WE WERE BROUGHT UP TO SEE REALITIES OF LIFE— OKOYA, DIRECTOR, FICO SOLUTIONS

Filed in Business by on June 19, 2011

We were brought up to see realities of life— Okoya, Director, FICO Solutions
By NKARENYI UKONU
Sunday, 19 Jun 2011

Taofik Okoya

He needs little or no introduction. Taofeek Okoya, the creative and resourceful son of billionaire industrialist, Chief Rasaq Okoya, in this interview explains the reasons for his passion for the African girl-child and why our heritage must be preserved, reports NKARENYI UKONU

Being a descendant of the Okoya clan obviously does come with its own advantages, which many are likely to say far outweigh the disadvantages. The glitz, the glamour and the opulence that surround the Okoya clan, however, did not necessarily guarantee that they would be spoon-fed, as they were made to understand from an early age the value of hard work, which is the only avenue to guaranteeing the affluence they were born into.

“As young children, we were entrusted with a whole lot of responsibilities by my father, incorporating us into his business at very young ages,” Taofeek begins. “We had fun growing up, no doubt, but it was important we excel in school. In my teenage years, the work became more intense and we were expected to deliver. We were brought up to see the realities of life and I believe this is part of what makes me who I am today – the driving force in me.”

Becoming a full time staff in one of his father’s companies shortly after school was inevitable, and he spent 10 years, during which he rose to become an executive director of Eleganza household coolers.

But rather than remain in his comfort zone and in the shadow of his self-made billionaire father, Taofeek decided it was time he took his destiny in his hands and chart a new course for his life. Making the decision to move unto what many view as uncertainty was most definitely no cake walk, he explains. According to him, it was something he had to do because he wanted a change.

“Change is part of human life and I embraced it when it came. The company had the capacity to cater for the whole of West Africa in terms of producing affordable household products that people were importing at that time and which were more or less luxury items. But the issue of power, the export commission, substandard Chinese and Indian products which later flooded the market and the technological growth became a huge challenge. We ended up scaling down our capacity because it was more than what the market could consume. Some opportunities came up and I decided to take them up to pursue other areas and avenues.”

Seven years down the line, he has no regret leaving his father’s company to set up FICO solutions, with tentacles in manufacturing, the fashion industry, contracts and the one most dearly to his heart, the Queens of Africa project – an avenue through which the African girl-child’s orientation about her heritage, roots and culture will be shaped and defined. Using tools like African dolls, story books, comics and music, Okoya hopes to inspire a new era of ethnic pride and confidence in African girl-child.

“Over time, I discovered that we are fast losing our values and appreciation for our culture and who we are as Africans because of Western influence. Now, with advancement in technology, if we aren’t careful enough, most of our heritage will become extinct. So, what better way to begin to preserve our culture than to begin with the young ones?

“ The formative years of a child is between four and nine years; that is when we should pay attention to them because that is when they soak up a lot of the things that they see. By the time they become teenagers, that is when they now have the confidence to begin to express the things that they have imbibed. So, the earlier the orientation, the better.”

Recalling what prompted his interest in wanting to shape the mind of the African girl-child about her heritage, he says, “I walked into a store here in Nigeria to buy a doll for my niece and all I saw were Barbie dolls from different countries but none from our soil. Besides, there was nothing educative about them all. Also, by the time I became a father and I began to spend time with my first child, a girl, I noticed that she was getting too exposed to so many western vibes and there was really no opportunity for her to grasp her own roots.

“Her favourite characters then were Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Little Mermaid, etc. She also had this thing about wanting long hair, which boils down to the fact that, that is what she sees all the time. That sort of drove it home for me. So, I began to think that it wasn’t such a bad idea to create a line of black dolls. I created some and gave them Nigerian identities — Nneka, Azeezat and Wuraola.”

If he thought designing dolls and putting them in the market for sale would be a walk over, acceptability for them was a different ball game entirely. The resistance he got was so palpable he almost changed his mind. From the marketers to parents to children, their opinion of what they preferred was true to type – white dolls.

“Obviously it is what they have been used to, it is what they have always had and they think it is the norm. Besides, some of the black dolls weren’t as pretty as the white dolls; they felt the white dolls were prettier with their blonde hair and blue eyes; were fashionable, with a car and a pony. This really disturbed me because these white dolls were created for white kids in their own country according to their own lifestyle, so it is a culture clash for African children to embrace white dolls. They sell this illusive image of what these children can look like and the children are buying into it.”

With slight alterations but still retaining their African features, the dolls are beginning to gain acceptance among children and even their parents. Using music to further champion his cause, Okoya commissioned a few music producers to use hip hop tunes to make songs with clean, child friendly and inspirational lyrics and ended up a publisher in furtherance of his cause.

“I realised that in my daughter’s school, they aren’t taught about some of the women who did their communities proud in those days and I am thinking that if they want someone to be proud of their heritage, their role models shouldn’t necessarily be someone like Brittany Spears; they could be local heroines like Madam Tinubu, Efunsetan Aniwura, etc., who showed acts of bravery at a time when women could only be seen and not heard.

“These heroines aren’t being celebrated among the young generations and we need to educate and tell these young ones the importance of what these women did through story books and comics, using the queens of Africa so they can understand, appreciate and better relate with them.”

Having been at this for about four years now, he considers it to be his greatest achievement in life, going by the outpour of encouragements and good wishes he gets. In his early 40s, Okoya says beyond wanting to help preserve most – if not our entire heritage – he sees his effort as his own contribution to sell the positive image of Nigeria.

“At a time, I lived in London while I schooled outside of London and when people in school ask where I come from, I would always tell them London. One day, one of the guys asked where I was really from and I felt quite embarrassed and then told him I was actually from Nigeria. Strangely enough, we ended up having a very good conversation. I was able to educate and enlighten him about Nigeria and I felt really good about it. Since then, my orientation about my roots changed. Sometimes, in another land, one may be the only opportunity they have to learn about one’s country. As a true Nigerian, irrespective of where I may have been, I decided to make the best of opportunities while I can to project the positive image of my country.”

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