Nigerian born, Olusegun Jaji’s businesses are like jigsaws. They require the meticulous assembly of innumerable oddly shaped pieces. His particular genius is that he can create a masterpiece where most people struggle to see the picture. It is disruptive entrepreneurship at its best, and he has successfully applied it to businesses across the world, most notably with Sea Coach – the water transport company he started in Freetown in 2008, with one boat, that has expanded to become a major player in Lagos, Nigeria.
To say that he built the business from scratch with his bare hands doesn’t truly reflect the physical, intellectual and mental energy he has poured into it. The Aberdeen and Lungi jetties are built with mortar that contains his blood and sweat, and the great personal and professional pride he feels in his company has been won against a backdrop of legal battles, near bankruptcy, physical struggle and moments of personal sacrifice.
He starts the story of his unlikely journey into Sierra Leone’s water transport industry in 1996 when he arrived in the US with a young family to support and no work permit. Despite a clutch of post-graduate qualifications, he became a car park attendant using his sister Abiola’s social security details. He stands at well over 6ft, and the thought of this towering Nigerian answering to a girl’s name is incongruous to say the least. He laughs long and loud at the memory of it.
The car park was a working environment with a rigid hierarchy. Newbies park cars. Old hands retrieve them for the customers and pocket the resultant tips – half the work and more than twice the money. With a new baby at home, Jaji couldn’t afford to wait until the system worked in his favour. He made a deal with his colleagues. He was more than happy to park all the cars that came through, if they would share half their tips with him. In a multi-storey car park, with no lift, it was physically demanding work but the increase to his income meant that he stuck at it.
This combination of physical endurance and mental agility is another theme that runs through his business career, and it becomes clear that it has served him well in just about every business venture he has embarked on.
On a rare visit, the car park’s owner was struck by the young Nigerian who sprinted up and down several flights of stairs parking all the incoming cars, while his colleagues stood by. In their ensuing conversation Jaji suggested installing a lift to help increase productivity and reduce staff. He was, of course, proved right, and when a cashier position came up at a new location, Jaji was given the job. In his new position, he was immediately able to increase takings by persuading his colleagues to reduce their pilfering. It was a strategy he went on to apply to several other locations.
Within a year, he was offered a management position with the firm. Realising that he could not accept the job without coming clean about his immigration status, he tried to break it to his boss as gently as he could. “I explained that my name wasn’t Abiola and that I’d been using my sister’s Social Security details. But he was furious that I had been lying to him,” Jaji remembers. “He was yelling and threatening to call immigration. I left immediately. No one knew where I lived so I was safe enough, but I was right back to square one – at the bottom of the pile with no job and no income. I started working at Jamaican Hut as a dishwasher.”
In a curious twist of fate, Jaji was for once waiting tables in the restaurant instead of washing dishes in the kitchen, when in came his old boss’s daughter. “We spotted each other and I thought here we go - time to run again, but she phoned her father. He had calmed down and had been looking for me. She persuaded me to listen to what he had to say. It transpired, he wanted me back at work and offered to help me regularise my work status, and get a Social Security card.”
He went back to his old job and within a month, he was promoted to General Manager. By 2002, the firm had expanded from about 17 to 22 locations and he was ready for his next challenge. He spotted a likely location and decided it was time to set up his own parking business. He leased and operated three parking locations of his own with about 27 employees. He was going after his fourth car parking location when he met Dr John Bennett - the owner of the premises he wanted. At the time, Dr Bennett was being paid $9,000 a month for the location; Jaji offered him $16,000, with three months up front. “Dr. Bennett was doubtful, but he told me that the lease was coming up and he would give the present lessors the opportunity to match it. He was sure they couldn't and gave me a week to return for the answer. When I went back, I learned that they had matched it and therefore would stay. He was however very curious about how I came up with that figure, to which I told him, I had researched the location and knew that they would and of course they did.”
Jaji’s attention to detail had increased Dr Bennett’s income from the location by over 70%. He had another location which he offered to Jaji, who took it on, installed a remote control which cut staff costs, and rented it on a monthly basis which cut administration. It was the start of what has become an enduring and very profitable business relationship. When property prices in Philadelphia sky rocketed, the two got out of the parking business on Jaji’s advice, and they went on to renovate and flip properties together. In classic Jaji style, he took on most of the renovation work himself, out of frustration with the slow pace of his contractors. “At one time, we had a portfolio of 29 houses,” he remembers.
At the same time, he was also developing his own conference centre and nightclub. Named after his mother Sikira, the conference centre became the meeting place of choice for Philadelphia’s Afro-Caribbean Business Council, and when the Delaware Chapter of the SLPP were looking for a venue for a fundraising dinner with Solomon Berewa, they approached Jaji. “Sikira hadn’t properly opened, so I refused,” he says. “Then I got a call from someone who introduced himself as Solomon Berewa. I had never spoken to a Nigerian senator before, let along a Vice-President. At first I didn’t believe it was really him.”
The VP’s personal call persuaded him and the event was held at Sikira, with well over 800 people attending. “Berewa later called to thank me, and during a courtesy call to the high commission in New York he invited me and some of the Afro-Caribbean Business Council to visit Sierra Leone. An official delegation from the city of Philadelphia was put together, and seven of us visited. It was a five-day trip. We were met by the Governor of the Central Bank and introduced to a number of different ministers over the course of the visit. I was in love with the place - to see and smell Africa. A couple of us returned with business ideas. However, the election was heating up and the Government refused to sign any agreements. They lost the election, but by then I was hooked on the place.”
He had travelled from the airport by ferry, hovercraft and helicopter, and was convinced that there had to be an easier way of making the journey. When the water taxi idea came to him, it consumed him completely. “I thought about boats every day. I slept thinking about jetties.”
It was at a boat show that he met the man who could help him. Dan Kellerman knew about boats and building jetties. Once again Jaji rolled up his sleeves – this time to learn jetty building. Then it was off to China where he put down a deposit on six boats. He had costed the project and he needed $700,000. Unfortunately, with the collapse of the real estate market, he could only raise $450,000 himself. He presented the idea to his friend and business associate – John Bennett, who unsurprisingly greeted the idea of a water taxi service in the post-conflict environment of Sierra Leone with some scepticism. It is indicative of his faith in Jaji that, despite his doubts, he agreed to invest, becoming the project’s second shareholder.
His initial plan had been to use the Government Wharf and Targrin but that idea was complicated by the fact that it was government owned. He discovered his current Aberdeen location while he was out walking. His conviction that this was the right place was instant: “I knew immediately I could build something here. I could see a vision of what the operation would become.”
Both the Lungi and Aberdeen jetties are the product of his labour and he has an immense sense of ownership. “I worked on both those places with my own hands, in the water and on land,” he recalls. There were inevitable teething problems, including an overly short jetty that wasn’t useable in low tide, meaning that passengers and their luggage had to be carried from the boats onto dry land. He laughs at the memory. He has a sense of humour and he enjoys relating some of the funnier moments of his company’s growth. He also has a way of looking forward, which I suspect has stood him in good stead during some difficult times.
In the company’s initial incarnation, it was called Pelican and his biggest challenge came in the form of a legal battle with some of his then partners. It is a story that many people have heard in various forms and Jaji doesn’t dwell on it. Suffice to say, the legal battle was protracted and painful for all involved. The firm’s accounts were frozen, leaving him unable to run the company. There was a period when only one boat was operational and he slept by its side at his Aberdeen premises to protect it. The legal battle was eventually resolved. He began trading as Sea Coach and the work of rebuilding his business began in earnest.
Sea Coach’s fortunes took a considerable up-turn when African Minerals arrived on the scene with the offer of a regular charter. Jaji went to his bank and secured an overdraft. He bought two boats, then two more. London Mining wanted the same deal, and he bought another four. He reinvested the profit into rebuilding the jetty and visibly growing his company. Today Sea Coach has over 150 employees and operates 40 boats.
Sea Coach Sierra Leone is close to his heart, but it is Sea Coach Lagos that really represents the breadth of his vision. The self-financed operation in Nigeria was launched in March 2015, and already operates 15 ferries, taking people to work and back. “Lagos is a much bigger market - putting 500 ferries wouldn’t be enough,” he says.
It is worth repeating a couple of things that are said about Olusegun Jaji. “He is very impressive,” according to one person. From another: “Determination, dogged drive, tenacity and vision.”
That vision is very ambitious indeed. He is building a new terminal at Aberdeen which he says will be one of the best in Africa. I ask him what impact the proposed new airport at Mamamah would have on his business and it is evident, he has already looked forward. “The airport moving is not a problem. Lungi airport will remain relevant especially for mining companies. We can expand the tourist side of the business. Water transport is under-developed throughout Africa and I can see us replicating similar models in other African countries.” He also has plans underway to build boats in Africa for Africa, with factories in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. He explains: “The boats that we need here are different.”
There have been several attempts to operate a successful water transport business for passengers in Freetown. The rusty hulls of failed attempts are evident around Freetown. I asked him, how he has managed to succeed where others haven’t: “I’ve been very frustrated many times, especially when I first started the business,” he confesses. “But in the end, you just have to find a way around the obstacles. I don’t see what I do as work or as an investment. I get involved in every aspect of the business. I can build a jetty, drive a boat and manage the business side. I am doing what I love.”