He taught us all how to fish. Now is as good a time as any to pick up the lessons.
Patriarch of the Ibru dynasty, Olorogun Michael Ibru, was just 24 years of age with the world at his feet, when he ventured into the frozen fish business.
It was a business decision that would come to define the rest of his life and earn him enormous wealth.
“Way back in 1956, I set out on an adventure which, looking back now I can only describe as an urge, perhaps even a calling. A calling because at that time I had a good job, good money and bright prospects with one of the largest multinational companies around”, Ibru said in a newspaper interview in 1988.
That large multinational company was United African Company (now UACN).
Ibru teamed up with Jimmy Large, an expatriate, and his massive frozen fish conglomerate was born.
He was the pioneer indigenous frozen fish merchant who had rented cold-storage facilities and began trading at the Apapa Wharf from the back of a Land Rover.
By the mid '60s, Ibru’s fishing business had become the cash cow for the dynasty. He crashed the price of fish in Nigeria and in a way, helped liberalize the sector.
“I examined all kinds of ways of bringing fish cheaply to the people. That was the key phrase: Cheaply to the people”, he said of his strategy.
“We examined canning but that was no good—too expensive. Drying (chemical and mechanical) all ended up too expensive. So, we settled for the ordinary freezing process—wholesome and cheap.
“We pegged our idea at about eight American cents per pound i.e no more than 20 percent of a worker’s daily wage. The price was not the only problem to overcome, our problems had just started. The Nigerian society is a rather conservative one in many respects. Frozen fish must of necessity be stored in cold stores; but there were hardly any cold stores around”.
Ibru had to also scale the hurdle of the frozen fish stereotype in his country.
“The average Nigerian at that time associated cold stores with mortuaries and by extension regarded frozen fish as fish coming out of the mortuaries”, he said.
Ibru and his firm commenced massive sensitization campaign around frozen fish until the delicacy gained the wide acceptance it has today.
With the fishing territory conquered, Ibru would take on transportation, poultry, palm oil plantation and timber processing--excelling wherever he set foot.
He had arrived and the Nigerian landscape was his oyster.
He had become one of Nigeria’s most successful entrepreneurs by sheer dint of hard work, a nose for business and imagination.
He took thousands of Nigerians from his ethnic group of Urhobo out of poverty and became a philanthropist until his passing on Tuesday September 6, 2016.
Writing in the Guardian, Kabir Garba said of the late Ibru: “Through his entrepreneurial skill and engagement, Ibru popularized the concept of ‘social good’—what is today known, in the business world as corporate social responsibility”.
Olorogun Michael Ibru was first among seven children. His dad, Pa Epete Ibru was a missionary worker who was also a Nursing Superintendent at Igbobi Orthopedic Hospital.
His Mum, the late Madam Janet Omotogor Ibru was a fish trader, from whom the younger Ibru will pick up a few fishing tricks.
Ibru passed on when signs showed he was recuperating from an illness. “He had been sick for some time. And just when we thought he was recovering, he died”, said his wife, Cecilia Ibru.
“He was looking much better and I was expecting his return. He was a great man. For him to have passed on now, we believe it is God’s time. He is a genius of our time. He was a pioneer in so many fields. That is why he was known as ‘Fisherman of Nigeria’.
“He knew fish was so needed and he made it available to the ordinary man. He was the pioneer for 20 years in the fishing business before it got crowded by unscrupulous people”, Mrs. Ibru added.
As the nation mourns his passing, Ibru’s endeavor and business acumen should strike a chord in the hearts of his compatriot whose leaders abandoned Agriculture and Industry for the easy lifestyle of Oil, through the years.
He was the Fisherman of Nigeria who left us with tons of lesson of how to fish in oil-less waters.
It may just be time to return to the sectors of the economy that made Ibru and his empire so successful.