Jim Ovia: Unplugged

A Book Review of Africa, Rise and Shine by Jim Ovia

One of my favorite Kanye West songs of all time is Spaceship from his second album Late Registration.

Spaceship tells the story of his mental journey from sales assistant in a Gap store to global superstar.

At his most vunerable he raps:

“Y’all don’t know my struggle
Y’all can’t match my hustle
You can’t catch my hustle
You can’t fathom my love
Lock yourself in a room
Doin’ five beats a day for three summers
That’s a different world like Cree summers
I deserve to do these numbers
The kid that made that, deserves that Maybach”

Kanye is telling us how mentally and physically exhausting his route to stardom was. The chorus expresses a melancholic, deep, aching desire for success in the music industry or as he puts it, how much he wanted to find his ‘spaceship and fly’.

It may be set an ocean and continent away, but Jim Ovia’s story in Africa Rise and Shine is closer to Kanye’s message than you might first think. Mr Ovia’s book is a similarly authentic and insightful look at how a young boy from Agbor who grew up in a single parent family (after his father died when he was just 4 years old), built one of Africa’s biggest banks with assets of almost $20bn.

One of the most powerful aspects of the book is that Mr Ovia chose to write in his own voice. I find many autobiographies stiff and formal; surprisingly detached from the author.

However, reading Africa, Rise and Shine brings Mr Ovia’s rich personality to life. His all too familiar obsession with detail, his dedication to his family and his traditional sense of humor all feature prominently in his writing and storytelling.

One of my favorite passages is when Mr. Ovia relates to us, the back story behind his used car business. I laughed out loud as I imagined one of Africa’s most prominent bankers, in his early days, honing his skills, by selling those old cars.

Then there were his shattered dreams of bringing the internet to Nigeria, as military men straight from Abuja, violently tore down his first satellite dish. Although he succeeded eventually via another route.

One of the most personal lessons for me is his affinity for people.

Africa, Rise and Shine at its most fundamental, is about people

People like the first Chinese customer, who was the only customer in the bank at the beginning. There were literally five managers looking after that single customer!

People like his managers and executives, who he continually expressed immense pride in.

People like the students at his school; the James Hope College in Agbor. He started the school to ensure that people in his community would find it easier to get a quality education than he did growing up.

I ain’t play the hand I was dealt, I changed my cards 
I prayed to the skies and I changed my stars
- Find your dream, Kanye West

Changing Africa’s narrative; one story at a time

The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make the one story become the only story
-Chimamanda Adichie

Some time ago I took a flight on the Nigeria airline, Dana air. As the flight touched down, the exit door came off, startling passengers including myself. I tweeted about it immediately.

However, the door falling off wasn’t the strangest thing that happened that day. The strangest thing was the reaction of the international media. I had over ten interview requests in a matter of hours. Journalists from almost every continent wanted to speak to me about the incident. I was invited to record podcasts, videos and speak live over Skype about my “life-threatening” experience.

I and many of my friends have been running very-innovative, interesting and news-worthy businesses for the past decade in Africa. But we have never had that amount of interest from international media.

Bad news about Africa is good for the media business. As Emily Roenigk asserts in her Huffington Post article, ‘there is a…problem with the way we represent the poor in our media’.

The African story, as often portrayed by international media is one of war, disease, mishaps and corruption. These things undoubtedly exist in Africa. But so do the positive stories. Books like Africa, Rise & Shine help balance our narrative.

Jim Ovia- Unplugged

I love unplugged performances because they allow one to get a real sense of the artist; you hear every single, emotive voice inflection. Take this Alicia Keys performance, for instance, listen to the grit in her voice as she passionately describes her home city, the empire state, New York. Her raw, reflective, fiery voice, takes us through every step of her experience, unencumbered by heavy instrumentals.

She practically pleads for us to understand the potential of her beloved city when she sings:

‘Even if it isn’t all it seems, I‘ve got a pocket full of dreams,
Baby, I’m from New York….where dreams are made’
-Alicia Keys featuring Jay-Z, Empire State of Mind

Similarly, Jim Ovia tells a story of resilience, determination and vision. A story that takes us on a journey from poverty, struggle and loss in a small town in Delta State, to global success and prosperity. Like Alicia Keys, he takes us on an economic tour of his empire state; Lagos, showcasing how he capitalized on his own ‘pocket full of dreams’. This tour, would be incomplete without exploring how Mr Ovia himself has made a lasting physical impression on the Lagos skyline with his two architectural masterpieces; the Civic Centre and the Civic towers. Known as the King and Queen of Ozumba.

Photo of Civic Centre and Civic Towers; the King and Queen of Ozumba

Mr Ovia is also someone I know personally, as we have done business over the past few years. So believe me when I say that this book isn’t something cobbled together by a team of PR/Marketing and communications executives. No. It is a sincere, deeply moving memoir written with conviction and heart, in the same conversational tone in which he speaks.

Read it and you’ll feel that you are sitting down with Mr Ovia. It’s authentically Jim. It’s Jim Ovia unplugged.

Compared to my other favorite business books which you can see here, his story is local and familiar. I love the stories of Richard Branson/The Virgin Group, Zappos , South-west Airlines and Toyota. But those stories take place in London, New York, Tokyo and other foreign cities. The incredible thing about Africa, Rise and Shine is that it takes place in Lagos-the concrete town that African dreams are made of. At familiar sites like Ajose Adeogun road, the Civic Centre, Sokoto airport and Agbor town.

The operational issues with certain airlines & infrastructure challenges he details are so much more local and familiar to the African entrepreneur. After all, Steve Jobs and Tony Hsieh didn't have to build roads so that people could get to their offices.

Importantly, it is written so simply and clearly, that a high school student could read and understand it. I am sure this was intentional. I hope this book inspires millions of young people across Africa, like Kanye West, to board their own spaceships and fly.