As a child, Kennedy Okonkwo was homeless and lived under a bridge in Lagos, but his struggles did not stop his ascension to the top of the real estate industry in Nigeria.
The year 2020 was a depressing moment for the global business community. Still, it was probably worse in Nigeria, where a plunge in international oil prices combined to push the country into one of its worst economic recessions and further tightened the noose on business owners. So it was a double-edged sword scenario.
But while for many Nigerian companies, merely surviving the lockdown was considered a success, Kennedy Okonkwo, billionaire real estate mogul and founder of Nedcomaokes Group, had a different perspective.
Amid the economic misery, Dr Okonkwo accomplished one of the major highpoints of his real estate career, which was the completion of Victoria Bay 3, a sprawling real estate project comprising 587 units of houses. Okonkwo marked the feat by announcing that he was stepping down as CEO of Victoria Crest Homes (a subsidiary of Nedcomoaks Ltd) and passing over the baton to his wife. She had been his Deputy for years.
“Today, I’m fully handing over the baton of leadership of Victoria Crest Homes to the Deputy Managing Director of the Nedcomaokes Groups. VCH is a company that was formed on the premise of providing affordable housing schemes for Lagosians especially.
“Hence today, the mantle of leadership has been handed over to my partner and wife, Ichechi Okonkwo, to continue to move on with the vision, while I focus on strategic things aimed at expanding the portfolio of the group in itself.”
The decision that day was a reflection of how far Dr Okonkwo had come in life, and his new reality stands in stark contrast to his humble beginning as the son of a poor retired soldier who could not afford to provide a decent shelter for his family and struggled to finance his education. Despite the reality of his parents’ poverty, Okonkwo showed great promise in his academics. His impressive performance in school inspired his father to go all out to support his education despite his limited earnings.
Part of the reason why Kennedy’s father supported his education so much was that he saw his brilliant son as a visa out of poverty. “My dad saw education as the only critical thing needed for true survival,” Dr Okonkwo said.
At a point, the burden of funding his education became too much for his father’s lean pocket, so he sought help from an uncle. “He had to meet my uncle to tell him his son needed an education. And my uncle told him to go and calculate what it would cost to train me from now till university. When he returned to my uncle, my uncle threw the paper at him because he felt the bill was hefty.
“But, dad felt even if nobody was going to support him to educate this his young brilliant son, he was going to go the extra mile to do all that was needed to get me educated,” Okonkwo stated.
That rejection left a lasting mark on his young mind and strengthened his resolve towards success.
Life under Ikeja Bridge
It wasn’t long after Kennedy lost his father. He was only 16, and at the time and his life was torn into shreds. Not only was his education in jeopardy as a result of his father’s untimely demise, but his family was also evicted from their home in Ebute Metta, a Lagos suburb. At a point, the only place they called home was under the Ikeja bridge in Lagos State.
These series of misfortune did not dampen his spirit, nor did they kill his drive for success; instead, they shaped his life view and strengthened his determination for success in life.
“I believed I was going to be a great man because the obstacles I faced made me better. As they say, the heaviest of the fire made the finest of steel.”
Kennedy’s struggle with homeless in Lagos is not a story that is peculiar to his family alone. Lagos, which is home to more than 25 million has a huge 2.5 million housing deficit, with many families lacking a decent shelter over their heads. Though the Lagos State government has made efforts to build thousands of houses over the years, it has done little to bridge the gap.
This has opened the door wide for private developers/real estate companies who invest billions into building homes. According to a 2020 report Augusto&Co, the Gross Domestic Product of the Nigerian real estate market was N3.99trillion. Activities in the Lagos market primarily drive the value.
Foray into business
This yawning gap in the real estate market is one of the main reasons that inspired Kennedy to venture into the industry. But his path into property development was far from a straight line. It was not a career path he chose. Rather, it happened by accident.
After graduation from the University of Ibadan, his first job was as a marketer for a telecoms firm owned by one of his cousins. But in his first year after graduation, he got a side job as a real estate consultant, which got him N280,000 as a commission. As at that time in 2001, his salary as a youth corper was only N6000.
The first big break in real estate
That transaction opened his eyes to the massive possibilities in the real estate business and triggered his interest. Incidentally, it was a time of massive property boom in Oniru in Lagos. The land in Oniru had been signed over to families, who didn’t have money to build, yet their lease of 30 years was running out.
Amid the crisis, Okonkwo approached some of the families and got 22 of the lease. He built four units of room and parlour self-contain apartments. It was a very successful project with a huge financial reward.
That boosted his confidence to venture into other real estate ventures. Things were looking up for him as his business was thriving, but the global economic recession of 2008 forced an unexpected downturn that almost bankrupted his company.
Many of his clients were in economic distress and could no longer afford to fulfil their monthly repayment; the banks were also shutting down credit to businesses. It was a moment of massive cash crunch.
But somehow fortunes smiled on him when a bank agreed to extend him a credit line of N100 000 000. That was a rare occurrence during the recession, but it was a huge lifeline that revived his liquidity.
The loan opened the floodgate for rapid property development and expansion. It was also a turning point for his company. “Initially, we would look for money to develop one property and once we sold that, we would build three more properties because we would market and get other people to buy more. Once we got the loan from the bank, we were able to expand very rapidly,” Okonkwo said.
Nedcomoaks Property soon boasted of chains of properties across Lagos. As of 2018, the company, which focuses on providing luxury housing schemes for the working middle class in Lagos, had an annual revenue of over N15billion. Nedcomoaks also employs thousands of Nigerians.
Future of property market
The future looks bright for the Lagos State property developers as it has been projected to attract up to an N5billion worth of investment in the next few years. Yet Kennedy is worried that restriction on forex has had an adverse consequence on the industry and the ability of developers to meet demand.
He stated that if the government could ease the restrictions, the price of homes could crash by about 50 percent.
Kennedy’s success in property development has won him many applause and laurels, including African Business Personality of the Year in 2017. In 2018, he was featured on the real estate segment of Forbes Africa.
But he is always reminded about the adversity of his past and he is committed to giving a helping hand to those faced with the same challenge. He explains that he wants to build the next generation of business leaders by supporting young people in academics and businesses. He is also mentoring the youth to steer them away from vices that could ruin their future.
Dr Okonkwo says that by helping others to be successful, he is spreading the wealth because, according to him, wealth has to be spread.