Frank Nneji: Tourism Development Has to Be Deliberate
With its humbling beginnings with five buses, ABC Transport today is a multi-million dollar business holding one of the top spots for road transportation in Nigeria and employing well over 1,200 people. The transport company is the first of its kind to be listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE), and has subsidiaries ranging from ABEX services to City Transit (hospitality for travellers), along with a 50% stake in Transit Support Services. With its exceptional services, including air conditioned buses with toilet facilities and their “Coach West Africa”, which takes their business all across West Africa, Frank Nneji has built a conglomerate that has become a defacto thought for a lot of people using the road to commute around Nigeria for business and leisure. Omolola ItayemiIon FTAN South East tour speaks to Nnaji on how road transport impacts on tourism
You are a pioneer in the transportation sector, where you brought in great innovations. What was the motivating factor?
Transportation provides for effective interaction for social and commercial connections. It is a very important component of human activity, despite the growth in technology. Before ABC came on board in1993, a lot was taken for granted for people travelling, and what we did was to change the narrative by improving the way we travel. We achieved this by placing more emphasis on safety and comfort. Truly, we can say that the transportation in Nigeria can be divided into two segments: the days before ABC and the ABC days. Some of the present generation didn’t know what people encountered travelling in the 90s. Now, there is a new revolution, which we initiated. Nobody will expect anything less in our standards in comparison with other transport companies in the country.
There seems to be a fusion of technology in ABC Transport. What model did you adopt to achieve this or were you just concerned about changing the face of the road transport in the country?
I am an entrepreneur and an entrepreneur searches for better ways of doing things and creating value. The concepts I introduced in ABC came as a result of disappointments which I had personally in travelling, which other people also had. Therefore, over time, we thought of how to improve the teeming challenges faced and add value. The belief was that if we add value, we will create more markets. Transportation was not my first business.
Transportation came later with ABC and it blossomed and people cut up the industry and it became a big business. When we opened the Coast West Africa in 2004, something spectacular happened, many people didn’t realise that it wasn’t as easy to move from Nigeria to Ghana. It was difficult crossing the border and harmonizing things. But we were able to open up the gateway across the West Coast to encourage tourism across the West Coast. Incidentally, this has favoured Ghana than it has favoured Nigeria because more people go to Ghana for tourism than other people from the West coast coming to Nigeria. It was facilitated by the ECOWAS Secretariat.
What has kept you going over the years? How do you think the federal government can better promote the tourism sector?
First, what has kept us going is that we set out to create value and we are doing something we are interested in. We didn’t get into transportation to make money. Therefore, when you are doing something that you have a particular interest in, you seem to drive it better. For me, it was fun that I was developing things that people were appreciating so that kept me going. Also, remember that I had said that our focus is safety and comfort. We have continued to work at achieving safety and comfort in our service delivery.
For you to promote tourism, it has to be a deliberate effort. It does not happen by accident. Government has to get people who understand this sector through engagement and think of how to develop it. For instance, in Owerri there are many hotels. But just having hotels is one thing, the other thing is having things that will make it attractive to people and encourage them to visit the city. For Government to promote tourism, it needs to setup a clear cut blueprint on what it wants to achieve.
As one of the key facilitators in opening up the West African Corridor, what are the challenges you have met?
First, if you take a sector that is informal, and try to make it formal it becomes a bit easy for everybody. What you will realise is that if you want to go from Nigeria to Ghana, you go pass six borders. All these are bottlenecks. From Lagos to Accra is as if one is going from Lagos to Onitsha, in terms of distance, therefore you realise that the challenges are just at the borders. Now, the challenge is how do you remove these bottlenecks? You have to consider if the Immigration officers across the Benin, Accra and Togo borders understand what the ECOWAS treaty on free movement provides and the truth is that they don’t know.
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This was why when we went there to unlock it, we went to the ECOWAS Secretariat for the treaty document which makes all the countries in Western Africa, one mega country for free movement for trade (ECOWAS Trade liberalization scheme) and used it well. At a point, we had to get a letter from the Secretariat to the tourism unit of Lomé, and Accra to let them know that for this corridor, this is the way it is supposed to run. We learnt that people will just get to the border and the officers will tell them to pay a particular amount if they don’t have passport and people started using bush tracks. Therefore, we provided them with the necessary things. Again, we had to address the issue of language barrier; as a result, we started recruiting bilingual crewmembers, therefore getting into the borders and communicating was easy. In the area of flow of trade, we had to do some other things, for instance, when you visit our office at Amuwo-Odofin, which is our main hub for the West Africa coast, we have the NDLEA. They re-check the bags and seal it so that you don’t face all the harassment. Therefore, we do quite a lot to ensure that there is hitch-free trade and movement. Over time, immigration officers learnt when people go through that border they are not doing them a favour because it is provided for in the ECOWAS Treaty.
Within Nigeria, you cannot rule out the fact that ABC does a lot of movement, which encourages tourism. Are there any challenges you have had to deal with in the usage of the road?
The government has not repaired the roads the way it ought to be. Our roads are still below par and this exposes people to the risk of accidents, damage to your vehicle. In Nigeria, you deal quite a great deal of harassment on the road with police checkpoints for no reason. If you move from Lagos to Owerri, you will see more than 15 checkpoints.
One thing about modern travel is that it has to be predictable. If you say you are going from one location to another, the time you specify for such trip should be it. Another challenge is the appreciation of the average Nigeria as to what is the importance of tourism. There is need to encourage people and invite them to be part of tourism development in the country, by creating things that will make them come, people will not come. Many countries are thriving based on tourism.
You have been in operation for quite some time now and you have extended to the other corridors. Why do you engage in night travelling considering the fact that the roads are bad?
When we started operation in the 90s, we realised that the volume of traffic at night was as high as 30 percent. There was also a time we introduced the sleeper service. We had our super sleeper and executive sleeper. There was a climber seat where you can sleep in the bus. We stop at the Benin transit and people are served coffee. At that period, security was assured until late 2000 when armed robbers started to attack buses on the highway. At present, we still do night travels, but it is skeletal. We use night travel for the delivery of mails. But generally, night travel is the bench mark, even amongst airline operators.
Let’s talk about travel insurance in road transportation?
We ensure that whatever you pay our ticket, there is a component of it that comes to personal insurance against injury or any fatality and the vehicle itself. When we talk about accident or fatality, it doesn’t really have to be your fault at times. Commercial transportation in Nigeria has become very informal; it has become an all-comers affair. Standards are not maintained. In some other climes, you have to go through protocols, understand the rules and meet certain standards. Overtime, we have done a lot of advocacy in the sector, we look good and the other operators don’t look good, and there is no way they can develop. Therefore, we advocated for what is known as road transport standardization scheme, whereby any operator that has a fleet of five vehicles is regarded as a fleet operator.
Owerri is a melting point towards other parts of the South-East with over 200 hotels, are occupancy rates that high to keep them in business? What are the potentials for stimulating tourism in this axis?
There are different regulations and rules which only government can do. If there is a site, government can take ownership of that site, develop it, and then engage the community. For instance, we have a blue lake known as the Oguta Lake. It used to be a beautiful lake. Then, you realise that it has been neglected. Government has to put money into infrastructure. There should be travel bureau, which would have people who are knowledgeable to carry along the people.
At many of these hotels, the problem is not the building, but the quality and the number of staff. If you attract people, they would have to stay and standards must be upgraded. Therefore, you find that if you have a tourism bureau to take care of these things, you can make a calendar that will make people come to your city. Then you build facilities that can hold large conferences. Luckily, we have an airport, and it is as if we are in a confluence. In terms of positioning, we are well positioned. Talking about what we do to promote tourism, Imo state has the least to do. What we can do at this stage is advocacy. Government has to have a specific goal to develop tourism and I think it is something to consider very seriously such as job creations and make the city more popular.