CHARLES OKEKE ODIUKO is chairman of Owerri, Imo State headquartered Tshabron Group. He is an administrator and a business man, and in this interview with business a.m.’s DIKACHI FRANKLIN, he says that every business operating in Nigeria is helpful to the economic wellbeing of every Nigerian. It is for this reason that he is advocating that government should mandate electricity distribution companies, also known as DisCos, to provide prepaid electric meters to every power consumer. He also makes the point that the poor business environment is killing businesses in the country.
You were once an elected chairman of Orsu Local Government Council, here in Imo State. But now that you are into active business can you let us know more about your journey into business and where you are now as the Chairman Tshabron Group?
My first company before now was Charley Enterprises. This company was into contracts, supplies to government and other organisations, consultancy services etc, and I had relationship with some professors of universities for training and consultancy services, and for state governments. After that I went into government as an elected chairman of Orsu local government area, Imo state.
And after my tenure, I went into cement business with the help of banks. I was able to start bulk cement distributorship and that started on a small scale, but in the way God has blessed me, after a little while, it blossomed, becoming the number one distributor of BUA Cement in the whole of Nigeria, which surprised the owner, Abdul Samad Rabiu. He saw my turnover and invited me to his house at Aso Rock and requested me to form an organisation with him, known as BUA Distributors Association of Nigeria and I became the chairman of the association.
It was from there I went into MTN Connect, a business I have always admired and wished I could be part of MTN Connect franchise. MTN gave me the first franchise shop in Awka, Anambra State in the year 2010 and that was the beginning of my relationship with MTN and that is where we are today, doing business and doing it very well. To cut the long story short, we are now into communications business as Tshabron Group, and I am the chairman.
How far has it been all these years?
Well, Tshabron Group has grown from one company to five different companies making up Tshabron Group. Within the communications group we are into customer relations, where we are the franchise owner. Also, in another department of MTN, called the Enterprise Business Unit, we were also appointed partners. We have done appreciably well within the MTN space, and I hope we can do better than what we are doing now.
When MTN saw your managerial acumen and the growth in your business, what were their reactions?
As regards to MTN Connect, we were able to work well with MTN in the first year, and they were so impressed that the next year, being 2011,we were given two MTN Connect lines, one in Onistha and the other in Ahoada, Rivers State, because of our performance.
I say this with every sense of humility because there were people in this business for ten years they only have one Connect Point, but to underscore the level of performance we achieved, we were given one in 2010; and because of our performance in 2011, we were given another two lines. Ever since then we have others in Owerri and Port Harcourt International Airport. And we have massively deployed it into almost all the universities around.
We have been given the license by MTN to run what is called MTN Connect Point. A Connect Point is where you have clusters of customers of MTN and you have a shop there with all the facilities to interact and solve all the problems of MTN customers. We have laptops which are connected to the MTN domain that we can do all the things MTN says we should do. We have massively been developed in all the universities, especially those in the South east.
While other entrepreneurs complain that the business environment has been tough on their businesses, you seem to be making progress in spite of it. Are you suggesting that South-east and South-south regions offer a different picture and that your business is benefiting from this?
There is no environment that can be said to be good. You see, in the presence of adversity you will see people who strive. You don’t look at adversities but try to create a space to work well. There are so many things militating against our business, so many things the government can do to make business easier.
Can you tell us some of them?
Electricity, I tell you as early as 6.00 a.m,, our systems must have to come up and we will start running our 45KVA generator in our shops and close at about 6pm. So we run 45KVA diesel and if you calculate the amount of money we spend in buying diesel on daily basis because our systems must be running 24/7, it runs into millions.
This is because every customer that comes in must have to be attended to. We run the five Connect Lines (shops) with the help of 10 or 12 KVA generating sets in all the shops we have.
There is no way we can have the light except we generate our own power, so forget having the government presence, we do not have their support, the electricity is not there even if there is electricity, it is just like the one we have in Owerri.
As media practitioners, people see us and complain bitterly against the billing system of the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC), what has been your own complain?
In Owerri, the kind of billing they give us is unimaginable, we have applied for electricity pre-paid meters to be used in our company here in Owerri, and we have not gotten the meter. So, I want to use this opportunity to call on government to insist that all DisCos should provide pre-paid metering facility for their customers. When you are given an estimated bill, it is very, very killing.
From the look of things don’t you see government has continued to pay lip-service towards solving the electricity problems in this country, does it not worry like it does others in business?
It is not only just a worry to me but I am paying the price. The government is not doing the needful; it leaves the consumers at the mercy of the operators of the DisCos. There is this National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), I have had a cause to write a petition to them about a bill in one of my offices. That petition I wrote was not attended to. It got to a point where NERC said to me, ‘go and pay this thing, go and pay this thing’. But those were bills that could not be traced to my shop.
And we did not consume such bill at that shop. And as a matter of fact, at the shop I am running, the transformer was bought by me. I organised two of my neighbours to buy the transformer but I installed it and handed it over to EEDC. Ever since then, I have been paying my bills to EEDC on daily basis; but EEDC after some time, came and said I did not pay my bills and gave me massive bills to pay. And businesses are dying because of the lack of interest of the government in providing electricity.
Can you tell us the strength of your work force?
We are talking about unemployment in this country, if government wants to reduce it, they know what to do. My own business alone employs over 100 young graduates and that is one of the things that drive me in this business. When I look back, I say thank you God that you are using me to provide food on the table for the families working with me.
So if the government were to have their own part of the problem done by providing enabling environments, resolve all the challenging issues that businesses like mine are having, there is nothing that would stop me from increasing the level of performance and employing more of these young graduates.
Are their plans for expansion and diversification?
Yes, now we have diversified into agriculture and that is the focus of the government of the country; we have gone into fish farming and established Tshabron Farms.
But if the government could do what it is supposed to do so that business could thrive, I can expand my reach. I can get MTN to allow me expand all my reach to all the nooks and crannies of the regions where we operate and employ more of these young graduates who are looking for jobs.
Do you know that at any point I want to employ one or two persons in my office for Customer Care Relations (CCR), the number of people that would come for the interview is always intimidating and embarrassing. So, I feel for them but unfortunately, I cannot do more than I am now doing.
What do you think government is not doing well to make ease of doing business effective in the South east region of Nigeria?
We are talking about ease of doing business, but part of the problems we suffer is that MTN, which you (government) say is an international communications company from South Africa, you do not know that MTN has liberalized its activities.
The people running MTN in Nigeria are Nigerians but some touts who come and disguise themselves as local government staff still look at MTN as a foreign company and give us all sorts of illegal bills to pay. You will pay for sanitation to this group, you will also pay to the other group and another group would also come for the same bill, it is quite challenging. There should not be multiple taxations, multiple bills kill business.
I want to tell you that every business that is running in Nigeria is for the purpose of improving the economy of Nigeria and government should be able to provide the enabling environments for business to grow.