the 18th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Abuja between December 5 and 8, 2003. Other international events powered by Zinox include the All-Africa University Games, a continental multi-sport event organised for Africa’s university athletes by the African University Sports Federation (FASU) in Bauchi (April 17 to 22, 2004); and the 7th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Africa Union (AU) from July 2 to 5, 2006 in Banjul, The Gambia.
Perhaps, Ekeh’s defining moments were the patriotic interventions of Zinox during Nigeria’s 2007 and 2011 general elections. It salvaged Nigeria’s voter registration exercise by delivering 11,500 DDC (Direct Data Capture) machines in 14 days. That was beyond a feat; it was an act of patriotism and it heralded the introduction of technology into the nation’s electoral process.

Zinox would repeat the same feat in 2011, this time delivering 80,000 fully integrated units of DDC machines within 35 days ahead of two foreign companies in time enough for the conduct of the general elections of that year and also assisted the two foreign competitors to deliver to INEC offices nationwide, to the relief of then INEC chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega.
Ekeh’s desire is not to be the wealthiest Nigerian, but to be the silent enabler of a tech-driven nation. For his exertions, he has earned Presidential endorsements, international and national honours including the prestigious National Productivity Order of Merit (NPOM) award conferred on him by President Muhammadu Buhari, Order of the Federal Republic (OFR), Microsoft Global Adviser, among dozens of other garlands including honorary doctorate degrees from Nigerian universities. He is blessed with a brilliant wife and kids who are in commanding entrepreneurial heights in the nation’s digital community.
A detailed biography of this highly detribalized Nigerian – bridge-builder, patriot and creator of jobs and wealth – would be launched next year but for now, let’s wish him the very best that life can give as he marks his 65th birthday.
Happy birthday to the one we simply call Leo Stan.

•Ugbechie writes from Lagos