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...we can only be human together...
...we can only be human together...

I'm a major cement merchant today but, in the past, I used to pretend to fellow shop owners that I had pounded yam for lunch

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30 October 2022
16 minutes read
I'm a major cement merchant today but, in the past, I used to pretend to fellow shop owners that I had pounded yam for lunch

I am Elder Ubong Obot.

I am an elder of The Apostolic Church.

I am from Ikot Akpabin in Ibesikpo Asutan Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State.

Poor background, breadwinner-mum's death

I am from a poor family with my mother, Elsie Bassey Obot, a strong businesswoman, as the backbone. 

She used to travel from our village to sell palm oil in Lagos where her sister was based.

Sadly, my mum had an accident in Lagos during one of those trips. It affected her spinal cord. She died, after about two months in hospital in Lagos 

That was twenty-something years ago.

Tough times 

After her death, life took a difficult turn for the family.

I was quite young then.

I and my twin sister were the second to the last born of her seven children.

After her death, I started to sell kerosene in the local market in Ikot Akpabin.

Later, an uncle - my mum's brother - who was a businessman in Zaria (in Kaduna State) took me to the city.

He told me that he would send me to school, but that did not happen because his business was not doing well. It was not that he did not want to put me in school.

I now began to hawk moimoi and waterleaf on the streets. 

Before I left for Zaria, my twin sister and I had finished primary school. 

I returned to our village from Zaria after about a year.

I was enrolled in Ndikpo Grammar School in Ikot Obio Nko (which is two villages away from Ikot Akpabin) but I left after the third year. 

Cement boy

I later went to live with my sister and her husband at 36 Ikpa Road in Uyo.

He was selling electronics.

But the business was not moving well.

So, my in-law moved his shop to 41 Ikot Ekpene Road and switched over to selling building materials. 

We used to go to Aba to buy cement or people came from Port Harcourt to sell to us. His younger brother was also with us.

It was not a formal apprenticeship but when I had spent about ten years with him, he told me he would settle me. He was not paying me any salary but I was living in his house at 241 Oron Road.

But (when the time came) he did not want me to go.

He said he would want us to be in business together.

This is because I was committed to his business. In fact, most times, he did not come to the shop; whatever I told him, he accepted. Among the workers, I was the one that used to carry cement on my head to load and offload. I was so committed to my master's business. I could travel to Gboko, Benue State, where Lion Cement was being produced and spend over one week without having a bath. Later, when Eagle Cement came to Port Harcourt, I also went there. My boss never liked to stress himself.

Some customers came to persuade me to leave the business because they said that my boss would not settle me but I refused to yield.

My master went to the village to meet my father hoping to get him to convince me to do joint business with him. My brother was also there when he came.

But I still refused. I told my people that I did not have one kobo to contribute and it was not a good idea to be in a joint business with him as I was a young man and I was ready to move forward with whatever he would give me. I was ready to start my own business.

So I had to stay on for another two years and six months before he released me.

Cement merchant

He gave me two hundred bags of cement to start my own business. That is how he settled me. 

I chose to go to the market on Uruan Street; where my master did not like to go. He did not like competition as I do. 

But there were not many shops in the market (for hire).

Mr Edet Okon, the landlord of the building we lived (at 241 Oron Road), was then based in Calabar and he loved me so much because I used to wash his car and cook for him whenever he came back from Calabar. If he stayed for three days, I would cook for him and wash his car during those three days.

This man then gave a quit notice to one of the tenants in one of his father's properties at Uruan Street; that he wanted to use the shop.

He said because of how I was good to him, he would give me the space.

The tenant left and he gave me the shop rent-free for two years. Yes.

One of the customers who was buying from my master and was a transport manager in Panalpina in Port Harcourt, Mr Edem, also provided me a one-room apartment, also for free, on Nkemba Street, here in Uyo. This was where I lived before moving to my own house.

Mr Edem used to come from Port Harcourt every Saturday and the only day he would buy materials to use on his site was on Sunday. I was the one who loaded the cement in his station wagon vehicle on those Sundays. He would buy like fifty bags and I would load ten bags in the vehicle for each trip. I would be engaged throughout the Sundays until he returned to Port Harcourt.

I was so close to the man up to when he died,  and with his wife and family until today. 

The Ubotex Limited journey started about  twenty-two years ago. By the way, I had named the business "Ubotex" right from the beginning. My boss did not have a registered business name but I decided I would. I had seen how he lost money when he had a contract of over a million Naira then and he used the account of his customer who had a registered business; that one did not transfer the money to him. It was one of my cousins who suggested Ubotex and it was okay with me.  

From nothing to growing and other matters

When I started on Uruan Street, it was difficult because there were big players there. I was small. 

For about three months, I did not sell anything. I panicked and started questioning myself why I chose to come to the market.

You see, those guys used to sell what we call 'refill bags.' They would buy cement and refill it in bags and sell cheaper than my cost price. I was not going to do that. But, when the suffering became too much, I was tempted to join in the refill-bag thing. When I tried to do that, one man told me not to do what my mind told me not to do. I killed the idea.

What now happened was that people began to know that I was the one that sold complete bags of cement and I began to sell little by little. I sold "Eagle Cement" brand from Port Harcourt then.

I also wanted the little money I was making to grow that when it was time to eat I would buy akamu and beans but would go to the side where pounded yam was being sold to pick toothpicks and pretend that I too had eaten  pounded yam while returning to my shop. (Long laughter). The pounded yam sellers would not stop to abuse me but I had a focus: grow my business. When that began to happen, with God's help, on some days, I would join them to eat the pounded yam. 

I can say that my fortune changed when there was cement scarcity and one man who used to buy cement from some other people came with a request to buy two trucks of cement from me  - on credit. But I only had one truck. A truck is six hundred bags of cement. Before then, I had even decided that I would stop talking with him because no matter how I had begged him, he had refused to patronise me. Until that scarcity.

It was when they started Shelter Afrique Estate (Uyo Housing Project). By then, I had begun to get cement supplied to me from Port Harcourt on credit too. Ekambaette, one of my staff, who is still with me, said I should not supply the cement because when he was buying on cash he chose to buy from others. I said that, perhaps, that was how God wanted to bring him back to us. I supplied him based on his promise to pay in a week's time. After the sale, he said that I should meet him in his office. You know what? He paid me that same day. He came back the third day and ordered for two trucks. We supplied and he paid immediately. 

One day, I got a call for a meeting which led to an opportunity to supply cement for the Shelter Afrique Estate project. It was a huge job  That, by the grace of God, was how I saw the glory of God on me: the money started coming as the market was growing.

I later approached a boss who was in the same building - he was on the upper floor - who had told me that if I had any business that we could do together I should let him know. I told him that instead of hanging around with other distributors in Port Harcourt, if he invested, I would sell his product. By that time, around seventeen years ago, he gave us fifteen million Naira to invest in the distribution of Eagle Cement. So we started the business in Port Harcourt.

I used to transact business in cash until one day when one of the Eagle Cement staff told me that it was better for me to do bank transfers. He said that banks would know the business more on turnover. He added that it was better also for proper accounting, reconciliations and all that.

I saw that it made sense. So, I went to the (defunct) Citizens International Bank on Ikot Ekpene Road and opened an account there.

Along the line, I had a bad feeling about the arrangement with that man on the Eagle Cement distribution because he withdrew my representative in Port Harcourt for another person. I even did not want to pay him what was due to him. My wife - I got married twenty-three years ago - warned me strongly against doing it; that besides the man being more influential in the town than me, he would tell people that I was a thief and that is what I would be if I did that. And, after all, we also had an agreement based on trust. No paper wa signed…. She said that if he did not keep his own part of the agreement, we should move forward. I cried that day, went and cut a bank draft of seven million, two hundred and thirty thousand Naira, which was the balance of his money and gave it to him to discontinue the deal. His wife, who was close to me, tried to intervene and he asked that we should continue the arrangement but I refused.

I went to Citizens International Bank to ask for a loan. The bank approved ten million Naira credit for me, based on my account turnover. That Eagle Cement man was right.

There were several other challenges but God allowed us to overcome them.

When Flour Mills of Nigeria joined with Lafarge to take over CalCem (Calabar Cement Company) I switched over because it was closer to me than Port Harcourt. The day that the foundation stone was laid in Mfamosing, I was one of the customers there. This was during the first term of the Donald Duke Administration. Operations started about six years later. The first truck that took cement out of Mfamosing was mine. By then, I had my own trucks.

Currently, I am a distributor with Lafarge and for about ten years, I was the Number One distributor for Lafarge in Nigeria. 

We have been receiving so many awards from Lafarge. Last year, I got a Prado SUV from them and returned to being their Number One distributor too.

We carry just about ten or so per cent of Dangote Cement. Lafarge is closer to us in Uyo; that is why.

When we talk of being Number One, it is about the monthly distribution of eighteen thousand metric tons or about six hundred and something trucks a month or three million, six hundred bags.

By the grace of God, the business started growing and many people in Akwa Ibom State here have much sympathy to buy from Ubotex and assist us to do the business. For this, we are most thankful. 

It was not easy when we were starting, and even up till now, there are still challenges, but we always try to make sure that we do what we are supposed to do in terms of employment, philanthropy and having branches across the State.

When I remember when I used to stay in one bedroom in Nkemba Street or when I used to go and take akamu and pretend that I had eaten pounded yam or when I travelled to Sapele and our vehicle had an accident which claimed one life or when a man asked me if I would buy a car in my lifetime when I was winding down the glass of his Peugeot 504 car when the breeze was too much while we were travelling before dawn one morning to go and buy some goods - I later bought a Peugeot 504 car to give the man - then I know I have a lot to thank God for, for His glory upon me.

I can testify that I was diligent while working in  another man's business and totally focused on mine from when I had a small shop till now when I have a corporate office and many branches and God has really blessed me. 

Of course, along the line, we made some mistakes, based on lack of proper advice; for instance in terms of employment of staff based on sentiments and not going into manufacturing but we are taking care of things.

We have gone into road construction. My second son -  I have three boys and one girl - read civil engineering, so I am trying to get him involved in the business just as I am doing with the others; whenever they have holidays, they come to work here. 

Many thanks to XL FM 106.9 Uyo for local support in Akwa Ibom State. Please visit https://xl1069.fm for an enriching radio experience.


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