•‘I started off as shoe seller on the streets of London’
•Named structures Grace, Peace, Faith
•‘Ill fated building was 50% booked’
Mr. Olufemi Osibona(Femi Fourscore) is at the centre of the tragic story of the Gerrard Road, Ikoyi, Lagos 21-storey building which went down around noon last Monday, killing dozens. Femi story, as told by himself, is one of grass to grace, and full of ambition, guts, trying to do what has never been done before in Nigeria.
By putting up the edifice, and two others in the same location, the Founder/CEO of Fourscore Homes Limited wanted to create a seven-star hotel in a residential environment which has now ended in a tragedy of monumental proportion. Before then he was said to be the first African to put up a 7-storey building in the UK. Femi told his moving story during a TVC programme. Excerpts:
How did you get into the real estate sector of the economy?
All glory must be given to God Almighty. After my graduation from a university in England in 1991, I went into buying and selling of shoes. That was what I was doing from 1991 to 1997. In 1996, I decided to buy a house and rent out.
Thereafter, I decided to go into real estate development because I was tired of moving around in my mobile shop. At that point, I was making money. A lot of people know me in England. I would buy the shoes from Italy, bring them to London. I understood the secret of selling. Nigerians like shoes; they buy shoes not because they need them but if Nigerians see good things they will buy. I have people that I usually targeted: Rich men that keep their word.
That means people who have money and at the same time would not like to owe. Those were the two criteria I used in targeting my customers which many people did not know. So, in 1997, luckily for me, I bought a place at 469 New Cross Road London for about 68,000 pounds. The place had a piece of land behind it, but, to me, the land meant nothing.
When I wanted to sell the land, someone offered me 16, 000 pounds and I asked my lawyer to sell it. I told him, “Sell the land, the buyer is going to give you £500 deposit”, and headed to Nigeria. When I returned, she didn’t sell it; she said the buyer did not bring 10%. I said no, he was going to bring £500, so I was very angry and terminated that lawyer.
Then I went to the person who introduced her to me and she asked me “why do you want to sell the land? Don’t you know you can build?” I asked her what she meant and she said “I mean you should build on the land instead of selling it”. This was very strange to me and I wondered where to start from. And she said “call the local authority”. We called an architect who then called the local authority and we had a meeting there. I was surprised when they said we could develop two units. I was surprised, “is it that easy?” That was how I started. I developed two units there; a two-bedroom and a three-bedroom apartment. Surprisingly, we developed it from the rent I was collecting on the main building. It was very strange to me but I saw it happening. When we completed it in 1998, it was sold; then I bought somewhere else.
It was a big house; we converted it into three flats. I applied for a two-storey extension. Upon approval, they mistakenly wrote three-storey instead of two. When we started developing it…you know, you can’t have a three-storey building in an area where every other building is two-storey. They reported me to the Council whose officials came and realized their mistake, they said I should not do a three-storey but I went ahead and did. They took me to their Committee and I won. That was how we did the three-storey. It was like the price of land was down when I bought the property, I can’t forget it.
By the time we completed the project and sold the property, the profit we estimated doubled. And I need to say this, when I bought this property, people told me that I will not make money there, but, to cut the story short, we made a lot of money. That was how we started. After that project, I went to another location, a slum where nobody wanted to live in. I bought a piece of land there in May 2000. Again, after I bought the property, prices started rising there. I had no reason for buying the property other than my belief that God had already planned my life for me.
I bought those places; I never knew the price had gone so high. I sold the first one for £185,000 and thought it was a good deal. The second one I sold for about £250,000. When I sold the first one for £185,000, price of properties in the area started going up. Today, such houses are sold for about £500,000 to £600,000.
It was from there that I joined the property market. When I returned to Nigeria in 2000, I thought I had arrived, that I had made enough money and would just relax in Nigeria. When I went for holiday in London, I went to a friend’s house and saw him living in a very big house with white people. I was shocked because that was my first time of seeing something like that. Moreover, I thought I was already on top. I spoke with him. He was living in a house of about £5m. At that time, my plan was to live in Nigeria and do property business in London, using builders. There was this house I bought in London, 113 Abion Drive, it still exists.
When I bought that property, it was to be demolished. I applied for permission to erect a five-storey building there. I was scared because I had never done such before. I had only done conversion and two floors. Now, I was faced with doing six floors. I arranged with one of my friends, Simpson, to develop the land because I didn’t know where to start a six-floor project from. He agreed. Later on, I discovered that he was trying to use the land to raise funds needed for the project. I asked him to bring his own money since I had provided land, so we take the risk together.
He continued playing me, asking for one document or the other. I don’t think I will ever forget him. I didn’t know what to do. One day, as we were discussing he said something that caught my attention. He talked about a preacher preaching that some Christians do not want to move forward, that they don’t like taking risk and that if you cannot take risk, you cannot move forward. You cannot be doing what you have been doing and expect to move forward. That if you want to move forward, you need to take up challenges. As he was saying this, I felt that it was God talking to me. Based on that, I decided to embark on the six-floor project. I got my engineer and architect; that was how we started the project. Again, when approval was given, they approved seven storeys instead of six which we applied for. Again, when we completed the project, price started going up. For instance, my plan was to sell each of the 14 flats for £200,000 but by the time we finished, they were sold for about £350,000. Today, it goes for about £500,000 to £600,000. After that, I decided to come back to Africa.
After achieving this feat in far away London, US and so on, what prompted your coming back to Africa?
If I tell you my reasons you will be shocked. I felt that Africa is the only place where you can enjoy your money. In London, you cannot have two drivers or cooks, no matter how rich you are. I just wanted to enjoy my money. I was looking for an African country to go to. Nigeria was never in my mind. I could remember that I went to Ghana in 2005.I was with Mr. Dele Momodu (Ovation Publisher). I was planning to buy a property in an area called Airport Residential and another area but I couldn’t just buy them.
When I went for holiday in South Africa with my family, I fell in love with the country. My plan was to live in South Africa and make money in London. You know it is cheaper to live in South Africa than in London. But after certain developments, I changed my plan. Precisely, in January 2008, God spoke to me in London that the time to return to Nigeria had come. I heard it clearly. Then I had an estate in Pretoria, the most expensive area in South Africa known to be a racist area. Immediately I got that message from God, I sold the estate and moved down with my family to Nigeria. Surprisingly, prices of property went down immediately I left South Africa.
I came to Nigeria in May 2008. When I arrived, I had to do something. Then I started to buy land. The first land I bought was in Ikoyi, Lagos. That was my first development. It was quite interesting, though as my first project in Nigeria, we made a lot of mistakes. For example, I believed so much in consultants. I did whatever my architect and structural engineer asked me to do, not knowing that most of them are good only in the theoretical part of their jobs, no practical knowledge.
For instance, a consultant advised me to buy 1, 000KVA generator but I bought 800KVA which we couldn’t even use. What was needed was just 500KVA. I remember the late Senator Oshinowo saw me in Atlanta, (US) and said “all these things you are doing here, we need you in Nigeria, come home and do them”. Another friend said you did 7-storey in the UK, why are you running away from Nigeria? I came to Nigeria and went round and made up my mind to do something that has not been done.
I was at rest, I understood the system and as such ready. Recall that I left Nigeria in 1986 and came back in 2008. So, I am not a ‘Niger’ person. So having done what I did in 1999, I garnered Nigerian experience and would now take full charge. I said to myself, if I was able to do property successfully in London, US and South Africa, why won’t I be able to do it in my country? Our belief has always been that if the white man is not there, nothing cannot be done.
Tell us about the role government played that helped you actualize your dream of the edifice on Gerrard Road, Ikoyi, Lagos.
You are talking about government. I must say this, may God bless Lagos State governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu. If every governor was like him, I would advise every Nigerian living abroad to come home. This is a man that wants people to move forward.
He doesn’t frustrate people’s effort to grow their businesses. He knows about properties very well, he used to be the CEO of Lagos Property Development Company, maybe because of that, he understands how property market in the country is. He understands what investors need. There was a time we had a problem, we took it to him and he solved it. He is there to support you, just do things within the ambit of the law. If you report anybody wanting to collect bribe from you, he will be after that person.
For our project in Gerrard Road, you know the road and Bourdillon Road are the most expensive streets in Africa. Luckily for us, we are the only one that is about 200m drive away from the main road, so there is no noise in our property. What we are doing is building a 7-star hotel for people to buy and live in. If you live there, it is as if you are living in a 7-star hotel. There is no facility in a 7-star hotel that is not there. The only difference is that you own the property.
We have sold more than 50%. Most of the buyers are people that bought property from us in the past in England. Our selling point remains security, the view, we have offices for owners, a club house, an open recreation area, everything you can have in a-7 star hotel. People ask me, how did it happen? But, you know that if something has not been done before, people would think that it is impossible. A lot of my friends now want to do high rise, even those who have never done 5-storey before. One of the buildings is called Grace, the other Peace and the other one Faith.
Those are the things that are working there. People wonder why I don’t show any sign of stress even when we are executing very big projects. I live a stress-free life. Things are just working by themselves. I believe so much in God, You cannot do anything without God. My Bible tells me that if you can believe, all things are possible for those who believe.
It also tells me that without faith it is impossible to believe God. Whoever must come to God must believe that He exists and He is the rewarder of everything. I am one of the few people that believe that if you want to make it as a Christian, you must be ready to take certain risks. Christianity has to do with action. Faith without action is frustration. I have been telling people that a lot of billionaires will be coming up as Christians.
What do you want to say about Nigerians who don’t want to stay in Nigeria when they return but prefer rushing back to their host countries, believing they can’t invest here?
It is a matter of mindset. I could remember when I wanted to relocate to Africa then, I spoke to someone who said many rush back because they don’t have what to do in Nigeria. Some come to do contract, relying on their uncles and other relations. They don’t want to work and the Bible says whoever does not work will not eat. How can you just come back to Nigeria and say you want to be a government contractor? There are a lot of things that one can do in Nigeria. For example, there is the property market. Again, I went to eat in a restaurant in Surulere about two weeks ago. We waited for two hours before we were served. If nothing is happening in Nigeria, why are all these foreigners coming? My advice to those returning from abroad is to have a good mindset because as a man thinketh so is he. You must think positively.
Again, when you come from abroad, you need to move with the right people. A lot of people move with wrong people. When I came back from South Africa, most of the people I was moving with were into properties. So I could see because whatever you see is what you will get. When people say nothing is working in Nigeria, I think they are deceiving themselves. We have a government in Lagos that is working. Why are you looking at government to help you?
Why not help yourself? If you want a license to operate your business, government will not deny you that. For me, we have just started. All those high rises we have in Dubai, we will have them in Nigeria. It is a matter of time. UK was where Nigeria is today about 70 years ago. Sometime ago, I was in China and spoke with some Chinese investors in Nigeria who told me that what England came to do in their country about 50 years ago is what they are coming to do in Africa today, that they come to invest in Nigeria because of her bright future.
What is your projection on the real estate sector in 2021 and your next projects?
Ikoyi will continue growing. Recently, they increased approval fees in the area to hundreds of millions of naira. The price of cement and other building materials are increasing on daily basis. What is going on in Ikoyi now is, when you are building there, don’t build for people to buy and rent out, rather build for people to buy and live in. People no longer buy property in Ikoyi to rent out but to live in. So, any property you are developing there must be nice. On what we have in stock, I can only tell you that this is just a starting point. Whatever you are seeing here is just the beginning. It is just 2 to 3% of our next project. I can tell you, the future is very bright. So, this is just a child’s play.
How receptive have Nigerians been on the 7-star hotel apartment?
We have not advertized the property. This is intentional because we want to complete the project first. What you are seeing is less than 10% of what you are going to see in that project. By the time you see all the provisions we made, the price will shoot up. The people that bought are people who have insight; that is why we are not selling now. We want to get to a point where some of those features can be seen.
You said Lagos State government is doing well. What more do you expect of them to make your business easier?
Honestly, Lagos State has done very well. For instance, they have made approvals very easy once you have the requisite documents. The tax system is working. We were complaining about roads, now the governor is fixing all the roads in Ikoyi. What else? I can only encourage him to keep up the good work he has started.
Nigerians are yet to tap into the real estate market…
In fact, I advise some of my engineers to start real estate development because that particular sector has a very bright future.