Doing Business In North-Central Nigeria: Interview With Mr Audu Blackgold Sani, Lafia-Based Entrepreneur

Nasarawa, a state in North-Central Nigeria, is often ignored when chronicling successful states to do business in Nigeria. But in 2010, World Bank ranked it as the 12th easiest place to start business in the country. In this interview series with entrepreneurs making waves at the grassroots, Mr Audu Blackgold Sani, an entrepreneur based in Lafia, draws from his experience to shed light on what makes business tick in Nasarawa.

Sani says there is more to the state than meets the eye.

 

The Entrepreneur

Audu Blackgold Sani is the Executive Director of Center for Peace and Rural Development, an NGO; and also the Executive Director of Ember Promotions Nigeria, a social marketing organization based in Lafia, Nasarawa Nigeria.

 

“We are into hospitality business- Ember Royal Suite, Ember Royal Estate program and also into printing—designing and production of local drama, advert, billboard,” said Mr Sani, during an interview in his office.

 

Combining for-profit business and not-for-profit Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)

Sani: What I do in the profit-making organization is to see how we can generate fund and sustain the NGO. As an NGO, in as much as we try to access fund to run our projects, there are some activities you want to carry out and donor funding is not in line with what you do. You have to seek means to generate funds on your own. I have the office close to each other.

 

Business environ in Nasarawa—what makes it tick?

Sani: The environment is conducive enough for business. It depends on the kind of business you are talking about. You have to get the people involved and carry people along. When we did our survey, entertainment industry was lacking, Non-governmental organizations were few—I discovered that most people in this part of the country were going out- traveling to Abuja and Makurdi to design their posters, handbills, T-shirts, all IEC materials that had to do with information, education and communication. These are things I know we can do here in Nasarawa State. I felt with the little skills I had from Minaj Television in Anambra state, I could bring that in. So when I came to Nasarawa Broadcasting Station (NBS) as an independent producer here in Lafia, I brought what I learnt at Minaj.

I also looked at what people wanted. I partnered with organizations in Onitsha, Asaba, Lagos and Abuja. We play the role of middleman. We liaise with businesses outside and bring them here to sell. You can’t just go into business because people are into it. You have to do your business survey to understand the market you want to go into. Our NGO started in 2000. We ventured into Hotel business in 2007.

 

Audu

Source of start up capital

Sani:I did not get a loan; I did not get a start up capital from anywhere. We were working with hotels based on commission. We liaised with them and got percentage for clients we referred. So we were able to gather some of these funds to launch our own hospitality business. We also toured states, printing IEC materials with the defunct NITEL. Instead of keeping the money at the bank, we invested. Then we started with building the pool, the bar and the hall. With the little revenues we got from those, we were able to build the rooms—about 50 rooms.

 

2010 World Bank ranked Nasarawa as 12th easiest state to start business…

Sani: I will agree with them. There are lots of natural resources to be tapped. We have land; we have building materials. If you go to other states, the cost of sand alone is about N30,000 for the 10-tyre trailer. But here it is about N15,000. It is very cheap. Looking at the resources like stones and other solid minerals on ground here- granite, it depends on where you want to focus on. Nasarawa State is the place, if properly researched, to start a business. We have people come around once in a while for mentoring because they want to start business. There is something people don’t know—you can start a soft-loan business. You can generate profit and employ staff and have their salary paid every month. From there, the profit you make can sustain the business.

The challenge is that people (who want to start business) don’t go out. When they write proposal and get discouraged, they stop trying. I am one. I can tell you how I got discouraged by a lot of people. The more I kept getting negative responses, the more I wanted to try. I met a lot of people when I started and shared my idea—like 13 years ago—they shut down the idea. I came up with another one and they shut it down. But I saw the potential. And gradually we started. Nasarawa is a place to start business.

 

Tell us some of the challenges you faced starting out

Sani: Getting a place to start. If you want to start a business, you need a place to start. When I started Ember, I personally begged the then Territorial manager of NITEL. He was looking for a security guard that will occupy the boys-quarter (at his house). I told him, ‘sir, I will be your security guard. Allow me to use the boys-quarter as my office. Don’t pay me’. He gave me the place. All he wanted was someone who will watch over his flat and the BQ was there. I volunteered myself. All I needed was to put my signboard outside while I watched over his place. And he gave it to me, for free. From there, we moved on. In 2003, we were able to pay for our first office-space. How many people would want to do that? An average man will say, ‘for me to go and be a security?’ My own focus was to get my business out—it takes a lot of sacrifice for you to get there.

 

Another challenge was transport. There are some businesses where you have to move around. Transport was a kind of challenge then. Although Okada was just going for around N10, there were times we could not move around due to lack of funds. I had to sell rice—a module of foreign rice I had in my house then that cost N100 for N50 to a neighbor in order to get a bike of N10 to NBS. To get a tape to record my shows, I had to sell my shoes and trousers so I can raise funds for us to start. We needed money to buy materials and nobody was ready to give us money so I had to sell what I had to get the money to start. People like Babajide George, Mr Magic of NBS, was a witness to this, it was not like I did it alone.

 

In 2000 when I started, getting government involved was a bit tight. But what they wanted to see is someone who will get things done. During the youth festival, we’ll work up to the hall and start entertaining. They said, so we have comedian in the state that can make us laugh. After the first day, I was paid N5,000. The festival was like 7 nights. We were paid N35,000 for seven nights and it was huge at that time. From there we started Ember youth club. The thing was to get people to hear about Ember. When people hear about you, it is an assurance.

 

Spending power in Nasarawa vs business opportunity

Sani: I believe my people have the resources. What they don’t have is the orientation. I believe with time we’ll get there.

 

The forces against doing business in Nasarawa

Sani: Security. I am not saying security has lapses. We are not working towards prevention. We believe Nasarawa is home for all- Yoruba, Igbo, Calabar, Hausa. But one thing we have never taken for granted is security. I want to encourage the government to do more and beef up the security. This will encourage a lot of people to come in.

 

In addition, we also need to create more awareness about business opportunities on regular basis. We don’t have that kind of information. People have money in this state to start something but they don’t know where to invest.

 

Advice to potential investors or entrepreneurs

Sani: People invest in businesses and after a few years pack up. You don’t just venture into business and expect to start making money. In this town, I have seen a lot of businesses come up and fold up- I have seen people open shop and close up. When we go into business, we should not expect to see profit immediately. That is where our people loose focus. When you start up a business, you should have a plan B. Plan B is where you can now be getting funds to feed yourself and family. Whatever business you start, it needs to be nurtured. It is like the Apple. You know when you want to enjoy your apple, you don’t just buy your apple and start eating it. You will not enjoy it. When you buy the apple, you wash it. If possible, if you are not allergic to cold, you will freeze it. Then, you wait. When it is chilled, you bring it out. Then you place it on a saucer, pick a knife and gradually cut and enjoy it. You don’t just buy the apple and bite it. How do you chew it? It becomes a problem. What I advice is when we invest into a business, take enough time to nurture that business, watch it carefully. Look at the result. Listen to the feedback, whether it is positive or negative. Most people don’t even watch business programmes on TV, they find it boring, they prefer movies. There is nothing wrong with it. But these are things that can help out. So that when the business has any challenge you’ll have the patience to tackle it.

 

Attractive sectors to do business in Nasarawa

Sani: The hotel and tourism sector in Nasarawa state is a place to invest. Hotel business is not just about people coming to sleep. It is not just about people coming to use the hall. It is about relationship. How many times have we tried to ensure people come and visit? We have not been able to identify most of our tourism sites. You can tell me, ‘go and see Keanna’s salt site’, Where is it? You have to make it worthwhile. Generally, what I will like to encourage people to do is come to Nasarawa, it is a place to invest. We have a lot of resources on ground. Nasarawa State is a place you want to invest—I am encouraging people to come over, build amusement park, build modern parks, build shopping complex.

 

 

Jennifer Ehidiamen is a tech-savvy journalist based in Lagos. She reports on global health and development issues in Africa for Voice of America (VOA News). Jennifer also serves as a photojournalist and communications consultant. A 2013 Innovative Young Journalist Award recipient, 2013 New Media fellow for International Reporting Project, 2010 LEAP Africa award recipient and a 2009 Atlas Service Corps Fellow, Jennifer recently founded the Rural Reports project [http://www.ruralreporters.com], a news portal dedicated to grassroots citizen-reporting. She serves as an Advisory Council member for Washington DC-based One World Youth Project (OWYP). She has published three books: "In Days to Come" (2004), "Preserve my Saltiness" (2011) and "Half A Loaf And A Bakery" (2013). Jennifer graduated from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism with a degree in Mass Communication. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @Disgeneration