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Leo Stan Ekeh: Why I Chose not to Celebrate my 60th Birthday

Leo Stan Ekeh is innovative, adventurous, daring, and determined. Despite the gloomy future the Information Communication Technology, ICT, sector presented back then, he still took the bold step to explore and invest in the emerging sector. Today, Nigeria and indeed Africa have not stopped reaping fortunes from his step. A man of many first; he has always been at the hub of new discoveries and development. He pioneered desktop publishing and computer graphics in Nigeria. He also computerised 95 per cent of the print media, publishing houses and advertising agencies in in the country.

He also pioneered IT distribution in West Africa through his Technology Distributions Limited, TD, which has emerged the number one ICT distribution company inthe region. Popularly called Africa’s Bill Gates, Ekeh, the Executive Chairman of Zinox Group, is also a force to reckon with when talking of digital electoral process in the country. But then, if anybody had told him that he would become an information technology guru when he was still very much younger, he probably might have sneered in return because left to him, the only option was to pull resources together to own the biggest transport company in Nigeria. As destiny would have it, things took a positive turn to favour him and today, he is an emperor in Africa’s ICT arena.

Come Monday 22nd of February, Ekeh will clock 60 even though he still feels very much like a 30 year-old. Surprisingly, he has chosen to go low key on his diamond anniversary. And after months of unsuccessful attempts, he was finally pinned down at the departure lounge of Nnamdi Azikwe Airport in Abuja for this interview as he waited for a flight to Lagos. Ekeh shares with Omolabake Fasogbon his sudden venture into the ICT world, heartwarming and disappointing experiences, the secret of his youthful looks, love and family and why he will not celebrate his 60th birthday

You will be 60 years very soon. Would you describe yourself as a fulfilled man?
Yes. I will be 60 on the 22nd of this month. That is Monday to be precise. I can say I am reasonably fulfilled but the dynamics of life continue to change the goal post. I am indeed a testimony of God’s love.

At 60, you still look radiant and energetic; what has been the secret?
I was principled and disciplined from age one. I cannot remember tasting alcohol or smoking cigarette till date and with a mother who was a British-trained dietician, I always eat quality food and worked out at the gym when I have time.

What were those goals you set to achieve either before or at age  60 that have come to manifestation and those that are yet to be achieved?
I wanted a digitally-sensitive wife and kids and I got them. I also focused on building the largest 360 degrees ICT Group in Africa and I am 94.5 per cent there. I worked to live real and by God’s grace, I am. I prayed to be a testimony of God’s handwork on earth, I think He has done well with me. I am now living by His grace.

Have you any project that attends to the less privileged in the society?
I have always had one from school days like all my kids but we don’t make a noise about it. Only those who benefited and are still benefiting from it can tell the story. I also have the Leo Stan Foundation and shall continue till I leave this world but it is not a political foundation but one that serves God and humanity in the true sense of the word.

How do you intend to celebrate your 60th birthday?
There will be no parties. I have warned my friends and colleagues against public congratulatory adverts. All I need is silent prayer to thank God for His favours. I shall wake up on the 22nd and give thanks to God for his love. I never knew I could live till 60 because in the last 25 years of my life, I have worked for between 16 -20 hours every day against medical advice yet I have never faced any critical health challenge and can run even faster than a 30-year-old. This is enough testimony that you can challenge God positively if you believe.

What do you look forward to achieving in the coming years?
On what I want to achieve in the coming years, frankly I cannot say because my God drives me. I know I recently invested to launch possibly the biggest entertainment company in Africa and ready to stretch it as the largest in the world with our local challenges permitting. Sixty per cent of our concerts shall be rock gospel concerts. We have just done a ‘Praise and Receive’ concert in Abuja on Valentine’s Day featuring Sinach live with Buchi, Chioma Jesus and 12 other artistes with over 18,000 people in attendance. Actually better than any concert I have attended including the one at Wembley in London.

So far, what lessons have you learnt in life?
You are at peace if you are hardworking, humble and trustworthy.

Who is the most impactful person in your life?
On earth now, it’s undoubtedly my wife.

You studied Economics but today you are an IT guru. What happened along the line?
The story is almost the same for digital entrepreneurs globally. In my own case, I spent four months at post-graduate level studying Computer Science at Cork City University, Ireland, before I was counseled to change course as they innocently did not see a future for this in Africa in the short term based on my insistence to return to Africa after my studies. After my post-graduate in Risk Management in Nottingham University in the United Kingdom, I continued with a Master degree in Business Law and two months before completion, I came back to Nigeria and pioneered Desktop Publishing and Computer Graphics with instant success and huge support from Nigerians and corporate bodies. I did not return to sit for the final exams because I had to use my school fees to power my first company, Task Systems Ltd. That was also how I brought Apple computers to Nigeria and my return to the Information Technology sector.

Are you among those that believe that one does not necessarily have to practise what one studied in school?

What inspired your interest in ICT business?
I think God drew the roadmap for me and I also wanted to be different from many other people. Besides, I wanted to do a business that does not lie. It is either you are right or wrong.

Tell us some of your bitter experiences as you struggled to climb the ladder of success.
On your way up you must experience betrayal and painful disappointments but you also learn from them. All those who disappointed or betrayed me paid or are still paying huge prices for it though I have forgiven them.

Have you ever worked under anybody? What was your initial capital and how did you raise it?
Yes I worked briefly on my way out of the country to further my studies. When I graduated and returned, I launched my first company. My initial capital was my last school fees for my Master degree in Business Law.

You had wanted to own the biggest transport company in the country. What happened to the dream?
Business, like any other thing, is dynamic and being a situational strategist, I focused on lifestyle and knowledge-driven business. I still see huge opportunities in that sector. It is like modern e-commerce retail business; you have to add science to it.

They say behind a successful man, there is always a woman. Does this popular saying convince you in any way? How has your wife contributed to your success story in life and how has she helped to sustain the status quo?
After God is my wife and I have always seen her as my next big thing; plus she is 21st century compliant. I married a digital partner who has science as part of her DNA. She is the only person who can tolerate me being somewhat a workaholic as I am. She is my boss and God prepared her for me to reach that destination. She is my chief strategist and immediately I drop the idea, she puts it together, does an integrity test and ready to go live. She runs the biggest company in the Group.

At age 60, somehow, you must be winding down on business gradually. Is there any succession plan on ground?
The challenge I have is that, at 60 I feel like a 30-year-old inside and the reason is simple. I am innovating products for young people and future generations and I must have a mindset that is futuristic too. Else, I may be developing ideas for dead or analogue people. Having said this, I am hoping to slow down but not exit completely until in a few years’ time after the present global economic challenge is over. We have instituted a well thought-out and detailed succession plan.

How do you intend to retire?
Entrepreneurs do not retire else they die. Instead they slow down. I have a lot to do including spending quality time with my grand-children since I didn’t spend much time with my five kids.

Looking at the glitches created by the card reader in the 2015 general elections, would you say Nigeria is not totally ripe for a technology-powered electoral system?
The card reader is an anti-electoral fraud solution product but was killed at birth by politicians. We developed it and were awarded the first contract to deliver 17,700 pieces. I hate to remember the frustration that went into it. The truth is that technology does not lie and politicians know this and did everything to sabotage it. We are totally ripe for quality elections powered by certified technology products and this certainly will reduce litigation.

Do you see Nigeria achieving 30 per cent broadband penetration in 2018 as targeted in the National Broadband Plan?
If we have the will backed up with appropriate cash to deploy human capital and technology, we shall achieve over 50 per cent.

If you were asked to set agenda for the present administration in the area of ICT, what would it be?
ICT is the greatest platform for job and wealth creation in the short, medium and long term. There is no rocket science about it. The foundation has been created with the emergence of the telecommunications companies, with a greater percentage of Nigerians born in the digital age and ready to activate wealth. I want the government to tell or convince me of any other sector that provides lifestyle platforms that the youths can embrace to create huge wealth in a short period. Nigeria’s wealth miracle shall emerge from this sector. We are delaying it but it must happen, and we shall all be witnesses in this country when the son of the poorest man from Nigeria shall emerge as the richest man on earth. In a nutshell, I have released a tech agenda already in this regard. We are waiting for government. As individuals and corporate bodies, we have done our bit.

In the face of dwindling oil prices, how do you think ICT can save the economy?
ICT is the only option that can save Nigeria. It is a futuristic and knowledge-driven business with mega wealth opportunities which does not require a godfather for you to make it. I don’t want to waste your time looking at the different platforms but it is one sector you cannot avoid including even in your toilets. What I see here is that our government is comfortable employing unemployed youths from other countries while ours are suffering. It is a shame.

Can you rate ICT sector in Nigeria and give reasons for your ratings?
When you define ICT, it really goes beyond the common definition of Information and Communication Technology. Our existence is really driven by this sector so to this extent, I will give Nigeria 7.5 per cent.

What is your stake in Yudala?
Nothing more than my son being the founder and I encourage him because he is a good boy and he is using it as a platform to connect with the future.

What is the fate of e-commerce in Nigeria especially as it is constrained by lack of consumers’ trust to trade online?
It is the next big thing and consumers may not have much choice. Don’t judge the future of a country with the present percentage of analogue citizens. You have to trust an e-commerce outfit like Yudala. I can vouch for Yudala because they have no reason whatsoever to defraud you. They have a big face and a huge reputation.

What have been your greatest accomplishments in life?
My family and my business and also the fact that I can be trusted by anyone that has come my way.

What’s the toughest decision you have made in life?
The day I sacked a staff who defrauded my company. This was about 26 years ago. I had to pray in the gents for God to give me the courage to sack him in order to strengthen the governance structure of the company. This is one of the reasons my company survived.

You hold sway in the nation and indeed Africa’s ICT sector, no doubt. What is your staying power?
God, hard work and some of my committed colleagues.

What have been your biggest challenges in business?
If you are doing business in the Third World, you have to prepare for challenges upfront. I have been handling them with my colleagues one after the other just like the one we are facing with forex right now and unfortunately, you cannot blame the present administration.

Do you belong to any social club?
Yes. A few but I have not attended any for a long time.

Is any of your children taking after you career-wise?
Somehow they are into related businesses. My first girl heads the largest distributor of mobile phones in Sub-Saharan Africa and following her is the founder of Yudala and the next child, a girl is a digital marketer. Others are too young to join but it is their choice to make.

You seem not to be interested in politics. Why?
You cannot do everything. One thing after the other.

What innovations should Africans expect from you this year?
Let’s wait and see but no member of the family supports me in new projects.

How do you rest?
This is the biggest problem I have but I am working on it.

Tell us how you go about your normal day?
You will read about this in my book to be published next year
Leo Stan Ekeh: Why I Chose not to Celebrate my 60th Birthday Leo Stan Ekeh: Why I Chose not to Celebrate my 60th Birthday Reviewed by Emeka Oparah on Saturday, February 20, 2016 Rating: 5

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