Celebrating Leo Stan Ekeh at 60…
In Greek mythology, Prometheus, a Titan, was credited with innovation and creative abilities. He is the forerunner of modern day innovators and disruptors. His Olympian far-sightedness, virility, skill and fecundity put him at the cutting edge of every competition. Little wonder he is often ascribed as the pathfinder of contemporary innovators, craftsmen, and persons in creative industry. He was on the winning side in that fabled war of the Greek gods where modernity clashed with the ancient order in an epic battle that mirrored present day contests whether in the battle fields of armed men, the boardroom of the corporate world or in the vast knowledge fields where mental aptitude is the weapon of war.
In the vast dynamic field of technology, the spirit of Prometheus is writ large among a handful of information communications technology (ICT) entrepreneurs. What with the story of the late Steve Jobs, the man whose innovations gave to mankind another breath of fresh air in the sphere of artificial intelligence. He handed to humanity a different kind of machine. Then, there was Bill Gates, the Knight of Microsoft; Larry Elisson of Oracle, Reed Hasting of Netflix and Jack Dorsey and his co-founders of Twitter, just to name a few. These men did not re-invent the wheel. They all rode on the back of the early inventors of the computer and the internet to change for good the way the world transact its many businesses. These rare Americans have succeeded in making a huge point: America is the home of ICT and the birthplace of ICT entrepreneurs.
So, it was more of bucking the trend when in later years, Asians, particularly Indians and now South Koreans, began to drive their feet into the global ICT matrix. Going by ICT folklore, India is not an inventor but it is today the outsourcing capital of the world; developer of key software used all around the world. Out of Africa, one man has over time demonstrated that digital entrepreneurship is not the exclusive preserve of the white man. Leo Stan Ekeh, the Chairman of Zinox Group, who turns 60 Monday, February 22, has proven in clear, unambiguous terms that Nigerians and indeed Africans are also endowed with uncommon ICT entrepreneurial skills.
Born on February 22, 1958 in Ubomiri, Mbaitoli Local Government, Imo State, Ekeh, a devout Catholic, former mass servant and chorister has taken the digital world by storm, building one of the biggest ICT conglomerates out of Africa from a modest desktop publishing outpost or what is commonly called ‘Business Centre’ in local parlance. Today, he straddles a Group with interests extending from ICT to online retail, to property with offices in Africa, United Arab Emirates (Dubai), Europe and Asia.
His foray into ICT was not choreographed by the circumstance of birth or any form of parental guidance. It was more of a Providential nudging than fortuitous happenstance. A chance meeting with the late Steve Jobs of the Apple fame lit a fire in him to challenge the stereotype in the 80’s that there was no future for ICT in Africa.
Leo Stan as he is fondly called was part of a small audience of international students and potential entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom some time in 1986. And guess who was there to address them: Steve Jobs. At that time, Jobs was already a household name after the initial success of Apple computers which he co-founded with another whizkid, Steve Wozniak, a former electronic hacker. Jobs had wowed the audience with his digital sagacity, plotting a roadmap on how he intended to create an all-digital future.
Unfortunately, but predictably, Africa did not feature in the future Jobs intended to create. This provoked a sense of curiosity in Ekeh who inquired from the Apple mastermind why Africa was not on his digital map. The answer he got was a snap ‘Africa is not under consideration’. As the story goes, an angry Ekeh vowed to put Africa on the global digital map. He soon returned to Nigeria after his first degree in India and post-graduate studies in the UK to give life to his dream. It was no mere coincidence that he was the man who first brought Apple to Nigeria and got the media industry buzzing with computers. Like most outliers, capricious yet focused, Ekeh’s rebellious zeal to change the status quo resulted in the creation of the most integrated ICT conglomerate in sub-Sahara Africa.
This is the sense in which Jobs could be credited with vicariously helping to shape the path and growth of the Nigerian computer industry. Today, not only do we have indigenous computer assembly plants, we also have an assortment of internationally recognised software wholly developed by Nigerians. Though Jobs (who curiously shared the same birth month with Leo Stan – February) may have logged out, it is hard to delete from our memory box the incredulous imprints he left behind his fading shadow.
The fire Steve Jobs lit in Leo Stan is burning in full effulgence. The dream of young Ekeh to put Africa on the global digital map has morphed from a boyhood fantasy to assume a life of its own. Today, the man who started his ICT entrepreneurial Odyssey from a small office which also served as his dwelling place was at a time appointed a Microsoft Global Advisor, the only African among the Advisors that year. His appointment, according to Microsoft, was in recognition of his pioneering and pivotal role in ICT development on the continent, more so, for his intuitive leadership.
A moment with Leo Stan leaves you with the clear impression that you are before a rebel, an iconoclast in every positive sense. He wants to change the world around him. He stirs himself in thought and in deeds. The Governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, must have noticed the restiveness in Ekeh that he christened him a Digital Militant. He pursues matters of digitization of Nigeria, nay Africa with a militant spirit: aggressive and unrelenting. He wants all graduates out of Nigerian schools to be computer-savvy. He desires to see governance run on e-platform. It’s just his nature to see things work efficiently. And he sees technology as the only enabler for efficiency.
In life, whether in business or governance, you have to be a rebel to make a change. Lee Kuan Yew, author of ‘From Third World to First’ and father of modern Singapore acknowledged himself as a rebel who roused the people to pull Singapore out of the hatred they bore against the Japanese for their occupation of Singapore (1942-1945) and from the pains of British colonial rule.
Steve Jobs was to the world what Yew was to the political economy of Singapore and Ekeh to the African ICT industry. It is the story of positive rebellion. And for his unrelenting commitment to deepening and widening the horizon of ICT in Africa, Leo Stan has won many hearts, accolades, awards and honours. He is the proud recipient of over 85 awards, by far the most decorated entrepreneur in the nation’s ICT ecosystem. They include Icon of Hope Award by President Olusegun Obasanjo on October 1 , 2002 for his exemplary digital vision and as a role model for modern Nigeria; over six Doctor of Science Degrees(Honoris Causa) from Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO), University of Jos, Federal University of Agriculture, Markudi (FUAM), Imo State University (IMSU), among other citadels of learning.
Ekeh is a prophet with honour even among his people. He is a worthy Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) for his transcendental digital entrepreneurship; a Fellow of Nigeria Computer Society and a Distinguished Fellow of the Nigeria Law School. Indeed, his trophy cabinet is a rich mix of global and international awards.
His educational career is as complicated matrix and fittingly illustrates his restiveness. After obtaining a BSc in Economics (Hons) from Panjab University, India and a post-graduate diploma (PGD) in Risk Management from Nottingham/ City University, London (he actually terminated his post-graduate degree in Computer Science at Cork City University, Ireland in 1984 after spending barely three months on an agreement between his parents and the University as they did not see a future for IT in Africa at that time. At Cork City University, he made it clear that he was returning to Nigeria upon graduation. The university got worried that he would be frustrated when he returned home as there was not a glimmer of hope that Nigeria and Africa would offer jobs for their IT-savvy sons and daughters studying offshore.
His quest for more knowledge pushed him to enroll for a Master Degree in Business Law at what is today known as London Metropolitan University. But the entrepreneur in him kept tugging at his eclectic mind. Pronto, he abandoned the programme and instead used his school fees to launch his first company, Task Systems Ltd upon his return to Nigeria. That was the company that pioneered desktop publishing in Nigeria; it is the company that brought computer into the Nigeria media space – from newsrooms to advertising agencies.
Till date, he remains the pioneer-in-chief in the nation’s ICT bourse. Aside pioneering desktop publishing in the country, he has scored many firsts including launching the first ICT support company in Nigeria – ITEC Solutions Ltd; first ICT distribution company in West Africa – Technology Distributions Ltd – in Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana etc; rolled out the first local and internationally certified computer and mobile brands in Sub Sahara Africa – Zinox range; and deployed the largest single e-library and wireless cloud rollout in Africa among other feats.
On February 18, 2011 while delivering a keynote at the 13th annual Africa Business Conference of the Africa Business Club in Harvard Business School, United States, he said: “I would love to be remembered as the man who computerized Nigeria and altered positively the destiny of many Africans through digital knowledge democracy”. This is the heart cry of the man who turns 60 tomorrow. May the wish of this Prometheus of our time be done. Happy birthday!
- By Ray Umukoro, an online publisher and blogger. First published in Thisday on Sunday, February 21, 2016.