Serial entrepreneur and business mogul, Obi Asika, is passionate about the growth and development of the Nigerian and African business space. He is the CEO of Dragon Africa, a strategic advisory firm with primary focus on strategic advice and communications, corporate affairs, social media and digital media marketing. Through Dragon Africa, Obi Asika has set out to help African brands change the narratives, as well as position themselves for entry into international markets.
In this candid interview with Whoot Africa, he talks about business, growth, his life as a former music executive, and the need to inspire the next generation of business greats.
Outside of the press write-ups and business journals about your work over the years, who is Mr Obi Asika, the individual, the businessperson, and now the CEO of Dragon Africa?
Obi Asika is a proud Nigerian who has always been focused on the power and the potential of being Nigerian. I grew up in a generation where being Nigerian wasn’t the trendiest thing on the block. My love for Nigerian culture and history is not restricted to Onitsha where I am from; I believe in the uniqueness of each Nigerian, regardless of tribe. I probably know as much about the histories of The Borno Empire or The Benin Empire as I know about Igbo history. For me, the convergence of history, culture, geography and race as well as personal history, is what makes up a human being. I was fortunate to have parents who are from a liberal arts background. They encouraged us to read and discuss books we had read with them during the holidays. This encouraged a lifelong search for knowledge. Obi Asika is still evolving; I have been working since I was 15 and I have achieved a lot, but I’m still hungry to do a lot more in the future.
What inspires a man like Obi Asika?
It is a difficult question for me because I find inspiration every day. I find it in humour, in comedy, and in the memes I see on social media every other day. Nigeria can be a very tough environment with so many difficult experiences. What I find is that in every difficult circumstance, there is always something positive to hold on to. What tends to also inspire me is original content – the ability to shape a narrative or the ability to deliver a new product and a new platform to start a conversation or to engage a new audience. Opening up a conversation to a global audience can bring about new perspectives, opportunities and change. Social media also inspires me. In fact, I love it because it enables me to travel the world from my phone or laptop.
My daughter is also a constant source of inspiration because I am thinking, she’s growing up fast and there is so little content available to black kids – everything about the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon are predominantly for white people. I look at my daughter and I feel sad that we have failed in sharing the narratives and in translating our folktales in creative ways for the African child. Things like this motivate me to want to do better for my child.
In the past, most brands used foreigners as brand ambassadors, and non-Nigerian ads to sell products to us, but I am thankful we have been able to bring about change through our work. Now we have plenty of icons who are using their platforms to help promote local content, brands and other causes. Things are still evolving and a lot still needs to happen here – being a part of all that inspires me a lot.
You were once quoted as saying “I am interested in companies who are interested in Nigeria.” Can you share a little bit about your work with Dragon Africa and why?
Dragon Africa was formed as a co-venture with the founder of Dragon UK. When I first met him in 2011, he was working with a different company at the time and I was very much interested in the work he was doing in reputation management, corporate affairs and corporate communications for organisations. I realised we did not really have that in Nigeria. I felt at the time that a lot of Nigerian companies were going to become increasingly global within 5 -10 years, so I saw an opportunity to help some of these brands position themselves to enter these international markets. Many of our Nigerian brands, from banks to manufacturing, will become quoted on the London Stock Exchange. Dragon Africa is a joint venture with Dragon Advisory, so it’s really a strategic advisory firm with primary focus on strategic advice, strategic communications, corporate affairs, social media and digital media marketing. We help to create and deliver specific experiences for our clients.
Speaking of Social Media Week, there are a lot of conversations (conferences/seminars) going on in Nigeria but very little implementation of ideas for the long term. What are your thoughts on the point of Social Media Week if we are not bringing in the investors to follow up the conversation?
First of all, social media week is not an investment conference, and I don’t think everything in life is about investment. The first thing is access. The first thing Social Media Week provides is a platform. For the sake of clarity – it is an open source conference. What we really do is curate the conference. We get a lot of applications for about a 100 slots and it is absolutely free for event partners. What we do is to provide the platform; we are not here to tell you what to do. The point of Social Media Week is engagement and conversations; you could be sitting on a panel with the CEO, business executive, senior public official or expert that you have been longing to meet. Being with them on a panel will likely grant you access and audience with such people. In a country like ours where we don’t do very well with sharing information and knowledge, Social Media Week serves as a place where Nigerians come together with the primary motive of sharing knowledge and providing access. It is left for the individual to take full advantage. It is about bringing the community together to talk and share ideas with one another – Social Media Week is primarily about how people are affected by technology. If you were doing your business 10 years ago, you probably weren’t using Instagram and Facebook to enhance it, but today, there is social media and there is connectivity which impacts how people do business.
The world economic forum in 2014 talked about how Africa has more entrepreneurs springing up than anywhere else in the world. What are your thoughts from the point of view of an entrepreneur?
I think I am wary of catch phrases. The word “entrepreneurship” itself and the way it’s seen out here in Nigeria and Africa as a whole makes it seem like it was invented 5 or 6 years ago, and that all entrepreneurs are young people, which is just not the case. Nigerians are natural entrepreneurs; it used to be called Private Practice, “PP”. Almost every Nigerian who had a full time job was doing 3 or 4 other things on the side which was how many of them could afford good schools for their kids and enjoy a few other luxuries on the side. I am from Eastern Nigeria and we have all been labelled as traders. Although I am far from being in the trading or mercantile class, some of my brothers have been able to build enormous businesses. Most of the trading associations which people classify as somewhat informal are bigger than the formal sectors or the private sector. Entrepreneurship has been around for a mighty long time. You look at these traders and think they are just traders – well, most are real estate moguls and the backbones behind major business investments. They act with or without government support. The nature of the world is such that government cannot provide all the jobs especially in the modern economy. The post-industrial experience is clear. Technology has killed a bunch of sectors; the likes of Instagram have driven businesses like Kodak under. The smartphone has replaced millions of staff and cameras. Instagram doesn’t employ millions of people, but has created a huge licencing opportunity and income for images and its users. More photographs have been taken since 2009 in human history than before 2009; this is what happens when technology and ability converge to deliver a whole new platform. In Nigeria, we like to restrict entrepreneurship to technology. The guy who is hard at work providing cleaning services is an entrepreneur. People who are looking for new ways to solve problems or who are trying to disrupt any industry creatively are entrepreneurs. In Nigeria, there is so much business space that needs to be disrupted.
Manufacturing has died in this country because of policy inconsistencies and not because of Nigerians’ inability or lack of desire to manufacture. We have to commend the likes of Aliko Dangote who left his trading to go into manufacturing years ago when there was nobody to finance him. No bank was going to support him, he had to use his own money – the costs were incredibly high, and it has paid off. You can’t get to where he is in one day. It took him over 20 years of consistency. In Nigeria we have policy issues at the governance level and operating under this reality makes job creation difficult. We definitely need the SMEs and the entrepreneurs to fill the gap.
However, we also need to let it sink in that not everyone is born to be a businessperson; there is dignity in labour and no one should be looked down on or disrespected for not being a businessperson. Your values, your integrity and who you are as an individual should impress people about you, not your title. We seem to look at the wrong values and criteria in determining success – for me success is about consistency, integrity, the value you are bringing to the table in terms of knowledge, capital, access, the information you have gathered, your education and your willingness to learn. Lastly, I really believe that it is a good thing that Nigerians are natural entrepreneurs, but it should not be business at the expense of all else. Education is critical; the journey, the processes and being able to tell relatable stories that inspire and touch lives with our various business endeavours are also important.
There is still a big disconnect between the pioneer CEOs who have achieved success and those who are upcoming – young people who set out to do business drown along the way, because they are not being told relatable stories here, especially from those who have achieved so much. Looking at Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, and others who are willing to share their stories, why do you think it is so different out here?
It comes down to the difference between working and just having money. If you can’t explain your money, it will be difficult to share your story; it is as simple as that. Some of us have worked for years and we still continue to work and still dream about the days when we will have these incredible sums of money that we hear about, but apparently the motivation isn’t the money. For some people doing the work is just about the cash, but for someone like me, it’s more about the impact, more about knowing I did the right thing for the right reasons and it was successful. That to me is more important than any cheque you can pay me; that’s what gives me that intrinsic satisfaction. I won’t call it a “disconnect” though – more like a lack of content. We need more and more of our business leaders to tell their stories because there are many incredible stories out here. I used to have this book which elucidates the history of Nigerian business enterprises and how they emerged. It was authored by a professor at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in the late 70s. We need that to happen again. More people are becoming successful in the Nigerian business space and I think they need to inspire young people with their stories. Companies like The Ibru Organization. In the 80s, The Ibru Organization was already worth 2 billion dollars; how many Nigerians know that? We have a long history of business. If we don’t engage our history there will always be that gap we are seeing today. Luckily for young people today, information is everywhere. Don’t wait for anyone to inspire you; seek information and be inspired and start building your own journey one brick and one book at a time. Everyone who has ever achieved anything started from somewhere. No one will hand you anything and even if they do, you still have to work to sustain it and make things happen for you. Every Nigerian who has something to add should take the opportunity to share their narrative. Our young people need inspiration and role models they can learn from, engage with and connect to.
You retired the music label (Storm 360) in 2011, but many people still see and relate to Obi Asika as the music executive. How did you manage your transitioning into other businesses?
I am a big advocate for Nigerian music. I have been part of the growth of the system for the last 20 years. Storm 360 records wasn’t just about our artistes and what people could see, it was about putting our music on equal platforms with those of other African and international artistes. We worked hard at putting all Nigerian artistes on MTV, Channel O and the likes. We did quite a lot, and when it was time to move in another direction, I just knew it was time. Fortunately, before the music business, I did different kinds of businesses; Storm captured a moment in time & so did our artistes, however I am always involved with the music business, as a co-Founder of 5ive Music, and as Founder of Cabal Entertainment. I am very proud of the work we did with Storm, our artistes, our TV productions, and our general impact on the industry.
If you look at the level of creativity in the Nigerian music industry today, what words come to mind in terms of the decline in originality and creativity?
I would say the Nigerian music industry is still evolving. When you talk about the music, people always have expectations of what the music should or shouldn’t do, but the first thing music should do is affect you. If it doesn’t affect you whether positively or negatively then it’s irrelevant. One thing you cannot say is that Nigerian music is irrelevant; it affects everyone. Twelve years ago, it wasn’t particularly relevant. We made it relevant to the extent that now you cannot imagine a Nigerian event without Nigerian music. Our music has become the soundtrack to Africa and I am extremely proud of that because no matter where you go in this continent, and increasingly other parts of the world as well, you are going to hear our music. Now, is the music deep? Well some are, but deep songs rarely come to massive popularity out here because that’s where the audience is at right now – they like it light, catchy and fun – and when you think of the hardcore realities of the Nigerian’s everyday life, you don’t look to music to replicate your reality, you look to music as an escape. Our music communicates good vibes, determination and a “refuse to lose” attitude. All around the world, Nigerian music doesn’t need an invitation to the party because we are coming to take over the party and you will thank us for bringing our music. Don’t take Nigerian music for granted, the creativity is evolving and there is so much potential for further growth.
You attended both Eton College and Warwick University in the UK. Some people will look at you and think “privilege” and “what gives him the right to give business advice?” Do you ever feel like you have to prove yourself extra?
These things are part of life; you are who you are, you are born where you are born and you don’t choose your parents. Attending Eton College was purely by accident: my headmaster at my prep school suggested that I apply to Eton, which I did. I passed the entrance exam with flying colours and that was it. I was raised to be confident and also to be an achiever. I am thankful for the opportunity and the fact that it set me up in life to be self-confident from a very young age. I always wanted to be a businessman and as we all know if you want to run a successful business you need the right lawyers in your corner. That was how I ended up at Warwick to study law. I had a good community of Nigerians in the UK at the time and I knew how to hustle from a young age. Even though I had the best education, my dad never believed in giving you more than you needed in terms of allowances. I have been in the music scene since 1985 in London. When I moved back to Nigeria we did business, made mistakes, learnt from them and went on to help others grow. We were promoters before the luxury of social media many enjoy today.
With your wealth of knowledge and experience from marketing, sports, branding, music production, communications and media production, what do you think are those key factors that set you apart to enable you achieve a lot of these things that you have been able to achieve as an entrepreneur?
Probably my ability to listen and being an undeniable optimist – I still believe in the absolute potential of people. I am a disruptive thinker. I tend to react to the opportunity and not the difficulties. I am a crazy believer in all things being possible if you put your mind to it and this has helped me achieve things most people thought weren’t possible. I also like being first. I am proud to look at the entertainment industry and some of my other ventures and realise yes, we did this first and we were great at it. For me, it has also been a privilege to work on things I am passionate about.
Addressing a room full of young aspiring entrepreneurs, what words of wisdom would you share?
Be serious about your work. Don’t play with the work, respect your work environment and try to learn. Your life should be about putting in the work, being the best and getting the best results out of everything you do. Also remember your word is your bond, integrity announces you before you walk through the door based on the reputation you have built over time. People should know who you are especially as regards what you can or cannot do. Make sure you protect your reputation to the best of your ability because that’s what you really have in this world. Most importantly, enjoy the process. Understand your journey and enjoy every moment of it, no one’s journey is simple or easy, but your journey and personal narrative is unique to you. You need to be focused, flexible and lastly, be yourself.
30 years from now, what would you want the world to remember when the name Obi Asika is mentioned around the world?
Here’s someone who was strongly involved in creating opportunities for Nigerians to express their personal narratives and content, helping them to bring it to a global audience while monetizing it. Here is somebody who believed in the innate abilities of his people and invested and worked to push those talents globally.