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Thursday, 31 March 2016

We live and breathe tourism in my family - Abuja-based hotelier Ini Akpabio

Abuja-based urbane hotelier, Ini Akpabio, was groomed from an early age to manage a family business. From choice schools in Nigeria to Europe, he returned home to take over the family business which today has interest in different sectors of the economy. But Akpabio is more known in the hospitality and tourism industry with his Nanet group of hotels. A stalwart of tourism bodies in the country, Akpabio advocates for an improved hospitality and tourism industry in the country. But just as he works hard, Akpabio also enjoys the good life along with his wife. Said he: “We do not just work and talk tourism, we also practise what we preach.” In this interview with PAUL UKPABIO, he shares his  lifestyle with us.

You seem to have grown up as a silver spoon kid?
I was brought up by parents who in those days could be termed middle class; all those who came up from that background in those years could be refered to as silver spoon. We were exposed to the best schools right from kindergarten and ended in schools abroad. Right from when I was very young, we started going for holidays outside Nigeria. And we were always living in the best part of town wherever we found ourselves.
Ini Akpabio

What fond memories do you have of childhood?
My set started the Federal Government College in Kaduna. So I have friends from all over Nigeria. One of my best friends is from Adamawa, a Muslim. We lived around the country, from Kaduna to Abuja, Enugu, Port Harcourt, Lagos and so on.
How did you meet your wife?
That is interesting, I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight because we sighted ourselves early in life. We even had pictures taken when we were in our teenage years. Our parents knew each other while they were in Kaduna. They had also been friends when my late father was working in England in the same hospital and in the same department.
Ini Akpabio
 I had known my wife for a long time. All through the time I was a small boy and my wife was a small girl, it did not cross my mind that she would be my wife. What happened was, after I finished my first degree in Nigeria, I went to England for the second degree. I ended up living there for quite a while,. and got to the age of marrying. I was about marrying a lady over there, who holds a British passport, my mother came over to London but the lady in question had never been to Nigeria and insisted that she was not going to come over to Nigeria with me. And I wasn’t ready to stay in England married to her and then choose to return after 30 years or so. It wasn’t going to work out.

So what did you do next?
I came back. However, because my mother had seen that I was nearly married and that marriage was what young men tried to dodge for as long as possible then, there was pressure on me. I am from Akwa Ibom State but at that time, I had three women that I would have got married to. First was my present wife who is a Yoruba; then an Ibo and an Hausa girl. And because I had not been living in my part of the country, I had hardly had  a girlfriend from Akwa Ibom.
Ini Akpabio (middle) with wife (right) and daughter in their gear for their top fun sport,-power biking 
My uncles put pressure on me to return to the village so they could look for a wife for me. But I did not heed the call. So for someone who was nearly married to a Briton, I didn’t see myself going to the village for a wife! My mother and two sisters began a plan to get me a wife. Sooner, they opened my eyes to my present wife. I then started seeing her in a different light, no more as a family friend, no more as a small girl, but as a young lady, and from there, we became attached and eventually got married. So it wasn’t love at first sight because at the time we met as children, we didn’t know what love meant.
Years after, how has your married life been?
It’s been fun; we are very compatible. We understand each other; she has been able to speak 80% of my native tongue Ibibio. She participates in things I do, like power biking, motor racing. I am very involved in all that, and she has been an asset to the business, just like my mom said she would be.
How about your style, are you a flamboyant person?
I am rather sophisticated. I have lived in different parts of the world, Spain, Germany, England and in Nigeria, I have lived in Kaduna, Abuja, Lagos. So, I enjoy simple dressing, but well co-ordinated; 90% of my shoes are of one colour, that is black, so that means I am not very flamboyant. About 70% of my clothes are also of dark colours, blue, navy blue, dark brown, black and so on. I am not one to combine yellow and green attires, or wear white shoes. I see some of my friends wear white socks and green and yellow socks (laughs); that is their style, I bear them no grudge. Also because of my type of business, we are usually in suit and tie or formal traditional clothing.
What appeals to you?
I love people who are not hypocritical. We do too much hypocrisy in Nigeria; our leaders sit in church, yet do the opposite of the preachings to their fellow human beings. We have leaders who are sycophants. Having lived long in Europe, I tend to favour the transparent lifestyle. For Nigeria, I like to see a country that lives up to expectation. A country can never evolve unless her best brains are brought up to run the affairs of the country. I pray that this administration does that.
What men’s accessories do you love most?
I love wrist watches; I do not wear neck chains. I wear glasses as a necessity, but they have come up to become fashion statements, sometimes I match them with what I’m wearing.

You have been in the food industry for a long time, one would expect that you would be big in size, how have you been able to keep being trim?
I had to be careful. I wouldn’t say that because I run hotels then I have to be a glutton and become big in size. It’s true that when one becomes wealthy, there is tendency to over-indulge in food and drinks, it is a problem for men and even women. I am active. I go to the gym, I take care of my health. I have a mother who is keen on healthy living, so I learn from her. I travel with my gym bag and I power bike a lot.
Seems you enjoy working with your wife and also playing with her…?
(Laughs) My wife and I have actually won trophies in car racing. She is my co-driver. In Abuja, we have done motor-rallies togther and we emerged first. We also play the games of Badmington, Lawn Tennis and so on. We also travel a lot within and outside Nigeria. We do not just work and talk tourism, we also practise what we preach.
You are known to be in the hospitality business…
I am the Group-Managing Director of a company now known as International Nanet Group. Under this, we have subsidiaries which include Nanet Hotels Limited, Nanet Investment and Properties Limited, Nanet Farms and others. International Nanet Group is the holding company. We have seven subsidiaries.
But you started out in the hospitality sector…
Yes, our core strength still revolves around tourism: hotels, restaurants and fast foods, everything that makes up the hospitality and tourism sector. And now we are doing a lot of consultancy for state governments. We consult with them and work with them in repositioning in terms of tourism and ensuring creation of employment and improving their IGR through proper placement of tourism, entertainment, and other leisure issues in their state.
Is your wife involved in running the business too?
She is involved. Interestingly, my mother started the business. My father was a civil servant, a medical person. Though five years down the line, he resigned and teamed up with my mother, to drive the business process. We grew up in a house that was business all the time. My parents were very much involved. Later on, I was co-opted into it. But when I came back from England where I went to do Masters in Hospitality and Tourism after my first degree in Business Administration, one of the things that I told my parents was that I did not want to continue that kind of family business. That was because I wasn’t very keen on working with my brothers and sisters who were already in other disciplines which were different from hospitality and tourism.
I believe that the mere fact that you are the son or daughter of someone that owns a particular business, does not mean you must stay in it if you are not trained in that line of business. My siblings were architects, sociologists and accountants. So I laid down the rule that if they wanted me to run the business, since I am qualified, I will not run it without my siblings. I also requested that when I marry, I did not what my wife to be part of the business. I didn’t want to be discussing business at home, in the office and every  place. That would be too tedious.
But I give thanks to my mother who was able to convince me that my wife is very hard working, that she will be an asset to the business. I was brought up to respect my parents and their views and the fact that there was merit in what she said, I finally accepted that my wife should work with me. Right now, she is the only immediate real family member that is working with me. However, just less than a year ago, my first daughter finished her NYSC programme after she got a degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management. She decided to join us. So it is now back to family business. We live and breathe tourism in my family.
What is the strength of Nanet like now?
We are approaching 15 states now for consultancy, we are in 14 states in actually running hotels physically. Some of the hotels belong to the state governments, federal agencies, while some belong to private individuals. In the past, we had been in 20 states of the federation; we have done businesses in Taraba, Bauchi to Yenegoa, Abia, Cross River and so many other places.
What has the response from the state governments been?
The response has been good. Sometime last year, it was ruled at the court that aside the FCT, every state can enact laws for their state, guiding the processes of culture and tourism in their states, and this has opened up a lot of opportunities in the sense that it is not likely that all the states will have similar things when it comes to tourism. Some states may have different classes of classifications, while others may have different kinds of levies. I think that it is a reflection of the fact that we are a federation. So states should have a high level of autonomy as observed in USA which we are copying. We hope maybe in future, this will flow into other activities of the states. Also the very popular one is the state police which people have been calling for, to what extent should states have power over security in their jurisdiction.
You just mentioned states having divergent tourism plans, can you take one state for instance that you are interacting with and the kind of tourism plan that should be there?
We are interacting with Plateau State; we have made advances to some other states like Kano, Nasarawa and some states in the southern part of Nigeria. When we had meetings with some of these states, we found out that International Nanet Group will be able to create a tourism road map for the state to use as guideline and that will create a synergy approach to tourism. A roadmap that has been overtime too, could become obsolete. In such case, there could be a need to do a re-look at them, bring them up, before we ask the state government to implement.
Another thing we also look at is bringing up the components that we feel form the tourism framework. Some of the components can be derivatives of the roadmaps. We  also earmark some significant areas; for instance, we work on classifications of tourism components. We also look into levies, how to harmonise and streamline against double taxation. We sensitise the private sector and encourage private-public sector relationship.
Most of the tourism players belong to associations. So the associations have to be carried along. They have to be engaged and carried along on all new creations and policies. We guide states to do this to bring less friction, more co-operation and harmony between the states and the industry players.

Why did it take the states long to realise that tourism is important for their states?
It’s unfortunate that tourism is still backward at the local, state and federal levels. There is this small country noted for crude oil whose Prime Minister was in Nigeria recently for a conference. When asked, the Prime Minister said his country will be known for two things, which is agriculture and tourism. So a country can take it upon herself to robustly identify with tourism despite being one of the top producers of crude oil. It shows the importance of tourism, their understanding of the limitations of making oil the only major source of their income. Same goes to the United Arab Emirates which is one of the major players in the global oil industry, but also fully involved in tourism as a priority sector.
So our states have to realise the importance of tourism. Governors do not seem to understand the place of tourism. One of the few governors that ever understood the place of tourism is ex-Governor Donald Duke of Cross River State, who ruled the state based on an idea of tourism. So it is time to tell the states, even the Federal Government that tourism has a major role to play. Once it is in place, other things will follow. Once you have tourism as your priority, it means that you will repair your roads, you must have good houses, good electricity system; it means you must have water, security and create jobs for people. Tourism is what binds everything together. That is because there is no tourism if you do not have anything to sell.
A place like UAE that has made its country a trading point, tourists come to buy, so it makes sense for the government to industrialise the nation. That is why we say that tourism is a win-win situation. It breeds a proper natural synergy.
Why it has taken the states long is also that for instance, Lagos State had to take NTDC to court, that Lagos should have powers at the state level to look at its own issues on tourism and hospitality. It went on in court and later on, it was accepted that every state should be independent. That created opportunities for every state government, Commissioners of Culture and Tourism and the states themselves, to harness into the tourism bandwagon and gain all the benefits of tourism. 
What is the hotel and tourism situation in the North? Is tourism coming back to life there?
Tourism has been severely affected by Boko Haram insurgency in the northern part of the country and that includes Abuja. It has been a very disastrous period for our industry. But let me divert because even before the Boko Haram came into play, we have had lots of skirmishes in the northern part of the country which bordered on religious issues. Kaduna, for instance, has been boiling for a long time; Bauchi, Kano, even Plateau as well, under different religious and ethnic issues. So the North had started experiencing a lot of turmoil. It also became apparent that during the time of politicking, there was a new dimension in political tension leading to political riots. All these were affecting the economies of these states. Then came the blossoming which emerged in Boko Haram, which did not just become a Nigerian problem, but also an internationally engineered terrorism.
The President had to start by visiting the neighbouring countries because it is now more than what Nigeria can stomach. That was the climax of it. Up till today, the drop in tourism number and hospitality earnings fluctuated in the North and in some states like the three most ravaged states of Northern Nigeria, Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe, reducing to 25%. People are surviving on that. There has been a significant negative impact from political, tribal and Boko Haram insurgency, especially on tourism. Some other sectors of the economy may not be feeling it that badly. You know, even in time of war, you still have to eat; so manufacturers of food items still manage to survive. People will still speak to each other; so the GSM technology would still be working and so on. But for us, nobody in his right mind will go for holiday purposes and meetings in cities where there are problems like insecurity and so on. So we have had a bad situation.
The new government has, however, assured us that things will soon turn out differently. Even when Boko Haram is crushed, it will still take us a few years to reposition those cities in the minds of people for tourism. Today, I had to convince some young persons who want to change their NYSC postings from Yobe and Borno to stay put there. They said they do not want to stay there. I had to tell them that I did my NYSC in Sokoto. I told them to be hopeful, that once the Federal Government crushes Boko Haram, these places will be in urgent need of services, and they would be the lucky ones, instead of looking for crowded places like Abuja, Lagos or Port Harcourt.
On the federal level, what can you say about tourism at this point in time?
The way I see it, there will always be problem in our tourism sector; there is no way that a wrong can turn out to be right. We have been shouting at the rooftop that the NTDC is the engine room of tourism in Nigeria, and the first thing to do to that engine room is to put the right person there to drive the process. Once you do not have a professionally qualified, professionally experienced person manning the NTDC, it will manifest into confusion, and that will degenerate into creation of other offices, wrong policies, disorganisation, inability to understand what needs to be done and a total waste of time to an agency that is directionless.
This has impacted negatively in the country in such a way that tourism in Nigeria now is directionless. That has been the bane of tourism in Nigeria. This has been replicated not only in NTDC but virtually in all the agencies of the Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism. It even starts with the minister’s background, can’t the position be reserved for people in the field of tourism like it is done with other professions, like we have in the Ministry of Health? When will Nigeria start to recognise the tourism sector as a specialised sector? So until those things are addressed, we shall continue to experience the hiccups in tourism as we are presently having it.
Still about getting it right, we have a new government in the country, as a staunch member of most of the tourism associations in the country, what can you say is the expectation of the industry from the new government?
I would even add the question that, what have we done, because, for the government to do what we ask for, we actually need to table some things before the government. The Federation of Tourism Association of Nigeria (FTAN) the umbrella body for all the tourism associations in Nigeria, took many pages in the national newspaper, welcoming the new administration and clearly outlining that will be very good in our sector. And the change we want is to have professionals in the various offices of the ministry at federal, state and local level.
The era of medical doctors becoming ministers and commissioners in the ministry of culture and tourism should be a thing of the past, core professionals should reflect as Director Generals of agencies of the ministry, people who have the requisite knowledge of culture and tourism is about. We also appealed for a tourism bank, intervention funding, like the bank of industry which concentrates 99% on industrialisation.
There is also the Bank of Agriculture, so we should have a Bank for Tourism. Then we also mention some laws that should be enacted at all levels of government that would make tourism easy in the country. These were things that were well articulated to the new government.
Has your tourism body engaged the government on these issues?
There has been a waiting game for the new ministers, as you well know, it is not easy for everybody to reach the Vice President and the President  because of their hectic schedule but we are still trying so that we can take these issues to their door step.
You have also veered into farming…
Yes, Nanet has been doing farming for quite some time; we have done this vertical diversification. When you are in the hospitality sector, you are prune to wonder about producing your own chicken or growing your own cassava since they are the raw materials you need. So we had been involved in large-scale agricultural farming in Kaduna, Abuja and some other states in the North in the past. We have revived them again to produce crops and poultry farms to produce thousands of birds. In the past, we had thousands of cattle and sheep and goats. Overtime, we became less focused on that. But because of the thrust of the present government on food sufficiency, and agriculture as a priority sector, Nanet is planning a comeback but we will start with agro-processing.

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