Poor policies limit real estate growth– Obih

Ruth Obih is the Chief Executive Officer of 3invest Limited. In this interview with MAUREEN AZUH, she speaks on the problems hindering the growth of the country’s housing sector

How has it been working as the Chief Executive Officer of 3invest?

It’s been tough, but I am somebody that always considers tough routes a better way than the easy way because easy ways do not make any difference. Anybody can do any easy thing but doing something extraordinary takes a lot of guts. So it’s been challenging running 3invest but it’s worth it because the result of what we do is worth holding on to.

3invest started as a small brokerage firm, what you call agency but we had a vision to build a better future in all sectors of the real estate industry. Our aim has been to help people acquire the right property for their status, lifestyle and income and advise people on the right investment in real estate.

After three years, we felt that brokerage alone could not help us achieve our aim so we decided to go into advocacy. But our future plan is to focus on commercial real estate and management of portfolios for our clients who are investors in real estate.

Are you in real estate because you feel it’s part of your job as a lawyer or for the passion that you have for the profession?

The reason why law was created was to settle dispute between families, so where there is no law, what happens? Law actually started from land dispute. So being a lawyer and doing business in real estate, is like practising what law was created for. I don’t see any difference, it’s just that there are different aspects of law so what we do is property law.

Law is a business, being a lawyer positions you to do things that others may not be able to do. Lawyers can blend into any business; it positions you to stand wherever you wish to build your career. So being a lawyer enables you to do things the right way.

Some have said the built environment has been static in the last one year, what’s your take on this?

Nigeria is 53, but we still have a habit of mediocrity in the country. We turn serious things into jokes and instead of seeing an opportunity in some things, we deliberately cast it down. We are people that cast things down; we cast our leaders and country down. I think the country has tried as a growing country for being one of the most attractive places to invest in the world with the kind of population that we have. I think what we need to do is to have a better advisory system that would help our governments in taking some decisions as well as guide them in making some regulations and laws.

We should also know that growth is change; we have to grow with the time. Most of the things that we do that are not working; I think we should learn how other emerging economies have done them and how they got them right.

The real estate industry is still at a nascent stage; there are lots of untapped opportunities in the industry. Every foreign investor wants to come here because they see the opportunity. I think we need to encourage our leaders more.

Compliance and no adherence to regulations are some of the major issues that we have in the industry. There’s also lack of training, while ignorance remains the biggest problem we have and that is inhibiting people from learning. Our people tend to think that they know it all and that pride is not letting us grow.  When we humble ourselves, we would realise that everyday should be considered as learning and growing stage. We should also try and engage in capacity building, people should travel to other places and see things from different perspectives so that they can begin to understand the difference between good and right.

If you don’t know what is right, you will think whatever is available is the standard; education and training are what I think our professionals need in order to help the government and make impact. If those things are not in place, the problem will remain.

There have been arguments that foreign investment is needed in reducing Nigeria’s housing deficit. Do you share this sentiment?

When you talk about foreign investment and investors, I look at it from a different perspective. Foreign investors come to the country because of our population; but they also want their money back. We are in a country where we have the inability to want to learn, I am not talking about education because we are educated people but the inability to learn what people are willing to teach.

If you look at the business world today, Nigerians are considered consumers; it’s a good thing to be a consumer but between being the best consumer country and the best investing country, which is better? Foreign investors are coming into the retail sector because our people spend money, why do we spend so much on consuming? Why do the British for instance, invest more than they consume? These are questions that we should ask ourselves.

These foreign investors come into this country, they will help us but they are coming in capacity of investing in an income producing country, they are not coming in the capacity of developing the country. Even if they want to develop it, it is for the gain. The attractions are the population and the consumption here.

When you relate this to the real estate, foreign investment is not the answer to the problems in the housing sector. The problem in the housing sector is more of policies. A standard person is entitled to shelter as it is in other countries where mortgages are available.

Foreign investors focus on the commercial real estate sector, infrastructure, they do not invest in residential real estate. They will build roads because they know they can toll it and make money from it, build shopping malls and make money and so on; anything they do must have a concession.

But housing is about providing shelter for a standard Nigerian whose income is about N20, 000 per month. Government is supposed to consider the population and make housing policies that can suit the people. The problem we are having is in housing the people and not in making money out of real estate, so I would say foreign investors cannot be the solution to our housing problem. Policies and regulation issues are the major things that are hindering our housing sector from growing.

How comfortable are you operating in a male-dominated industry?

I am always in the middle of men and I am used to it now. We are few women in real estate but to me there’s no difference between a man and a woman; I would even prefer to work with a man than a woman because it is easier to get on. Yes, sometimes, I can get away with the fact that I am a woman but I also hate the fact that I am being looked down upon because I am a woman or that I can’t achieve certain things because I am a woman. I don’t let it affect me, it motivates me more. Besides, I work with more men than women in my company, to me it’s not about your sex but about whom you are.

Have you ever wished you were not a CEO?

Managing a business is not the easiest thing to do in this part of the world especially when you have the ‘millennium children’ who believe things should be easy. The story of the Nigerian youth for instance, is becoming a bit sad; the lack of will is scary. That has been a major challenge, if training was available or if you could get the right young people to understand how to work and put passion in what they do, it would make my work easier.

I have a great team but the challenge itself is that 3invest grew so fast and we are now trying to catch up with the brand. It makes it a bit more tedious to deliver, it’s challenging but the passions is there and it keeps me going.

Do you sometimes wish you were into something else other than real estate?

The only thing I sometimes wish for is sitting in a law firm. I didn’t get along with my boss when I was working in a law firm, probably if I had continued, maybe I would have grown more because even the few years I spent there helped my early beginning. The law space is where I would have been.

How was your experience growing up?

I grew up with my parents at home, before I went to boarding school. All my siblings lived abroad, I was the only one left at home and here I am today, I think growing with my parents helped put me on the right track.

I studied law in Imo State University and thereafter practised with Ajumogobia and Okeke before I started 3invest. I also took international courses but my story is that of a local Nigerian girl, there’s no international education, just the standard lawyer that decided to go into business.

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