Former Director General, Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON), Dr. Ikem Joseph Odumodu, served SON meritoriously from 2011 to 2016 when he retired into private life. His managerial skills and competence brought to bear the huge transformation at SON in addressing substandard products in the country. In this interview with EMEKA CHIAGHANAM, the former SON DG, spoke of life outside boardroom, his latest ventures, and what he aims to achieve with it. Excerpts:
YOU made your mark in both public service and as an employee in private sector. How can you compare experiences of both sectors?
They are all unique in their different ways. In the private sector, decisions are made on rational thinking. In government, the decisions are more broad based, have more political undertone. There are issues of tribe, and then, there are issues of public good – greatest good for the people. In terms of speed and efficiency, private sector decision making is fast and relevant but in government, it’s slower.
Even though I must say I don’t have the patient to wait for matters then. I recall an incidence, I had guests coming from abroad, and our generator started misbehaving and what did I do? I told my staff to go to a well-known local assembler and bring a 500kv generator, which they said cost about N20 million.
The man in procurement department told me that we have not gone through advertisement and other due processes. I told that he can write a petition about it but I needed the generator that moment; that I don’t know the embarrassment it will cause when my international guests come. Moreover, everybody knows the price. There is tendency in government in what is called due process but makes the whole process too slow. I can tell with the due process, prices don’t get better.
Corruption still thrives because the system prefers documentation. For example, you spent N2 million, this is how you spent it and this is receipt. That is not what the issue is; it’s letting people of integrity fit into positions that will help governance to be more result oriented. What did I come out with? I believe I have a broader base to be able to play within any sector in this economy. It makes me a more balanced person.
Looking at retirement, what does it mean to you?
No! I haven’t. I will retire in three years time when I’m 65 years. I have just disengaged from public service in a broader sense.
Now that you have disengaged from both sectors, what are you into?
I do farming. I started a poultry farm in my town, Amawbia, and I intend to expand to piggery, fishery, and all that. I’m not doing it because I want to make so much money. I want to keep myself busy, because I want to retire when I’m 65 years old. Then, I will no longer be involved in running any business, would have handed over to my children or to whosever that is supposed to manage it. That’s when I would just relax with my wife and enjoy myself.
Why did you choose agriculture, not consultancy as most of your peers would?
If you look at the economy of Nigeria, I came from a pharmaceutical background. When I became the CEO of May & Baker, I started thinking on how I could expand my market. And one of the things that I came up with was that at any point in time, people who are sick in a population is less than 15 per cent of the population. For you to take drug, you must be sick. So, I realise that I was playing with a small percentage of the market.
That was why at May & Baker, I introduced two consumer products; table water called, ‘Lily’ and a noodle product called ‘Mimie’, because I needed to tap into the large market as everybody eats and drinks water. That’s why I chose agric. For now, I do only poultry. We are already starting our piggery and fishery section, hopefully to take off in the next two or three months. Food is an essential aspect of life, so that’s why I went into farming.
And of course, I believe that agriculture is where more people can be engaged. I want a situation where people who work here can learn the principle and go and start their own poultry farm or any other agricultural venture. Here, it’s not all about coming to work to earn salary but teach people how to acquire the knowledge and skill to start your own.
Many people here are learning from what we do, they never really had any experience in poultry before now. I know some of them have started small poultry farms at home and they can graduate from there and grow it. Poultry is capital intensive but you can have small poultry that you can use to feed your family and earn small income from it. That’s the reason for going into agriculture. The farm will be two years in two months time.
Do you mean that despite challenges, you set up your farm to empower and educate people far beyond monetary motives?
You know, Anambra State is a peculiar place with land; we don’t have large landmass. But there are some towns that still have some communal lands. We can engage such places, we can engage people through it in what I call small holder farmers. Here, on my farm, we have over 13 students from some tertiary institutions in the state studying Agric Extension, Animal Science and other related disciplines doing their internship on this farm.
As we encourage people to do farming, we must start at the subsistence level. And where there are courses, we support people to go and learn new skills, because I realised that if you go to the Southwest, you will be amazed they have gone far but trust us, in 10 years, you will be amazed in what we would have achieved. We would challenge them effectively and compete with them.
What could be done to make agriculture attractive and lucrative to youths?
The government has huge responsibility in that regard. For instance, in Anambra State as in other Eastern states, I believe that the governor is well suited to determine where the challenge lies and check out ndi Anambra in Diaspora. Let the governor sit with them, the question should be what can you do for you and what can the state do for you. Within a short period, you will see the difference it makes in the state. You know I talked about legacies and that is one better way to go about it.
And then, the public spirited individuals have responsibilities too. We live in this community where our children and generations unborn will live. If you don’t do the community well, your children will not come there and live. We need people to be gainfully employed. The army of youths I see in bars drinking is scary and it’s only getting worse. When they get education without getting jobs, it gets more dangerous. What we must do we must do now and not tomorrow. This is a problem facing us and we must solve it.
How have you been enjoying life since you left service?
I spent much time doing things that will help my community to become better, besides farming. Few people like me live within their community. I see myself as one of those that people should rely on. I’m involved in humanitarian services. My foundation is called Mike-Susan Foundation, named after my late parents. The foundation has been on for the past 12 years. I remember when I started it, some people asked me which post or elective position was I eyeing. People always believe that once you float a foundation, you are after self – you have it in mind to profit from it. I don’t have interest in political office. Of course, I have interest in who emerges as a leader.
The foundation focuses on entrepreneurship, supporting people who do not have the means to acquire skills, helping them to set up welding centres and other kinds of small vocations that people do around here. We also support some people with scholarship. Most importantly, we have medical outreach where we screen people for non-communicable diseases, like diabetes, hypertension, among others. When we started, we noticed that almost 30 per cent of our people are diabetic. People come, we screen them and then we have drugs and doctors to administer and counsel them on what to do subsequently and all that.
Every Christmas, we give out bags of rice, vegetable oil and other items to indigent widows. I say indigent widows because sometimes, some people would come and say” I’m a widow” but have two sons or even children in the USA, Europe and elsewhere doing well. So, I tell them they are ineligible. We used to do this at St. Mathew’s Catholic Church, Amawbia, but these days, we send these packages to people’s homes. The gesture is beyond Amawbia. We go as far Agulu, and neighbouring towns but we focus more in Amawbia.
I must also say the principle behind this is to help people who cannot pay you back. If people can pay you back, it’s no longer help again. Change the life of somebody you have been privileged to meet. Do simple things in an extraordinary way. Many people are suffering unnecessarily and there are many who have so much that they don’t need, not even in the next two or three generations.
If you say you are a Christian, practice Christianity; show love to people around you because you never acquired your wealth because you are powerful. I believe God gives wealth to people and if He gives you, the onus is on you to change people’s lives. That is the principle behind our foundation. That is basically what we do at Mike-Susan Foundation.
How did you find the transition from a public life to a private one?
For me, if I enter a system, I really know where the end is, so I’m already prepared. I adjusted to my new phase in life naturally. I once saw somebody in a local relaxation spot in Amawbia, I stopped, joined them and took a bottle of Heineken beer. Their expression was, “is this really Ikem Odumodu?” And one of them said, “this man is a normal person.” If you really want to relate with people, you must be with them and do what they do so that you can understand their pains and relate with them.