Engineer Ben Akak is the Chairman of Bengies Group. In this interview, the young CEO whose firm employs over 1,200 Nigerians, speaks about what the government can do to encourage young entrepreneurs.
What is your assessment of the Nigerian business environment?
Nigeria has a very elastic economy – an economy that can bounce back at any time. It is an economy we cannot foreclose for whatever reason. Sometimes, the numbers can be staggering negatively but we always find ourselves back, somehow. With the COVID, so many things went down but we are coming up gradually.
For how long has Bengies Group existed?
We have been in business for at least 10 years now. Bengies Group has affiliate in the construction, oil and gas, and services sector. Services include bakeries, foods and beverages. We have been employing Nigerians along the way. The business environment has been good; there have been ups and downs but God has helped us to weather the storm. We are doing well.
How much capital did you start with and how much is your net worth now?
We started with N40,000 and we grew with discipline. With the N40,000, I discussed with my wife and we agreed on how to deploy the funds. We started out hawking fresh fruit juice. We saved up and started a rental business. From the rental business we went into construction and later into oil and gas. Now, we are into bakery and other food businesses. We are proud to tell our story. We have a wonderful family that gave us the seed fund. Now, we run a multibillion-naira business.
How many staff have you employed so far?
We have between 1,200 and 1,500 staff across the companies in Bengies Group.
Your business has expanded in 10 years, did you get foreign partners?
We don’t have foreign partners. We are being careful with partnerships because how much really comes into the country as foreign direct investments and how much is taken out by foreign firms? Based on statistics, about $500 million comes in annually and over $1 billion goes out. They stand to gain more investing in Nigeria. Nigeria is a destination. We really need to unlock our potentials to be able to locally and strategically generate what we can consume. Nigeria is a huge market with about 200 million people. Our GDP is one of the strongest in Africa. I am one of those who believe that there is a lot to gain locally.
I have always held the position in support of local partnerships. Nigeria has very intelligent people but the environment hasn’t been created in every sector, not just in business but in politics as well. The government has to be deliberate to ensure that indigenous investments are promoted and encouraged and not to kill businesses.
How did your firm survive during the early period of COVID-19?
We didn’t sack our staff because we were afraid of sending them back into the labour market because the future of every country is in the youth. Being a young person myself and haven come this far, we were scared of putting them back into the market. What we did was evolve a strategy where we did shifts until things normalized, and then we called them back.
How can the government work to speed up businesses?
I think the interest rate on our borrowing is staggering and the moratorium is very short. You are borrowing at 22.5 percent and you are required to pay in one year. Even agriculture that is supposed to be a long-term investment, it is short-term borrowing and short-term repayment. All these things put together do not allow the economy to grow. We must begin to rejig the economy to the point that we make sacrifices. We must be disciplined in governances and how we introduce stimulus into the economy, and then we can make progress. What Singapore did is no magic. What Rwanda is doing is no magic. It is just discipline with the right leadership.
Precisely, what should the government do to make young people succeed?
We need to strengthen our institutions. We need to reform our institutions not to be personal. I will give you an example: two companies bid for a telecoms contract in Mexico and the other in the United States. The company who bided in Mexico – a big telecoms firm, had it all the way because there wasn’t much competition and they won. But the same company bid for a similar contract in the US but was knocked out at the second stage because the institutions didn’t support monopoly. So, we have to build institutions where it is not who you know but what you can do.
Until we build our institutions not for some individuals because of their positions in the society or their ethnic or religious leaning, we can’t get it right. The banks should also reduce their conditions to granting loans rather than ask for almost impossible conditions. Do you think that the likes of Mark Zuckerberg can survive in Nigeria? It is practically impossible.
With the institutional failures, how would one succeed in business in Nigeria?
God has been my guiding principle. God has been my foundation and my direction. We have made a lot of mistakes but because we are focused on the people and what they can benefit, at some point God finds a way out for us. The second point is the will. We have a very strong will because of our ability to weather the storm. I started very humbly after school.
What is your expansion plan in the next five years?
We are looking at expanding into parts of Africa. We are looking at investing at least N1bn every year in the next five years, and watch out and see what happens. We are also being careful so we will be watching the environment carefully.