Notwithstanding that he had to first eat and also take his medication during our last encounter with him, every other thing about Mr. Isaac Durojaiye Agbetusin seemed okay that Friday, March 16, 2012 when we visited. Adorning an Ankara (sewn in a buba and sokoto format, with a pair of black shoes), he first visited the convenience in his office before settling down to talk to us. Obviously emaciated, he pleaded not to be photographed; promising instead to give us photographs to use. Admitting being ill, the lion in him, however, resurrected immediately the tape started rolling. A no-nonsense man, he had called off the interview twice. The first time was due to a mix up in the earlier date chosen. Our intermediary had told us that he wanted to see us on Wednesday, March 7, but when we showed up, he said it was Tuesday, March 6 he said. As a matter of fact, he was unhappy because he claimed he waited for us all day. We rescheduled for Tuesday, March 13; same 11am. But on Monday, March 12, he personally got in touch, pleading that the date be moved to Friday, March 16, because an important meeting that needed his attention just crept into his diary. As always, the YES INTERNATIONAL! team (made up of Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE and photographer TOKUNBO IBIKUNLE) got to his office at about 10.25am and he was already waiting. His food, rice and plantain, I think, was served by his secretary, with a bottle of water; his MD was briefed on some issues, he turned off his phone and pronto we swung into action. We would have asked more questions if only we knew that that would be his last interview on earth. We would have also pleaded for an earlier date if only we knew that the appointment he gave us for Monday, April 2 will not be kept. Too many had we known. Please, let’s share with you the last thoughts of Otunba Gadaffi, the gentle giant who pioneered and dignified shit business in Nigeria. This is our little tribute to the pathfinder who died exactly four years ago today…
Was there any form of opposition from your wife when you told her for the first time that you wanted to go into shit business?
Of course! It’s a smelly business. We used to dump the waste inside our compound, on our own soak-away when we started and she didn’t like it. She was always complaining, but I always appealed to her. Interestingly, that time was tight; before we perfected the technology, because we didn’t see any technology whatsoever to copy. It was all from the scratch, purely made in Nigeria. She opposed it, but after a while, she gave up and said if my husband has decided to do this and he’s determined, nothing is gonna stop him.
How about your friends, how did you explain to them initially that you wanted to go into shit business?
Come and see serious jesting; serious caricature. You! You worked for Abiola, you worked for MKO, you worked for American Express, you lived abroad and you want to end up your career by packing shit. But I thank God today; three of them are now into this same business. People who laughed me to scorn. People who thought I was unserious. But today, they are now packing shit themselves.
So, how come you didn’t allow the initial criticisms to discourage you?
I was the one with the focus, I was the one with the passion; there’s nothing you do on this earth that people will not criticize. I’ve learnt never to listen to what people say in life a long time ago, but to follow my instincts. If I make mistakes, I get my fingers burnt, no problem. I knew I saw a vision, because I did my research then. Nigerians will hire good canopies, good chairs, good cutleries, everything, but what about the convenience? So, I knew it was gonna be a matter of time and today the whole mobile toilet has become an industry. It takes somebody to pioneer something, if not the generations behind will not benefit at all. So, I am happy to say I pioneered this mobile toilet; we are now moving into bio-gas, converting shit into electricity. A company that started with about N60,000 now attracting international attention. It shows that we are passionate about what we do. You see, I believe that only a broken focus…broken focus is the enemy of ideas. Once you lose focus; that is the end.
At that wedding of Kola Abiola in 1996 where you got this vision, what exactly did you see that made you conclude that shit business is serious business?
It was just an idea; that the Cricket Pitch, they had only two little toilets. Being an artist, and where the toilets were situated, we wanted to cordon off the area. We didn’t want anybody to jump and claim to be coming from the toilet. So, if you are going to cordon off that area where the toilet is located, then you must have toilets where we wanted to use. And at the meeting I suggested it. I had never seen one before, I don’t know how it looks like, I just said why dont we have mobile toilets. Everybody bought the idea, but lo and behold, we searched Nigeria for four weeks, no mobile toilets. So, the challenge was now thrown back to me. You brought this idea, can you find a solution? And that was where I found a solution of constructing that middle picture (points to a picture stuck on his wall). Locally fabricated and manufactured. We did about four for the wedding.
A lot of people would have expected that considering your security background and also as the former Chief Security Officer to Bashorun M.K.O Abiola, you should have concentrated on security matters. What exactly is the fascination for shit business? Why the 360 degree turn?
You see, whatever you studied, either in the university, in the polytechnic or your field in life, may not necessarily be your calling. Inside of you are talents that God has deposited already. You can look at this scenario: crude oil, where is it located? In the ground. Gold, in the ground. Diamond, in the ground. All the mineral resources that mankind will need to survive are all buried inside the ground. So, when God wanted to create you and I, where did He go? Inside the ground. So, that means that inside of you, inside of me, inside of him (points to our cameraman), there’s an element of gold, there’s an element of diamond, there’s an element of every good thing. All you need to do is to tap into it. Tap into it. Your talent can be what you will have to live on for the rest of your life; forgetting your degree. What is it called? Things that you do naturally without stress. Listen, I studied Graphics, I ended up in security. I never worked with Graphics for one day – Graphics Design for one day. I ended up in security. Today, I am packing shit and I am happy about it. Why? My father used to sell plumbing materials. So, when the plumbers are going out, I will sneak out to follow them. When they finished their job, they will give me about two kobo then and that two kobo was a lot of money. I saw what and what and what they were doing. Today, that skill, though I didn’t learn it formally, because when they did it I saw it, I got to know how it is done. Ninety nine percent of what we have in our toilets is all about plumbing skill, sewage skill; the Q-sitting and so many others. And that’s why I’m beginning to tell the graduates of this world, that piece of paper is only called certificate. Rat can eat it, fire can burn it. When you go to all these skill acquisition centres, acquire a skill, rat cannot eat the skill from you, fire cannot burn it. Even with your level of education, it will not take you more than six months or one year to master all these things and it will become useful when you now set up on your own. Innovation will come in, and once innovation is there, you need to add one thing; very, very crucial in whatever anybody does – integrity. And humble yourself. You should not say I’m a graduate of this, I’m a graduate of that, there are certain things I cannot do. Me, I’ve turned shit into an industry. This is a letter from Bill Gates (shows us a letter from Bill and Mellinda Gates Foundation) all because I’m involved in shit. All expenses paid for. Now, Bill Gates is trying to re-invent toilet and I am their cardinal point, especially in Africa. They have tried to eradicate polio, eradicate malaria, eradicate this, but these things keep coming back. So, what makes these things to come back? Poor sanitation. So, they are now saying let us go and fight the root. It’s like removing the cobweb without killing the spider. So, now, they want to kill the spider, so that there will be no more cob web. What would have brought me to him were it not for shit?
What business strategy did you adopt that made shit business to work for you?
Fortunately for us, some of our services have social value. Social value in the sense that we placed mobile toilets all over Lagos, we gave them to the area boys and to the widows, which of course we know they cannot afford to buy. So, we signed an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with them. We give you this toilet to manage for two years, we get our money, you pay us X amount of money every month, after two years, the toilet belongs to you. And that way, we were able to deploy over 300 toilets. We now got offices that produce all that is related to toilet to place adverts on the toilets. So, the cost of that advert covers almost sixty percent of our cost of putting the toilets there. So, in 18 months, we had gotten our cost of production back, with some profit on top. And again, the operators are tied to us because when the toilets or septic tanks are filled up, they will call us to come and evacuate. So, by so doing, it popularized the DMT brand of toilets and we had our stickers and numbers. So, when people wanted to have a function, they will just remember, I saw the toilet at so, so and so, they go there, they pick up the number and call us and that has translated into good business for our rental services. And again, we are not relenting on our efforts. We started research and development on toilets. We now discovered that toileting is closely related to culture. There are some behaviours in toilet that are welcome in some cultures, but are not welcome in another culture. Today, people are saying safe water, use waterless toilet. Can you take waterless toilet to the North, where even when they pee, they clean up? They are water-oriented people in toileting. So, overtime, we started educating students on why it is good to have good sanitation and your hands washed after using the toilet.
What do you like most about your line of business?
Ah! It’s a line of business that can create millions of job opportunities for people. Toilets must not be seen as toilet anymore. Toilet must be seen as business, just as people invest money. Because no toilet in the whole world, except the one in your bedroom, that is free. You pay to use toilets in public places. So, whatever you pay for has gone a step further. Yes, toilet was the responsibility of the government before, but every now and then we shout private sector participation. Let government look at core issues and the smaller ones, the private sector can come in. So, give people the opportunity, build toilet, own toilet and for every toilet that is installed and built, somebody is employed to look after it and to maintain it. Employment is being generated. A friend of mine, Dr. Prakat, in India, has 1.6million toilets and yet I read in the papers yesterday or today, The Punch, that ninety percent of Indians, that’s about 1.2 billion people, still don’t have access to toilet. It’s a huge business opportunity out there.
What don’t you like about this business?
There’s nothing I don’t like about it o! I like the smell, I like the odour and above all, I love the money because it doesn’t smell.
From experience, why do you think businesses fail in Nigeria?
Too many factors, my brother. Where are the infrastructures? As you are sitting here now, we are on generator. Insecurity in the country. We are supposed to have gotten about $10 million investment on this our bio-gas project, but insecurity, the image of Nigeria they portray has made this an investment in an unfriendly country. The government needs to do something about it. It is when there is peace and tranquility and safety, that is when investors will know that when I invest my money in this country, five, six years down the line, when I want to pull out, I can pull out my money with some sort of interest. We still have a lot to do in infrastructure and the financial institutions don’t seem to be helping small scale industries. You want N100,000, they ask you to go and bring the C of O of Ikoyi cemetery. Where are you gonna get it?
Why do most people attain success, but are unable to sustain it?
You will ask them o! (General laughter). You see, there’s a difference between attaining success and God-given success. When you attain it, you struggle for it. The day the zeal, the power to continue the struggle fails, that is the end. But when God gives you success, whether you are strong, you are weak, you are feeble; the success continues to run.
What is the biggest mistake that most business people make?
Me I no know o! (Laughter). Me I no know o!! It is not every question from journalists that one answers. I no know o!
What is the wisest decision that any businessman can take?
One, be passionate and focused about your business. Two, delay your days of enjoyment. Grow the business; you look after the business initially, when the business is stabilized, you are now okay; the business will now look after you at your old age. But most people, the moment they see their business grow, they feel they are on top of the world. That is when they want to start investing in other things that they know nothing about, and it will go down. To me, anything I do, from my head to my feet, I am full of shit. So, I am for shit and shit alone (General laughter). How would you go and make money from fishing and you feel you’ve arrived and you now want to divert that money from fishing to carpentry that you know next to nothing about? People must choose an area and be focused. That’s why I said broken focus is the greatest enemy of ideas and progress.
What is the next level for DMT?
Can you tell us about it?
Before, they dumped waste inside the lagoon and it’s not good for the environment. We are proposing to have a bio-gas plant nearby where all the waste will be processed to generate electricity and at the end of the day we also have organic fertilizer for our farmers. That will even go a long way in enhancing food production. So, no waste is wasted at the end of the day.
NB: First published March 2014