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The Early Entrepreneurs…


By Femi Kehinde


In this season of anomies, this period of political mudslingings, intrigues and chicanery, that has catapulted politics to be the only viable business enterprise in Nigeria, there is the need to have an urgent re-think, that Nigeria was not the product of the early statesmen, politicians and nationalists alone, but rather, that of the business sagacity, ingenuity, wizardry, selflessness, innovativeness and resourcefulness of Nigeria’s early entrepreneurs who made Nigeria what it is today, before the descent of commerce. Tributes must be paid to those who made Nigeria, right from its infancy in 1914. These men of commerce and enterprise and their individual sense of industry need to be celebrated- the likes of Alhassan Dantata, Esan Da Rocha, Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Odutola Brothers (Adeola and Jimoh Odutola), Alhaji Salami Agbaje of Ayeye Ibadan, Chief Adebisi  Giwa of Idi-Ikan Ibadan, Chief Mattias Ugochukwu, Mr. Isaac Ajanaku, Sir Lawrence Omole, Madam Janet Alatede Aboderin, Alhaja Humoani Alaga, Mrs. HID Awolowo, Madam Chief Bisoye Tejuoso (late Iyalode of Egbaland), Chief Theophilus Oni (T.A Oni & sons) and a host of others.


Da Rocha

Mr. Da Rocha was a native of Ilesha and was a slave returnee from Brazil. He returned to Nigeria in 1870 from Salvador Brazil, and quickly built a small fortune plying the lucrative South Atlantic trade route. Da Rocha was arguably the first Nigerian millionaire. He was popularly known as “BaBa Olomi” and had his head office at Kakawa Street, Marina Lagos. He became a testament to the industrial will, that led to the establishment of the Iju Water Works, that served the entire Lagos in

the 1920’s before it was taken over by the colonial administration. Da Rocha laid pipes from Iju to Lagos Island, Yaba, Ebute-metta and other communities in Lagos where there were high demand for pipe borne water. He was selling to individuals until it was taken over by the Colonial Government, who was paying Da Rocha for the supply of water to Lagos and was thus a pioneer of private ownership of utilities in Nigeria. He was so wealthy, that it was the popular saying in Yoruba- that, if you lure someone into spending money, the person would resist your trap by saying “do you think I am Da Rocha”. A rich man’s wealth is always comparable to that of Da Rocha –“he is as rich as Da Rocha”.

Da Rocha in his time was highly influential, his intervention during the scarcity of water in Lagos in the early 1920’s gave him the appellation of“BabaOlomi”.


Adebisi Giwa

Sanusi Adebisi Giwa was Ibadan’s early wealthy man, who used his wealth to advance the cause of the common people by distributing largesse; he was rich, affable, amiable and accommodating. He was a buying agent for Miller Brothers and subsequently became a produce buyer and began to amass wealth for himself. He was also a major distributor for the UAC and had a large cocoa plantation in Mamu. He was widely acknowledged by the Ibadan people, because of his conspicuous benefaction to the Ibadan community.

Adebisi’s mansion in Ibadan still stands today as an architectural master piece. He was the first Ibadan man to ride a horse and later bought a car. Till he died in 1938, he was revered as one of the wealthiest men in Ibadan, a few that could match him then were- Chief Salami Agbaje of Ayeye and Babarinde Akanbi ‘Molewa (Chief Adisa Akinloye’s father).


Salami Agbaje of Ayeye

Chief Salami Agbaje was a very successful indigenous entrepreneur and was Ibadan richest citizen in his time. Even though he started as a tailor, he diversified to the business of a timber contractor and made a huge success. He was a major supplier of timber to the NigerianRailways and supplied all the timbers needed for the construction of the Ibadan-Lagos Railway between 1898-1903. His success in the timber business encouraged him to go into produce buying venture and he also diversified into transportation, import and export.

He imported cotton, building materials, umbrellas and sewing machines. He owned the first private motor garage in Ibadan and the first truly indigenous diversified company and was also the first to establish cinemas. He was the first Ibadan man to ridea car in 1915, and built a two-storey building, with cement, but was unlike Adebisi Idi Ikan, less interested in the distribution of his wealth as largesse to the common folks, which earned him the irritation of the Ibadan masses. But he, nevertheless,was known to have spent a great deal of his wealth in giving his children the best education. He produced the first Ibadan Medical Doctor- Dr Saka Anthony Agbaje; the first Ibadan Lawyer- Mojeed Agbaje and a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria- Ganiyu Agbaje, and also Yekeen Agbaje-a Lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

Even though he was known to be stingy and tight fisted, he advanced the cause of modern commerce in Ibadanland and Western Region entirely.

In his days, he had a lot of dealings with European companies, engaged in exportation of agricultural products. He was an illiterate, but without attending school, he learned to read,write and speak impeccable English and was until his death in 1953, the Balogun of Ibadan land.


Akinpelu Obisesan

Akinpelu Obisesan was a Nigerian Diarist and business man. Akinpelu’s record in his diaries from 1920-1960’s became an archival material for the elite activities.

After a brief spell with the Nigerian Railways, he returned to Ibadan in 1913, worked with PZ and later became a produce buyer. For 30  years, he was President of Ibadan Cooperative Produce Marketing Societies (ICPMS) and Pioneer Chairman of Cooperative Bank, to serve the needs of Cooperative Societies.


Tadeniawo Adesoji-Aderemi

At the time Sanusi Giwa (Adebisi idi-kan) and Salami Agbaje weremaking waves in Ibadan, Sir Tadeniawo Adesoji Aderemi was equally making waves in Ife land, as a business titan. After he had retired as Station Manager with the Nigerian Railways Corporation in 1921, he established a produce buying and transport business and became one of the wealthiest men, until he ascended the throne of his forefathers as the Ooni of Ife in 1930, where he reigned for 50 years, until his death in 1980. His business ingenuity gave birth to the establishment of Oduduwa College,through his efforts in 1932 and was also credited with the introduction of public amenities such as telephones in 1930, pipe borne water in 1946 and electricity in 1955 to Ile Ife. He built a magnificent mansion, the – ATOBATELE LODGE, before he ascended the throne of Ooni in 1930.


Olateru Olagbegi, Ladipo Ademola

Sir Olateru Olagbegi, Olowo of Owo (1941-1966) and later 1993-1998, was father to over 140 children, of which over 121 are University graduates. He was also a business colossus and lover of Lawn Tennis.

Sir Ladipo Ademola, Alake of Egbaland (1920-1962), was an educated Oba, with a deep sense of business. His son, Justice Adetokunbo Ademola, became the first indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria, in 1960.


Alhassan Dantata

Alhassan Dantata was born in 1877. He was a Northern Nigerian Kolanut trader and perhaps the richest man in West Africa at the time of his death in 1955. As a young man, Alhassan built his wealth from the scratch selling kolanuts, groundnuts and beads. Alhassan started business with the Europeans in 1912 and by 1918, he was already a produce buying agent for the Royal Niger Company. He dominated the groundnut purchasing business and by 1922, he became the wealthiest business man in Kano. He was prominent in Gold Coast (Ghana) and Nigeria as a notable business man. He later also became the Chief Produce Buyer for UAC in the entire Northern Nigeria and became a licensed exporter in 1914, just like UAC. He traded in cattle, groundnut, kola, beads and other precious things. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca via boat in early 1920 and had a stopover in England and also financed the pilgrimages of other Muslims.

In 1929, when the Bank of British West Africa, opened a branch in Kano, Dantata placed 20 carmel loads of silver coins in it (for religious reasons, his deposit collected no interest). He died in Kano on the 17th August 1955, having exhorted his children not to let his company, Alhassan Dantata & Sons, be broken up.

His achievement, is tied to the evolution and strengthening of the groundnut trade in the North and across Nigeria, as epitomized by the popular groundnut pyramid in Kano, which is now extinct. Dantata’s story is that of a determined individual who hold himself up by the shoe string of his own efforts.

The Dantata Empire has been able to survive through the ages and Dangote arguably, Nigeria’s richest man today, is from the family and was in fact set up in business by his maternal grandfather- Sanusi Dantata.


Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu

Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu was a Nigerian business man born in 1909 and was until his death in 1966 reputed also to be the wealthiest man in Black Africa. He started business when he left John Holt as a Tyre Sales Clerk to establish the multi-million pounds, Ojukwu Transport Company in order to improve the trading environment for Nigerian traders. He was a tireless worker and was meticulous in his business dealings. He invested in the real estate sector of the Nigerian Economy. His transport company was the first major one to move people to Lagos from Asaba end of River Niger, through his popular “Mammy Wagons”. As a result of foresight, patriotism, and shrewd business sense and a disciplined business work ethic, Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu dominated the Nigerian business space like a colossus.

Interestingly, the Queen of England- Queen Elizabeth II, on her maiden visit to Nigeria, in 1956, was driven by Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu’s personal driver in Ojukwu’s Roy’sRoyce, the most expensive vehicle at that time. It was also observed, that Da Rocha’s daughter, presented the Queen with a bouquet of flowers, perhaps to appreciate these entrepreneurial patriarchs.


Adeola, Jimoh Odutola

Other amazing early contributors to the Nigerian economic business space were two business mavericks and titans of the same parents- Adeola Odutola (1902-1995), and his younger brother- Jimoh Odutola (1905-2010). Adeola was literate and a Christian. Jimoh, though not literate, was a self trained man and till his death, spoke impeccable English and wrote like a professor. He was a Muslim. Their father was a Muslim, whilst their mother-Sabainah, was a Christian. Adeola started private trade in 1921 whilst working as a clerk in Ijebu-Native Administration, but resigned into full time business-private entrepreneurship in 1932, when he opened damask stores, fish stores in various cities of Western Nigeria, such as Ife, Ibadan, Ilesha and Lagos.

He thereafter entered Cocoa and Palm trading business and started exporting the produce and products to the United Kingdom. He also ventured into Sawmill and Gold mining at Ilesha and he was a major agent for John Holt in Nigeria. As a distinguished and notable Nigerian entrepreneur, he ventured into the production of rubber, goods, tyres and tubes. He established various factories in Nigeria, spanning the transport and food industry, breweries and beverages, and built a Secondary School in ijebu-ode- Adeola Odutola College.

In his early years in business, he went into a partnership that could not last- “the Odutola Brothers”- with his younger brother-Jimoh Odutola. However, his non-literate brother-Jimoh, started business in 1921 at the age of 16 with 6 pounds. Jimoh started the first tyre factory in Nigeria, the first Foam factory in West Africa and the first man to discover raw gold in Nigeria. According to Jimoh, the engine of growth and development of any country rest on its industrialists.

The Odutola partnership lasted between 1932-1948. Jimoh’s Tyre Company was invited by the governments of Kenya and Ghana to come and set up similar factories.

By 1951, he had opened office in the United Kingdom and was reported to be the first African to visit the North Pole, the same year from Tokyo, to Alaska, Alaska to Copenhagen. He had vast estates across Nigeria- Ibadan, Benin, Onitsha, Kano, etc. He lived to the ripe age of 105 years and remained throughout an epitome of modesty. Interestingly, Adeola was the father of Prof. (Mrs.) Oyin Olurin- a doyen of Ophthalmology in Nigeria, whilst Jimoh, was also father of Prof. Mrs. Ebun Clark, a pioneer professor of Theatre Arts in Nigeria and wife of Prof. J.P Clark.


T.A. Oni

It would still not be easy to forget the pioneering efforts of Chief Theophilus Adediran Oni, popularly known as (T.A.Oni & sons) – (adulterated by the Ibadan people then as “oni-osunwon”) in the building and construction industry in Nigeria. He was born in 1913 and died February 1975. His company was first indigenous construction company in Nigeria. Constructed and completed roads and historical buildings over the years, including Asaba-Ogwashukwu Road, Obiarukwu-Sapele Warri Road, Ife Township Road, Ibadan/Iwo Road, Ilishan-Iperu Road(Ogun), Nawa to Yauri Road(Niger state), Ibadan-Oshogbo road (Osun) Opeki Bridge, Flats for Members of Assembly, Lugard Avenue Ikoyi Lagos, WAEC Quarters, Yaba Lagos, just to mention a few. His most notable act of kindness was willing his Family Estate to charity.

As a high level degree of philanthropy, he willed his residence, “Goodwill House” to the Oyo/Western State Government, to be used as a Pediatric Hospital, which is now known as Chief T.A. Oni Memorial Children Hospital, Ibadan.

This sprawling family estate and residence, was cited on a 15 acre piece of land, 65 rooms with all the modern conveniences, Olympic size swimming pool, stable for horses and fountains etc. He was indeed a true philanthropist.


Bisoye Tejuosho

In the women folks were the likes of late Chief Mrs. Bisoye Tejuoso, a prominent Nigerian business woman from Abeokuta, who started trading from Zaria,was born in1918 and started trading at the age of 18. She joined her husband then working with the Nigerian Railways in the Northern Nigeria and relocated back to Lagos in the early 1950s to become an agent of the UAC and Vono industry and later set up a Teju industry, a firm specialized in foam manufacturing. She was the mother of Osile Oke-Ona of Egbaland, Oba (Dr) Adedapo Tejuoso.


Humoani Alaga, Janet Alatede Aboderin

Alhaja Humoani Alaga and Madam Janet Alatede Aboderin- (mother of Moyosore, Olu Aboderin and Ajibola Ogunsola), Alhaja Rabiatu Adedigba Akindele- (mother of Chief Bode Akindele) and the first Ibadan woman to go on holy pilgrimage, were also great Ibadan women of great business acumen in the early days. Mama Chief HID Awolowo was also prominent in the textile business and her textile store in Gbagi, Ibadan, known as “Awolowo Corner”, was very prominent.

As resentment to non-admission of Christian girls to a Girls mission school in Ibadan, Alhaja Humoani Alaga, singlehandedly established Isabatudeen Girl’s Grammar School, Ibadan, in1964. She established her textile trading business in 1928 and by 1933; she had become one of the most successful merchants and had properties in the United Kingdom.


Succeeding Generations of Wealthy Entreprenuers

The succeeding generations of the Adebisi’s, Agbaje’s, Odutolas’ were the likes of Henry Fajemirokun, Chief Michael Ibru, Chief Bode Akindele, Chief Bode Amoo, Chief S.B Bakare, Chief Isaac Ajanaku, Sir Lawrence Omole, Prince Samuel Ogundele Adedoyin- a business mogul, who started business as an itinerant trader,Wahab Iyanda Folawiyo, Jimoh Ibrahim Inaolaji of Ikire, Adekambi Amao- aka “Ti Oluwa ni ‘Yoose A.Amao”- of Ibadan, Rev. Fagboyegun in Owo, Chief Iromini in Iwo, Alhaji Adetoro Lawal in Ede, Amuda Obelawo in Ejigbo, Chief Lawson in Abeokuta and Agbara Estate, Chief  Ayinla Olatunde Abudu in Abeokuta- a lawyer, industrialist and philanthropist, Chief Adeyemi Lawson- Chairman of West African Breweries, Abeokuta, maker of the then popular Top beer, Jimoh Oyewumi Ajagungbade, who later became Soun of Ogbomoso Land, made his money from Jos, in the early 1950s. He was a business giant; Chief S.O. Bakare (Oluwa lo gbon Motors), an astute business genius and Iyalode Wulemotu Aduke Kehinde- late Iyalode of Gbongan Land.

Wulemotu Aduke Kehinde, pioneered the distillery of Local Gin, using brewed tea, as a colourant, known in the Gbongan  neighborhood then, as,- “Ogogoro Wule” in the 1960s, and also diversified into produce buying, transportation, sawmill and Petroleum business. She was described in a tribute by Justice Bolarinwa Oyegoke Babalakin, – a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, as a woman of “business sagacity”.


Oloyede Fajemirokun

Henry Oloyede Fajemirokun started business in 1956, which at the time of his death in 1978 spanned a whole spectrum of ventures, from Insurance, Engineering and Supplying. To sustain his legacy, he invited a University of Ibadan don and friend- Professor Ayo Ogunseye to oversee his business empire.

Michael Ibru, son of a missionary worker, who also worked at Igbobi Orthopedic Hospital, joined UAC in 1956 .He founded a partnership called Laibru, with Jimmy Large, an expatriate, and also a Taiwanese Company- Osadjere Fishing Company. He created one of the largest own Nigerian groups with investment in Fishing, Banking, Transportation, Palm Oil production, Tourism, Brewery, Timber and Poultry.

However, the most unfortunate and sad angle to this unfortunate success story of a sold and dynamic entrepreneurial spirit of the olden days of Nigeria, is the lack of an inter-generational succession plan, that could serve as a continuity of bold business success stories, that would live from generation to generation; but rather, our streets are replete with the story of men of yesterday’s money, popularly called by the Yoruba as “olowoana” or “Elesin ana”

Unlike in the advanced societies, where we have living and surviving business empires in Arthur Guinness since 1777, the Vanderbilt family who made their fortune in the rail-road industry and became a wealthy popular family in the USA- in the last 200 years, the Macmillan Family (Macmillan publishers) in the publishing industry, founded by Daniel and Alexandra Macmillan since 1843, the Evans family (Evans publishers), etc. Arthur Guinness signature is still copied on every label of bottled Guinness. Harold Macmillan was a British  Prime-Minister between 1957-1963, he was born of the popular Macmillan family and retired back to the Publishing family business after leaving office as Prime Minister of Britain in 1964 and was in the publishing business until he died in 1986. However, a lot of business empires have crumbled or collapsed in Nigeria, because there is no continuity on the part of the descendants and their fortunes, have gone with their founders and declining dynasties. It is therefore imperative that we re-echo the same point that a nation can only grow, through the industry and indefatigable efforts of its men of commerce. Politics, however alluring, should not subjugate commerce, enterprise and industry, otherwise; the Nigerian Tiger would find it difficult to display its“Tigertrude” in the committee of advanced societies.

*Hon. Kehinde, former House of Representatives Member representing Ayedire/Iwo/Ola-Oluwa Federal Constituency of Osun State (1999-2003), is Principal Partner Femi Kehinde & Co (Solicitors) 84, Iwo Road, Ibadan.


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  1. I have gained a lot reading this, kudos to Barrister Kehinde. I think he should be of my descendant by the virtue of Oke Apata in Gbongan. Thumb up Bro!!!


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