Dr. Ernest Azudialu-Obiejesi: Big on Philanthropy

Dr Ernest Azudialu-Obiejesi is an entrepreneur with a number of companies under his belt including Nestoil and its sister companies in the Oil and Gas industry. He is also the Founder of the Obijackson Foundation which continues to embark on infrastructural and social projects in his native Okija and beyond. In this interview with CHIEMELIE EZEOBI, the serial entrepreneur throws more light on the activities of the foundation across the country

From most accounts, your love for your hometown Okija is unprecedented, is there any fond memory attached to this?

You are right that I am emotionally attached to my people. As you may already know, I was not born with a silver spoon. Everything I have achieved has been through dint of hard work and God’s benevolence. So I know what it is to be without means. I know what it is to have dreams and lack the means to achieve those dreams. Since God has blessed me, I feel duty bound to use my modest resources for the benefit of mankind. I personally believe that this is one of the best ways of serving God. This is why our motto at the Obijackson Foundation is to “serve God in our neighbours”.

What motivates you and how did your success story come about?

I would summarise it in three words – Determination, Focus and Grace. I started life in the Eastern part of Nigeria. My father was a trader. He did not have the benefit of Western education but he was an extremely brilliant man. He eventually became a very successful trader by the standards in his time by practically growing his trading business from nothing to something. I would say, I learnt a lot from him in terms of doggedness, business acumen and the entrepreneurial spirit. I owe a lot to him till this day. I basically continued with the trading legacy and expanded it to a much wider scope across the west coast of Africa. I did well in trading in the 1980s but in the 90’s I decided to make a radical shift into the Oil & Gas industry. At the time I saw the enormous potential in the industry and I decided to take a plunge. That was a big decision at the time because it involved leaving my comfort zone to go into an unfamiliar industry. Again, I did not have an engineering background so the task of delving into an industry dominated by engineers was daunting. The rest they say is history. I hope that I will one day create time to document my life’s journey in a book.

You are known for your philanthropic causes chief amongst which is the Obijackson Hospital in Okija, what was the motivation behind this?

Healthcare is very central to all the needs of man. Without good health there is a limitation to what people can achieve. I have always loved to pay attention to my health. Having lived in the village for a while I am very much aware that some of the ailments that claim the lives of people in the villages are avoidable if only proper healthcare was provided. At other times, the issue is their inability to pay for the appropriate treatment even when the healthcare service is available. I therefore took it upon myself to contribute my own quota tosolving this major problem for my community and its environs. At first I wanted to rehabilitate a government hospital that was barely equipped but when that did not work out, I decided to build one from the scratch. Seeing what we have achieved with the hospital in terms of the facilities and the quality of medical personnel, I would even say it has clearly surpassed all my expectations. You need to visit the hospital to see for yourself. We have facilities for pediatric surgery, a world-class neonatal intensive care unit, ambulatory care facilities, oxygen plant services, ultra-modern diagnostic equipment, ventilatory support for pre-terms and new borns and a blood bank. Over 300 women from Okija and from other states have been delivered of their babies at the hospital since it was set up about four years ago. We have recorded zero mortality within this period. This speaks to the quality of personnel and equipment in the hospital. I am particularly fulfilled when I hear people confirm that the Obijackson Women and Children’s Hospital is the first of its kind in Eastern Nigeria.

I learnt the hospital services are offered pro bono, how do you intend to sustain this?

Patients who can pay for treatment are encouraged to pay but when there is a clear proven case of inability to pay, we are happy to take care of the bills. The primary purpose of setting up the hospital was not for profit, otherwise we would not have situated it in Okija. The main reason for the hospital was for intervention in healthcare provision for the good people of Okija and beyond. If we wanted to use the hospital to make money, then it would be in the big cities of Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt. In terms of sustainability we are committed to continually supporting this and many other initiatives under the Obijackson Foundation. This is not a sprint, this is a marathon…and we are not stopping any time soon.

For now, all your projects are domiciled in Okija, do we expect to see you spread to other communities in Anambra State or even other states of the federation?

It is not true that the projects are all domiciled in Okija. A number of our interventions are domiciled outside Okija including Lagos, Ibadan and recently, Abuja. First of all our interventions span through a number of areas. They include Microcredit empowerment and skill acquisition; we have education projects, healthcare projects, Social welfare and rehabilitation initiatives as well as environment and agriculture. In March 2016 we set up the Microcredit Empowerment and Skill Acquisition Program to support indigent persons especially widows to set up small businesses that will enable them fend for themselves and their families.

Over the past three years, the foundation has set up over 250 micro enterprises for beneficiaries in various communities in Anambra State, Enugu State and Abuja. Our free entrepreneurial training that comes with the Microcredit Empowerment Program has encouraged the indigenes of the communities to willingly apply for it. Under Education, we provide scholarship to indigent students, sponsoring them at various levels of educational pursuit, competitions and expositions. We also sponsor an annual football tournament for all secondary schools in Anambra state, and the grand finale of this tournament takes place in the St Peter’s Stadium, which the foundation built in Okija.

We have so far catered for the needs of hundreds of indigent students across primary, secondary and university education. We have acquired land for the construction of a world class primary and secondary school in Okija with boarding facilities for the secondary school. This school will be set up on an expanse of land covering over 360 plots. This school project has been commissioned and construction is set to commence soon.

We have other Humanitarian programs run by the foundation across Lagos, Enugu and Anambra states.

What are the high moments you have experienced in the hospital?

Every time a woman delivers safely in the hospital, it is a high moment for me. Every time a patient walks into the hospital with a heavy burden but eventually walks out with a smile, it is ahigh moment for me. When complicated surgical operations are successfully carried out, it is a high moment for me. My other high moment is our ability to provide medical support and assistance to other hospitals, both private and teaching hospitals who are not as equipped as we are. Take for example the following situations where we have extended help: our world-class neonatal intensive care unit has catered for extremely low birth preterm with weights as low as 680g. These preterm babieshave continually survived and are discharged from our hospital to the delight of their parents.

The Obijackson Women and Children Hospital also provides ventilatory support for preterm/newborns from other hospitals as far as Delta and Imo States, including other neighboring towns in Anambra State. Providing oxygen support to teaching hospitals and private hospitals in Imo, Delta, Anambra and Enugu states, is another high moment for me. Notable here is the fact that we are one of the few centres in Nigeria that can separate blood into blood products such as platelets, fresh frozen plasma and red cells, and as a result of this unique service, teaching hospitals in other geographical zones such as Rivers, Delta, Imo, Anambra and Enugu states come to us to utilize these blood separation services. We are grateful to the M.D.Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston Texas for their unwavering support and for training our doctors at no cost in the skill of separating blood into blood products. I take delight in all theseand pray that God continues to give us the means to continually serve humanity.

What are the inherent challenges in running your projects especially the hospital?

The biggest challenge would be human capital. For instance you want the best hands to run a world class hospital in Okija but some of them might be unwilling to live in a rural community like Okija. However some of the excellent hands who have braved it to come to run the hospital, have been pleasantly surprised at the level of development in Okija and are faring well. These developments in Okija unfortunately comes at a great cost to people like us, because some people have refused to see beyond what is in front of them and have failed to realize the inevitability of positive change and development in our community and that what we used to know as rural villages are fast becoming modern towns.

A typical example of such short-sightedness was when I wanted to bring a bank into the community as a result of the insecurities faced by Okija people travelling far and wide to other towns for banking services. I faced severe challenges, chief of all being that nobody wanted to sell their land for the realisation of this bank infrastructure. Eventually, after several entreaties, an individual agreed to sell his land and the bank was built on his land. This bank, I tell you is now being enjoyed by both those who opposed it and those who didn’t. Now, everyone is clapping and telling their relatives to send them money directly to the bank in Okija.

Interestingly, a lot of people want to see change but aren’t willing to contribute positively towards the realization of infrastructural development and social welfare. Thankfully, some of the people understand the need for development and the positive ripple effect on everyone. I dream of a future, where everyone will look beyond themselves in order to serve humanity.

Despite all of these, I will continue to remain focused in improving the lot of humanity. I believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. God has blessed me in his own way and I feel a sense of obligation to bless others as well. That is our calling as humans.

Have you in any way received support from the government in terms of funds?

Well support comes in many ways. I do not want to see funding as the only means of support. Some of our interventions need government approvals. The hospital is operating in Okija todaybecause we have government approval. There are other permits that we continue to require from government at the local, state and federal levels. We are grateful that they continue to oblige us. While governments can certainly do more, I believe private enterprises and private people have a role to play in supporting government efforts. That is exactly what we are doing through the Obijackson Foundation.

How do you hope to sustain the momentum because projects such as this require constant funds?

I provide most of the funding for the foundation. However, other foundations who have seen the doggedness and transparency in what we do have begun to partner us. For example, Sage Foundation is partnering us on some of our humanitarian programs; we also have an American Professor of Endocrinology who is partnering us to start a program on Care improvement and management of children with diabetes and other hormonal conditions. Another Assistant Professor of Pediatrics/Pediatrics Intensivist from the US is partnering us to open up an Acute Centre in Okija for medical emergencies.This project should commence soon. We also have the M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre Houston Texas, who trained our medical personnel in the skill of blood separation.

We are open to welcoming more partners onboard, so that many more people can be served.

What advice do you have for others who can make such impacts in their respective communities but haven’t?

I can only advise that they look for areas in the society where there are gaps and intervene appropriately. You must always look beyond yourself and be your neighbour’s keeper. Imagine if every individual in Nigeria supported one infrastructural/ social welfare project or the other – the impact would be felt across the country. This is not in any way saying that the governmentshould renege in their obligations to the people that elected them to office. It is simply saying that companies and public spirited individuals can certainly do more. For me, it doesn’t mean that I have endless resources but I will continue to support different causes in society because I believe it is the right thing to do.

Can you shed more light on the Face of Okija Pageant?

The Face of Okija Cultural Festival is our platform for bringing about socio cultural rebirth in Igboland. Culture is a powerful tool to promote positive behaviours in any society and that isexactly what we are doing with the Face of Okija Festival. It is also a platform to change the narrative of Okija as a destination of choice, not a shrine. The initiative birthed in 2013 with the aim of propagating Igbo cultural values through the promotion of the Igbo language, traditional dance and morality among youths. At this time, the pageant was only meant for Okija young graduate and undergraduate girls between the ages of 18 and 25 years. Over the years we have included the male category and thrown it open to all parts of Anambra state. The “King” and “Queen” that eventually emerge become cultural ambassadors for the foundation.

Through the Face of Okija Cultural Pageant, we have redefined the concept of beauty as an intrinsic part of us based on our values, morals and behaviours as against the general definition of beauty that primarily focusses on the physical endowments of a man or woman. This is a mindset we are trying to change. For us at the Face of Okija, a beautiful woman or handsome Man is one who respects the culture, can speak the language and upholds the right valuesthrough every day behaviours. If all Nigerian youths were to uphold these tenets in their everyday lives, Nigeria would not have to contend with the myriad of societal problems from kidnapping to Advance Fee Fraud to armed robbery and so on. We are very encouraged by the responses we have received so far from even outside Igboland. We are surely delighted in playing the unique role of cultural change agent in Igboland and beyond.

Last year, we had acclaimed writer Chimamanda Adichie and Kenyan activist and iconic public speaker Professor Patrick Lumumba give keynote speeches at the event. Also in attendance were custodians of culture like The Igwe of Okija, His Royal Majesty Igwe Emeka Okezie (Oka-Ije of Okija); The Obi of Onitsha, His Royal Majesty Igwe Nnaemeka Alfred Achebe, and the Ooni of Ife, His Imperial Majesty Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi Ojaja II.

What is your vision for your projects in a couple of years to come?

My vision is for the Obijackson Foundation to become a platform for socio-cultural and infrastructural intervention across the length and breadth of Nigeria and beyond. So much so that multilateral organisations all over the world and even governments across the world would be happy to partner with us to improve humanity. We are surely heading in the right direction and I believe this vision is possible in my lifetime. But even when I am gone, I believe the flame will continue to burn.

Finally, what legacy do you want to leave behind?

I want to be remembered as a man who loves God and who did his best to make the world better than he met it.