- Private partnership, solution to Nigeria’s infrastructure deficit
Biola Lawal, the C.E.O. Ashton & Dave travels and holidays limited, a holiday and Logistics services organization, is a dyed-in-the-wool professional with experience of over 25 years traversing oil and gas, hospitality and tourism. His retail travel company, FlyBoku, was recently rated Best in Nigeria by the Institute of Export and International Trade, United Kingdom. The tourism enthusiast spoke to LANRE ODUKOYA about his professional endeavours, mega plans to curate the Happiest Place on the continent while addressing tourism deficits in Africa and how to turn unsung African treasures to goldmine
Congratulations for the honour done your company, FlyBoku, as the market leader (Best in Nigeria) by the Institute of Export and International Trade, United Kingdom, how does that feel?
Thank you. It feels good and we’re thankful to God. Ultimately, it’s about having a vison guided by global standard after spending 25 years in the US working for some of the best Fortune 500 Companies. These are mostly American and European companies, from Disney, Coca Cola, British Petroleum to Nike, Marriott, Delta Airline among others where I’d worked in different capacities.
In what capacities did you work with these companies?
The last job I did as an employee was as a CFO (Chief Financial Officer) of an oil and gas company. Hospitality and tourism are a passion for me. I started my career in the United States working for Sky West Delta Airline which is a regional airline in the US before going for my master’s degree. I worked for Disney, a leading name in hospitality which is one of the drivers for me when talking about having Badagry as a tourism hub.
I think it’s important. I’d done management consultancy and what do you have there? You actually build strategies, review processes, create opportunities for companies to be better in what they’re doing and how they do it- it’s people, process and technology. It’s that technology that took me to SAP, a global technology company where I work in strategy and transformation unit, again working for some of the biggest companies in the world to help transform their companies in terms of strategy, process and technology.
So, I gathered a lot of experiences around the world. So, by way of background I came back to Nigeria to become the Chief Strategy Officer for Oando to help them drive a new strategy around a diversified oil and gas conglomerate, an indigenous one for Nigeria. And I think we did so great there. We listed in Nigeria and Johannesburg and we created a lot of value including moving upstream. I also helped to put technology across the operating entities.
There’s a technology called Oracle which is basic application and database that we used to streamline and make the company efficient. I was essentially both the Chief Strategy Officer and the Chief Information Officer for Oando for four years.
Before you left the shores of Nigeria for studies and work abroad, what was your earliest dream and what was the first course you studied?
I studied Economics and Finance at the University of Ilorin, Kwara State and I served in Makurdi, Benue State before I travelled out of the country. First, I spent a short period in Canada in Banking before I proceeded to California in the US, part of which I shared with you earlier when I talked about working with an airline.
From Economics and Finance you later found a fresh passion in travel and tourism, at what point did this additional vocation become part of your journey?
My mother is a princess from Badagry and it’s a tourism town. I lived with my grandmother until I was 10 years old before she passed away. So, if you go to Badagry you’d know it’s a hospitality and tourism place. So, tourism is in the blood and I wasn’t quite conscious of it when I was younger. When I got to the United States, in my first job with the Delta Skyways Airlines I got exposed to aviation and tourism there taking pictures and watching different exciting things. After that, MBA, I worked for Disney, a home of tourism and Disneyland is considered the World’s Happiest Place where families can go and experience fun. Here I’m talking of the original Disney where Disney actually started. Most people assume that Disney is all about what they see in Florida or Orlando, no, that’s the secondary Disney. The first Disneyland is in a place called Anaheim in California. It’s in an orange county.
Is it as large as the one in Florida?
It’s a bit smaller because that was the site where they started from. Disney World came from the concept that one man wanted to build the World’s Happiest Place and the whole pace was just a useless orange grove of trees and he went to conceptualise it and said, why can’t I build the world a happiest place about 70 years ago? Why can’t we build around a vision like that? So, I’m inspired by a great vision and much more that vision, I’m much more impressed by strategy and the ability to execute. In my case, when I worked for Disney, I left that industry and for like 15 years I worked for the oil and Gas industry.
I finished a pretty good career because I ended up as the CFO of the first Nigerian listed company on New York Stock Exchange, CAMAC which later became Erin Energy. I got it listed public as a CFO, I then came back to Nigeria. But because the passion for tourism has always been there, I wanted to continue with the passion, so we made some significant investment in FlyBoku.
The concept of FlyBoku is tourism and travel helping people to create an experience. If you want to go somewhere whether it’s domestic or international, let’s have a platform that can give you a reliable, accessible and affordable product that’s also fun. Mr. Boku is like the travel doctor that helps you do that, it’s a digital idea. So that’s the reason we created the slogan, “Mr. Boku will take you there and must bring you back.” The idea is if you have Expedia in the US and have OPODO in the UK, we should have something that cuts across sentiments, language and tribe. So, I wanted a Pan-African brand that we can develop give to the rest of the world. That’s what my vision is about.
Is FlyBoku a product from ASHTON and DAVE Travel and Hospitality Company?
That’s correct. Ashton and Dale was primarily to create an outsource travel and logistics company for corporate bodies. And we started that in 2007 and even while I was away in the US, the company was running here. We then saw over the last five years the impacts of technology and how it’s creating opportunities for individuals to be able to consume services. So, just as you’re able to buy physical things online, you have to be able to buy tourism and travel products. So, FlyBoku was then created as an offshoot of Ashton and Dave Travel and Hospitality Company. They’re separate companies but complementary in terms of offerings.
Fly- Boku is offering experiential travel and tourism. So, we have something called Discover Africa- I think Africa is under-explored in terms of tourism experience and if we don’t sell Africa who is going to sell it for us? We prefer to go to the US and the UK, it’s okay but we must be able to attract the rest of the world to see what we also have in Africa.
We cannot start waiting for a perfect time when everything is fixed to start. We must start looking at what is unique to us and we then curate and create tourism products unique to us in Africa around our culture, fashion, food, music and so on. We have some tourism assets already, let’s also create a physical infrastructure, our roads, airports, visa process must all work together to make it easier for people to want to come and experience Nigeria. I was in Kaduna recently, Nigeria is vastly blessed and many must know that so much is in Nigeria and it’s not just about Lagos. I went to a resort centre which had a stable of horses where you can actually go and enjoy what I call ‘staycation’.
You could have similar experiences you would get when you go to certain parts of the Caribbean. With the right services, if you want to ride a horse, use the pool, chalets are there and you could have similar experience but we create infrastructure to make it easy for people to get there and experience 5-star, 4-star service as you would find in any part of the world. We need partnerships to be able to achieve this because we cannot wait on the government to do everything. Government should focus on creating an enabling environment, security, basic infrastructure but let the private sector drive tourism products and assets.
How much of partnerships and consolidation have you done to ensure that the proposed multibil- lion dollar Badagry tourism centre comes to fruition and doesn’t end in paper works?
Well, those who know me know that we try to focus on execution. In other to execute, you must identify the key building blocks of what you’re trying to do particularly when you’re trying to do something big. I’d tell you we’re in the project planning phase with the partners and it’s premature to discuss a lot of details for obvious reasons. I’m an indigene of Lagos State from Badagry and I am very optimistic that we can create a cornerstone of tourism that not just Nigeria, but the West Coast of Africa and even beyond can come and enjoy as a tourism destination. We’re in very deep conversation with the partners already but the idea is also to ensure that the local community is part of the project early enough.
So, that was why we went to meet with the Akran of Badagry. That was a strategic movement to ensure that the communities have a stake in the project because tourism generates a lot of job, income and there’s multiplier effect. One of the things we’re trying to do there is to ensure there’s a cultural centre that will highlight the cultural history of Badagry but beyond, I’m not ready to divulge all in details but there’s a lot we’re working on with the partners on the table. The key thing is ensure that the support is there and in executing, there are no too many roadblocks on our way.
Are there legislations from the government likely to impede the success of the planned project?
Well, we will cross that bridge when we get there. We will approach the government in due course and tell them this is the project and this is what we need to get support. I don’t like condemning broadly the challenges we have in our society or the government agencies. Many times we have to focus on what the end goal is. When Walt Disney started Disneyland, he started with nothing. It was not about the government but about the conceptualization of ideas and he began to bring partners together. Financing partners, constructing partners, content partners and so on. I’ve worked in that environment and I’m very clear about what we need to do and who to attract to make this a successful project.
You’ve been privileged to have worked for different blue chip companies and you own your companies now. In all honesty, which is more financially rewarding between the salary-paying jobs and being an entrepreneur that you have become?
I started working for different companies and 25 years later I’m my own boss. I don’t think I can have all the experience I have to float my company and be doing well as I am today if I had not worked for some of the companies in Fortune 500, they’re of global standard you know. What is important is not all about how it rewards in monetary terms but how much fulfillment you find in giving wings to your own dreams. I’m very passionate about youths, I have a youth academy called Boku Academy where I train youths in the nexus of technology, travel and tourism. I try to make them self-employed, so I give them the infrastructure, computers and so on and make them work. So, they’re like their franchise of FlyBoku but they’re working for themselves.
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