Elder Johnson Akinniyi is an investment giant with bias for hospitality business, oil and gas and cash crop exportation. In this interview with TUNDE BUSARI, he laments the pains which effects of COVID-19 pandemic inflicted on investors. Excerpts:
AN experienced business man must have projection into the future of his business. Did you see the outbreak of COVID-19?
The best way to answer this question is to be honest so that one is not caught in a tight corner. Based on my experience, there is limit to what one can project in an economy as that of Nigeria. It is needless to tell you that what works perfectly in advanced countries of the world will be messed up here because of reasons which you, as a journalist who should know better, understand. Ours is a peculiar country with her peculiar problems. Even foreigners, who come to do business here, now understand us better. In fact, no one can come forward and say he saw coronavirus coming. If people like Pastor Adeboye, Pastor Kumuyi and others, whom we believe are closer to God, could not claim to have seen it coming, then you can see what I mean by saying that the pandemic sneaked in like a thief in the night and disrupted everything. And when I say everything, I am sure you know what I mean because everything was grounded into a standstill by the lockdown imposed by the government. One can say the lockdown was not nationwide but we all saw how the country was between March and June. For instance, if anything happens to Lagos, a state which is regarded world over as the economic heartbeat of Nigeria, that thing will affect everywhere, including the West African sub-region. The lockdown was imposed on Lagos, Ogun and Abuja, the seat of power, then everything was on standstill.
In Osun State where you have some of your investments, especially your hotel and gas station, how did you cope with the lockdown also imposed by the state government?
That experience should better be forgotten. As an investor, I never had such an experience which put me under pressure. I mean pressure of meeting my obligation to customers and staff. Let me even say I battled with pressure of meeting obligation of my workforce. You know we have a fairly large workforce here as a standard rule to provide right service to our customers on 24 hours basis. When the lockdown was imposed, there was no movement again, and hotels were badly hit. Initially, I was thinking it would not last more than two weeks. But when it became elastic, I knew there was fire on the mountain because I could not receive alerts again.When, in the month of March power supply consumed N800,000, I knew worst days lay ahead. I did not have a choice than to also down size, though I was reluctant to arrive at that decision because I do business with human feelings. I know the effect of unemployment on the jobless, so we tarried a bit. But when the stark reality stared me, we had to shed weight. But I am happy to say that we have recalled some staff as the lockdown was relaxed.
Aside workforce, what other areas were you affected by the lockdown?
What many don’t know about the hospitality business is that apart from running and overhead costs, facilities require adequate and regular maintenance, failure of which would bring system collapse. Any hotel, which facilities are not well maintained, cannot be attractive to customers because no one wants to risk his or her life in dilapidated environment. The management is known for its zero-tolerance to broken facilities because we know its implications. For instance, a deserted facility is an attraction to men of the underworld. Given this fact, we ensured that, despite inactivity during that low period, our facilities were given adequate retouch. I am very happy to say that, in terms of maintenance, we rank among the best in the state. This claim is verifiable.
You are also into gas and farming, how did you fare in these areas during the period?
The story was the same everywhere. Can you imagine that in one month, we did not sell more than one cylinder of gas? It was that bad. And you cannot blame the people when there was no money to buy even food. People had a meal in a day. If you don’t have food to cook, must you buy gas? Gas is optional in that circumstance. In fact, gas which was ordinarily used for one month was reserved for three months during the period. It was the same thing in the farm. There was no cultivation. Plantation of crops, which we should have done in April, was done in June. Do you know the implication of this? I am afraid; we may run into food crisis in both food crop and cash crop. And if we have food crisis, that is going to be a big problem for the populace. Food is the only hope of the masses but when there is no food, there is going to be a break down of law and order. Hunger can drive people to do unimaginable things they would not ordinarily do. We read news of what happened in Lagos during the pandemic when those who had exhausted their food items, invaded homes of others whom they believed had food. It can be that bad. That experience can just be a tip of the iceberg.
Personally what lesson did you learn during the pandemic?
To some extent, it was a blessing in disguise. Because there was no moving around towns to inspect one thing or the other, I had enough time to take stock and reflect on issues of importance to business, family, friends and country as a whole. I particularly used the time to read good books which have further grown my capacity as an investor now. Naturally, I love to read books but I hardly have time for that exercise. But coronavirus offered me the opportunity, and I am better off now. I was reading as if I was preparing for a major examination. It was interesting and eye-opening. The point is that we should all spare time to read because in books are hidden so many invaluable tips capable of turning life around. On the negative side, however, I had to spend my savings to keep business going. I also had to seek credit facilities from friends to ensure we kept the standard for which our business is known.
How do you assess government’s response to the pandemic as regards the business community?
I must be sincere with you; we felt no impact of government. Despite the fact that they know many of us support our investments with credit facilities from banks, they abandoned us to our fate. In other countries, government injected fund into business, and investors enjoyed a big relief. Unfortunately, reverse is the case in our country, to the extent that one is tempted to regret being in his father’s land. It is annoying that those of us, who are driven by patriotism to develop our country, are not being rewarded, let alone being appreciated. Government should know that everybody cannot be a politician who would sit in Abuja and do all sorts of things. The corruption cases being unearthed on a daily basis makes me sad. Billions of Naira was misappropriated with impunity. It really makes me sad because those, who don’t invest anything into the economy, are the one reaping from our commonwealth and raping our nation. I am only using this opportunity to appeal to Osun State government in particular to spread its patronage. Governor Adegboyega Oyetola is a people’s governor. He should show fairness to all investors. We have one of the best facilities in the state and well trained personnel as well. The principle behind my business is to create employment for the young and old in my state of origin.
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