Imasuen Amowie Izoduwa is the Chief Executive Officer of Ughoron Investment Limited, an indigenous real estate development company based in Benin City. In this interview with Chuks Oluigbo & Goodness Oyedun, Izoduwa throws light on the company’s business, Edo real estate market, the challenges with land administration, among others. Excerpts:

Let’s begin by asking you, what does Ughoron Investment Limited do?

We are a real estate development company. We develop lands and properties. We are trying to bridge the rural-urban gap. We look at potentials for development, then we go in there and bring into play modern architectural structures to see how we can develop the rural areas to catch up with the urban areas. That’s basically what we specialize in.

I am curious about the name of your company, Ughoron. Where does it come from?

I am a historian, and probably one of the youngest of my kind. I had always thought that, should I pick any endeavour in business, my historical knowledge must reflect in whatever I do. So, I represent the very earliest guild in Benin history and culture. The first guild that was ever created, not even in the era of the Obas of Benin but in the era of the Ogisos of Benin, they were called the Ughoron. The Benins called them Ughoron in the sense that they were the wisest people in the land. We refer to them as the heavenly people – ‘Evban Ughoron’ – because they were able to keep the history of the land and pass it on to other generations. At the turn of the second dynasty, they sort of phased out because the Benin people started telling their history using modern-day artworks – bronze, ivory, wood and all of that. So, the group sort of went into extinction, but I read much about them and I was also trying to pass the old history of the land to the modern generation. When it dawned on me that I needed to register a company name, I thought I should reflect everything that those people ever represented. They were ancient keepers of the land. It was very easy for me to pick up that as my company’s name, Ughoron Investment Limited, because of what they represented in the historiography of the Edo people.

How long has Ughoron been in business?

By April this year, we would have been four years in the business.

Could you share some of the experiences over these four years?

It has been very exciting. First, I have a little bit of experience about land administration because I was one of the pioneer staff of Edo Geographic Information Service (EdoGIS). I worked with EdoGIS for five months, from September 4, 2018 to January 31, 2019. Within those five months I spent working as a civil servant, I was able to gather some ideas about land administration in Edo State. By the way, that’s a beautiful masterpiece from the state governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, because it has digitized land administration. Land administration has been one of the paramount problems here in Edo State, so the governor coming up with that digital ideology to curb the sort of issues that concern land administration in the state was a masterstroke. I learnt from that same idea that the current governor brought. So, when I resigned from the civil service, originally I started by becoming an agent for C-of-O (Certificate of Ownership), so I started to do C-of-O, but along the line, I started to see possibilities of coming up with my estate. It wasn’t really easy, but obviously I was very determined. I always tell everybody this story. In less than four years I have been able to build the company up from N4 million, because the company started with N4 million. My mum lent me N2 million, one of my brothers lent me N1 million, and an anonymous friend lent me another N1 million which I deposited for the first estate that we started; that was Ise Estate Phase 1, at Evbuekpen, a community you can access through Ogheghe, that is, after the Sapele Road Bypass, or through Irhirhi. After Ogheghe you get to Obagie N’vosa, then you get to Obayanto. Obagie N’vosa is where the Edo State government is building its estate, Coral City.

At the beginning I was told I needed to deposit some money, and when I made that first deposit I was given 20 plots. In three weeks, I sold the 20 plots and paid what I owed them, so they gave me extra 40 plots and in about three months, I sold everything. I made a profit of about N18 million, so I went to Aduwawa where we have our Ise Estate Phase 2. I got another 100 plots. After that, in about three months again I came back to Evbuekpen because they had another set of plots. So I started my Phase 3. In less than six months, we went to Abuja, that’s where we have our Ere Royal Court. Then we had our Ise Estate Phase 4 at Ureghen, Upper Airport Road, before we started our two mega projects which we call Ere Royal Estate and Ere Royal Villa. These are the two projects that are currently redefining real housing estate. So, within a space of four years, we have been able to grow out estate company from the N4 million that I borrowed to a multimillion-naira company. Our current project, Ere Villa, is N2 billion in worth. That’s our success story. We started very little but we were very determined and we worked really hard and that’s what has taken us to the place that we are today.

What’s your general assessment of the real estate investment climate in Edo State?

Related News

The market is pretty young in comparison to places like Lagos, Abuja or even Port Harcourt. It’s very young but it’s thriving. One of the reasons I picked interest in this is because of the problems that have to do with land administration as I said earlier. The communal land administration, basing the land administration in the hands of community leaders, has not really augured well in Benin City. It’s one of the most faulty systemic ways of land sales. I knew because I am a son of the soil, I have seen all of these problems affecting everybody. I knew that people have to start getting involved in land administration in order for us to solve this problem. Obviously, everybody is aware of the multiple sales of the same land, communal crises and all of that and that is what real housing estate is trying to fix.

Coming back to your question, the market is very young. Real housing estate started basically about three to four years ago. I’m not saying there weren’t other real estate companies that are probably 10 years old, but they were not operating at the very established level of what an estate should be like. What we now call estate basically started about three years ago in Benin. So, it’s still quite young compared to the maladministration of land in Benin City which has taken so long. We are going to solve all these problems because that is why we are here. Almost four years since our company started, we have not run into any trouble for once, that’s because of my background working with EdoGIS. We take all our precautionary measures. We look at all lands to ensure that it is not government land. All the government reserves, we even have the maps here at the office. So when we go to communities that we know that there is a government reserve, we have to get clearance from the EdoGIS to ensure that the particular land of our interest is not in government reserve or acquisition or Oba’s land or that other persons have detailed their documentations of the land before us. These are the things, and that’s why we have not run into any problem for once in our dealings. Real estate is still young but in the next couple of years, it is going to reduce land-related problems drastically from a 100 per cent to probably 20 per cent. People still do not trust the industry enough because it’s still too young to correct all of these anomalies but in a couple of years, we will be able to correct that and people can buy from real housing estates just as they have been buying from us and have their mind at peace.

You said that the market is young and thriving. What do you think is driving the market? What is making it thrive?

Statistically, Edo people are one of the best land buyers in Nigeria. It’s easy for you to say no, it is the Igbos, but if you rationalize the percentage of the population, you will see that the Edo people statistically are the best land buyers. Let’s assume that the Igbo population is 30 million and Edo population is 5 million. Of that 30 million Igbo population, maybe it’s about 10 million of them that are really buying land, that’s about 30 per cent. But Edo where we are 5 million, I can tell you categorically that over 3 million people buy land. When you analyse it you see that over 60 per cent of Edo people buy land. So, it’s a thriving industry because the Edo people like acquiring property, but they stopped buying lands here because they no longer trusted the system. The system was no longer favourable to them, instead they were taking their wealth to other places like Lagos and Abuja. Of about 60 people that purchased our land in Abuja, about 50 of them were Edo people. We have the statistics. Even the estate developer that I bought the land from in Abuja told me that his best customers are Edo people and they have the highest numbers. When you go to places like Lagos Island and developing places like Epe, Ibeju-Lekki and all the others, you would predominantly see Edo people dominating buying of these properties. In other words, the Edo people were already accustomed to acquire properties; it’s sort of part of our DNA. So, Edo State is supposed to be a place that thrives in sales of land. It’s already a market of its own based on the ideology of the Edo man but they did not see it as beneficial to them. We have probably the highest diaspora base per state in the entire country. We are not saying per tribe because the Yorubas have six states, the Igbos have five states, but the Edo people have one state. Majority of these people in the diaspora want to come home and have properties, but they just want something that they could invest in that could secure their money and which communities have not been doing. So, when they now saw people that they were used to, people that have been very vocal socio-culturally and historical-wise and all of that – when they saw my face, when they saw my company’s face, they were able to put a name to the face and it was very easy for us to start making sales. I can guarantee you that in these almost four years of our business, we have never run into one trouble. No one has ever bought land from us and returned to say that it was a government reserve. Our oldest estate is about four years now, and no one has gone there to disturb anyone. So when the Edo people see all this transparency, they are really very happy to want to key into it. Like I said, it’s already a thriving market, they just needed a trusted brand to associate with and that’s what our brand represents.

We read in the news that your company approached the Commissioner of Police asking for a portion in the community to build a police station. What led to this?

We are a customer-friendly company. If you see the layout of the estate, it has always been there that there would be a police station in the estate. I had a conversation with one of my clients recently who bought from Ere Royal and he said to me, ‘I have N50 million that I can invest in your property. You people are currently selling houses in Ere Villa. If I buy a property worth N100 million in your estate today, what about security? I already have several properties in Benin but whenever I come to Benin I still would sleep in an hotel.’ Most diasporans have houses, lands here in Benin but many of them don’t stay. A considerable number of them don’t stay in their houses except the ones that have houses in central Benin like GRA and all of that, and all of them say the same thing. Security is very paramount. We can secure your land but how secure is the area for you to live there? When I had that conversation, I figured out that part of the master plan of the estate was to build a police station where you have to bring the security architecture down to the environment of the estate. That would give people assurances that whenever they invest, even if it is N5 million, they know that they are secured. When they build their houses they can move in, when they come in from wherever they live, even if it is overseas, they can have that rest of mind that their security is well assured.

So, as I said, we are client-based company, we listen to the complaints of our respective clients and we use the complaints of our clients to fix the day-to-day problems, and one of the key problems we all face in Nigeria is insecurity. We figured out that there is bureaucracy in every institution. If we now say the police should come and build a police station, it would probably take years. So, if someone is investing N10 million in our estate, I should be able to ensure as a company that the person’s property is secured and is liveable for the person. That’s why we came up with the idea of writing to the Commissioner of Police with a proposal that we can build a police post here at the minimum, what would it take? And we have been told. After we met with the Commissioner of Police, he sent the OC Works, they have gone to check the site and we are currently preparing the site for construction. Before the end of this month we are going to start the construction. In about a year or two we would be done with everything and we would hand it over to the Police Force so that they can post police officers down to the estate to man that post so that our estate is guaranteed 24-hour security as well as the environment. So, it’s not as if we are rich, obviously we are not even the richest indigenous estate development company in Benin but we take pride in giving our people genuine properties and also securing those properties for them, and building a police station is one of the steps we feel that we need to take to actually secure the property. That’s what inspired us.

The way the economy is right now, many people are just focusing on how to eat and stay alive. How are you finding business at this point?

I think when we were in primary or secondary school, we were told about the primary needs of humans. Food is one of them, shelter is the other one. People need food as much as they need shelter and that’s what we are attending to. The population of the country increases exponentially every day, so we have to come up with systemic ways to ensure the aspect of shelter, providing accommodation as best as we possibly can. People are still managing to find food to eat, and the meagre resources that they have managed to save, they use it to buy land and they don’t even see the land. That’s sad, and that’s what we are ensuring that it does not happen anymore as far as Edo State is concerned. If you have been able to take care of food and you now want to convert your meagre resources that you have gathered over a period of time into shelter, which is land and housing, then we should as a company be able to ensure that your meagre resources are protected and that’s exactly why we are here. So, shelter is a primary need of every human and that’s what we represent.

We understand the economic crisis but that’s why we also do everything humanly possible to not raise the cost of our properties too high. There are other estates around us who sell double our prices but we still find ways to bring our prices down so that we can meet the needs of people.