StartupSouth4 (someone awesome took this picture and I need to credit them but can’t find them)
8th April 2018, we were in Owerri (East of Nigeria). It had been around 5 years since I was last there. Mrs Njoku and I happened to be at an after-party to a massive traditional wedding and were children compared to the people of means, influence and intellect we were debating with. The conversation centred on us individuals’ ability to create jobs in our state. Not 10 jobs, not 100 jobs, but ‘000s (it’s Government’s role to figure out frameworks on how to create 100,000+ jobs). We were speaking to wealthyImolites about our shared ambition to ‘do something’ in our home of Imo State Nigeria.
Owerri. ‘The Land of the Small Chops’
[Small chops = young ladies]. The moment those words were uttered, I glanced at Mrs Njoku and realised I had lost.
The Land of the Small Chops. They were talking about the reason many people (read men) throughout the East and South South region come to Owerri for the weekend. Some called it ‘hospitality’, others call it ‘tourism’. The abundance of hotels is the telling fact. Euphemisms. I call it what it is. They come for the girls (aka small chops). They come for the Adas of Owerri. Strangely some were bragging about it. Like it was a good thing. I understand sex tourism may work for Thailand (they have other things, they do) or Dominican Republic. But for Owerri? It appeared to have nothing else and more dangerously, it had hijacked the entire state narrative (Rocha’s statues aside).
Mrs Njoku herself had found the general lack of respect for women in Owerri, especially those on legitimate business in town, was unreal. Example; she was at a top hotel and a random man must’ve taken a fancy to her, found out her room number and went to knock on the door to introduce himself. He obviously ended up with a tongue lashing. So when he smiled and loudly proclaimed Owerri was the ‘Land of the Small Chops’, I realised I had lost a small internal (domestic) debate around where we would situate HQ2 for IROKO / ROK in the East. The arguments were focussed on the Enugu vs Owerridevate for a production hub for ROK2, which at the time hadn’t launched on GOtv/DStv. With a new channel focused on Epic / Village / Rural / Palace settings, we knew we couldn’t situate it in Lagos. English speaking Nollywood is largely an Eastern fare, with Asaba being the key creative hub. Mrs Njoku didn’t want to go there as she had an ambition to create a new kind of Nollywood. She wanted to build her own ecosystem (actors / extras / producers / directors / writers / DoP’s etc). So the answer, to her mind, was Enugu (her state of origin). I was lobbying for Owerri being a more dynamic location with deeper talent pools. She cited the oft heard concerns of security, access, cost and culture of talent etc. (apparently those in Owerri are unserious in nature and just like to groove). But I thought I was making head way. I possibly wasn’t, she may have been listening to me politely because she kind of has to (husband tings) and was biding her time to make an actual decision. Either way, I stopped arguing at that point. The ‘Land of the Small Chops’ utterance simply settled it. Earlier this year, ROK opened up a creative base in Enugu and we are currently shooting 100+ movies per year and 10+ original TV series. Our content spend out of Enugu is easily ~N1,000,000,000 ($2.78m) /year on ROK2 content alone. The success of the ROK2 channel in Nigeria (and across Africa) is only cementing that long term Enugu state investment for the years going forward. I believe this is having a dramatic impact in Enugu and is acting as a gravitational force creating thousands of jobs in the state.
When Uche Aniche asked me to speak at StartupSouth4 (he had been asking me for years and I had always politely refused) I told him I would finally speak but on one condition. It had to be inOwerri. I was willing to sponsor the event too (which we did) which helped smooth the decision. I then promptly forgot about it.
These days I spend very little time in Nigeria so even getting to Owerri was difficult. Actually, it was a nightmare. My flight from Lagos to Owerri was rescheduled from 9:10 to 3:20pm (which would have ensured I missed the event). They alerted me at 01:40am which obviously wasn’t cool. In the end I had to change my ticket to fly 7:10am instead to Port Harcourt and then use ground transport to get to Owerri. In all, transport in and around Nigeria is a bit of nightmare. That’s why when I tell Mrs Njoku (and anyone that wants to hear, that in order for me to reach my potential I have to buy myself a private jet, they cannot say it is just vanity). Anyhow. IROKO policy is when executives leave Lagos (but within Nigeria) to other states we are required to have armed security so the cost or Mary for I moving around the country are definitely not cheap. When we got to the Protea Hotel by Marriot, there was a little commotion on entry as they were locking up the hotel for one reason or the other (so much for business friendly). Made me a little nervous checking in and leaving my luggage, but hey. TIA.
Upon getting to StartupSouth4, I was pleasantly surprised and enthused to see young, enthusiastic, intelligent and ambitious people who had come from across the region to be inspired, deepen their network and renew their excitement about technology in Nigeria. This was, and is, fantastic that the bug of internet has really spread throughout the nation. With that said, it quickly became apparent as it came up over and over again. Owerri has a branding problem. If Anambra is known for enterprise (Nnewi), Onitsha is known for market and trading, Aba is known for manufacturing, Enugu known for education and civil service and finally PH is known for thr oil industry. The fact that Owerri’s brand is now G-Boys and Small girls aka the chops? Houston. We most definitely have a problem. I could be wrong, but to my mind it appeared to be the overwhelming narrative of most people I spoke to. Ask what Owerri is know for and it always ended up in some variation of that. G-Boys and Small chops. In a state with millions of people and a high concentration of universities, I couldn’t believe that was the case.
So I changed the question. What’s the industry in Owerri outside of the already stated? Blank stares. Okay; changing the question again. Who is the biggest employer in Imo State? 2 weeks later I am still yet to get an actual answer. I found it difficult to believe that if IROKO has a 400-person team in Lagos that there were not tens of employers of that size in Owerri. So far? Nothing. The nearest I got to an answer was the Bet9ja agent network. Anyone please add commentary to the post if you can help enlighten me.
Nonetheless, our shared ambition to ‘do something’ in our home Imo State Nigeria still remains. But it feels like we lack the data (what are the opportunities), lack the political leadership (APC are undergoing a full blown crisis in the state) and an uneasy business environment. So where does a mere mortal start
I am exploring what can be done in and around Owerri. With the explicit hope of starting to change the narrative of what can really be achieved in Owerri. It can’t just be G-Boys and PROfessionals.
CREDITS: Jason Njoku, medium.com