Cosmos Ikechukwu Okolie is a disabled Nigerian who has been able to prove to many especially the disabled that disability is no barrier to success, that there is ability in disability if one is hard working, committed and focused. Despite his disability, he has surpassed the achievements of millions of abled persons.
In this interview with Franklin Ihejirika, Cosmos Okolie, the president and founder of Mobility Aids Appliances Research and Development Centre (MAARDEC) as well as the president and founder of the Association for Comprehensive Empowerment of Nigerians with Disabilities among others, speaks on his experiences as a disabled person, how he was able to surmount some of the challenges.
Who is Cosmos Okoli
I am the president and founder of Mobility Aid Appliances Research and Development Centre (MAARDEC) as well as the president and founder of the Association for Comprehensive Empowerment of Nigerians with Disabilities which is a socio- political organisation.
Am also the chairman chief executive officer of Cosokoli Ventures Nigerian Limited and chairman Chief Executive Officer of Omokas Nigerian Limited, both companies are into freight forwarding, Cosokoli Ventures is into haulage business, import and farming. I studied Medical Physiology at the University of Lagos, after my graduation, I decided to be on my own, though I worked briefly after my Youth Service. For my business, basically we import all sorts of mobility aid appliances for our sister organisation which is a non- profit organisation (MAARDEC). We also import perfumes, bicycle parts, a bit of importation of vehicles, though not in a big way. We are exploring other businesses, particularly export because too much of dependence on imported goods is not helping our economy, so we are looking at some of the things that are manufactured here to see if we could find market for them abroad. We are not looking at a raw material which is not helping us, because we are exporting for instance crude oil, and when refined we go back and buy fuel and also buy the bye products from these petro- chemical industries coming from the crude oil we exported. At the end of the day, we export crude oil and now add more money to the one we earned to go back and buy the bye products of the crude oil. By so doing, we are exporting jobs, but if we have our refineries here refining and exporting the refined products, it will help our economy and create jobs for our people. So we are looking at some of the products in the country we can export to other countries, by so doing we will be encouraging the growth of the industries locally and creating jobs for our people, the arrangement is ongoing .
How and when did this journey started?
After my graduation, I decided to be on my own, though I worked briefly because after my Youth Service, I was adjudged the best Youth Corp member out of all the thousands of Corp members that served in 1988, 89. I was adjudged the best in the country not just in Lagos State where I served. I was given national honours by the then President, General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd) and part of the national award was automatic employment. I picked up a job with the Ministry of women Affairs, Sports and Youth Development, as a social development officer, I worked for 18 months and realized that I was not caught out for civil service because all the ideas I had, all the proposals I put forward to improve on the department and the ministry were never attended to at all, in fact my boss used to tell me that all these my ideas cannot work, that it cannot fly, that I should just stay there that if am given a file I should just treat it that if I don’t have a job to do, I should stay there, that at the end of the day that I will go home, that am sure of my salary. I told her that sorry madam am not just interested in the salary alone, that money is good but also that am interested in making an impact, that am interested in moving our country forward, that if I cannot express myself here that am going to resign and indeed when I submitted my resignation letter after 18 months, she was shocked. I resigned to set up my organisation and businesses, I have never regretted it because I have been able to use my education very well, I have being able to development myself and tackle a lot of challenges, I have been able to come up some products that are helping the country, helping people with disabilities. Am happy with what am doing rather than being in the Civil Service and not utilizing my God given talents and education.
Challenges encountered in the course of raising money for your business.?
Is a long story, I started my business and organisation from the savings I had from the various award I had, like when I won the best NYSC honours award as the best youth Corp member, apart from the automatic employment, I got N25,000 from the federal government which was a lot of money then and the following year 1990, I won the Science and Tech Inventor’s Innovator of the year award from the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology. I also got N 12,500 from that award, and I had one other award from a private organisation called Helping Hand Board of Trustees and I also go about N6000 from that award and I never spent any penny from these awards, in fact from the NYSC award, I saved over N35, 000 thousand naira, because apart from the N25,000, we were given money for our transport and feeding during the award in Abuja and I spent very little from it and saved up everything. All the awards that I have, I saved up everything and I was doing some sort of trading then before I set up my business and organisation which is a non- profit organisation and at that time, a corporate social responsibility arm of Cosokoli ventures Nigerian Limited. When I resigned and started up this business, it was very tough because at a time I was using my car to do commercial so as to raise enough money to pay salary, because my family supported me then by given me a car. I was doing some petty trading, buying and selling, even when I had opportunity to travel to England in 1987, then I was in the university, I used the opportunity to buy cloths that I sold, that time my father was a headmaster then and teaching jobs that time kept deteriorating that my father was finding it difficult to provide all that I needed, so I used some of the money to help for my school needs. To underscore my efforts at that time, you can imagine that as a graduate in the civil service, my salary was N706 a month, but in a day after I close work, I could make as much as N500 in a day through the commercial activities I was doing with my car, buying, selling and supplying things and eventually I resigned to start my own business and organisation . I started my business in 1991 and my organisation (MAARDEC) which is a non -profit organisation and the corporate social responsibility arm of my business was also started then. It was registered in 1990 but effectively started operation in 1991. It was not easy at all even with all the money I saved, when I eventually started I found out that I still needed N100,000 more to start, to pay and furnish the office and buy equipment, so I had to take a loan from my elder brother, that was how I started. For the non- profit organisation, when I discussed what I wanted to do with my colleagues, that is with people with disabilities, the discouraged me because they said it was an impossible task, they asked me why do I want to go into that because we don’t have money to buy things and more so how am going to sustain it. But I had to go ahead with it because the idea came to me in 1984 when I was in the university. Then I lost one of my crutches, actually my roommates fought one night and broke one of crutches. I thought I could send someone the next day to get me another one, but It didn’t happen because it took another two weeks and indeed the crutches I had that time was bought from the East, because I could not find anywhere to buy crutches in Lagos in 1984, so I sent out message to my father in the East who sent out my sisters and they eventually bought a pair of crutches for me in Enugu. So at that time I realized there was a vacuum and I decided that I will tackle that, that I will set up and organisation that will ensure that mobility aids and appliances are not only available but also affordable, that even those who cannot afford it can still get it though sponsorship and donations, so even when they tried to discourage me I still had to go ahead because Is something I have been dreaming about, something that I have good reason to start, something that I know is very important and is needed seriously in the country, believing God that wherever there is will there will always be a way and that is what happened, it was tough, it was difficult, but here we are after over 22 years , still growing and doing fantastic job.
Also, along the line, I had one international award for recognition around the time I started from ASHOKA International Fellowship Award which helped me a lot.
Advice to government on the plights of disabled people and advice to people with disabilities
My advice to government is that they should realise that the government is for all Nigerians no matter your tribe, religion or physical state, the fact that disability is no respecter of persons and that these citizens should be provided for adequately in terms of infrastructural development, in terms of policy. Programmes of government must take care of the interest of persons with disabilities into consideration. Today, some states have legislation to protect the rights of people with disabilities, we still do not have a national one, we made effort and got one passed by the Senate and House of Representatives and it was sent to the then President for his assent and he didn’t sign it into law, he sent it back and we started all over again. So today, we still do not have any legislation at the national level to protect the rights of people with disabilities. But we have in Lagos now, we have in Ondo State and some northern states, we are thankful for this and we are sure that these states will begin to take care of persons with disabilities and ensure that they are mainstreamed into the society. So, the government should live up to its responsibility and to my colleagues, we must not sit down and wait for people to do things for us, we must fight for our rights, if nobody is speaking for us we must speak for ourselves, even if people are speaking for us, we must also speak for ourselves to ensure that our voice is heard at every level, local government, state level and federal level even in our communities to ensure that our voices are heard, we should inform and educate people on our plights and prospects. We do not allow people to tell us who we are, what we can do and what we cannot do, is unacceptable because there no way they will know what we can do and what we cannot do because they are not in our shoes, we are the ones that will tell them what we can do and what we cannot do. Disability is no barrier to success, so my call are to my colleagues that we should get up and get involved in every aspect of the society, that is the best way to break the barrier.
How do you fund your organisation (MAARDEC)?
I finance the non- profit organisation ((MAARDEC), but i want the non -profit to be independent of my business and myself and that is the only way to guarantee that it will not collapse when I leave the leadership. For example, if I were in the House of Reps of course somebody else will take over the running of the organisation, it should be self sustaining that is what we are working for. We do occasionally get sponsorships for our programmes like we have a big project now being sponsored by MTN Foundation, we have another project, being sponsored by Latter Days Saint Charity and we have another one being sponsored by USAID, so we are beginning to get support now.
On this complex, this property is owned by my company but the non- profit organisation, MRDECC uses 95 percent of its space here, I can tell you that since we moved in here the organisation has not passed one kobo in rent, we are hoping that one day we will begin to pay rent, but that is part of the support my company gives to the non- profit organisation.
So how many staff do you have and how many are disabled?
We have a policy that 50 percent of our workforce will be made up of persons with disabilities, sometime we exceed it, sometimes we are below it, if you have a vacancy and you don’t have a person to fill it up, you have to look for other people to fill it up, but it is a policy that as much as possible we maintain 50 percent slots for persons with disabilities. Right now we have about 24 staff and out of that number, we have nine persons with disabilities, we will continue to make efforts to balance it because the important thing is that, it is the policy of the organisation that as much as possible 50 percent of our work force should be made up of people with disabilities. That is for the non- profit organisation, my business is different, I have well over 50 people working for me in various places, like the farm, the freight forwarding business and the import. The farm is located at Ikorodu. For the farm, at the moment we have piggery and we have some crops, I want to make an integrated farm like fishery snail, piggery as I had already mentioned and crops, dry season vegetables and others. Like in the freight forwarding, I handle quite a number of blue chip companies,that we handle their clearing like NAFDAC, we have handled their clearing for ten years. In the area of imports, we import bicycle parts, we help MAARDEC to import mobility aids and appliances like I said, am exploring the possibility of exporting some products from Nigerian to other countries. We produce some of the mobility aid here; we produce tricycle, leg braces, crutches, and couple of other things but those we could not produce now we import.
What about the miss wheel chair Nigeria Pageant which you initiated?
I initiated the miss wheel chair Nigeria which was a huge success for the maiden edition, but unfortunately, the participants got it wrong and because of their attitude, I rested the pageant for now depending on the time there is good understanding of the reason for the project and I have committed and competent disabled persons to hand over and particularly disabled people who can handle the project well. I started that project because of its importance, because of what it can do in the lives of our women with disabilities, but you know our society is funny sometimes, because I gave it so much, I put in so much, even though we did not get funded, my company, MAARDEC and because we wanted to give it a class as we don’t want to organise a pageant that is not interesting enough for people to pay and watch that is the only way the pageant could be successful, so at the end of the pageant, some of the participants felt that they were not given enough money, that they were not put in the best of hotels and everything, they started making trouble, so I told some colleagues of mine that the beneficiaries of these project do not really understand the reason for the project, so I decide to rest it for now until such a time that I can see that the understanding is there and also when the participants appreciate the importance of the project and are willing to not only participate but also be part of the organisation, then I will go back to it, otherwise is rested for now.
I am married with four Children.