Dr. Babatope Agbeyo: The Magic Hand at Cornfield Group
Dynamite comes in small size. But its power of impact is enormous and unimaginable.
If stature were the main determinant, or even had any role to play in measuring tangible achievements, Babatope Agbeyo would perhaps not be listed among successful people today. But it’s not about stature; not about size. It’s all about what is in the head. And he has proved it, as they say in law, beyond reasonable doubt.
Thomas Edison, the man who invented far more than the world perhaps knows about today, proved that ingenuity is not necessarily groomed in the classroom. He had no formal education, but relied on his innate ability to churn out inventions that would change the course of world history.
Agbeyo, the inventor that revolutionized technology-based solutions to security challenges, has proved that the power to think, to imagine, to create, lies in the intellect, not in the body frame.
Not surprisingly, both men share the common trait of restlessness – indeed, the character trait of innovators and inventors. Edison was wont to try a new invention as soon as he had secured patent for one. He wasn’t looking for money. He was more interested in breaking new grounds.
Agbeyo has the knack to try new inventions as soon as he has stabilized one and got it playing the role for which he designed it. He has several innovations under his belt. The plethora of awards and trophies that occupy a significant portion of his well-appointed office at Omole Phase One in Lagos attest to the recognition that has come the way of this Nigerian innovator. The latest addition is his emergence as The Top10 Magazine Man of the year 2017.
Agbeyo is the man who, with the uncommon ability to innovate, broke all barriers to invent technology to curb examination malpractices in the West African sub-region, using bespoke enterprise solutions that pull together 3.5 million service users in the area. He designed an examination solution known as the Candidate Identity Verification, Attendance, Malpractice and Post Examinations Management System (CIVAMPEM), which is today being used by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC), the National Examination Council (NECO) and the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB).
Agbeyo, group chairman of the Cornfield Group, is credited with designing solutions that significantly address data warehousing challenges, mass information dissemination, examination malpractices and user experience, as well as process delivery.
He designed the first-of-its-kind solution that comes with a complete security system, which comprises biometric and biodata collection, real time verification, authentication and reporting through physical terminals, over secure web applications and hand-held devices. This solution is generally acknowledged to be what is required to address national security challenges, the reason it was approved by the Presidency in 2011, and is being used by the Nigerian Police.
Agbeyo, it was, who designed an application that can easily authenticate the originality or fakeness of a product, or even a certificate. The application, called Botoseal, which is the first of its kind on the entire planet, was pioneered by the United Kingdom branch of his Group, where it was launched on November 21, 2016.
The acorn seed
What is today a Group with four subsidiaries started in 2006 as Confield Transnational Limited, designing and manufacturing technological products that address the specific needs of both the public and private sectors.
The company was set up specifically to find an answer to the proclivity by students to use the mathematical set and calculator as Google to cheat at examinations. “Calculators are like Google”. Agbeyo said. “They have internet on them and they put many candidates at advantage above others. Those that cannot buy the high-end calculator will just buy a calculator required by the examination body. So, we said, ‘okay, why can’t we make these mathematical instruments transparent’? And we asked what kind of calculator the examination bodies needed. They told us and we started working and made everything a single object. Then Cornfield Transnational Limited was incorporated for that purpose”.
Satisfied with the phenomenal success of the company, Agbeyo floated Botosoft Technologies Limited, the company that designed and developed CIVAMPEMS, to curb examination malpractices.
“When there was a need for us to provide ICT services to our clients, we realized we needed to create a system whereby you can use your smart card to automate candidates’ attendance through a mobile terminal”, Agbeyo said. “You can also use it to report malpractice right on that same day that the candidate cheated. And then the issue of impersonation has to be dealt with. And then Botosoft came on board”.
There is Media Concepts Limited, which produces examination brochures that also contain information on examination rules and regulations.
The fourth company in the Group, FOAM Studio, is into monogramming. “It’s a corporate gift avenue, because we see that some of our clients need this”, Agbeyo explains. “The main body of the company is abroad, but we are moving down to serve clients in various parts of Nigeria”.
The unique thing about the Confield Group is that all the companies complement one another, in terms of operations and businesses. This has resulted in a situation in which money circulates within the Group.
Agbeyo has his auntie, Ireti Olubunmi Borishade, to thank for where he is today. She, it was, who provided the seed capital with which he was able to execute his first project. She gave him the lifeline that would launch him on the path to fortune.
His got his first project in 2005, with NECO, which required about N40 million to execute. He did not have the money. But he had the talent to execute the job. He turned to Borishade for assistance, and the latter did not fail him.
“Tope, I am ready to offer my house as collateral because of you”, she assured him. And with the assurance, she obtained a loan from the Guardian Express Bank with which he was able to execute the project.
More subsidiaries in the works
Nigerians have not heard the last from Agbeyo, as far as foray into new ventures is concerned. It looks like there may never be an end to his penchant to put his finger into more pies. With the four subsidiaries in the Confield Group fully running at very successful rate, Agbeyo has signified intention to play in new fields.
So far, four new companies have been registered to expand the Confield coast. He lists the new areas of interest to include the agro-allied industry, pharmaceuticals and broadcasting. “The most essential thing to man, in the whole world, is food”, he says, matter-of-factly. “You can do without other things; but you cannot do without food”.
He believes that the present state of the nation’s economy that has necessitated a return to agriculture is good for the country. This is more so with the cold reality that currently stares the country in the face, which is the fact that it will be a matter of time before oil, the mainstay of its economy, becomes history.
Agbeyo is encouraged to go into the agro-allied industry by the huge market that a country of about 180 million people provides for any discerning investor that can identify opportunities where they exist.
For him, profit is not the main motive. “Our overall objective is to contribute to the growth of the economy through provision of goods and services, and also create employment opportunities for the teeming youths that graduate from our universities every year”, he explains.
Eye on public ownership of Confield Group
With the Confield Group just a decade old, Agbeyo is already facing a major dilemma about its future. He is keen on breaking the jinx of private businesses in Nigeria dying with their owners. But he is also worried about the role dishonest and fraudulent people play in derailing the good plans and genuine intentions of business owners.
The country is replete with cases of private business empires that collapsed shortly after the death of their owners. This has often been blamed on the failure of the owners of such businesses to have them quoted on the stock market, because of the mistaken notion that outsiders did not contribute in starting them, and therefore should not reap where they did not sow.
The penchant to retain private businesses in the hands of family members is the reason the present generation of Nigerians know very little, or in some cases nothing, about the business empire of the late Chief M. K. O. Abiola, while many have never heard of the name, Henry Fajemirokun and, certainly, not that of Sir Odumegu Ojukwu. Yet, if these titans had allowed public ownership of the businesses they founded, Nigeria would today have the local equivalent of Guinness, Heineken, Dunlop and Cadbury, which all started as family businesses.
Agbeyo’s dream is to make the Confield Group outlive him by having it quoted on the stock market. That may not happen in the foreseeable future. But it’s a thought that has begun to gain prominence on his mind. At the same time, he is very conscious of the need to be careful not to allow dishonest people shatter that dream.
Like all other humans, Agbeyo is but a mere mortal, with no control over his duration on earth. He knows that death could come calling any time, any day, anywhere. If that were to happen, such a development would not affect the life and continued existence of the Group. This is because even with him around, the Group is on auto pilot, with capacity to operate without him.
But above all, he has a son armed with a first degree in Computer Science and Web Technology from the University of London, as well as a Masters in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management from the Imperial College, also in London, at the helm of affairs as the managing director of the group, an indication of a well-laid-out succession plan that would have the latter take over in due course.
Choice, greatest challenge of start-ups
There is something of a consensus in Nigeria that the greatest challenge faced by start-up businesses is lack of access to funding. Agbeyo does not align with this view. The greatest challenge, he contends, is the choice of business, not necessarily funding.
He says many people go into business for the wrong reasons, which could range from attempt to copy others; an effort to sabotage an employer by seeking to become his competitor overnight, or simply an attraction that comes from purely financial considerations. The choice of business, he says, is also seen by some people as a class symbol.
“Sometimes people go into a business just to belong to a certain socio-economic class”, says Agbeyo. “It doesn’t matter if they know nothing about that business”.
He attributes the current situation in which more than 80 per cent of the over 22 million small and medium scale enterprises in Nigeria are moribund to wrong choice of business, which manifests in people going into businesses they know little or nothing about.
He lists what an intending entrepreneur must have before taking the leap into the world of business to include passion, originality, mental capacity, environment and financial base.
Agbeyo fully supports calls for education in the country’s tertiary institutions to be tailored towards entrepreneurship, rather than employment. “We should stop teaching our children how to write application”, emphasis should be on how to write business plans and business proposals, he says. “Education should be how to be creative; how to be an entrepreneur, and how to discover themselves. They should be taught how to create jobs, not how to look for jobs”.
Agbeyo is driven by dreams, and how to realize them. “When I dream something and know I can achieve it, I go for it”, he says. “When I have a dream I tell my colleagues, and if they are satisfied we go for it” (A man with an unassuming disposition and high level of humility, he refers to his employees as ‘colleagues’, and even has to rely on their agreement with his plan before going ahead with his dream, as though they were part owners of the business. He doesn’t call them what they are – employees).
Choices of business
Agbeyo’s choice of businesses was informed by his love for them, and his discovery that they could be needed by others. “In choosing a business, you have to look for what you have passion for, and also see if it could be needed by others”, he says. “You have to find a way to turn your passion into business and make people pay for it”.
A graduate of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, who also holds a Master’s degree in Media and Communication from Birmingham City University, Birmingham, in the United Kingdom, his love for creativity came into play in choosing the areas to go into.
Initial discouraging setbacks
Any successful entrepreneur has had occasions to want to throw in the towel due to one challenge or the other, especially at the initial stages. Agbeyo is not an exception. He recalls instances when a sudden astronomical jump in the cost of foreign exchange nearly caused him heartache, indeed, nearly forced him to withdraw from projects into which he had sunk huge financial resources.
But the one challenge that nearly caused a still-birth for his company was when a greedy electrician chose the day foreign partners were to visit his premises to hold him to ransome.
He had bought an electricity generating set that had to be installed a day before his American partners were to visit his company to assess his capacity to do business with them. They had heard about the notorious power outages in Nigeria before coming.
Angered by Agbeyo’s decision to give another company the job of connecting the generator to the main building and not satisfied with just wiring the entire complex, the electrician deliberately wired the building in such a way as to ensure there would be no light in the building when the foreigners visited (The Americans had threatened to cancel the business deal and return home if there was no light in the building the following day).
A nearly hysterical Agbeyo was forced to engage another electrician who worked throughout the night to ensure there was light when the Americans visited the next day. It is an incident he will never forget.
Agbeyo organizes his work schedule to ensure it is neither too heavy nor too light. He strikes a balance, working when he has to work, and resting when it is necessary. His idea of rest is to stretch out on a couch in his office.
At home, he relaxes by seeing movies on television and spending quality time with his family. Not a man that courts the limelight, Agbeyo does not belong to any social club and, certainly, would not be caught hanging out with the rich and the powerful – a class in which he rightfully belongs. The only club he belongs is his town’s development union.
He is a Christian, but not a church goer. “You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian”, he maintains. Nor does he wear the ‘born-again’ tag. “Whether I am born again or not is between me and my God”. His idea of being a Christian is ability to live according to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and allowing them to reflect in one’s dealings with his fellow humans.