A banker-turned estate developer disrupting Nigeria’s real estate industry with new technology and innovation.
Umar Abdullahi, a former banker and now a leading real estate developer, is Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Cosgrove Investment Limited. He is a top runner in the task of bridging Nigeria’s housing deficit. Abdullahi has not only blazed the trail in the delivery of smart estates in the country, he has made it possible for Nigeria to join the elite club of countries capable of incorporating the latest technology into the housing delivery system. He is leading the real estate industry and the nation in the way of new technology that puts in check the rising insecurity in the country. With this, he is gradually realizing his dream to take the Nigerian real estate industry to the 21st century. His next ambition is to build the tallest waterfront building in Abuja to which he is already processing necessary governmental approvals. Below is the story of his exploits and what his company, Cosgrove Investment Limited is doing to change the Nigerian housing narrative.
People that excel in their professional callings nurse a big dream that will take them to the pinnacle of the enterprise. Umar Abdullahi is one of such, but his dream was different. In his 10-year career in the banking industry he dreamt about real estate, not banking.
It was a big dream not just to be a successful player in the real estate sector of Nigeria’s economy but to inject into it a transforming power of innovation. In just 10 years in the real estate sector, his vision is bearing fruits of success. He has delivered more than 10 top-notch estates during this period, a record that is hardly matched anywhere else in real estate development in the country.
Abdullahi is founder and Chief Executive Officer of Cosgrove Investments Limited, a high-profile company that provides integrated real estate solutions, which include design, development and delivery of smart offices and homes that make working and living a wonderful experience. Going by industry records, Cosgrove stands out as the leading real estate solutions provider in Nigeria in terms of automation and ability to integrate technology into buildings. This is a gap in the industry service profile that Abdullahi has come to fill.
His company builds smart estates that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) in line with modern infrastructures in the advanced world. This is what stands Cosgrove out in the crowd of real estate developers in Nigeria today. The use of AI enabled security cameras which supports retention and recognition of all the faces of people that enter building and premises, separating occupants from visitors. This also includes application of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR), which registers the number plate of every vehicle that enters Cosgrove residential estates.
The ANPR also supports the access function to Cosgrove estates, opening the gates to all registered vehicles without human intervention. In addition, residents at Cosgrove smart estates can open their doors, switch their lights on and off and operate electronic gadgets in their homes remotely, that is, while far away from home, even from outside the country.
With this level of security guaranteed, residents in Cosgrove estates can sleep with their two eyes closed – something that is virtually impossible in many parts of the country today, as insecurity assumes alarming proportions. Application of AI is just one of the many state-of-the-art and fully functional infrastructure that Cosgrove provides at its estates; Cosgrove also include facilities which enhance the socio-economic wellbeing of residents.
A one-of-its-kind service to Nigeria
Abdullahi is contributing immensely to the reduction of Nigeria’s housing deficit by providing houses with premium value to different classes of Nigerians. “You know, globally, the quality of life keeps increasing by global index. So, we should not be left behind in Africa”, he said. “We are going to keep improving on our housing and buildings to make them compete globally with houses anywhere in the world. That is number one; and number two, apart from giving our own contribution to the premium housing sector, we also help provide infrastructure wherever we find ourselves”.
The real estate developer has helped Nigeria enlist in the club of countries where the use of smart devices for housing delivery is easily accessible. This did not come on a platter of gold. The company approached the second biggest technology company in the world for support in getting the technology for building smart estates, specifically the cameras but was told that Nigeria was not on the list of countries where the device could be used.
Abdullahi was ready to pay the price to get Nigeria on the global list. “They told us we have to get 50, 000 plate numbers for them to set the algorithm for Nigeria and that is said for a reason”, Abdullahi recalls. “That means whenever a government or any private body wants to launch that technology, you don’t have to pay again. We are already there and they have already configured our plate numbers.”
The company came back home and got down to work on what seemed an impossible task. “We came here, put our staff on the road under the rain and sun recording random plate numbers of the required 50, 000”, he said. “We sent it to them and they worked on it. Later, they sent a message certifying that Nigeria is now ready to have that ANPR technology. So, this is what Cosgrove has done and if you have this ANPR, you don’t have to go through any huddle. All they have to do is, once it is a Nigerian plate number, it will set the technology.”
Abdullahi said his company took the trouble and pain of paying to get the licence which benefits the country. “If the Nigerian government now wants to make the country overcome the insecurity challenges it is having, they can work with IRR Safety to actually control cars because ANPR helps in a number of ways you cannot even count”, he said.
He said with time, people would get used to the technology, adding that his company has seen the future and is already there. “This is what we do that is different from other companies”, he said.
Abdullahi said the philosophy at Cosgrove is the development of a culture of professionalism that delivers innovation and leads the drive for transfer of technology to Nigeria’s real estate sector. He described the company as his “brainchild real estate organization with a passion for distinction, via innovation and professionalism.”
He explained the reason behind his focus on innovation. “We are very particular about innovation because the team that leads a sector must be abreast of innovations and advancements in the sector”, he said.
This is the mindset the professionals at Cosgrove have, which has enabled them to be on the same page regarding the company’s effort to strive to provide the best when it comes to housing delivery in a country with a housing deficit of more than 20 million. It is the reason the company is reputed for designing bespoke housing needs to individuals and commercial organizations in the most suitable locations, coupled with ability to turn virgin lands into sprawling and breath-taking dwelling places.
From banking to real estate
Abdullahi’s involvement in the real estate sector in which he has continued to soar like an eagle could be said to have come by happenstance. After graduating from the university, he secured a job with the defunct FSB International Bank Plc. The job he handled at the bank gave him an idea of something outside the industry. He was given the responsibility to manage the bank’s real estate project portfolios and those in the construction industry generally.
Not only did the responsibility expose him to the operations in the real estate sector, it also opened his eyes to the huge opportunities that abound there. He learned the ropes in real estate management, the difference between commercial and residential as well as luxury and affordable aspects of real estate development. The experience ignited his interest in real estate, as he recognized the advantages that could come with being innovative.
Abdullahi began to show more than a passing interest in real estate at the advent of the Fourth Republic, when Abuja – Nigeria’s political capital, became home to politicians in elective and appointive offices, complete with their families as well as businessmen intending to position themselves for opportunities that would come from being in the centre of action. As the Federal Capital Territory became the destination of many people, housing challenges followed and that created opportunities for the handful of service providers available in the area at that time.
The new Abuja entrants in the private sector were in various sectors, namely, telecoms, oil and gas, ICT, the financial industry and many others. The influx increased the population of Abuja residents with the concomitant increase in the demand for housing. This perhaps explains why Cosgrove has its corporate headquarters in Abuja, which also serves as its operational base.
Abdullahi took the plunge and a step of faith by resigning his appointment with Fidelity Bank in 2010 to go full blast into a sector that had taken his interest away from a banking career. He started as the pioneer Managing Director of Brains& Hammers, a real estate development company, a restless individual with a large capacity to explore, he left the company after eight eventful years to set up his own firm – Cosgrove.
Some of the beautiful and well managed estates that adorn the landscape of the Federal Capital Territory have the full involvement of Abdullahi. They include Estates I, II III and IV in Apo District, Life Camp Estate, Gwarimpa Estate and Galadimawa Estate. The leading project that was executed by Brains & Hammers under his management, for which he is still remembered long after he left the company, is the Kano Economic City, a N167-billion joint venture endeavour between the company and the Kano State government.
Abdullahi began the smart estate development projects with the Wuye Cosgrove Smart Estate in 2018, consisting of over 160 smart homes, which sold out in three months. He followed up with another smart estate project at Mabushi, which sold out even before the land was cleared. The testimonials the Wuye project received apparently spurred interest in the Mabushi estate, such that customers could not even wait for it to be built before making their purchases. The trend continued with the selling out of the third project at Guzape.
The company is currently building its fourth smart estate project at Katampe, close to Ministers Hill, at Maitama, Abuja. Phase I of the project, consisting of 376 housing units, is already sold out; while Phase II, which consists of 748 units, is being offered for sale. The company has sold over 700 homes in about one year of existence.
It is noteworthy that while Cosgrove’s housing projects are rapidly being sold out even while under construction, its team of core professionals and experts is always on the drawing board designing futuristic smart homes that will suit the tastes of different categories of people.
The first challenge Abdullahi faced in his effort to introduce smart estates into housing delivery in Nigeria was getting people to understand and accept the concept. “One of the challenges was trying to explain to people what automation means and how it is going to simplify their lives because it is not easy for an instructor to be able to convince its consumers or clients on the product he is trying to offer”, Abdullahi said. “But with time and demonstration, our people are beginning to understand and the whole automation concept is now becoming global, especially in advanced countries.”
He spoke further: “Those were the initial challenges we faced; and if you are talking about the industry generally, the main challenge is lack of skilled labour and I think that has to do with our educational system which doesn’t put much emphasis on vocational training and it is really affecting the output.”
He said the company had to train and retrain most of the graduates it employed because they were not taught or sufficiently trained in school to come out to do their best. “Basically, one of the major challenges we are facing is not labour but skilled or vocational training”, he said. “And secondly is lack of a very strong regulatory body that regulates the quacks (within the industry) and puts the rules in the real estate so that not just everybody delves into it.”
He wants the National Assembly to push for a Bill for a law that will regulate activities in the sector, just as there are laws to regulate the banking, insurance and telecoms sectors, “so that it will bring sanity into the system and actually weed out the companies that are not up to the task from the industry.”
Abdullahi said the third challenge the industry is facing is taxation, which is adversely affecting it, just as it is affecting other businesses. He cites the increase in value added tax, saying the company is feeling it because all its transactions are fixed. “Once you sign a contract with a client you cannot review it”, he said.
The company does not have much of a challenge when it comes to financing, because of its adoption of a business model that is different from the ones other organizations use. “Some of our clients take mortgage from banks to buy houses from us and the beauty of it is that we are having another payment plan which is by installment”, he said. “We have already studied the nature of the cash flow of Nigerians and we structured the payment to suit their cash flow. We have a model of payment, agreeing how you are going to make the payment; you pay overtime and we work with you. While we are building, you are paying.”
He said the option of mortgage has worked because Cosgrove has integrity in the industry. “Because our hands are clean, you go and borrow money from the bank; the bank will come and carry out research and study the property and everything is legitimate; they give the money and we proceed. Basically, that is how we make our money.”
Awards and recognitions
Abdullahi’s contributions to housing delivery in Nigeria have not gone unnoticed. The recognitions and awards that have come his way are a testimony to the saying that honour should be given to whom it is due.
The real estate icon has received several awards and recognitions in the course of his service to Nigeria’s prime sector. The one that stands out is “Real Estate Developer of the Year” conferred on him in his individual capacity by the Nigerian Institute of Architects at its 2019 Conference and Expo tagged Archibuilt. His company, Cosgrove, was honoured in its corporate capacity for “excellence in smart cities development in the country.”
Abdullahi is among the Top10 Magazine’s Nigeria’s Top 10 Exemplary CEOs of 2019.