CHINA – JEROME EZENECHE is the leader of Ndi Igbo in China, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. He recently won the Anambra Diaspora Person of the Year. In this Exclusive Interview, he talks about his early life and his status as Eze Ndi Igbo in six countries. Excerpts:
What was growing up like for you?
I was born and bred at Onitsha. I lost my father Cyprian Ezeneche at a very young age. I was six , assisting my mother who ran a restaurant . I had other siblings but I was the first son and the responsibilities associated with that position are many. The death of my father made me grow up fast. I became a father figure to my younger ones, playing the role model while at the same time assisting my mother. Before his death, my father was a hardworking and successful man in his time, with houses in the village and at Onitsha where he was based. At his demise, his siblings who were his business partners kept the knowledge of my late father’s properties away from us because my mother was not literate enough to ask questions. I would later join my mother in her restaurant. I believe that contributed to the person I am today because the restaurant afforded me the opportunity to learn some culinary skills which rubbed off of what I do today.
My mother’s restaurant was located at Awada, a suburb in Onitsha and it was a very popular restaurant in those days. I was in a boarding school. During holidays, I would come back to help my mother. My experience in her restaurant and the cooking skill I learnt earned me a position as the school Kitchen Prefect at Abbot Boys College, Ihiala and I was in that position from class 4. It was from that class that my mother stopped paying my school fees and that was because of my position. Some parents were even paying me to help look after their wards in school and in turn took me as their own son.
Due to paucity of funds, I decided to quit further studies for business after my secondary school. I learnt baking material trade under Mr. Boniface Okwuolisa, from Ihiala. I was with Mr. Boniface before I met Cornel Tochukwu Kpajie, from Uke. Mr. Tochukwu’s boss was selling baking powder with the name ‘First Choice’ in those days. Tochukwu being an industrious fellow, learnt how to produce the baking powder and would later begin the production of his own brand and named it ‘Royal Baking Powder’. So since I was still learning the ropes in the baking materials business, Tochukwu made an offer to assist him in distributing the product and I jumped on the offer. I did an excellent job of marketing the product.
After a while, I decided to change course and travel overseas for better opportunities. That was how we started producing Royal baking powder in China. We were also producing flavors, yeast, improver and all the baking materials. I discovered where they produce them in China and Indonesia. Today, the relationship between me and Tochukwu Kpajie is still strong. It is more like a father and son relationship. He is someone who wants me to succeed and he was instrumental to the success of my trip abroad. I was initially importing goods from China to Nigeria but when I started having challenges, I decided to set up my base outside the shores of Nigeria.
The first country I went to live in was Vietnam and from there, I moved to Thailand. I have also lived in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and China, I have visited all these countries and I have my network in those countries. The Igbo people in that region appreciate my person greatly and when they saw my leadership qualities, they decided to install me as their leader in these countries and that is the origin of the name “The King of Six Nations”. I also have my ’10-10’ restaurants in these six countries. It is adjudged one of the biggest in Asia. It was from there that I started my own farm where I cultivate our food and presently, there is no need for yam and bitter leaf importation in Thailand because we have the farm here. We also process garri and akpu. Palm fruit here in Thailand but we process it to our taste. I am also a licensed BDC operator.
In those six Nations, our people were having too many issues. An example of such is that when our people come into the country without proper documentation, most of the times, they will be subjected to arbitrary arrest by the law enforcement agencies and they may enter another country in a bid to evade arrest and that may compound their problems. Some might have proper documentation but because of little misunderstanding between them and the Thai or Vietnamese people, the Thai people may use police to harass them. That brought about a lot of complaint, but my intervention helped to put some of these issues under control. There were times when our brother will die in a country like Laos ,but because Nigerians aren’t many there, I will have to plead with our people in China and Thailand to make contributions to send the corpse home .Our leadership has also introduced a reign of peace and curbed cult related killings in these six nations. I am also in good terms with the royal fathers in Nigeria. This is to keep them updated and also to report any issue concerning any of their persons, especially when such character proves difficult to handle.
Another thing we do is to bring our culture close to our people in the Diaspora and make them have a feel of home. Cultural identity is very vital in our everyday living particularly for most of us who live abroad. And so when we come home, we learn the culture and the way things are done and then go back to teach our people in these nations our cultural practices and traditions. We also work together to help one another and lift one another up. If one of us has a problem, we all contribute to help provide solution to the person’s problem. The ancient Igbo Philosophy ‘ibuanyi Danda’ as well as ‘nwanne di namba’ forms the core of our activities and shapes our actions. The Igbo in those six nations have decided that they will have a caretaker administrator in each country but they will all report to me. With time, China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia etc will have their caretaker administrators that will be in charge and they will work with me in order to pilot the affairs of our people.
Could you throw more light on 10-10 restaurant?
If you come to Asia, 10-10 restaurant is rated among the best African restaurants. When we started, we only had Nigerian customers but now we have customers from different races. When the wife of immediate past President of Nigeria, Mrs Patience Jonathan came to Thailand for an event, 10-10 restaurant was the official caterer. That event announced us and others started patronizing 10-10 restaurant for indoor and outdoor events.
Some Nigerians are known to travel abroad and engage in criminal activities such as drug trafficking and internet fraud. What is your advice for those hoping to go abroad?
The standard practice for anybody with the intention of relocating to a foreign country is to have a contact person that can help him or her settle down. I usually advice our brothers who intend to travel to ensure that they have such contacts. In cases where such is unavailable, most of them will become stranded and some get tempted to go into crime.
Though it is very wrong and condemnable, I don’t think we Nigerians are the only people that engage in criminal activities. But instead of crime, there are a lot immigrants can learn in a foreign country. Many are engaged in honest labour. Some teach or get engaged in sporting activities like football and boxing. If you travel to Asia, you will notice that there are a lot of Nigerian teachers and it is a lucrative job. A teacher can earn as much as 50 dollars per hour. I’m not saying we are saints but the story of few who are into crime can never be allowed to dominate the great stories of many of us who are working extremely hard to make a decent living and contribute to the economy of our host country.
You were given the award as Anambra Diasporan 2020, which shows your contributions to the well-being of easterners overseas. What are those things you would say you have done to contribute to their wellbeing?
First is what I call prison ministry. I visit our brothers in prison, help them with legal aid if need be and also help relay messages to their various families in a bid to help get them out of incarceration. I have been doing this even before I was crowned the Igwe. Going to visit prisoners is not really easy as you might get arrested too for no just cause. Whenever any of our brothers gets arrested, I am the first person the police will contact before they charge the person to court. I also make sure that children whose fathers were deported are well taken care of. So it is like a gospel outreach for me.
Again, the goodwill I have built over the years across several countries has positioned me to become an unofficial ambassador of some sort for our people, a bridge between the authorities of the host countries and our people, as well as a conflict resolution professional for transactions among our people. I have resolved several business disputes that would have degenerated to ugly situations. I have also provided references and guarantees for our people who want to do business with foreign companies, especially when such persons require credit facilities. So essentially, I put my integrity on the line, making it possible for our people in these nations where I have enormous influence to thrive.