OBINNA OKWODU: “I WOULD LIKE TO MAKE SURE THAT THE NIGERIAN POPULATION IS PROPERLY TAKEN CARE OFF BEFORE EXPANDING TO AFRICA”

Obinna has travelled a lot in his life so far and as a result has studied across the globe! He was born in the United States and then later moved to Nigeria with his parents and spent 17 years of his life in Nigeria.  Obinna, then went to the United Kingdom to do his A levels, then worked as an Investment Banking analyst in Morgan Stanley’s Real Estate division in New York. He holds a dual degree in Civil Engineering and Management Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2018, he was named as one of Forbes’ 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa for setting up Fibre. Launched in 2016, Fibre is a company helping tenants in Nigeria find rental accommodation efficiently and conveniently. Its overarching mission is to reduce the entry barriers to renting property in Nigeria.

Inspire Afrika: Why did you decide to transition from Investment Banking in New York to Real Estate in Nigeria?
Obinna OKWODU: I was actually doing Investment Banking in Real Estate so I didn’t actually take a big leap.  It was a great experience ; However, I felt like I had learnt all that I needed to know or just about enough to take back with me. I also felt like the timing was right, I was young enough to make the move to Nigeria, and if things didn’t go well I could always go back into banking.  Most importantly, I always wanted to start something in Nigeria, to add value to my country.

I.A: You mentioned the timing being right; what made you so sure?
O.O: It was a mixture of things. On one end I was getting a sense that I was young enough to live like a “cowboy” and still recover after. I also had friends in Nigeria who were doing big things and it was very motivating and encouraging.

I.A: And was Fibre always on your mind ?
O.O: Yes, I spent the first 6 months in Lagos researching, asking questions and meeting people.  I didn’t want to just jump into any business because I didn’t have anything to do. I wanted to do thorough research in order to find something lucrative to do in Nigeria.

I.A: What are some of the challenges /obstacles that you observed during that time?
O.O: It was easier because I grew up in Nigeria. I knew all the right people to contact and those who could assist. To be fair everything was pretty smooth for me. It was the actual starting of the business that was a different ballgame. There was a lot of infrastructural difficulties most of which still exists.

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I.A: And with regards to the skills you attained whilst working abroad, did you feel like they were easily adaptable in Nigeria?
O.O:Yes the skills definitely helped to an extent, especially those that I obtained in the finance sector. I understand how not to lose money which is very important in business.  However, it’s important to bear in mind that when you relocate it’s a completely different beast. It’s not even almost the same thing. We had a very painful beginning because I felt like we carried a lot of assumptions from abroad. Three of four members in our team schooled and worked abroad for some years . We romanticized the start-up and how things would run  based on how things are done in the western world.

I.A: So could you talk us through the process of setting up Fibre ?
O.O: So in Nigeria if you want to get a place to rent you need to make a down payment for a minimum of 1-2 years . We spent the first few months begging and pleading with landlords to buy into our idea and partner with us. You either get a response like: ‘’Get out of my office’’ or ‘’If you want collect monthly rent go and build your own house”.So we then decided to raise money and pay someone rent for a year to test out the model., we filled up the place really quickly (12 units).We used that as an example to entice other landlords and from there it became a little bit more smoother for us.

I.A: What impact do you think it has had in term of making life easier for people?
O.O: It has had a significant impact I believe.  A lot of people struggle to get a place in Africa due to this heavy rental deposit. We have done before and after testimonials with fibre customers and we can definitely say that what we are doing is having a positive impact on tenant’s livelihoods and pockets more importantly.  We had a customer who moved to Lagos to work and used to stay in his office to sleep. It’s definitely more convenient as you can move to a place within 7 days. There’s still a lot of work to do but so far I’m definitely proud of where we are.

I.A: You say there’s a lot more work to do. Do you see this model developing across the continent?
O.O: There’s definitely an opportunity, but I’m seeing it first as a Nigerian opportunity. In the next few years the population will increase significantly, and all those people will need somewhere to live. Thinking of it as an African opportunity. Yes there’s an element for that but I would like to make sure that the Nigerian population is properly taken care off before expanding to Africa as a whole. Over time we will also begin to build our own residences so we can have full access and control on infrastructure.

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I.A: What is your occupancy like?
O.O: It’s pretty high, more than 95%.

I.A: As a returnee what was one of your highs and what has been one of your lows so far?
O.O: My team is my biggest high, it’s great to work with like minded people and grow together. On the other hand, we’ve had some tenants who have caused problems especially towards our team members

I.A: What would be your advice to young diasporas’ who want to move back to the continent?
O.O: I wish someone had told me that I was moving to a different world, it’s a completely different market. I would say: please don’t take the same western mentality. Or else you will get very frustrated. Don’t make assumptions, ask questions and test the market before going into it.

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