CHRISTOPHER EMEFIELE’s name bears a resemblance with that of the current governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, not a few people had tried to curry his favour in a bid to get access to the CBN governor. However, they are often disappointed to learn that they are not blood brothers, but only tied by kindred spirit. In this interview, he tells FUNKE OSAE-BROWN about his work life.
As a young boy, Christopher Emefiele desired very much to become an engineer. He started well by paying more than a passing attention to science subjects in secondary school. He looked promising enough and retained the confidence of his teachers, so much that they made him a prefect in the Physics laboratory. He even gained admission to study engineering in an Indian university. His goal was in sight and seemed achievable until his father passed. It was the same year he had to leave for India. Undeterred by the setback, he proceeded abroad. In India, he discovered that he was required to make a deposit of $10,000 which he could not draw from until the end of his course.
This condition was for potential students in the sciences. It was clearly out of his reach and beyond the capacity of his mother who was a teacher. The option before him was to embrace the less financially tasking social sciences. He chose Economics and obtained a Bachelors degree from the Punjabi University. He started a Masters degree programme but had to put it on hold. Today, he has resumed studies at the Nasarawa State University for a MBA. As he commuted back from school, he stopped at building construction sites to observe closely how the Indian engineers and artisans went about their work. It was his way of keeping his dream of becoming an engineer alive. Done with his studies in India, Emefiele travelled to South Africa where many opportunities abound for financial gain in real estate. Always clamouring for excellence in every endeavour, he registered for a crash course in building sciences.
It took two years, but he persevered. With the knowledge and a certificate, he was ready to launch out. He began by obtaining mortgage to buy houses in Cape Town which he renovated and sold at good profit. The business was good. Finally, he was in his dream world: Building, construction, property and real estate. His move into real estate in South Africa was not fortuitous. It was a calculated move.
“My eyes were open to the possibilities in real estate and property development. It re-vitalised that gift in me. I registered for a course. It was a crash programme that exposed me to what I needed to know. It was a two-year course in Building Sciences at Thornton Technical College, Cape Town. When I finished, I tapped into the opportunity that was available at that time. There was a boom in real estate, many Germans and Chinese were coming to South Africa to buy property. There was a big opportunity. I started buying houses through mortgage, renovated it and put it back in the market. It was doing well. That was where I trained myself in this aspect of construction.” His degree in Economics had sharpened his business sense. With a good foothold in South Africa, he started coming back frequently to search for business opportunities.
On one of those trips to Abuja, the Agbor, Delta State-born businessman registered his company in 1999, the year Nigeria began its current voyage in democracy. “In 2004, there was a global crash in the real estate which affected South Africa. That was when I started thinking of coming back home. I noticed that business was still good in Abuja. The property business was still doing well, not affected by the global crunch. It gave me that courage to come back home. I had been coming home before then, I even registered my company, but it was in 2004 that I made a decision to come home finally.” He sensed that the financial boom in South Africa may not last a life time and he began to prepare.
First he stopped taking mortgage and financed his operations strictly from monies he had put aside. This was to prove a wise decision when the world experienced an economic meltdown in 2004. South Africa was not immune to this financial crunch. The once blossoming real estate sector in that country was dealt a terrible blow. Many businessmen lost huge sums of money. Not Emefiele. He was smart. While others bit their fingers in regret, he simply packed his profit into a luggage and moved back to Abuja, Nigeria. De-Mes Properties, his enterprise, hit the ground running. It was easy to stroll into business in Nigeria with his background and the referral from many South Africa-based businesses. The work load was becoming heavy and he hired one expert after another. Still he could not stem the tide of leakages that took away a huge chunk of his profit. In his quiet moment, one day, he hit the solution: Bring in his life partner, Ogey into the business. Husband and wife were already so glued to each other like stamp on letter that on the few times he travelled without his wife, he became ill.
He explained how the partnership works in the office. “I have divided the business into two sections. She handles the administrative segment of De-Mes Properties, that is, the management of our properties and the day-to-day dealings with the workers and so on. I am on the construction side. I believe your wife will always protect your interest. She will put in her best to ensure that everything is moving. There won’t be any room for sabotage. We have been married for the past 11 years. I brought her in two years after my marriage. I observed leakages. At a stage, after the business started expanding, it was becoming difficult for me to cope. I tried to bring in experts, but I felt they were not representing my interest.” He has since built up to 90 houses in Abuja since 2004 for his company and others.
Although he can’t quite put his finger on it, Emefiele has evolved a distinguishing signature or style to his building. “We have a way of doing our things. I have become so perfect that I don’t even know if I have it. The end users tell me they can see my signature on buildings. I have a style. People identify De-Mes structures when they see it. I can take people to a site where there is no signage and they will still identify a De-Mes building. It is a function of a variety of elements over time: The style of landscaping….If I am building a fence I have a particular burglar bar, a particular style for my gates. I build dwarf fences. When you cover your house with a massive fence, you are not secure.” Emefiele is concerned that Nigerians copy whatever they see in Europe and tend towards loud spending in construction.
“We forget the basic thing which is aesthetics. If you see the South African way of building they pay attention to details. They make it look simple, but beautiful. Procession is the word. Everything should be in line. That is what a building is about. It is not about lavish spending. Look at the way Nigerians flaunt granite everywhere. Look at many houses in Europe, you do not even see all these granite. They will rather use tiles of good quality. Nigerians believe a good house is about how much money you put into it, whereas, you can have a very good house with a minimal amount of money.” The real estate business in Abuja is on a roller coaster of success and Emefiele does not see it slowing down anytime soon. “In Abuja, if you are not a politician, you should be in real estate to be doing very well. The potentials are growing. Abuja is a capital city, making it the most secured place. The government will always try to keep it that way. If the capital falls, the country falls. Abuja is a very flat land. It overflows into different states. Developers in Abuja are building in Nasarawa, Niger and Kogi states, that is the beauty and size of this business. You are in the FCT, but your business expands into the neighbouring states.
With over 120 workers on his payroll, Emefiele is steadily branching out into oil and gas sector. He seeks to enter the Lagos real estate market. Unperturbed by concerns that property in Abuja may be over priced, Emefiele said such fears are unfounded. “It will take a long time. The price of property in Abuja is driven by two factors. One, Abuja is the federal capital. Two, the money some of the looters of the Nigerian treasury are supposed to send out of the country find a safe haven in real estate. These are the reasons real estate developers still have the confidence that even if the bubble will burst, it will take a very long time. I do not think Abuja is overpriced. Go back to other cities like Lagos, if you go to Banana Island, land is as expensive as the most expensive place in Abuja. Price of property is also driven by the infrastructure. One of my hobbies when I go abroad for holidays is to go round the high priced areas of the city. In America, it is the same thing, if you convert it the price you are paying for property in Maitama or Asokoro.
Emefiele has a simple solution to the frequent incidence of collapsed buildings: Eschew greed and the problem will end. “Take Abuja as a case study, three of the collapsed buildings that I am aware of had registered had qualified COREN engineers on site, that informed my opinion that this is not about professionalism, but about greed. If building inspectors exercise due diligence, some of these problems will not arise. In South Africa, for instance, every step of the building process is certified by a Building Inspector: If you dig your trench, they will come and look at the trench to ascertain the right depth and width as prescribed in the drawing. There is standard company certified to give you concrete. You don’t mix concrete on site. The primary reason buildings collapse is tied to the poor quality of iron, cement and the concrete mix.”