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How I started Kaduna International Trade Fair – Alhaji Bawa Garba

Alhaji Bawa Garba is a man of many parts but mostly known for his pioneering business exploits across many sectors of the economy. In this…

Alhaji Bawa Garba is a man of many parts but mostly known for his pioneering business exploits across many sectors of the economy. In this interview he went down memory lane to recollect his experiences running those businesses. 

 

By Kabiru A. Yusuf 

 

I read somewhere that unlike many members of your generation who went to conventional schools and joined the civil service, you started business almost from the time you were a very small boy. How did that happen?

My father was a businessman and I was following him as early as seven years because in the morning, if I went to Islamic school and came back, they would not allow me to go to another school because they were missionary. More than 70 per cent of the people in Garkida were Christians, but in our area, known as Unguwar Hausa/Fulani, it was 100 per cent Muslims. That was how we lived. None of them agreed to send his child of more than 16 on Arabic. I can remember that it was our father and Emir Aliyu Mustapha who went on tour and came back to tell those in the Hausa/Fulani area to take their children to the missionary school, but we should come out during religion lessons. That was how we were put into primary school. But by the time we were about to reach senior class, they transferred us to Yola to continue schooling.

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So you went to Yola for secondary school?

No, I went to school in Girei, outside Garkida; and I stayed for some time in Song, after Girei. My mother came from Song and my father was from Garkida.

When we were in senior school in Girei, they came to recruit people for police. I was very energetic and a good footballer, as young as I was, so they said I should be one of those to be recruited. It was remaining few weeks for us to pass out. That was what brought me to Kaduna. 

My father’s friend was Ibrahim Biu, Sardauna’s minister. When I came, he said they would send me to Nortex. When I was sent to Nortex I was posted as a production clerk.

Were you recruited into the police? 

I was recruited and sent for training, but when I came to Kaduna and saw how the police was, I said I didn’t want it.  I told my godfather, the minister, that I was interested in business because that was what I was brought up in. He said alright, and they put me in the Northern Nigerian Textile Limited (Notex) as a production clerk. From there, I was employed as an account clerk by the Arewa Construction Company.  

While I was doing all these, things started changing my interest in business. The civil war came and the Igbo were leaving the North and I ended up being trained to handle a post office job in Kakuri, Kaduna south, and to be a vendor for the New Nigerian newspapers, which just started.

As early as 5am I would wake up to prepare my food for breakfast and so on, and go to my shop to give the vendors the papers to sell, then move again to the post office. Then the vehicle would take me to Notex. That was my work schedule.

Were you handling three jobs?

Yes, three things, and each of them was a moneymaking. I was interested in that.

Because of the civil war, I started a commercial school to learn how to type, shorthand, etc. I expanded from Kaduna to Gold Coast in Kaduna south because of the demand. I was given registration approval for the name of Arewa Advancement Classics under section 10 of the northern educational law. It was my late friend, Magaji Mohammed.

So you moved into education?

I moved into education to help my brothers’ children, but it was commercialised and I still made money out of it. And the vending and post office activities were still going on. 

Gold Coast Street could not accommodate the demand of the commercial institute because most of the Igbo doing those things were no longer there; only my school was there. I was given an abandoned property owned by the Igbo on Benue Road. That was how I got involved into school activities, training boys and sending them to the warfront. While that was going on, I became a journalist. Yes, you can call it that way.

There was a good relationship between Nigeria and the Soviet Union. They came to the North and wanted to meet people who were very energetic. When they came to Kaduna, somebody told them about me.

Alhaji Bawa Garba

 

You were already selling newspapers?  

Yes. Those they interviewed told them that I was the only one that could go to Lagos. That was my first time to go to Lagos-Vesti Press Agency, a Russian company.

They showed me what they wanted me to do in the North, which was to move a cultural magazine between the North and the Soviet Union. I was given a very good salary and a big vehicle. Gradually, I was given the second one. It was a very good position and I was making money; my institute was making money, as well as the post office. And the newspaper business continued. That was how I became exposed.

While all these were going on very well, I was happy and kept thinking of what to do next. So I changed Arewa Advancement Classics to Arewa Advancement Enterprises Limited. It became a limited liability company and I became an agent to the UTC, selling typewriters and a lot of things. I was making money and already used to Lagos.

That’s part of my exposure. I have been in Kaduna for more than 60 years, such that many people have been seeing me as a Kaduna indigene. Yes, I am a Kaduna indigene by being a resident. I hail from Adamawa but all my life has been in Kaduna. I have 13 children and 39 grandchildren.  

You were busy setting up businesses, at what point did you get married?

I married my first wife in 1965 and she has seven children for me. All my children are grown up. One of them is Mohammed, the managing director of the ABG Group of Companies, consisting of a nationwide Unity Transport, dealing in buses. We supplied 150 buses in 2005 and additional 150 in 2007 to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), valued at N2.8 billion then.

I was 80 years old on February 18. My life has been full of activities, not for the sake of money; it is helping me. I don’t look like I am 80 years old because I am still active. Even now, sometimes I stay till 11pm or 12am. Once I have something doing I have to do it.

At a time you went into satellite business; that’s what you were well known for. At what point did you do that?   

Before the satellite business, I was the one that pioneered the Kaduna International Trade Fair. I had a group of businessmen in Kaduna because of my exposure with the late Dogon Yaro. We were meeting. And the Lagos fair started only one or the second year I went to Lagos; and I saw it. Then something happened and I went to Germany –Novesti and Stuttgart. From there, when I went to the international trade fair, I saw a big dish showing me different parts of the world. That was how I became interested in anything electronics. 

I went to one stand and saw a display of Bosch product – Blapoon factory in Hildashine, Germany. I decided to visit the factory, where they assembled television sets. After seeing the assembly, I saw where they sold radio sets and discussed with them, saying I was interested to set up Blapoon business, which was under Bosch in Nigeria. They said Nigeria was a good place and gave me an agency.

That was what led me to the satellite field. When I came, I was selling televisions gradually. From there, I got the idea of assembling television sets. I built a factory in Kaduna at the Dandal Light Industrial area – Unguwan Muazu and employed a lot of workers. My partners in Germany had given me two Germans to train Nigerians so that we could produce a high quality television assembly for Nigerians. As big as a 27-inch television set was not up to N2,000; it was about N1,500. That was part of what led to my popularity.

The following year, in 1978, the ideas started coming from what I saw at the trade fair in Germany. I went to see the type of fairs they were doing in Lagos. When I saw that, I said Nigeria did not begin and end in Lagos, so why not set up such a thing in the North.

The ideas I gave to friends made them to call for a meeting of businessmen in the North. After explanation, all of them said I was right and should be the leader. I asked how much we were going to invest and we arrived at a budget of N10,000, but nobody had it.

N10,000?

Yes. Ten thousand naira of that time is more than N100 million today.  That was the capital. I said I was ready to sacrifice N10,000 for us to benefit from the training of the Blapoon and to expand to factories to employ many northerners. That was the idea. Somebody asked if I was mad to invest in the trade fair, wondering how I would recover the money?  

My townsman and a childhood friend, Alfa, was the administrator of Kaduna, so he allowed me to use any of the government-owned properties and vehicles.  

We decided to visit Germany. The person that encouraged us was Tatari Ali, the then governor of Bauchi State. He was the only governor who joined us to travel to Stuttgart, Germany. They organised a red carpet to receive us because they had never seen a delegation of many people like that from Nigeria. They were looking at us.

Then we went to visit Mercedes from its home to see how they were doing their things. That encouraged me in making sure that I sold car radio sets because they said they wanted to set up such a thing in Nigeria.  

Did you run the Kaduna trade fair?

That’s what I am telling you. I visited Netherland, London, Germany and Japan with the group and we ended up in America, Canada and some other countries. All these visits were part of that N10,000, but most of us made additional sponsorships.

We saw more than 84 companies in Germany and I gave them spaces in the land and I said I would refund their expenses.

I was convinced that I would recover that money and refund each of them whatever they spent. They were all impressed because they saw the sign with the number of companies coming from Germany, the United Kingdom and an observer group from America. Every small space was a lot of money. It was even more than N10,000 to give you one stand.  

The money we were getting from Germany was in dollars – 84 companies. I was lucky because Air Vice Marshall Alfa studied in Germany and spoke the German language. And the support the Kaduna State Government gave exposed the Kaduna Chamber more. That was the foundation of the trade fair.

The trade fair was the main reason I got exposed. Northern emirs did very well; namely, the late Usman Nagoggo of Katsina, Emir Bayero and Emir Zazzau. Other prominent emirs in the North, including my Baba of Adamawa, all came to the fair.

I introduced the arrangement to the police band. The ideas were coming and the reception was very good.  

Alpha commissioned the first Kaduna International Trade Fair on February 18, 1979. From there, companies in Lagos came. So, every year, people were booking and making money.  

We had a very small office in Kaduna, but we expanded and took over a building belonging to the late Bello on the way to Kakuri. We paid to occupy the first, second and ground floors. It was N2,000 but the money was big. Some people said it was expensive, but we paid. Every businessman wanted to be part of what we were doing and we charged them.   

How long did you associate with the Kaduna trade fair?  

By 1982 I said it was enough. I wanted to train somebody among my colleagues to take over because my post office and television businesses and other activities required my attention. But when they said it would collapse and told the Emir of Zazzau to stop me, I said I would add one year. We brought the late Muazu Maiyaki as my vice chairman, and the president of the Chamber, Dogon Yaro.

This system is still in existence. The Kaduna International Trade Fair is about 43 years now and I have been part of it, monitoring its activities to ensure that everything goes well.

The fair is to protect the interest of the North. It is to convince northerners to take to businesses of their interest. And after the fair they would sell the machines they are not returning to America at a giveaway price. But I gave instructions to participants from America that they should not sell to anybody until I saw the names and give approval; that’s all. I had to collect the names to make sure I knew the type of people I was approving machines for.

Kaduna Trade Fair is not what it used to be, what happened?

Not even 25 per cent of what it used to be.  

What do you think is the problem?

The Nigerian economy has changed things. It also affected my satellite business and others. When I could no longer get it the right way, I withdrew gradually.  

At what point did you realise that the satellite business was performing poorly and you had to stop?  

There was a new technology and dishes were everywhere; it was not as before that you had to go through me.  

The competition became so strong that I could not recover my investment in some states. I withdrew those that were not economically good and closed them up. I kept on reducing, and within five years, I ended up having only Lagos, Abuja and Kano. Eventually, I had to leave that field because the licences were consuming a lot of money.  

What is the state of the business now?  

The business has not closed down, but I am no longer involved in that activity. I changed to transportation. Nationwide Unity Transport was pioneered by me when the current governor Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai, was the minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). He was very energetic, with a lot of ideas. And when you put good ideas to him he would accept and give you support.

The government wanted buses in Abuja, which would cost a lot of money. The investment was about N1.8billion. I didn’t have N5million at that time, but I had ideas in billions, so I went to Brazil, which flight cost was also big. I gave them a lot of ideas and they supported it. They agreed to give me buses if I won the contract to supply them in Abuja. They gave me three years to pay. I was to operate the buses and send the money realised to Brazil every six months. That was how I started.

Two years after, the government saw that the partnership was good and wanted their buses, so I sold 150 of them to the FCT. These were the red buses –Abuja Urban Mass Transit. Today, after 17 years, some of these buses are still operating. That’s the business I am still doing, but in a different approach.  

I created something not more than six months ago, through which I am bringing buses of smaller and bigger capacities to give to young men and Nigerian graduates. Any of them that can read and write and can drive would be given a vehicle worth costing N8.750m. And he would pay me 15 per cent only. If you don’t have 15 per cent at once, you would sign an agreement that you would pay in installment. In the drive-ownership scheme, within four years you would own the vehicle after paying the 15 per cent; and the balance of 85 per cent will be spread within 48 months.  

Alhaji Bawa Garba

 

How many buses are you bringing for this scheme? 

I started with 150 in the FCT. The second batch was another 150, but I gave them a defer payment within four years. I increased the facility from three years to four. 

Brazil is willing to give me more buses in billions of dollars because of my past performance with them. As a result of credibility, the Exim Bank of Brazil is funding anything I need. They have now increased this opportunity for me for five years. 

I am projecting a minimum of 5,000 buses before the end of 2022. This number of buses means that 15,000 people will benefit for direct employment and eight people per bus for indirect employment.  

 The economy is changing things, so I am ready to do that with state governments that are investing in transportation. An interested state government would give me only 15 per cent and spread other payments. I can give them up to 200 buses, depending on the capacity of the state. For example, we have discussed with Kano State, which has thousands of tricycles (daidata sahu or Keke NAPEP). I think it is the largest in the North, if not Nigeria as a whole.  

With the outcome of my discussion with the Kano State Government under the managing director of the Kano Road Traffic Agency (KAROTA), they are giving me pilot scheme to start with 500 buses. After commissioning by the governor, the beneficiaries will be selected by the state government under a driver-ownership scheme. This is so that the beneficiaries of the vehicles will take good care of them. When the money is recovered, the keys of the buses would be handed to any of them that did very well. And that means goodbye to poverty.  

Many people will be surprised that at your age you are still involved in this kind of business; what was your motivation?  

It is God’s gift. I told you how I was following my father at the age of seven, so I got used to business activities. During the trade fair I worked till midnight. I take my job seriously.  

I trained my children to take over from me, but there’s no retirement because I am sure that if I retire I would be something else.

These days, how many hours do you put in the business daily? 

I put a minimum of seven hours sometimes, but it can be 10 or 12 hours, it depends. It is an interest.

Do you have an office or you operate from the house?

I have an office in my house. Everything I need is here and members of my staff are around. I am not doing this for money; it has become part of me.

Are your children also part of the business?

Yes; and they have been very good. All my children have been doing the same businesses with me, and they have been very active. I think I am lucky to have such children. Most of them are trained.

I am also into agriculture, but my main business now is transportation. And it has been very good. If all the 36 states, plus the FCT, would give me orders and sign agreements under the defer payment, every year we can empower 10,000 Nigerians. With that confidence I will give the buses on an e-payment facility, just like I grew my satellite.  

That’s why I feel comfortable and there’s nothing to worry me.  

Everything is planned administratively, using the automated e-payment ticketing system, which is everywhere in the developed countries of the world.  

It sounds like the kind of business you should leave for children who are information technology (IT) savvy?

Those who are not IT savvy come and we train them. I cannot even quantify the number of people my company trained in satellite installation in Nigeria; and that’s their means of livelihood.

You don’t need to be there to own this new driver-ownership scheme. You may want to help three or four boys, sisters or brothers, if you come to me I will give you the vehicles and they will look for drivers, who will operate them and give me N7,000 daily. They are making N15,000.  

Would you like to talk about your television days and Abacha, which became a bit controversial; what had the former head of states got to do with it, and how did you organise that thing?  

That’s what you call marketing strategy. It is a gift from God. I am close to the family through the wife. I know the children. During that time, when Transcorp Hilton was built, all the televisions were Blahpoon, then ABG in every room. The products were still coming from the German market and it was going very well, so I said if I made an Abacha brand it would catch up well. That was it and I sold the idea.  

You sold the idea to Abacha?  

I can’t tell you everything. Abacha had nothing to do with it and didn’t know about it; I only invited his wife.  

Could you have used his name without his knowledge?  

No. These are things I won’t tell you. The wife was very good; if you brought good ideas she would encourage you. As the then First Lady of Nigeria, she accepted the idea and a commissioning ceremony was organised. Buba Marwa was acting as a sole administrator in Lagos and I knew him and many other governors. After that ceremony, things changed in Nigeria.

What happened?

It was not implemented. 

Why? 

Because Abacha died shortly after that and the regime ended. I can’t forget that kind of thing; I would have been a billionaire a long time ago.  

Are you a billionaire now or you anticipate to be one before you answer the supreme call?  

I am not a billionaire. I am 80 years now, so I don’t need to be a billionaire; but I am comfortable. I don’t have anything worrying me. To be a billionaire is good and bad, but I can’t explain.

What’s the good side of it?  

The good side is that when one dies, one’s children will inherit a lot, which may help them if they use it very well. I am lucky that all my children are engaged as managing directors. The one who just left here is the managing director of the agric supermarket. 

As a businessman, how has the downturn in Nigeria’s economy affected you?  

That is why I changed many businesses. I always think of what to do next. We used to collect 30 per cent down payment for our business in partnership for vehicles, but today, I am collecting 15 per cent, which at the end was not working well.  

I left the other businesses to my children and they are handling them very well. My involvement is just to check them and make sure they are doing well; that’s all.  

In the transportation business, I used to have a Brazilian as managing director. He trained most of my children and many Nigerians as mechanics. They were sent to Brazil for training; and they do a lot of things.

There is something very viable I am going to be involved in soon, but I cannot disclose it now.

It seems you married many times and have many children. Tell us a little about your family life; how complex is that part of your life?  

 I was with one wife for 22 years – my first wife, and she is still alive. I am 80 while she is about 70. In between, as a human being, I married my second wife, the Egyptian. I also married another one in my home state, Yola. So, I have three wives and each of them has children.  

I have 13 children and 39 grandchildren. But it may be difficult for me to give more than 50 per cent of their names. However, when I see them I can recognise them. Thirty-nine is the maximum figure for now. Without control they would have been maybe 45, but what about the budget of educating and feeding them.

Do you have control over your grandchildren? 

If my children are okay I would be sure that my grandchildren are equally okay. I am indirectly involved, that’s what is going on. We thank God that we are healthy.

Do you live in a large compound with your three wives and children? 

You are an experienced journalist; you ask a lot of questions. I have the senior wife in Kaduna, my main base. The junior is here in Abuja with me. The youngest is in my hometown in Adamawa. So everybody is independent, and I visit each of them when necessary and that also makes me to be active.

What about travelling?

I have travelled to more than 70 per cent of the major cities in the world. I have got a lot of exposure. I visited many countries because of my company, communication and other technologies. I like to be involved.

Two very important businesses are coming, which are very good for Nigeria as they will create employments. One of them can create 6,000 direct jobs and 24,000 indirect employments. That one is in communication. And the other one is something to do with petroleum.   

Which of the countries have you visited the most?  

The one regularly visited was Germany, but I ended up being in all parts of Europe. My last visit to America was in 1982. I have not visited them because I do less with America now. My constant visit, either for medical check-up or business now, is Egypt. And obviously, religiously, it is Umra in Saudi Arabia.  

Why do you prefer Egypt?  

Because it is the nearest country where I can go for medical check-up. I do medical check-up in Nigeria, but when I want to go to Umra, I go to Egypt and rest for some days. My visit is mostly within African countries, Egypt and the Middle East.

What about Brazil, because of your business? 

My children have taken over. They are also known there. 

Which country is your favourite? 

 I think I like all of them. But if I were to give priority, I would take Egypt and Dubai, then Saudi Arabia because of religion.  I want to visit Saudi, at least three times in a year to pray to God and thank him for my life.  

Occasionally, I go to the United Kingdom, but I am totally not going to America. 

How do you spend your typical day? 

I observe my morning prayer and start my business at 10am without knowing when I would end. Sometimes when I have a lot of work to do, I stay up to 11pm. I prepare something and put on my secretary’s table so that when he comes in the morning he would see it. But I rest every Saturday and Sunday. But when there are some activities I still work on Saturday and rest on Sunday. All my days have been good. I have commercially good ideas.

Do you have any leisure activity?

I played golf, but for more than 19 years now, I have not been playing. There’s no time. But I still exercise, sometimes a minimum of three times a week, not jogging or running, but stepping around for 15 to 20 minutes, and a maximum of 30 minutes.  

Do you have any restriction on what you eat?  

I eat any type of food, but I eat what is light in the night as my last meal. I am not used to anything heavy. Sometimes I can do without dinner. 

You have lived a very long and active life; what lessons do you have for the younger generation?

I thank God for the ideas and the way God kept me. My advice is that people should not be overambitious. Take things gradually and don’t be jealous of others. They should live a simple life. Don’t worry about what others have. Think of yourself. The power of what you need is in your hand and brain. Once it is night, lie down and sleep.

After all the activities I do daily, I lie down in my bed and keep quiet for 30 to 45 minutes, then sleep. I am always surprised to see people always say they could not sleep.

I have not tasted any drink nor smoked; that’s how I was brought up by my parents, and I passed it to my children. I am sure they will pass it on to my grandchildren.  

Nigeria is going through a very serious crisis; having seen the good old days, why do you think things are so bad now, especially in economy and insecurity?

Things are bad, not only in Nigeria; it is worldwide, but I think our own is getting worse. The crime aspect is bad; that is what the government should try as much as possible to address. Even if you are not rich you should be able to move about without the problem of insecurity. The government should lay more emphasis on crime and economy.  

Do you think the government is doing enough?  

The president has good ambitions and he is not corrupt. President Buhari has been doing very good for the country, the problem he has is the opposition. This is one of the most patient presidents. You can call him anything and nobody will arrest you. It is not like that in other African countries. We will remember him for that, even after he leaves office.  

What do you wish to see in 2023?  

My appeal is that we should take it easy. God will help us to have the right president that will improve and make the country safe.