Dr Babatope Agbeyo is the chairman of Cornfield Group and Botosoft Technologies. He is a leading African entrepreneur and a US-recognised philanthropist. He tells SEGUN KASALI his story.
THE story of a man with no TV set for years and wife almost taking up a cleaning job but who is now a billionaire must be unusual. Can you share this story?
I am not in any way different from other children who came from a challenging background. I may be able to say few things today because God has crowned my effort, not that I am better than others. It was a very tough journey but perseverance saw me through. During my university days, I can tell you that I was wearing my father’s clothes. Luckily, we had the same height and body shape. So, I had been prepared for toughness since I was born. My mum was just a kolanut trader, while my father was a cocoa farmer. Many times people would come and buy kolanut from my mum on credit but would fail to pay at the end of the day and this naturally put pressure on the family. They managed to sponsor my education through university. When I left the university, it became tougher. On the issue of television, I didn’t have a television set until I left the university. I left university in 1995 while I bought my first TV set in 2000 – a Sharp TV set. When it was tough for us, my wife thought of going to work in a company that was into cleaning of plastic and recycling. She was about taking the job when God said let me bless this man.
When did this blessing arrive?
Whatever I am doing today started a long time ago. I was determined not to be looking for job when I left the university. I had it in mind to be an employer of labour. So, I was putting a lot of documentaries together and started submitting proposals to companies even right from the university. My first proposal was approved by Femi Soyinka, the younger brother of Professor Wole Soyinka. It was on HIV/AIDS. That was about 26 years ago when I was in my final year. So, I was preparing for that. I was preparing for that morally and I knew any derailment would destroy the bigger picture in the future. I didn’t go the way of committing fraud or whatever will tarnish my image today. I prepared for today yesterday. When God wants to rewrite your story, He will inject something that will change your story. I struck the blessing at the time I started warehousing examination ethics for Nigerian students in a compact disk. I realised that the only medium then between the examination bodies and the candidates was the newspapers. What you see is ‘WAEC, release my English’, ‘WAEC, release my Mathematics’, ‘WAEC, what have I done that you have not released my result?’ and so many other examination complaints. It could take months before the letters would be attended to, just because the candidates didn’t know what constituted examination malpractices and the penalties. Not only that, some don’t know why they must use ‘2B’ pencil and not ‘HB’ pencil. They didn’t know then that instructions were part of examinations. You start examinations from the day you are registering for the examinations and your examination ends the day you get your certificate. If you write your exam and you don’t get your certificate, then you haven’t written examinations. So, I came up with the compilation of the dos and don’ts, from the point of registration to the point of certificate collection. And I gave it to NECO, JAMB, WAEC and it was approved. So, financing this project was the next question.
Was it at this point Aunty Ireti came in?
Exactly! Aunty Ireti is my cousin. She really really came through for me. In fact, she was the one who put her house up for a loan so I could get finance for the project. The loan was N25million and this happened in 2005. After the project, she was extremely elated and joyful with praises to God that I came out of the problem, became somebody in life and was able to do better things. She wasn’t looking for financial ‘thank you’ but my comfortability. So, the only way I paid her back was for her to be proud of me. She did the uncommon. I also thank and appreciate my wife for those motivating words.
How did you meet your wife?
She was my mother’s best friend’s daughter. She came from Kano to the village for holiday and that was how we became friends for a long time before marriage.
Why the affection for her?
Her submissiveness and quietness.
Why was your wife so particular about you studying Dramatic Arts?
(Laughs). She said she wouldn’t have been mine if I had studied another course. If you could remember vividly, Ogunde was the thing then and she loved his dramatic display. When I got admission to read Dramatic Arts, I filled Law as my first choice and my third choice was Dramatic Arts. You know it was like destiny and faith when the person who did my registration made Law, my first choice, the third choice and the third choice, Dramatic Arts, the first choice. So, I was left with no option but to study Dramatic Arts. My wife and I were still young when she said she wanted her futuristic husband to do Dramatic Arts. I think she must have been dreaming seeing her husband in the field of Arts.
What is that thing she wants you to stop?
Hmmm! She wants me to reduce the pace at which I work now. Most importantly, what she wants me to stop really is my temperament and I have been giving glory to God for it because He is taking control. By the grace of God, none of my children is taking after my temperament. They are wonderful children and I pray to God for longevity to take care of them. They are calmer. I can see that they are more focused because they have all the resources.
Something you would have loved to do differently if given the opportunity?
I can’t think of any. God has been so good to me. And you know I grew up as an adult with no youthful experience. This means that I had my first son at age 20. So, I had been playing that responsible role since I was born. When my friends were growing 10 miles, I was growing 1,000 miles. So, if I wanted to do anything then, it must be what I wanted to do. I didn’t have time frolicking about. Even up till now, it is from my house to the office and vice versa. You can’t see me in any social gathering.
How do you relax then?
Sometimes I go to the cinema. I am not used to social life and that is why it is not painful because we have not tasted that other side of life. That is exactly the way we brought ourselves up. I think that is one of the reasons I jumped into adulthood without latching upon youthful exuberances.
Youth nowadays don’t want to get married until they achieve all, but you did early in life and still made it.
No man or woman has security in his or her life until he or she is married. Either rich or poor, there will be no security in your life when there is no woman. Same applies to women too. For example, if you are a bachelor and you have a 10-bedroom duplex and you have friends, your friends can come straight into your bedroom without any excuse. But, if he gets married, his friends will take caution. When you go out, your wife will call you to ask for your whereabouts if you are not back. So, you will be conscious of the fact that you are not alone. You will be saving every kobo you make for your future if you are responsible. You will be channeling it to what will put your life in progress. Likewise a responsible young woman, she would look around for something in the market to buy for the house if she makes one naira. Same applies to the man too. But, if a man is not married, he would rather go to Domino’s or Sweet Sensation instead of buying banana for the house. Marriage is important because it makes you to struggle more unless your partner is not responsible. These were some of the virtues learnt while growing up in Aba-Ijesha and Usi-Ekiti area of Ekiti State.
What are the memories of Aba-Ijesha and Usi-Ekiti?
They were both agrarian communities. No social activities except for students union and sort of. They were both places where African values were being inculcated, especially part of being responsible in the civic way. Everybody knew everyone. If you were two meters away from your house and you did something wrong, the man there could beat you and bring you home. But, all these values are nowhere to be found any more. So, everywhere you are in the village, you are very careful. You are conscious of the fact that everybody there are village police. And if you did anything, the entire children would name and shame you. And everyone was eating communally. Then, we had only one fear and that was fear of the community. We didn’t know anything about the law. When you see a policeman then, you would run away. You would run to the bush because you would not even want to face a policeman.
So, we had thorough moral upbringing and fear of law that we didn’t even know (laughs). It was a thing of shame to see police come into anyone’s house to make arrest. So, you are conscious of what you do. That is why even up till now people like us run from anything that will spoil our name. Everyone in the village too are your parents. People feared teachers then. They moved around with long canes but you dare not do that now. I could remember we had an Hausa man living in our house in the village. If I did anything wrong, the Hausa man would bring his koboko to beat me. These values greatly contributed to who I am today. My mum would even add to it if brought to her knowledge.
Can you recollect an event that got you serious flogging?
That was in my primary school days. I was given seven free education textbooks and I carelessly lost five. So, they wrote from my school and sent the letter home. When the letter came to her notice, my mum dealt with me seriously. It was so careless of me because I knew my parents were struggling and I should have been more careful. There was another day that we were at a family friend’s place and immediately we got there, I sat down and started eating (laughs). On our way home, the brother I went with started beating me down to the house. It was around 8pm. When my mum heard about it, she added hers too. So, up till today, it is very difficult for me to eat outside.
What are the traits from your parents?
My mum was a no-nonsense woman, while my dad was a calm person. However, both of them are wonderful. She would use her two hands on you (laughs). She would be the first person to initiate the beating and by the time you run to my dad, he would push you back. And if you are not lucky, he would add to that beating. I learnt from them that the only way to success is hard work. They were not envious of anybody. They were okay with whatever they had and used whatever they had to train me and my younger ones. They were not eager to amass wealth. They were so contented.
Many nicknames. Number one was when I was in Aba-Ijesha and Usi. One of our teachers then, Mr Adeleye whose own nickname was Kalakuta, gave me a nickname. How did he come about the name? He asked me where I was living and I told him “Maforisha” but he said “Maforija”. From there, my classmates started calling me that. And I was so lucky that the name stopped immediately I graduated from primary six (laughs).
What are your unforgettable moments?
I have a plethora of unforgettable moments. One was my first day at the University of Ife. We were on a queue and I was carrying my X-ray file so I could register. Mistakenly, My X-ray file touched the lady at my back and you needed to see the way the lady clean my hand on her body as if I was a leper just because I was wearing “buba’ and ‘shoro’ which was expected because the way I dressed was different from those who came from Lagos. Then, you would see people coming from abroad to school in Nigeria. You would see white men and women in your class, unlike now. So, she cleaned my hand off her body. I never forgot. Funny enough, few years later after university, we met and she apologized to me because I reminded her though she had forgotten. She is happily married.
The most shocking was when I met the corpse of my younger brother on coming home for Christmas. I would never forget that event in my life. I had started working in Abuja then and I went to his place to appreciate him for being there for me. But death took him. He was not sick at all.
Another one was a female friend of mine too. Everyone knew we were so close but not to the extent of relationship or dating. She said she was going to greet her boyfriend in Lagos. I tried everything possible to make sure that she did not go. And she said ‘okay, Tope! I am no more going’. I told her God forbid you have an accident and die on your way to Lagos. You won’t believe she went to Lagos without informing me but she never came back. You know she brought food to me and we ate together. In fact, the plate was still on my table when the news broke that she was no more. I don’t like remembering those two events.
What gives you so much joy, maybe not plenty of money?
When I am able to solve the problems of people around me. When I see them happy, I am happy. Another one is whenever I do great things for my parents. I was so happy my dad was alive to witness my success story before he later passed on. Another is when I have been able to appreciate everyone that had been there for me, especially when I had nothing. Some of them don’t even need my money, hence, they say ‘Tope! I am proud of you’. I want God to give me the power to be able to touch more lives. I am not after having billions in my account. I am not after having houses I can’t live in. I am after making people glorify God through the impact I make in their lives.
Your philosophy of life.
Nothing positive is impossible for you to achieve.
Where do you see your company, Cornfield in the next five years?
To be more global than we are now. I want people to see my staff anywhere in the world and respect them, not because it is a rich company, but because it is solving societal problems.
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