By Nnamdi Ojiego
Chief Samuel Maduka Onyishi is the Chairman of Peace Mass Transit, PMT. In this interview, Onyishi, who narrates how he started as a bus conductor to becoming owner of many businesses across different sectors of the economy, including oil and gas, maritime, and automobiles, says economic challenges are forcing him to close his vehicle assembling plant. The Nsukka, Enugu State born business mogul explains why South East is the best place to build industries as businesses in the region make quiet, peaceful profits. He recalls how he returned $7 million wrongly credited to him, and explains reasons he gave up his registered airline, Peace Air, to the current operators.
You have been in business for close to 40 years. What did it take you to be where you are today?
To be honest with you, it has not been easy getting to this point in my business life. My road to success was very rough and challenging, coupled with the fact that I lost my father when I was 12 years old. My mother was just a housewife and, being the first of the seven children, I was left with the responsibility to cater for the rest of the family. So, we lacked everything in the house except air and it was difficult finishing secondary school. The saving grace was that my mother took us to the church, and, as children, we learnt about what God could do and we embraced Him since then. After my secondary education, I couldn’t continue because there was no money to further my education. So, that’s how my hustling started. I did many odd jobs just to make ends meet. I worked at a construction company as laborer and, at some point, I was a bus conductor and bus driver. I sold second hand clothes and later went into motor spare parts business in Kano.
Because of my zeal for learning, I went back to school. I did a diploma at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, between 1994 and 1996 and a degree program from 1996 to 1999 at the same institution. I graduated as the best student in my diploma program and a second class upper in social works and community development. I later got a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) in Entrepreneurship from the Institute for Transformative Thought and Learning at the Doctoral Research Centre of the University of Arizona, Phoenix, United States and also from London School of Economics.
It was within the period of my university education that, in 1994, I started transportation business. I used my savings from spare parts business in Kano, about N260, 000, to buy two buses and that was how I started Peace Mass Transit. I was driving one of the buses myself even as a student and by the time I was leaving school as a graduate, I had 45 buses already. When I realized how lucrative the transport business was, I concentrated fully on it after settling my apprentices with my two shops in Kano. In 2006, I increased the fleet of my vehicles from 500 to 1, 500. This was possible because motor dealers like Inehmic Auto were giving me buses to operate and pay without any interest. I never defaulted, and that was why I never took any loan growing up. From there, we moved on and expanded our branches. Presently, we have about 65 terminals spread across Nigeria with over 3, 000 vehicles.
To the glory of God, we have opened other businesses within and outside Nigeria including China, UK and US. We are into lubricants production, chemicals, banking, pharmaceutical, marine and stock trading. I produce the lubricants that I use for my buses. We also produce the popular Tiger brand of anti-termites. I have a tin manufacturing plant as well as a plastic plant where we produce plastics and tins for our engine oil, lubricants and all the agro chemicals in our line of business. There’s also a vehicle assembling plant which started production in 2016. Since 2016, I have been using my brand, Ugama Hiace, which has helped my transportation business. I am investing in education. We are building a secondary school, Maduka University College, and an entrepreneurial university, the Maduka University, at Ekwegbe – Nsukka in Igbo Etiti Local Government Area of Enugu State. By God’s grace, I am the Chairman of C& I Leasing Plc., and a Director in so many other companies including Globus Bank and May & Baker Plc.
Why did you venture into vehicles assembly?
Because I am most qualified to do so… Before now, when things were a bit okay in the country, I was injecting about 400 to 500 new vehicles into my fleet every year and all I needed to break even was to assemble up to 600 buses in a year. So if I could use that, then what’s the problem? Just for servicing my transport company alone, I’m breaking even. Again, during the period I went into vehicle assembly, we were paying 10 per cent for SKD 2, five per cent for SKD 1, zero per cent for CKD and those importing complete vehicles were paying 35 per cent. So, the margin was enough to keep you afloat. Unfortunately today, that incentive has been taken away by government. The attraction is no longer there. Those who bring SKD to assemble are paying the same 10 per cent as those who bring in already assembled vehicles. There are no more benefits or incentives for those of us assembling vehicles in the country. It’s a disincentive to businesses and it is hurting the economy because it kills investments and jobs.
What brand of vehicle do you assemble?
I assemble Ugama Hiace. Ugama is my family name. My vehicle uses Toyota parts but it has to answer my family name. After all, Kawasaki, Honda and Suzuki are people’s names. Ugama is also someone’s name.
Who do you supply vehicles to?
I sell to anyone or company that wants to buy from me, even some states government buy from me. However, because of the issue of foreign exchange, I hardly produce enough to use and to sell to others.
The major challenge is to access foreign exchange. You make money in naira and change it to dollar to import your spare parts. Your SKD, CKD are all in dollar. And then, suddenly, the naira is depreciated by 20, 30, or 40 per cent and you cannot increase your selling price. Naturally, if you can’t increase your selling price, you can’t also increase your income. This is the situation we found ourselves in, today. So, there are other challenges like insecurity all over the country and erosion of our cherished values. For example, when I started business, people had fear of God in them and nobody was afraid of trusting anybody. Now, people just want to make money, by all means, committing all manner of atrocities in the process. Our moral standard is going down every day and nobody is to be trusted again. It wasn’t like this when I started.
How are you overcoming the challenges?
We are not overcoming it; we are just pretending to be surviving. We buy brand new vehicles, pay customs duties and taxes. Because of this, our cost is high and we can’t pass the increase on to the customers. That’s why I said the business is dying gradually. Road transportation is dying gradually in this country because it’s extremely difficult to run the business anymore. As we speak now, I don’t think I can continue with the assembling of vehicles in Nigeria. I have done it for six years and I’m not sure I can continue because everything is exhausted. If things should continue like this, it will affect transportation business because, very soon, there will be no more new buses on the road. Honestly, those who are running government should look at the economy a second time and see how they can address these challenges.
The only way government can support us is to give us foreign exchange. We are not getting forex to import materials needed in our factories. You go to the bank, put in your Form M, it stays about six months or more and you still can’t get $1 million. To run my plant effectively, I need a minimum of $2 million in a month, just for internal use. This amount will go a long way to aiding me to produce for my company’s use only. But I can’t even get enough to produce the one that I will use not to talk of the one that I will sell to other people. And if I should buy dollar from the black market, the price will be too high. So, this environment is extremely difficult for manufacturing business to survive.
What is keeping you going amidst these challenges?
Experience! I have been in business for over 37 years. My experience over the years is what has been helping me navigate and overcome most of the challenges. Talking about surviving, what we are doing now is using what we saved in the past, when things were going well, to keep our companies running and it is not sustainable. My own company has been making losses year-on-year in the last six years. This is the truth because since the dollar went above N200, we could not pass the increase on to our customers whose purchasing power is also going down every day, due to inflation. You know we are serving the masses, especially, the lower-income segment as mass transit, so it’s not easy to pass the increase to them.
Talking about values, we learnt you returned $7 million wrongly credited to you in 2019. How did it happen?
I wanted to take $3 million but the bank paid me paid $10 million instead. I called and informed my bank that the amount was more than the amount I requested but they said the extra $7 million was my money. I was angry with them. I asked them how come I had this kind of money and I was not aware of it. When I waited for about one month without the bank showing how the money belonged to me, I told the devil that he was a liar because this was happening when I needed money most. I resisted the temptation to keep the money because it did not belong to me. I told myself that life is all about integrity and standing for what is right and upright even when one is alone. So on the 6th of August 2019, I called journalists and bank officials and then returned the $7 million which is over N2.2 billion.
There were insinuations that the money could have been planted to set you up…
No, I don’t think so. I believe it was a software error. They know me well, even if it is true, they know I won’t fall for that. Never! What will I tell Nsukka people? God forbid. There was no trace; that was why they didn’t believe that they paid any extra to me. I am not that rich to forget even 100, 000 dollars.
Considering the successes you have recorded in the land transport industry, are you thinking of going into aviation, like floating an airline?
I wanted to go into aviation but I later gave up my name to Air Peace. I registered Peace Air but when present operators came to me and said they wanted to fly Air Peace but Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC, told them the name had been registered by someone else, I asked them if they were sure of floating the airline and they said yes. When I was convinced that they were serious, I obliged. I told them to go ahead to use the name for free. I wrote to the relevant government agencies to cancel my license and allow the present owners to use the name. I didn’t collect one kobo from them.
Why did you give up the name and interest in aviation? Is it because of lack of finance or what?
Not all! If I didn’t have the financial muscle to go into aviation, I won’t be into maritime today. I told you that I’m the Chairman of C& I Leasing. C& I is a marine logistics company and I can tell you that investing in maritime is more expensive than aviation. So, it had nothing to do with money but the risks involved. The risks of the road plus air are too much but marine has more safety than road and air. So, I didn’t want to go too extreme. I could manage road and marine but not road and air. That was the reason I gave out the name, so that I would not go into aviation in future. If I have enough strength, I will only expand my interest in maritime and not in aviation because maritime is calm, road and air transports are noisy. I already have enough noise around me.
What’s the rationale behind siting your factories and headquarters of your companies in the South-East instead of Lagos, Port Harcourt or Abuja?
South-East is one of the best places to site businesses in Nigeria. Many people will disagree with me because they don’t know what I know. One, South-East is strategically located at the centre of Nigeria and gives good access to all parts of the country. So, it’s easier to move people and goods around to various parts of the country – South-West, South-South, and the North. South-East state like Enugu where I live affords me the opportunity of going to every part of Nigeria by road. For example, I spend about the same amount of time travelling from Enugu to Lagos and from Enugu to Kaduna by road.
As a road transporter, most places I operate do not have airports, so travelling by road becomes the only option and, in this situation, where do I stay to have a handshake with all parts of Nigeria if not somewhere that is central or close to the centre? If I should stay in Lagos for example, to go to Kaduna, I must fly. But I’m a transporter’ going by road affords me the opportunity of monitoring the movement of my vehicles on the highway. So, when I’m travelling, I’m also working. Again, you have an international airport in Enugu. So from here, I can access all parts of the world. We have a cargo airport in Owerri. My goods can come to South-East from any part of the world through the cargo airport. Today, my containers can come up to Onitsha and I can pick them from Onitsha or the new container terminals recently opened here in Enugu.
So the time has gone when they said you must be in Lagos or Port Harcourt before you can be successful in business. Today, you can do business from anywhere in the South-East because it is most favourable. The cost of transport and labour is cheaper when you are producing from here. People might tell you that you are going to make more money elsewhere, yes, you may make more money in other regions but you will also spend more money there. However, what should matter to you as a businessman is net profit and not about where you are. South-East is a great place to make quiet, peaceful profits.
You made mention of investing in the education sector. Why entrepreneurial university?
The truth is, I’m interested in the legacy I’m leaving behind. So when I found out that we need better hospitals in Enugu and that we also have a lot of lands for investment in agriculture, I thought we need a university that can trigger investments in these areas. That is, the university that can run specialised programmes in agricultural investment, health investment, and so on. Yes, we have a lot of good schools in the South-East but I want something Nigerians will say there is truly a good school in Igboland. So, that is the legacy I want to leave for my people so that by the time I’m gone, they will thank God for what He used me to do for them.
Is the school going to be tuition-free?
Is that sustainable? Has anybody done that anywhere in the world? Are you not going to pay the teachers and other workers in the school? The only thing I can tell you is that it is going to be top quality but an affordable institution. I want to build an internationally recognized university that is affordable. It is not going to be free but a non-profit, social investment university. It will be self-sustaining and, hopefully, the school will commence academic programmes next year.
How do you give back to society?
I give back to society through Corporate Social Responsibility, CSR, of my company and my foundation, the Samuel Maduka Onyishi African Entrepreneurship Foundation, SAMOAEF. As part of my commitment to the development of my community, I have sponsored the construction of a 1.6 km road in Amaukwa, Nsukka, and another 1.2 km road at Emene, Enugu. I have also built a hospital for Umunkaka community, to mark my 50th birthday. Through SAMOAEF, I give scholarships annually to more than 130 students from different institutions in Nigeria and abroad. Two of the people that benefited from my international scholarship introduced the Chinese language studies in University of Nigeria and Afe Babalola University. And I’m not relenting in my efforts to positively touch more lives because I believe God raised me to be a blessing to my people, to support the development and growth of my community.
You seem to love your people so much. Are you considering going into politics to do more for them?
Joining politics was a mistake I almost made but God saved me from it. I’m grateful to God for keeping me away from politics. Do you think if I was a senator, a member of the House of Representatives or a former governor, and I’m building a university today, will you believe that I’m doing it from my sweat? You will not, right? So what am I going there to do? I have no business with politics. I believe that whatever I can do for my people through politics, I’m already doing it for them. So if God has given us the opportunity as businessmen, we should be happy with it and use it to serve our people. All of us must not be politicians. So let politicians do their own and let the business people do theirs.