– KEMI AKINYEMI
He owns one of Nigeria’s biggest business empires, a hefty property portfolio, a dainty wife, a lovely family and a legendary appetite for sumptuous parties. Life, to a great extent, has been kind to Rasak Akanni Okoya, the Chairman, Eleganza Group of Companies and the Aare of Lagos.
Through vision, hard work and entrepreneurship, Okoya has completely altered the business landscape of Nigeria, and West Africa, by starting a cottage industry in the early 70’s that blossomed into a multi-billion naira empire, with a strong household name.
When in 2010, Okoya clocked 70, he showed how kindly life has treated him when he donated some gifts to the Lagos State Government. The package comprised of nine patrol vehicles donated to the state Police Command, two ambulances and 11 brand new incubators to the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital. He also gave numerous gifts to some orphanages and homes for the physically challenged. It was the first time that Okoya, at least in public, showed his philanthropic side.
The celebration, which took in a ceremony for the conferment of a chieftaincy title on him by Oba Rilwan Akiolu, the traditional ruler of Lagos, climaxed with a grand party.
The successive years have been characterised by classy parties since then. His 80th birthday celebration, held in 2020, was a parade of glitz, glamour and glitterati. The classy and spectacular event was attended by the cream of the Nigerian society.
Indeed, Okoya’s life has been fruitful and colourful. His story is eminently romantic. His childhood dream was to become a lawyer. That dream, however, was killed by his father’s decision to bring him into his tailoring business as an apprentice. While assisting his father, Okoya set up his own business, turning trousers into knickers, long sleeve shirts into short sleeve to sell. That way, he earned enough to save for the future.
At the beginning, he combined apprenticeship at his father’s shop with schooling. Soon though, Okoya would quit schooling. What convinced him to quit was the sharp difference in the way teachers and businessmen dressed. “In school, I could see my teacher in worn and often shabby clothes and at the same time, I could see the well-dressed businessmen of Dosunmu Street, the heart of business in Lagos then. It was easy for me to choose business life,” he said.
At 14, he made up his mind to become a businessman. And he did not have to think hard to arrive at the line of business he wanted to do. His father sold sewing materials and the young Okoya wanted to know the makers of those materials. “I spent sleepless nights writing letters all over the world, making inquiries about the manufacturers of buttons and zippers,” he said. Soon, he started importing the products with orders of between £20 and £50. When the goods arrived and he could not raise the £70 he required to clear them, his mother came to his aid.
In no time, he began importing ornamented buttons. The reaction of the market surprised him. He followed it up with the importation of earrings and other jewellery items, which sold out fast. “What we sold was what the masses could afford to buy. In business, you have to ensure that the masses are able to afford the cost of your products,” he lectured.
Next up was the business of shoe-making. That marked the start of Eleganza shoes, slippers and bags. Okoya adopted the same low-pricing strategy, aiming for volume rather than high profit margin. The success recorded in bags and slippers gave him the confidence to try other things. Okoya came up with the idea of producing food warmers and drink coolers. The fact that Nigerians are party-loving people ensured that it was an instant success. He added small food flasks for those who want food on the go. The products were also well received around the West African sub-region.
Okoya developed the property arm of his business as an insurance against fluctuations his other businesses may experience. He built his first house at the age of 21. Many more would follow. Notable among these are the shopping plazas in Ikeja, Apapa and Alaba in Lagos. There is also the vast Oluwa Ni Sola Estate in Lekki/Ajah axis.
Twenty-two years ago, Okoya’s marriage to Folashade, then a 23-year-old Sociology undergraduate at the University of Lagos, marked his arrival at the final bus stop in the marriage department.
Currently, Okoya is married to Folashade and Kuburat Olayinka, whom he married 56 years ago.