Interview

May 18, 2024

Dr. Maduka Onyishi: True story of grass to grace

Dr. Maduka Onyishi: True story of grass to grace

Once a bus conductor, commercial bus driver, carpenter, painter, now a billionaire into transportation education, banking, insurance, auto assembling etc

By Theodore Opara & Anayo Okoli

The story of Dr. Maduka Onyishi will easily be a Best Seller if compiled in a book.


Here’s a man with such a humble beginning that he ventured into many menial jobs to survive, just to put food on the table. He sold second-hand clothes, he did carpentry jobs and was also a painter. It did not end there. Maduka was a bus conductor and later a commercial bus driver. He was once auto spare parts seller. What did he not do? Today, he is a billionaire and into transportation business, insurance, banking, education etc. At a time, Peace Mass Transit had up to 4,000 buses in Nigeria.


“My plan was for Peace Mass Transit to be in all Local Governments of Nigeria. We were almost achieving that but were slowed down by Covid-19,” Dr. Maduka told us in his Maduka University, near Nsukka, where we had gone to present to him a letter of his nomination as an award winner in the Vanguard Personality of the Year Awards billed for May 24 at the Eko Hotel And Suites in Lagos. Owning a university makes him so proud. It is his most celebrated achievement. He only vowed to pursue education after he was humiliated and described as an illiterate in a village meeting. Today, he has not only excelled in business but also in education after he was taunted for being illiterate. Maduka’s story is a Best Seller. He told part of it to us including how he grew his conglomerate with a mere N1,200 from the 1980.


It is an interesting account of grass to grace. He lost his father early in life and propelled by his mother, he embraced hard work very early and also became spiritual. In this interview, the Nsukka born business mogul and investor narrates his life journey so far.

My early life


“My father had about seven children and I was about 13 years when he died. I was in secondary school when he died and I couldn’t continue my education, so I engaged in all manner of petty jobs. There is nothing I have not done, that is why I can do any job. I worked in a construction company and had a lot of experience. I am a painter, carpenter, and surveyor, just anything.


“Between 1981, when I left secondary school, I learned trading in electronic at Yawunde electronic, and in 1982, I was a bus conductor. Around 1984 I moved to Ikara in Kaduna State and became a labourer in a construction company, United Construction Company, UCC. When the University of Nigeria paid money to our community as its host, my family got N1, 200 as part of our share. My mother, trusting me so well, gave me all the money. I used it to start selling second hand clothes. I started the business based on the advice of a carpenter I used to help to sandpaper his furniture works.


“So, I went to Aba market and Onitsha to pick second hand clothes, entered night bus back to Kaduna. That was between 1985 and 1987, and I made some money and started selling new clothes, shoes and saved N12, 000 which I used to move to Kano town. So, it helped to humble me. Apart from the message from my mother, I see myself as a messenger and fulfillment of the prayer of someone else. If I tell you my story in full, it is a miracle. The story of my life is a miracle.

My higher education journey…


“I was provoked to pursue university degree by one of my kinsmen, an engineer, who rubbished my opinion in our community meetings. He said illiterates should not speak in such gatherings. Angered by this public humiliation, I decided that I must obtain a university degree. So, in 1994, I left my business in Kano to the care of my apprentices, moved down to Nsukka to pursue university education. Rather than sit for JAMB examination, I opted to start at the diploma level. I vowed that I must be a university graduate. People advised me to write JAMB to enroll in a degree programme but I said no, because it was 13 years after my school certificate. I decided to start with a diploma programme; after two years diploma I did my degree programme and was the best students at both levels”.


With a degree in my kitty, I decided to return to business. This time, I returned to Nsukka and ventured into motor transportation business and started with two buses I purchased with N36, 000. I was driving one of the buses. When I was leaving Kano my friends tried to discourage me but because God had plans for me they couldn’t change my mind. I started making money from the buses and was saving N20, 000 every month. I was buying more buses. By 1998 I already had 15 buses and my people (family) stopped me from driving. Honestly, when I look back, I begin to ask God how did I do this, is this still me? What happened? I left UNN and became owner of 45 buses; a young graduate for that matter. I found out that what I had in Nsukka was far bigger than what I had in Kano. I went back to Kano and used what I had to settle my boys and I came back to Nsukka to continue my transport business. During my prime in transport business, I had over 4,000 buses, because I had planned to be in every community in Nigeria”.

As an adventurous man


“As I was growing, I was an adventurous person; I always looked for a new thing to do. I made many friends. If you want to know about any anybody go and ask his bankers. Banks know every person’s character because man’s character is determined from how he manages money, based on how such a person gets and services his loans. So, as I was growing in business, I had dealings with banks and they knew I was sincere about money issues. When former directors of Zenith Bank and Access bank wanted to open the banks and they were searching for a business man from the South East they would trust to be a member of the board, my name was number one on the list; they invited me and I went”.



Why pay less attention to the transport business and focusing more on the education sector now?
“In transport business, when you carry people from Nsukka, Enugu, and Lagos to Abuja, Port Harcourt or wherever, once they get to their destination, you will hear them telling the driver that he is a mad man, you want to kill your people, not me. Some would call me and say your driver, if you don’t sack him, I would not enter your motor again. 98% will call you to tell you bad news of what the driver did and only 2% will tell you good news about the driver or the business. But here in the university, 99% would call you to thank you for your service. There is no relationship between the transport business and Education business.


In transport business, it has been bad news for 42 years, now that I am heading for my retirement; it is time for good news. So, for me it is celebration because of where I am coming from. Drivers hit police, driver kill people, VIO holds vehicles, commissioner is calling you; Personal Assistant to commissioner for transport will call you and ask you to bring particulars of your vehicles. But in this education venture, the story is different, what you get is gratitude, thanks.

The problem in our education system is poor standards and quality of teachers. What are you doing to make sure that Maduka University changes this narrative?


Who said that we don’t have quality teachers? It is not part of our problem. If anybody tells you we have problem of teachers, tell the person it is not true. Nigeria has the best teachers in the whole world. The problem of Nigeria is corruption. People will compromise and get high scores from JAMB, higher grades would be awarded to people who don’t merit them, and they will be admitted to read medicine, law, engineering, pharmacy because they scored unmerited 380 whereas they are not the best. After JAMB, you come to the Universities where some lecturers will collect money and give students best grades.

Because merit is not considered people get certain jobs because they have deep pockets, not that they merit such. So, it is corruption from the beginning to the end, even up to National Youth Service. Even the teachers who know their work would not bring out the best because they are already compromised. You don’t make A1 because you are intelligent but because you have money to sort out things. So the current situation in Nigeria favours private university for those who come for real service not those who come for money.


The simple thing is don’t sell handout and how do you do it, my CBT is the largest in Africa, 5 centers in one building and while writing examination, a law student would sit close to a medical student, etc; no student from the same department would sit close to each other.
Also, here we assess students differently. Like we have year one now, if you are studying pharmacy, law or other courses, at the end of the first year we assess them to know where and which course he/she is really capable of studying and place them there.
We do this because some candidates would score 200 marks in JAMB because they got external help; some scored 160 marks without external help, so with this internal mechanism we get the best of them.
“Like I told you, it’s not about having good teachers but about lack of motivation caused by corruption. We have good teachers here in Nigeria; is it not our people that go to London, America and other countries to teach. Our problem is environmental factor which the private Universities have the opportunity to tackle if they want. The problem is that in many public schools, you have so much external pressure in the admission process; they would tell you that the governor has his list, senators, vice chancellor and other high class politicians would bring their lists and even demand that such candidates be given particular courses. But in private Universities, all those things don’t exist, they know their boundary.
 Since I came into this education sector it has been too clear that it is the place God prepared for me to be. God prepared me for this and that is the only reason you can see that we are not just building houses but a community. What you’re seeing is half of the property, behind the fence is also our property.


“Buildings are spread because we are working according to the master plan of the institution. We lived in China for years and I have seen schools there, so our school is modeled after schools in China.


The Maduka foundation is the owner of the school. A non-profit foundation and anything we generate here goes back to the foundation. I think, I have done much to my children and can afford to play with whatever God gives me because I have to look at the corner and see that God is faithful.

You ventured into politics, what happened?


God never wanted me there even when I told him that I wanted to use the money to serve him, he made them to do what they did, then and later I found out that he never wanted me there because He has a better place for me. This place is a better place without comparison. He told me that education sector is a better place, that my name will never be forgotten even when I am no more and that was the voice I have obeyed. In eight years, how many lives will a governor affect? But here even, 100 years or more here will still functioning and affecting lives”.