“Africa is the fastest growing continent in the world. It is very important for African countries to position themselves to take advantage of this focus on Africa in the future, so that we can really start fulfilling our own potential,” said businessman Laolu Saraki.
Proudly Nigerian and African, Laolu believes the African continent, is full of opportunities and that despite its multifarious problems, Africa is indeed rising.
In this exclusive interview, he sheds more light on these opportunities and why the continent is an investor’s paradise, among other issues.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How was growing up like for you, especially with a famous father like the late Dr. Olusola Saraki?
Laolu Saraki: To me my father was not in any way famous and I was not aware that he had a life apart from being my father. I knew he was an extremely busy man that travelled but he was there most of the time. He did all his fatherly duties, he was strict, we had responsibilities, and good behavior was highly important to him. He was a disciplinarian and made sure everybody did the right thing and that we took care of each other.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What are the ideals you learnt from your dad?
Laolu Saraki: His relationship with Kwara State was something that was very close to his heart; they were his other family. My father was compassionate, he was generous and everybody’s well-being and welfare was important to him. This was also partly because he was a medical doctor. He was caring, a bridge builder that believed in working together to solve problems. These are the ideals that made him nurture such a long relationship with Kwara State and its people, and these are important values he instilled in me. There’s always a way of solving a problem and working with somebody – you must be willing to put self interest aside and look out for the well-being of others. I think that really was one of his key goals.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You could have lived anywhere in the world but you chose to come back to Africa, why?
Laolu Saraki: You say that I had a choice but I think many people would like to live in a country where they are from and I’m definitely no exception to that. I did go to boarding school at a very early age and that’s because at that time my father was involved in politics. So, I think he felt it was better for me to have a disciplined education while he was away. I used to come back regularly for holidays but I’ve always wanted to come back to live permanently in Nigeria and it was only natural that, after finishing my studies, I would do that. First of all, the weather, I don’t think you can enjoy anything like the African sun, the people and the lifestyle, there’s nothing like being at home. The question should have been, ‘Is there anywhere else you could live in the world apart from Nigeria?’
Sam Umukoro Interview: I know you are very ‘proudly Nigerian’ and ‘proudly African’. Why do you believe in the African renaissance – in business and other areas – despite the endemic corruption and negative indices on the continent people usually point to?
Laolu Saraki: I think it is a very shallow way to look at Africa as a place filled with corruption. Yes, we are laden with our own problems, just like anywhere else, but I believe these are slowly becoming things of the past. Africa is blessed with opportunities, fantastic landscapes and different types of culture. I think it is narrow-minded for people not to see it this way or envision its long-term growth. In terms of opportunities Africa is the fastest growing continent in the world. It is important for African countries to position themselves to take advantage of this focus on Africa in the future, so that we can really start fulfilling our own potential.
Sam Umukoro Interview: I walked into your office and saw the various art works collected from your travels across the continent. Why the interest in African art?
Laolu Saraki: African art has been my passion ever since I returned to Nigeria. I have developed close relationships with artists and musicians. It actually started through a friend of mine who had a gallery called ‘Nimbus’. Our culture is full of such exciting people with amazing talents that make me feel extremely fortunate to be part of the whole African revolution, as well as its cultural and artistic development.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Do you subscribe to that notion that Africa is truly rising?
Laolu Saraki: Yes, Africa is rising, in many different ways, socially, financially. For instance, I remember when I first came back to live in the country, the only music we ever listened to were by American artists. Today all you hear, everywhere you go, restaurants, bars, hotel lobbies are Nigerian musicians. So, that is development. You travel around and see international brands everywhere, subscribing to the African or Nigerian culture, changing their products to suit the environment. I have friends like Folake who used to make summer linens for us when we were younger, now she’s has catwalk shows in New York, Paris and Cape Town. There are so many examples. Africa is definitely rising!
Sam Umukoro Interview: From your experience in doing business in this region, what is your advice to a potential investor who wants to come to Nigeria or Africa?
Laolu Saraki: I have worked in both the private sector and public sector. Yes, Nigeria, like Africa, has its own peculiarities in doing business. But my advice would be that one should be diligent, do your research, have clear objectives as to what you want to achieve. A lot of times foreign investors are misguided or they have simply misunderstood the local landscape. Nevertheless, a real investor will do the hard work and spend time to try and understand the environment to offer real solutions. A lot depends on relationships and personality. This should not be underestimated in Africa.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What is your motivation in life?
Laolu Saraki: I like to see development and real change. I want to have a positive impact on those around me. I like working with people, setting up tasks and achieving goals, together. I grew up with so many people in my life and it dawned on me that my father made a great impact in their lives one way or the other and that was a constant source of happiness for him. I would like that to be the same for me.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Do you see Nigeria becoming a major player among emerging countries in the world?
Laolu Saraki: Yes, definitely. And I believe it’s much sooner than we realize. Of course, to some extent we are dealing with certain issues like any other new democracy, and we are trying to find our feet, understand the dividing line, opposition, and policies. Recently, Nigeria was described as one of the new emerging markets for the decade, it is said that young, active and vibrant Nigerians are putting out the old and bringing in the new. It’s clearly visible in Lagos where international brands are clamoring to enter the market. My sister recently opened Ermenegildo Zegna, the leading luxury fashion label for men in the world. This is only the beginning. I’m sure that by the end of the year there will be many of such companies in Nigeria
Sam Umukoro Interview: Your wife recently gave birth to twins, how does it feel like being a father?
Laolu Saraki: It’s definitely a new thing, a complete change of life. I’m very happy and very lucky. It’s one of those things everyone kept saying that you couldn’t describe it until it happens; they were right! My mother and sisters are delighted. We are all very close. The boys, Sola and Lani, have given me a new reason for living. My wife Carolina and I are extremely excited and look forward to being a strong positive influence in their lives so they can go forward and make us proud. We know being a parent or child is not easy and it is not a given that we get it right. Therefore, we will draw from our personal experience to guide us.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You are an outdoor person and I know you also like the water a lot, when did it start?
Laolu Saraki: Carolina and I enjoys the outdoors especially being out on the water. From beaches to farms we take advantage of every outdoor situation. In my prep school we had large acres of school grounds, which I realize, on hindsight, was probably the beginning of my love for the outdoors. By the time I was in my late 20s, I had substituted farms for beaches and cars for boats. We like nothing more than heading to Agaja beach or docking at Illetes beach where she and her family spend their summers. We both have interests in sports, from tennis to skiing, and Carolina is a keen diver.
Sam Umukoro Interview: In a nutshell what is your ambition in the Nigerian Marine Sector?
Laolu Saraki: In a nutshell, to take advantage of the Nigerian Local Content Development Plan by developing true capacity in the marine oil and gas sector. I don’t think this government is given enough credit for what it has managed to do with regards to local content. It will have one of the biggest impacts in the oil & gas sector by addressing the need to develop local expertise. The Local Content Act and the pursuit of its compliance by the Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board (NCDMB) and the Ministry of Petroleum are key milestones for Nigeria in this decade. With our partners the AP Moeller Maersk Group I hope that I will be able to enhance local development in this sector, where there is a real opportunity for participation due to the laws making our waters ‘truly Nigerian’.