August 22, 2021

Alaafin isn’t the king you lobby for title — Williams, Are Onikoyi of Yorubaland

Alaafin isn’t the king you lobby for title —  Williams, Are Onikoyi of Yorubaland

•Speaks on how to address housing deficit

Otunba Tomori Williams is the CEO of Williams Construction Nigeria and the Managing Director of Olaleye Property and Investment Limited.

In this interview, Williams, who is the Are Onikoyi of Yoruba land, a title conferred on him by the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, stressed that to address housing deficit in the country, government needs to intervene on the astronomical increase in the cost of building materials in Nigeria. Excerpts:

Tell us about your humble beginning, life, education and your family…

I attended Livingston Academy Primary School in Ebute Meta which was one of the frontline missionary schools in those days. I left Livingstone Academy and proceeded to Ilegbo High School, also in Ebute Meta. I finished in 1986 and attended Yaba College of Technology briefly, before gaining admission to Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife to study fine and applied art.

I got admitted in 1989 and finished in 1993. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth as some would think. I come from a very humble background, but my dad was educated and he did his best as a good father. But my mum wasn’t educated. Meanwhile she took it upon herself to see that I got the best. She once told me that though she didn’t go to school, the best form of education, she would try to give it to her child. That she did, she took me through elementary school.

What inspired your being in business?

I became interested in business having learnt from my late mum who, during her lifetime, was the major player in the yam flour business. She would bring in dry yam flour from Kwara and other parts of the North down to Lagos to sell. Not only that, the yam flour seller (elelubo), as she was fondly called, also traded in Hausa foods, especially the vegetable called Loro, that is, grain dried and turned into valuable substances.

So, I got that sense of running business from my late mum. And as I was growing up, I started looking for how best I could stabilize economically. I once traded in yam which I was buying from Benue. In those days I would travel with one of my secondary school friends, Alhaji Isaika Idowu, to bring in yam from Benue to Mile 12, Lagos to sell and the business grew until I decided to completely face my studies at the Obafemi Awolowo University.

Even while studying fine and creative art in the university, I still went on to market fine art products. I remember that in those days I would collect water and oil paintings from friends and take them to Lagos to sell. I also took pottery and ceramics to sell in Lagos. So, by and large, business has always been something I quite cherish and also I’m not the kind of person that wants to be idle. I love to think ahead and plan on the next move and how to become somebody in life. I’ve always wanted to be self independent and the idea of working under anybody has not always been part of me. I’m somebody that loves to explore new areas, new possibilities and always wants to be identified as someone that is making new routes into new ideas and different opportunities.

As a businessman and an investor, what can government do to improve the life of entrepreneurs and business owners in Nigeria?

I believe government needs to put in place a conducive and business-friendly initiatives to encourage up and coming business entrepreneurs. Government should put in place programmes that would encourage those that are already established and those that are coming up. We’ve lost a lot of big firms due to the policies of government that hampered the growth of these companies. Gone are the days that you have multinationals like Dunlop and Cadbury in Nigeria.

Nigeria needs serious and selfless leaders to take up the challenge because businesses are being run over and run down and I pray the Lord Almighty would assist us with leaders that would be selfless, dedicated and committed to saving the country from the brink.

Regarding the real estate sector, what can government do to reduce the deficit of housing in Nigeria?

The cardinal principle of government is to provide housing for its people. But is that what we are experiencing? The answer is no. I praise individual businessmen that are floating real estate and property development outfits here and there. It is about the in-thing in the Nigerian economy, people coming up to provide low income and medium housing for Nigerians and also providing mortgage to reduce the deficit in this financial crumbling and economic downturn that we have in the country.

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The real estate sector is growing very fast and the best that government can do is to assist us, look at the price of cement, and look at the price of iron metals. The price of a bag of cement in one week has moved from N4, 000 to N4,100 and now N4, 390; it wasn’t like that before. It was barely N2, 800, N2, 900 before the price increased. It’s scandalous and these are some of the areas that you expect government to sit down and urgently address.

These are issues that if not properly handled might kill this industry. I know of a particular firm that’s going through law suit as a result of the unstable nature of the prices of building materials in the country because they started with a benchmark that is not investable at times but could just keep you afloat. So, by the time you bring in new materials to site and there is spike in prices, instead of your price dropping, it is increasing. At the end of the day, the cost effect on end users is not funny, it is not acceptable, but you are there and there is nothing you can do. You need to complete the construction work. After completing it, you now go back to the off takers to come.

What do you think government can do as a regulator?

The first aspect of it – check what we have with our foreign exchange and bring down the price of cement. At all levels, prices have skyrocketed by well over 100 per cent. It’s a rare occasion to have some of us that still want to maintain that calling. That’s why some real estate players want to change the goal post or, at best, give a price that is futuristic. What do I mean? Maybe a two-bedroom unit that would cost plus or minus 5 million, some would look at it: let me benchmark it for 20million because of unforeseen issues/circumstances. But, by and large, government still has a major role to play. They can also look at interest rates.

The interest rates as of today are negatively affecting entrepreneurs. Once the interest rate is high, it affects everything. There’s a need to look at the overall economic indices, because, besides the issue of government encouraging fertilizer, distribution and the rest, it doesn’t stop there. People are also affected in every area of production and the economy. It’s a system that government would need to sit down and check most of these issues to better the lives of Nigerians.

What’s your opinion on the Green & Smart Homes being promoted by the United Nations?

We have to do it with caution because electricity here is not stable. Outside that, people are bringing in every form of development obtainable outside of the country. And this is being done in such a way that it can assist in reducing the cost of production. We should buy into it if it would be cost effective and guarantee quality. But it’s a known fact that the United Nations is promoting Smart and Green Homes because there is a lot of pressure on the surface of the earth. But we would not be left behind. Some of the things you see in civilized countries, you want them in Nigeria. But we need to juxtapose a lot of factors before you start bringing in some of these things. We need to lead by example. Most of the construction works ongoing in the Federal Government housing projects, how many have you seen that are embracing the Green & Smart initiatives? And even if they start, can they finish? I hope the initiative will not turn into abandoned project.

It’s no more news that by 2025, the industry will be worth over 4 billion US dollars. Are you looking beyond Nigeria and Africa?

People appreciate what is going on in this sector. You see people wanting to subscribe, wanting to put in money. Honestly, the real estate sector in Nigeria is just the beginning and, with new players coming in virtually every day, I believe between now and that year being projected, the sector would be a force to reckon with in this country.

Recently the Alafin of Oyo conferred on you the title of Are Onikoyi of Yoruba land. How did it come about?

Iku Baba Yeye, His Royal Majesty is not a man you lobby. With the little interaction I had with him before, during and after my installation, at least I can tell you, he’s a man that is highly principled, a dogged fighter. He doesn’t get carried away by emotions or people’s feelings. And he is a man that actually loves the Yoruba nation. The aspect of lobbying will not even come up because I’m too busy, and also I am not title crazy; I’m not an attention seeker. I am not a social person. It is the title that is even exposing me to many things.

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