Rarely in this part of the world would you find a man like Leonard Nnamdi Stanley Ekeh, better known as Leo Stan Ekeh.
For starters, Leo Stan, as he is fondly addressed, is not your regular fellow. He ranks well and truly as an unusual entrepreneur, one who is not only absolutely outstanding at what he does, but a man who also stands head and shoulders apart from his peers.
The story of technology in Africa and in his native Nigeria would decidedly be incomplete without a mention of the many pioneering roles Ekeh played in this domain. But it is in chronicling his amazing journey of well over three decades in the field of technology that some of the exciting qualities that make Ekeh outstanding align in sharp contrast.
Born on April 22, 1956, in the rustic town of Ubomiri in Mbaitoli, Imo State, Ekeh is of the Baby Boomer generation – often defined as people born from 1946 to 1964, during the post–World War II baby boom. Remarkably, members of this generation fall among the most digitally-disadvantaged, especially when compared to their more technology-savvy counterparts in the Millennials or Gen Z generation. In fact, research by the Pew Internet Project shows that Baby Boomers dominate globally among current Internet non-users. But it goes even beyond that. More than half of the members of this generation say the main reason they don’t go online now is because they don’t think the Internet is relevant. For these ones, take away Facebook or WhatsApp and you cut off probably their only links to the digital world.
Yet, Ekeh, who was recently honoured as the Forbes Best of Africa Leading Tech Icon, remains an outlier.
For decades here in Africa, the man has not only dominated the technology ecosystem, churning out innovations by the dozens in a sector which remains alien to many of his contemporaries, but which for him is a playground where he has continued to find relevance and expression, giving the Millennials and Gen Z something to think about and look up to.
In his words: ‘‘Despite my age, I feel very young. My eldest son will tell anyone who cares to listen: ‘Ha! Chairman is even younger at heart than many of us in the younger generation’. This is very important because I operate in a sector that is dominated by young people. I build products and solutions that are largely consumed by the youths, so I must understand their mindset and reasoning. I have to be like them in order to succeed,’’ he once stated at a public event.
But if his unusual pizazz as a technology guru ranks as a misnomer, it would be in keeping with the rest of his nature.
Restless but blessed with the brains of a genius, Ekeh’s personal life story further demonstrates the peculiarities of a maverick who stands apart and alone; a miracle child or digital orphan, as he often describes himself. He has never tasted alcohol from childhood till date, neither has he ever smoked, be it the regular cigarettes or any of the more exotic stuff that are as varied in their names or configurations that abound today.
It is interesting, while restating the unusualness that distinguishes Ekeh, to observe that unlike many Nigerian entrepreneurs whose little beginnings are often glossed over or consigned to the rubbish heap of history when they emerge, Ekeh’s remarkable rise to the pinnacle of success as a digital entrepreneur is thrown into sharp relief by the obstacles, the challenges, the struggles he faced, all of which he surmounted on his entrepreneurial journey.
It is not a secret that Ekeh used to live in the same apartment that housed his first office, or that his unerring knowledge of Lagos roads comes partly from the fact that he used to drive a commercial bus for fun with his friends.
A devout Catholic and former Mass servant, Ekeh, unknown to many, cheated death early in life, surviving a ghastly accident that left him with multiple stitches in his upper left arm while on the verge of leaving the country for studies abroad – a development which ultimately resulted in him missing resumption in the UK and eventually opting for India where he enrolled for a degree programme in Economics at the highly respected Punjab University. But the entire adventure would appear as if fate was playing a hand in forging the man’s destiny.
India, at the time Ekeh stepped foot there, was a nation struggling to convert its huge potential and undoubted human capital to wealth. Perhaps, not surprisingly, his time in India contributed a great deal in imbuing Ekeh with some of the remarkable fighting spirit and uncommon zeal to succeed he is renowned for. As he puts it, studying in India was “a great turning point in my life because I found the economy of India a realistic economy”. Lest we forget, it was in that same India that Ekeh met the cerebral Chioma Ekeh, the love of his life and reliable sidekick, the woman who would become his wife and who at the time, turned out to be the only Nigerian studying Mathematics at the university.
Moving on from India and seeking further studies in the UK, Ekeh had his eyes opened to an environment which saw no future for Nigeria or Africa in technology back then. His tutors at Ireland’s Cork City University, where he elected to study Computer Science, had painstakingly studied his temperament and character, correctly identifying him as a restless, smart and business-minded chap who would probably end up frustrated if he returned to his native Nigeria at the completion of his studies. But Ekeh has never been one to run from a challenge.
Armed with a postgraduate degree in Risk Management from a shared course at Nottingham University and City University, London, he had been faced with the prospect of completing a Masters’ Degree in Business Law at what is known today as London Metropolitan University or terminating the programme after eight months and converting his final school fees to return to Nigeria and launch his first company – Task Systems Ltd.
Ekeh chose the latter and the rest, as they say, is history.
For a man whose early ambition was once to own the largest transport company in Nigeria, Leo Stan Ekeh’s pivot to the technology business, as well as his subsequent dedication to creating a digital identity for Nigeria and putting the country and Africa, by extension, on the global map is the stuff of legend.
Ekeh’s many exploits – pioneering Desktop Publishing and Computer Graphics in West Africa and computerizing over 95 per cent of Media/ Multimedia houses and book publishing houses in Nigeria in 1987 through Task Systems; pioneering digital dispensing fuel pumps in partnership with Elf Petroleum and Schlumberger, France through his company Stanoil after he was cheated by a fuel attendant using the analogue pumps; launch of the first locally assembled and internationally certified computer brand in Sub-Saharan Africa – Zinox Computers; pioneering Sub-Saharan Africa’s leading and biggest technology products distribution company – TD Africa; deployment of the single largest e-Library and Wireless Cloud rollout in Africa; his status as the early pioneer of e-Commerce in Africa with Buy Right Africa DotCom; his sterling role in midwifing the biometric digital revolution in Nigeria, saving the country huge embarrassment by delivering the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) voters’ registration in 2006 when foreign contractors could not deliver after months of promises; repeating the feat four years later when he supervised the biggest single ICT digital rollout in Africa with the deployment of the Direct Data Capture (DDC) project with INEC in 2010 valued back then at over $170m, among many others too numerous to list out here – are well-chronicled.
But it is to the credit of his indefatigable nature and passion for Nigeria that, at an age when many of his peers were considering calling time on their careers, Ekeh decided to take on a challenge that even the most optimistic of his backers saw as a suicide attempt.
In early 2018, Ekeh and his team had announced the acquisition of Konga, a once-thriving indigenous platform which held the status of being one of the latter-day pioneers of the new wave of e-commerce in Nigeria but which, at the point of acquisition from its erstwhile owners, South African-headquartered Naspers and Swedish-based AB Kinnevik, was almost on its last days. It was a piece of business whose echoes reverberated around the corridors of the global business world. For many, the acquisition of Konga would be the final straw that would break the irrepressible juggernaut that Ekeh represented. Such was the enormity of the task that lay in resuscitating the brand and restoring its glory days.
Or so it seemed.
Four years down the line, Konga, written off by many, has under new management, not only risen from the ashes of its near exit from the Nigerian e-commerce market, but is now the toast of desirous investors the world over and being touted as the potential leader of e-commerce in Africa.
It is proof of the magic wand that Ekeh wields, that gifted touch he brings to bear and the sagacity/mastermind at work behind his always clean-shaven pate that Konga, which reports reveal was once hemorrhaging about N400m per month, is today the first African e-commerce brand to turn a profit.
No doubt, Leo Stan, as his friends call him, is a national treasure, but he remains a man whom many believe – and rightly so, has hardly received the kind of recognition and acclaim he deserves from successive Nigerian governments. A man of extreme humility and a renowned philanthropist, Ekeh’s massive contribution in promoting digital democracy and ushering millions of Nigerians and Africans into the digital ecosystem remain unmatched across the continent.
As he turns 66 today, Tuesday February 22, 2022, it would appear Ekeh, who has never hidden his ambition of building the first and biggest 360-degrees integrated ICT conglomerate out of Africa, has come full circle on his wish, especially with the addition and impressive turnaround of Konga – now a flourishing e-commerce giant – to a formidable cast of thriving entities in the Zinox Group with proven and advanced competencies in a wide variety of tech-driven deliverables across verticals.
But it is also in keeping with Ekeh’s status as a rarefied, unusual breed of entrepreneur that one would be hugely surprised if he quits innovating, even at 66.
As he succinctly phrased it: “My strategy from childhood as a poor fellow was to cause disruptions, hence the decision to venture into technology which allows room for constant innovation…The only way I can sustain my dominance in the marketplace is through constant innovation and this is tied to sleeping less and eating healthy. It is important that in that hunger to be successful, you institute strong auditable system and structure which sustain your business.’’
At 66, Africa’s technology miracle child remains the poster child of all that is great in humanity.
Henry C. Ibeakolam writes from Abuja, Nigeria