AS A medical student, Forster Ihejiofor, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Grafil Group was thrust from certainty to the unknown. Though not born with a silver spoon, as the third of 11 children, he was still in pre medical school when his father died.
Paying his fees as an undergraduate became a challenge and young Forster had to invent means to tackle the challenge. His love for solving problems and God’s providence sustained him to the height he occupies today.
His belief that sustainable business is about solving problems was behind the establishment of Grafil Group, a pharmacy and medical facility firm.
As a medical student, he discovered that many medical institutions lacked vital some medical equipment, comprising even the small devices that doctors need to offer qualitative services. He engaged in supplying medical diagnostic devices to his mates and hospitals.
As a student at College of Medicine, University of Lagos, Idiaraba, he would go to importers in Idumota and collect medical devices like stethoscope, diagnosis sets, and other little devices that student doctors use and sell.
On graduating from school, he went into practice and at the same time, sourcing and supplying medical devices to hospitals. He went into full time business five years after graduation and established Grafil Medical Limited, an arm of Grafil Group, short form for Grace Fountain International Limited. The company comprises five different divisions.
Always trailed by challenge, on graduation from the College of Medicine, Dr. Ihejiofor found it difficult to obtain a place for his internship, the compulsory one-year internship for graduating medical students. “To get a place to do my internship was a tug of war.
I schooled in Lagos and wanted to have an experience of another city. I went to Port-Harcourt. They said they wouldn’t take me that they had not graduated their students who were still taking their own exams; and when they graduate, they would decide whether they would have space for anybody after taking their own students who are willing to stay with them.
“I left for Kaduna. Then I used to hear of Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, Zaria. I got the same answer I got in Port-Harcourt. That I had to wait until October when they graduated their own students. Meanwhile, I graduated from school in March.
I felt sad and came down to the East. I went to Parklane Hospital in Enugu, and they said unless I would serve without pay. I left them and returned to Lagos and started looking for what to do.”
With a seed loan of N2,000 from a church member, Dr. Foster started life. “I got the medical devices which some hospitals lacked in two days by first obtaining them at Idumota, then traveled to Onitsha by night to get the rest, which I got them for N10 each. I got over 100 pieces of the devices.
Those traders didn’t know what they sold to me for N10. I came back and went to Dr Finney of Finney Medical Centre in GRA, Ikeja, and supplied it to him. He was so happy because he needed them for his surgeries because he was doing plenty of such surgeries every week.
“I had N10,000 from that outing. He gave me cheque. I cashed the money and went straight to the man’s place and returned his N2,000. He couldn’t believe it. He was like, ‘you are lying, you didn’t go anywhere.
You just changed your mind about misusing money’. I then showed him proof of the cheque that I collected from Dr. Finney. That was how the window of business opportunities beckoned. I eventually got a place for my internship and I had so many dependants. Eight of my siblings were dependent on me. I wasn’t having any savings. By the time, I finished my internship, l proposed to combine work with business.
I started applying for loan. I went for entrepreneurship training in Abuja. I slept on a desk in the cold. After the training, we were required to write feasibility study to get loan from Federal Mortgage Bank. I got the loan of N7, 400. I used that money to travel to England and started business.”
Grafil Medical is involved in designing, building, equipping, maintaining and managing hospitals. The company recently commissioned a multi-specialty hospital in Aguleri, which Grafil Medical Limited designed, built and equipped.
We have business in Lagos, where we started from and have served in many states. First, we were involved in building three general hospitals in Nassarawa State. We built and equipped three general hospitals in the three senatorial zones of Niger State and renovated and reequipped nine general hospitals in that same state and four general hospitals in Adamawa.
We supplied hospital equipment to hospitals in Ogun, Lagos States. We served so many teaching hospitals all over the country. Even in Delta State, we were involved in equipping several of their general hospitals.”
Dr. Ihejiofor, having done business in other states, felt his home state needs his presence. “Each time I came back home, I noticed that our hospitals were not in its optimal capacity. It was during Gov. Peter Obi’s last year in office that I decided to come down here and begins to do something; I rented a place, along Ifite Road, and started an outfit there.
I tried getting into doing business with the state. It wasn’t easy because they already had their own contact and people. When I got tired of making some effort but wasn’t getting the right response, I decided to donate N6.8million hospital equipment to the state. Governor Peter Obi received it at the Government House.
I went back to Lagos and carried on with my business, but when Gov. Willie Obiano came into office, I had this premonition that as a technocrat from the banking sector, he would focus on delivering qualitative governance. The initial impression he gave on security and the strategy he adopted gave instant result.
I decided that I would come down to Anambra State to try to interface with him. I came back and began to build this office. While I was still building this office, I had the impression from the Spirit of God that I should donate again to the healthcare sector in the state.
I approached the Commissioner of Health, Dr Josephat Akabuike, who said rather than donate equipment, that the state was focused on renovating some of the hospitals that was dilapidated and that they have some health centres that they wanted to renovate.
He showed a list of health facilities they were looking at. And my mind narrowed to the one at Atani, which he said was flooded sometime ago and everything there was damaged and I said that that was a good idea.
I was able to renovate the place, donated some beds, fenced it, sank borehole for them and installed electricity. We spent N68million to put that hospital in order. When Governor Obiano came to commission it (I started the work in 2014, the commissioning took place in late January, 2015), he was very impressed.
He was so impressed that he said the state wouldn’t buy hospital equipment from anybody, except I refused the first proposal. So many things happened at the ministry and from the commissioner’s end. So many things that I didn’t know about but the governor thought I was the one that did them and whenever he asked me, I would cover the people and say yes to avoid trouble.
When I got that reception from the governor, I decided I was going to spend a good part of my time here in Anambra, my home state, and try to do what I did elsewhere. Anambra doesn’t have as much resources as these states where I worked but Governor Obiano has been quite faithful in service delivery besides giving me the opportunity to serve.
Because of my natural disposition to solving problems and my versatility at looking at life, I do not think there is any field I could not function in. when I see a problem my mind begins to work on the solution, Gov Obiano offered that opportunity to prove that.
If I do not have the requisite skill, I know how to source that skill and deploy them and that’s what gave birth to Grafil Group of Companies.
Dr Ihejiofor has always had interest in agriculture even as a medical doctor. Those days in Lagos, I would go lease land and farm on it. Sometimes, I would leave the crops for people to harvest. I would cultivate yam, cassava, and other crops. Sometimes, people would go and steal it and I won’t be bothered.” In Anambra State, he tapped into the agricultural innovation of Governor Obiano.
“You know there was this emphasis on vegetables, but vegetables have its own challenge – getting it into a state that will be durable. It’s either you dry it or freeze it. You know, drying is what everybody attempts to do and it has high tendency to damage lots of its nutrients.
I opted for the difficult one, processing, packaging and freezing it. I knew that it was difficult because of our poor supply. And our environment is very hot and you need to maintain the cold chain for you to transport it from point of harvest to your processing place and after that, transport it frozen to the sea port and onwards. It was a challenge; I love challenges.
“I went into it and had people who took things from us and wouldn’t pay but eventually, the door began to open. It opened and continued to open that right now, Grafil Farm is exporting several 40 feet containers load of processed and frozen vegetables abroad.
We export to the United States, Canada and with request pouring in from other places, we have not been able to meet up, and we get these produce from Anambra farmers and neighbouring states when there is short supply.
He described human beings as indispensable assets in business, yet your greatest challenge. Some will be on key with your tempo in doing things, some will be on and off, they may be on when you need them to be off. On his relationship with his staff, he said most of them appreciated the opportunity to be on Grafil platform.
The Grafil boss believes that you shouldn’t make a promise that you can’t keep. “I believe no institution can pay you fully for the honest job you do, therefore, you should give in the best expecting your reward from God. God’s reward can come as a big assignment and a big assignment, a big opportunity.
I believe in giving value for money in serving people and that no task is difficult for me to undertake. All you need is divine inspiration and guidance.”
He advises those going into business not to cut corners to be financially secure, stressing that they have to brace up with a good idea that can solve problems, which may not yield what they desire and expect initially. “Keep working on it, keep improving at your method. Keep your eyes on what is required and listen to what your target community is looking for.
Keep retooling and rejigging what you are doing. Eventually, you are going to find an opening, a place where you can stay and begin to solve problems for real in profitable manner. There is profit out there for somebody who chooses to be diligent, who refuses to give up or accept a no for an answer.”