by Goke Oyeniyi
Like Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, the former LA Lakers legend-turned business-mogul-worth- $500 million, Port Harcourt-born Obinna Ekezie had no idea when he was drafted to the NBA in 1999 that he would retire early from a successful professional basketball career.
He left Nigeria at 18 for the United States. He earned a full athletic scholarship at the University of Maryland from 1995 – 1999, and played for five teams in the National Basketball Association (NBA). He also represented Nigeria at the World Championships of Basketball in Athens, Greece in 1998.
Perhaps the stereotypical ‘Igbo boy’, the business took over when he stumbled on an untapped goldmine in the Nigerian travel booking space. Just before this, courtesy of a 2005 injury, he had begun to think seriously about life after basketball.
The opportunity he discovered in travel was so “massive” the Atlantic Hawks forward promptly drew that curtain on his multimillion dollar-earning 8-year career.
“When I came back to Nigeria and tried to book a flight, there were only brick and mortar travel agents and online booking was non-existent.,” he recalls. “Booking arrangement was manual, tedious and opaque. I couldn’t see what the reps were doing behind their computers. I couldn’t see the fares. I couldn’t see the options.”
Asides the impediment to getting the best deals, payment was cumbersome; primarily through bulk cash. The diaspora-based Nigerian was without a local bank account and credit cards were of no use as the country lacked electronic payment infrastructure at the time.
Before Ekezie’s next visit however, the country had started seeing impressive internet penetration and was opening up to the use of electronic payment cards. The prospects of making travel bookings from anywhere at the press of a button was looking up.
The way Ekezie saw it, the Nigerian market, with over 1.5 million travellers in 2007, had become ripe with profits for any innovative business that could leverage technology to bring ease and cheaper rates options into its burgeoning travel space.
Expedia Inc, a US-based group founded as a division of Microsoft in 1996, was one such pioneer deploying the model in developed markets – becoming world’s largest travel technology player.
The parent company, with several global online travel subsidiaries including Expedia.com and Hotels.com, generated $4.030 billion in revenues in 2012 with a net profit of $303 million. Despite its huge financials and market leadership, shares of Expedia plummeted 27 percent in July to an 8-year all time low, as stiffer competition in the saturated American and European market forced it to miss its second-quarter profits projection.
But there are markets yet unexplored. Like Nigeria’s. And Africa’s. With tens of millions of flight and hotel bookings annually, it was – still is – much less occupied by travel technology players.
Fasten your seatbelts
Enter February 2008. Okezie, in partnership with a banker friend Ralph Tamuno, founded Zeep Travel, a closed B2B hotel reservation online platform for travel agents.
After an initial 2-year gruelling building phase, Zeep Travel – which has transformed into Wakanow – gained significant traction on the back of its selection as the official ‘ticketeer’ for the South African 2010 World Cup.
The same year, Wakanow broke through courtesy of an impressive CNBC Wakanow feature. It was seen by executives of the New York-based multibillion dollar investor Tiger Global, resulting in an undisclosed multimillion dollar venture capital investment in the travel technology start-up.
“I didn’t even know who they were!” Ekezie exclaims. “An exec just contacted me on LinkedIn and they put enough (money) for us to get going.”
Tiger Global only gained widespread recognition on the Nigerian tech scene two years after, following an $8 million 2-line tranche investment in Jason Njoku’s iROKO TV; a jawdropping VC push that skyrocketed the Nollywood internet distribution entrepreneur to geek stardom.
The timely financial arm shot from Tiger Global bolstered Wakanow’s expansion to flight bookings, visa processing, pick-up services and B2C hotel reservations with a plugin to over 45,000 hotels worldwide. Also, its 15-member staff developed to a 180-man strong workforce, mostly constituted of near-30 year old female customer service reps.
A traffic graph of Wakanow.com on Alexa, Amazon’s website ranking platform, plots the page views of the Nigerian travel engine spiking over hundred percent at the beginning of the year and now currently ranking around the 5,000th world’s most visited site and Nigeria’s 36th.
According to Ekezie, the business has waxed a 2000-plus percentage growth since inception and currently registers about 500 bookings daily, with flight bookings making the largest number of sales, followed by hotel reservations and visa processing.
Under the radar
The wonder is how quiet he has been about all of this.
The Wakanow head office sits quietly beside the internationally renowned Nike Art Gallery, tucked away on a distant dusty stretch in Lekki, Lagos.
For Ekezie, the location could not be any better.
“Many people don’t know we’re here and we are doing our business quietly,” he says.
Indeed, when it comes to self-effacement, Ekezie makes relatively conservative peers on the local tech scene like Konga’s Sim Shagaya, Paga’s Tayo Oviosu and Jumia’s Tunde Kehinde look like fame mongers.
Which is rather surprising for a man who looks made for the cameras. His physical presence is imposing; the former Atlantic Hawks forward packs a heavy build and stretches a towering 6 feet 10 – 2 inches taller than Miami Heats legend Lebron James.
Sitting up in a black leather executive seat in his office, with a glass-framed certificate of appreciation from Etihad Airways hanging on the cream coloured wall behind him, Ekezie’s experiences might have taught him the value of silence.
For one, he lost at least a million dollars trying to build a Kayak.com-like business in a partnership that went sour – just before co-founding Zeep Travel.
To hear him tell it though, that initial failure was a very instructive attempt at travel technology business – giving him crucial insight “about travel industry and how large it was.”
Even then, building Nigeria’s largest travel technology company hasn’t been easy – especially with the systemic challenges to building any business in Nigeria, and especially one that depends on electricity and reliable internet.
Ekezie, however, said his team has put on a formidable offense. “The Wakanow online platform isn’t simply a website,” he says. “It’s an innovative booking engine that took 2 years to build,” during its first few years.
“Our front end is way more complicated than what you would see on a retail site. The real time information that displays on the front end is coming from somewhere. It’s real time. So it’s just not a website, it’s an engine.”
This is obviously a subject that animates him, as he leans forward to drive the point home: “We had to build the technology and content from scratch because there was no blueprint to follow. We had to develop our own relationship with suppliers at a time when nobody knew what we were talking about. They did not know the benefits of being placed online.”
In comparison, it took over six months for Hotels.ng, a competitor in the local hotel booking space – which is only one of Wakanow’s operating category – to complete the software development of its current 5,000-hotel strong database. In 2012, the Mark Essien-led start-up gathered data by paying N700 to anyone across the country who could take and send photographs and booking rates of hotels.
Then, while distrust for online businesses have become a little bit less of a problem since he started the business in 2008, other problems remain. Like tortuous visa processes.
“It’s because of the ease of the visa process,” he shares. “That’s why Dubai is the highest destination for Nigerians ahead of the UK, US respectively.”
Then there is the matter of the poor economic conditions of the vast majority, one that inhibits travel for many Nigerians; a people who – he insists – actually love travelling.
According to him, only 3 million of Nigeria’s 160 million people travelled in 2012; a sour development, albeit one that has prompted further innovation. An assessment of the fact prompted the launch of a Wakanow product that lets consumers pay in installments for flights and travel packages.
There is also the challenge of lending, which also limits the growth of the industry. In Nigeria, credit systems are not yet comfortable with lending to the masses in a absence of a proper identity management system to track and locate lenders.
Ekezie think the collaboration of banks with Credit Suisse and other incoming credit unions is going to power up data on Nigerian consumers and eventually enable lenders in the future to provide credit.
But he is not waiting until that happens.
Wakanow is aggressively looking to multiply sales and increase market share as Nigeria, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, has been witnessing sporadic influx of foreign investors, increased business activity and a steady middle class rise with more disposable income.
International airlines have acquired more aircrafts and increased flights to and fro the country to tap into a perceived increased demand. According to reports, the Nigerian hospitality industry estimated a 16 percent increase of 7,460 additional hotel rooms in 2013 in earnest of a much-touted prospect of the market. In the year, international hospitality powerhouses including Marriot, Southern Sun, Best Western, and Hilton, operating in global crunch-affected markets, made aggressive push into the local space in frantic search for high-growth to consolidate their global standing.
Similarly, Obinna says Wakanow plans to increase its physical presence with the establishment of more access points across the country. It recently opened a Dubai outpost, encouraged by Nigeria’s heavy outbound Dubai visits, and plans to expand its model to Ghana next year, with Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania following soon.
The travel technology firm also recently hired a Software Lead to revamp its front end development and make an aggressive push into the buzzing mobile space.
In the next five years, Ekezie adds, the firm will develop its human capacity with about 500 hires to drive its next phase.
Sit back and relax
Obinna Ekezie enjoyed an enviable though short career at top level professional basketball playing for major teams including Washington Wizards, Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers, LA Clippers, Vancouver Grizzlies and Atlantic Hawks.
If you’re expecting to hear any regrets for dropping that for the hard slug of business, Ekezie isn’t your man. He misses playing on the court, he says, but he certainly doesn’t miss the 6-hour rigorous daily training sessions.
“Basketball is a very brutal and physical game!” he says, laughing. “I had two major surgeries. I’d rather just play my tennis now,”
As a young boy in Port Harcourt, watching Houston Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon on cable TV inspired his – yet undying – love for the game.
“A lot of Nigerians don’t even understand how big Hakeem Olajuwon is,” Ekezie says. “In the US, Olajuwon is a legend. He’s probably the best central of all time.”
Peter Eigbedion a.k.a Wordsmith Wellsaid, a poet and rapper, recalls that, on the streets of Port Harcourt, Ekezie was something of a local idol.
Just after studying computer engineering on a scholarship at the University of Maryland, he committed to motivating hopeful young talents and organised several basketball summer camps until local sports council officials reportedly demanded payments to permit the use of state facilities.
“They took equipments from him and locked them away for personal use,” Eigbedion says. Some even sold the things he brought for us.
Ekezie’s passion has not been killed though. “I am still very much interested in developing the game locally,” he says, adding that he will be rolling out initiatives in the near future. In November, he was in Abuja with Hakeem Olajuwon to cut the ribbon at an NBA Africa and Exxon Mobil partnered basketball court at a government secondary school in Garki, Abuja.
Ekezie can lay claim to a fine tradition of basketball athletes turned businessmen – including such as Chicago Bulls icon and “the greatest basketball player of all time” Michael Jordan as well as LA Lakers shooting guard Magic Johnson.
The Wakanow boss says it is no surprise: there’s a major correlation between being an athlete at top level and being in business. Being a sportsman at that level, he reveals, instils competitiveness, strategy and teamwork.
“Team work is very important in business,” he says. “What you see today is a product of the relationship with my partner. People that don’t know how to work with people are myopic in their thinking. They don’t have a collective vision. You need everybody; even the gate man. If he doesn’t open the gate for staff they can’t do their work.”
He certainly has a new team now, on a different court, and in a different game.
And he has competitors, including the South African online travel company Travelstart.
For now, Wakanow is the favourite. But as Ekezie already knows, you’ve got to keep your A-game on.
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