Ikechi Uko is one of the top players in Africa tourism. His initiative, ‘Akwaaba Africa Travel Market’, has grown in leaps and bounds as the only International Travel Fair in West Africa. The 16th Akwaaba event recently held in Lagos was a platform where different African tourist guides, tourism experts and airline operators converged. Countries like Ghana, Gambia, Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia had in their stand their country’s snacks, drinks and artifacts. In this interview with Saturday Sun, he talked about the tourism industry, his lifestyle and lots more.
Why is tourism industry in Nigeria such a difficult one compared to Ghana and Gambia?
It’s easy to explain that. Ghana and Gambia are established destinations. In 1970 to 1980 almost everywhere in Africa, their tourism had started by Europeans who settled in those places and built the industry. In Nigeria, the Europeans who settled in Nigeria didn’t do tourism, they did oil business, they did other things, and they never helped us build our tourism environment. You can’t be an expert in something you do not know. We don’t have all that exposure when it comes to tourism business in the 60s and in 70s. Gambia had British people that built its tourism even to some extent; Ghana had help from the Americans, So, Nigeria is growing its tourism from scratch. You can understand why we have all those teething problems. Gambia is a small country, so needs all the tourism. Nigeria we made a lot of money from oil so we didn’t think tourism was important. That is probably why we can see they are much more advanced than we are. It is not for any other reason but that particular reason.
Why did you name your tourism initiative Akwaaba, a Ghanaian word? Do you have any regret over that, being a Nigerian?
Where does the event take place? Do you want the glory of a name or do you want the substance of the product? I wanted to create a travel product and create it in Nigeria. I’m very happy that we have a successful product in its 15 years and we have actually gone ahead to create one in Ghana, which is in its fifth year and we are creating one in Gambia.
With same Akwaaba?
No, different name for each country. If the name Akwaaba has helped us succeed and it did, help us succeed. I can’t have regret for launching something in the world that is successful and has never worked before then. If it is the name that has made it successful, I should be excited that I chose well and I can tell you that the name is part of the success factors. Akwaaba is an Akan word that means ‘welcome’, and Akan is spoken in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. But the most important thing is that, it’s Nigeria that makes the money, the event is hosted in Nigeria, the hotel rooms are in Lagos, the transportation costs are in Lagos, the restaurants are in Lagos, the tourism dollar comes to Nigeria, so what benefits does Ghana get from the name? I have heard some people asking why you are using such names and they have tried to launch their own business with their name and it didn’t go beyond their family kitchen. English language is not a Nigerian, so when you do things and put an English name it is the same question. Do you have a regret for naming our football tournament Challenge Cup? why is it Challenge Cup? Why is it not a Nigerian name? You are proud to flaunt an English name. I’m an Igbo man who is doing an event in Lagos and who is doing an event for the whole of Africa, my language Igbo is not the most popular language in Africa, Yoruba is not the biggest language in Africa, if you want to do something remember, ‘it’s Akwaaba travel market’. It’s not a local thing I do. What we do represents Africa. So, why being selfish when talking of Africa, why are you localizing yourself? It’s like South African TV doing Big Brother Naija and not Big Brother South Africa. South Africans can get up and say DSTV why are you popularizing Nigeria? They have Africa Magic that shows Nigerian culture––you respond to the needs of your market! That was what we did and we are happy we got our business plans right.
What is the importance of this year’s Akwaaba?
In the past few years we have been trying to position Africa as a destination. Three years ago, we did Women in Tourism in Africa. Last year, we hosted 57 nations who came to Nigeria. It was the first women in tourism award. Last year, we did Africa tourism tour operators, where we brought together the tour operators that market Africa as a destination.
This year, we had the first tourism Africa diaspora conference. We are doing it in partnership with Caribbean Tourism Organization and also in partnership with so many diaspora organizations. This is the first time we brought Africa in diaspora to discuss tourism and travels. In the past, we brought Africans together; we are now trying to couple Africa and the Caribbean. This is the first time the two met anywhere on the African continent.
In all these, what lesson has life taught you as a person?
All sharks look like sharks. That is the first lesson you learn. Not everybody who acts, as your enemies are actually your enemies. There are people sent by God or by the environment to teach you lesson you needed to learn and you might be wrong in considering them enemies.
The same way there is a converse of it. Not everybody who claims to be your friend wanting to help you is actually your friend. The biggest success you get in life is the fact that you are able to adapt to whatever vicissitudes, whatever life throws at you. That ability to adapt to whatever environment I found myself is one of the biggest lessons life has taught me. Also, I have found that the biggest verse in the bible that says that chance happens to them all is actually true. The fastest doesn’t win, the strongest doesn’t win, the smartest doesn’t make money, life and chance happen to them all. So, those are two lessons I learnt. First, not everything you see is at it seems and secondly, nature, God, circumstances have roles to play.
You are neck-deep in tourism. At what point in your life did you decide to give tourism a shot?
I think part of the reasons probably I got to where I am now is that I made decisions early in life. I followed a path, which for the first three years of my adult life was untouchable, trying to do tourism and it couldn’t pay my bills. It couldn’t solve my problems. I struggled and struggled, but I stayed the path. Right from the time I was small, I was interested in new destination. While young people felt excited when they met a new girl, I felt excited when I get to a new town. So, I followed my friends to their villages and I travel for the sake of traveling. I had fun discovering new places. I really knew there was a desire in me to be in different places. All my dreams and desire is to go to many places including the moon. When I got posted to serve in Bauchi as a youth corps member, every other person in UI (University of Ibadan) who got posted to the north was crying. I was the guy most excited because this was what I wanted, because I wanted to go to somewhere different. I grew up in Enugu, I schooled in Ibadan, and I needed to go to the north. Then NYSC helped me. I have always had a desire to be in a business that had to do with movement. So, it wasn’t by accident I chose this path of business. I have had options to move to some other areas but I stayed back in tourism. I have had options to relocate. Every single friend of mine that was doing tourism promotion in the 1990s, probably only two of us are left in Nigeria. Others relocated to Europe and America. I stayed back in Nigeria. We struggled, fought all the demons, and I did swim against the current and I was privileged enough to survive. I learnt lessons. It was not by might. I was not smarter than the other guys. People said I had tenacity. I didn’t think I was more tenacious than the other guys but along the way, the tide turned and it turned to my favour.
Tell us your fond memories growing up?
My dad was a traveller. Now, we crack jokes. My mum left the greatest impression in all of us. She actually pointed us to a particular direction. She was a schoolteacher and she was attempting enterprise. We saw her selling stuffs along with whatever she was paid. My dad had a small bookshelf; this bookshelf had books that transformed me and my whole family. Every single person in my house today is of the intellectual mind and that small bookshelf made all the difference. One of the books made me what I am today. It’s a story about a man called David Livingstone. I’m a version of David Livingstone. Those things that he chose to do by going round discovering things ingrained in my young mind. So, I’m a modern day David Livingstone.
How do you relax?
Coming home is relaxation. Sitting down at the airport, thinking of home, getting to the house, sitting down, talking to everybody and do power breakfast is relaxation for me. Every breakfast in my house lasts for three hours. I sit at breakfast and we discuss everything after reading the bible. My kids, the ones that live in America tell you what they remember is breakfast with daddy. I’m a church person. Anytime I’m in Nigeria I go to church Saturday and Sunday. Part of it is that I believe there’s a particular power that preserves me. I’m in other peoples home, other people’s country, places; there’s violence all over the world, how come I turn up at places and get safe? I was in Sudan, the day their uprising started, I had left, and I was in Addis Ababa and heard there was a riot. I left on Friday, it started on Sunday. The same thing happened in Egypt in 2011; how do you get there and leave before the trouble started? I believe there is a power superior to mine. I read. I’m not heavy into music. The most important thing I enjoy is my own company. My job means meeting a thousand people in a day, I can do meetings 20 times but when I get to the hotel room, I want to be alone. My job is meetings, events, conferences, speaking and making presentation in many countries in the world, when I’m not doing that I want to be on my own.