Today, February 22, he turns 64. Trust him, there shall be no buntings, no confetti to celebrate the eventful life of Leo Stan Ekeh, who proved that in spite of her limitations, Nigeria still has a semblance of a free market economy driven by competence and capacity. He has over the years demonstrated that in the midst of our wonky system complete with cronyism, nepotism and ethno-religious sentiments, there is still a place for hard work; there is still a reward system that recognizes merit above mediocrity.
For about three decades, Ekeh built a business empire from the scratch, from a flat in Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos, which also served as his home. He built a conglomerate from practically nothing except his raw audacity, integrity and his ability to take the risk even when nobody was willing to go with him. It’s an uncommon whiff of self-belief that would make a fresh university graduate of top universities in India, Ireland and England to hop into the uncertain train of entrepreneurship when he could easily have walked into a regular white-collar job. And he did that in a sub-sector where many early birds had gone into extinction: Nigeria’s computer industry.
Ekeh typifies the Nigerian spirit of derring-do, gumption and chutzpah. In him, we see the life of an African child who broke all conventions, overawed stereotypes and literally rode the tail of a tiger to confound naysayers who claim Africans rarely triumph within the African soil. After university education which coursed through India, Ireland and England, young Ekeh was intentional and deliberate about what he wanted to do. He would not stay back in the UK to join the English hustle. He would return to his fatherland, Nigeria, not to knock the streets in search of job. No. He would return to create job, create wealth and add value to the lives of others including people his age and even older persons. He would return to introduce Nigerian youths to a brave new digital world of boundless opportunities. He would return to Nigeria to be his own boss, to create a future for the youths. And he did just that.
He’s the archetypal African child. Gifted in diverse ways, born into a family with a strong pedigree in entrepreneurship but he simply refused to walk in the shadows of his parents. He wanted to define his own path. Like Prometheus in Greek mythology, he was not only gifted with strong personal will, he’s endowed with boundless creative spirit; the rare ability to create solution, solve problems and predict the future by merely using the fundamentals of the present.
When he pioneered desktop publishing in Nigeria, he was only filling a digital gap that existed in the nation’s publishing sector. In the late 80s and early 90s, publishing in Nigeria was much about the clattering typewriter and the big burly compugraphic machine. Print quality was poor and dingy. Worst of it all, the processes were slow and tacky. It was a huge technology challenge but none of the existing technology companies could configure a solution for the media. Ekeh, a freewheeling street-smart and book-wise man in his 30s did. He became the instant interface between Apple Macintosh and Nigerian media including book publishers and advertising agencies. The result of that liaison was the birthing of ready-friendly publications.
In the vast dynamic field of technology, the spirit of Prometheus is writ large among a handful of entrepreneurs. What with the story of the late Steve Jobs, the man whose innovations gave to mankind another breath of fresh air in the sphere of artificial intelligence. He handed to humanity a different kind of machine. Then, there was Bill Gates, the Knight of Microsoft; Larry Elisson of Oracle, Reed Hasting of Netflix and Jack Dorsey and his co-founders of Twitter, just to name a few. These men did not re-invent the wheel. They all rode on the back of the early inventors of the computer and the internet to change for good the way the world transact its many businesses. These rare Americans have succeeded in making a huge point: America is the home of ICT and the birthplace of ICT entrepreneurs.
So, it was more of bucking the trend when in later years, Asians, particularly Indians and now South Koreans, began to drive their feet into the global ICT matrix. Going by ICT folklore, India is not an inventor but it is today the outsourcing capital of the world; developer of key software used all around the world. Out of Africa, one man has over time demonstrated that digital entrepreneurship is not the exclusive preserve of the white man. Leo Stan has proven in clear, unambiguous terms that Nigerians and indeed Africans are also endowed with uncommon ICT entrepreneurial skills.
Born on February 22, 1958 in Ubomiri, Mbaitoli Local Government, Imo State, Ekeh, a devout Catholic, former mass servant and chorister has taken the digital world by storm, building one of the biggest ICT conglomerates out of Africa from a modest desktop publishing outpost or what is commonly called ‘Business Centre’ in local parlance. Today, he straddles a Group with interests extending from ICT to online retail, to property with offices in Africa, United Arab Emirates (Dubai), Europe and Asia.
A moment with Leo Stan leaves you with the clear impression that you are before a rebel, an iconoclast in every positive sense. He wants to change the world around him. He stirs himself in thought and in deeds. The former Governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, must have noticed the restiveness in Ekeh that he christened him a ‘Digital Militant’. He pursues matters of digitization of Nigeria, nay Africa with a militant spirit: aggressive and unrelenting. He wants all graduates out of Nigerian schools to be computer-savvy. He desires to see governance run on e-platform. It’s just his nature to see things work efficiently. And he sees technology as the only enabler for efficiency.
In life, whether in business or governance, you have to be a rebel to make a change. Lee Kuan Yew, author of ‘From Third World to First’ and father of modern Singapore acknowledged himself as a rebel who roused the people to pull Singapore out of the hatred they bore against the Japanese for their occupation of Singapore (1942-1945) and from the pains of British colonial rule.
Steve Jobs was to the world what Yew was to the political economy of Singapore and Ekeh to the African ICT industry. It is the story of positive rebellion. And for his unrelenting commitment to deepening and widening the horizon of ICT in Africa, Leo Stan has won many hearts, accolades, awards and honours. He is the proud recipient of over 85 awards, by far the most decorated entrepreneur in the nation’s ICT ecosystem. They include the National Productivity Order of Merit (NPOM) award by President Muhammadu Buhari, Icon of Hope Award by President Olusegun Obasanjo on October 1 , 2002 for his exemplary digital vision and as a role model for modern Nigeria; over six Doctor of Science Degrees(Honoris Causa) from Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO), University of Jos, Federal University of Agriculture, Markudi (FUAM), Imo State University (IMSU), among other citadels of learning.
Ekeh is a prophet with honour even among his people. He is a worthy Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) for his transcendental digital entrepreneurship; a Fellow of Nigeria Computer Society and a Distinguished Fellow of the Nigeria Law School. Indeed, his trophy cabinet is a rich mix of global and international awards.
As he marks his birthday today, one can only harvest a bouquet of flowers and place it on the feet of a true African child who has changed the sordid stereotype of Africans being a people unable to pull themselves out of the umbra of darkness. He is indeed a role model and a beacon of hope for the African youth.
. Umukoro writes from Lagos.