Prince Raji is an uncommon entrepreneur. His story exemplifies the saying that ideas create possibilities. His uncanny love for nature and animals was the spur that gingered him to explore the idea of running a zoological garden. Hence, he dumped a flourishing advertising career to pursue his heart desire. He delved into a terrain many fear to tread. Many around him questioned the rationale behind his move. Even his friends and family considered him mad for going into an unusual venture. But for Prince Raji, the aspersions and scathing criticisms only forged his resolve to prove critics wrong about the viability of running private zoo business.
In 2010, Prince Raji went on to turn around a five hectare forest, left at the mercy of all sorts of merciless encroachers, into a beautiful garden where nature radiates in its full splendour. In 2012, the edifice was commissioned. And today, this venture- Q-brat Gardens, tucked in the outskirts of Badagry, has become a source of pride to him, the length and breadth of Badagry and beyond.
Q-brat Gardens has three functional segments – Zoological Garden, Garden of Eden and Children Recreational Centre. Each of these areas holds its own level of fascinating scenery. The Zoological Garden parades an array of animals, ranging from a 70-year-old giant tortoise, to crocodiles and a giant python lying lazily in their cages, with eagles and ostriches fluttering their feathers, species of monkeys gibbering excitedly, and peacocks roaming aimlessly around the garden. According to Prince Raji, a graduate of Mass Communication, many students of Zoology come to see and learn from him about the animals in his garden. “Many of students come from different university for me to teach them about these animals, even when I don’t have any degree in Zoology. When they come, I notice that all they learn in their school is just theoretical. Many of them have not witnessed some of the live creatures and plants they study in school. So, they get wowed when they come and see some of these animals”, he said with glee.
Another arm of the venture is ‘Garden of Eden’. The garden though pitched in darkness, is yet alluring and windy. The blustering leaves of gigantic trees create loads of airy splendour. Inside the woods are labyrinthine networks of torturous dingy bush paths leading into various part of the grove. And at the entrance of each bush track, are signboards announcing the wild creatures that would soon inhabit that part of the orchard; at some you’ll see notices like lion road, Gorilla Avenue, Tiger Street and loads of others. Walking into one of these woods could give you the shivers. “The darkness in here makes many to be sacred. Some of the students when they see the inscriptions like lion road or leopard road they become so scared and ask whether an animal could pounce out of the woods,” Prince Raji said with cheeky smile.
At the centre of the ‘Garden of Eden’ is a place called the ‘Aso-Rock’. Here looks more like the village square in the bush. The ambience is calm and densely lighted. You could hear from a distance the chirping sounds of crickets and grass cutters rummaging through trees and branches. According to Prince Raji, this part of the thick grove is meant for people to relax and take a nap under the soft whispering and rustling of leaves. There are also seats made of trees stumps and bamboos. “We seek to introduce things very natural because back then at farms these kinds of seats are what they used in those days. And it is quite comfortable as little as it is unlike sitting on the floor or a plastic chair.”
He continues: “We also use the opportunity to talk and educate our visitors about the environment. We educate them on the importance of the trees to mankind. It is sad that in some towns, there is no single tree seen. The indiscriminate destruction of nature and trees is the major cause of the climatic change we are witnessing. Many are yet to know that there is a connect between we humans and plants. there is a connect between we humans
Prince Raji is from a royal family. But to him, being a prince is nothing but just a nomenclature. “My cousin is the Elewu of Ewu near Mafoluku. When people hear my name, they become shocked when they don’t see me dressed like a prince. But I believe that being called a prince is just a nomenclature. If you are doing any work and you don’t throw yourself at it, rather you choose to be giving instructions left and right, then you and that business are bound to fail.” Nevertheless, in Q-brat Zoos and Gardens, Prince Raji is king. .
This royalty of Q-brat and the Ewu kingdom hosted HENRY OKONKWO recently in the gardens, where he tells more about the story of his venture.
Switching from employee to being an entrepreneur
I was the best student in PR and advertising. So, I won the AAPN (Advertising Agency Practitioners Award). But at a point, I queried myself if I was really at the right place. And what I did was to resign from paid employment and teamed up with a friend and colleague to form our own advertising agency. But not long after that we had some irreconcilable differences and went our separate ways. When I was in advertising, I went to places like Wikki Warm Spring in Yankari Games Reserve, Bauchi State. It fuelled my passion to aspire towards creating such scenery here in Lagos. Those made me decide to delve into the business because my childhood passion kept ringing inside my head.
The idea has always been in me right from childhood. I grew up to love a zoo in Lagos called Banny Zoo. It was barely two plots of land and they stocked some monkeys, crocodiles, pelicans and a few birds. But I’ll always go there nearly every weekend to look at the animals. The scenes fascinated me. And I dreamt of running my own zoo. So, after my university education, I quickly applied to the Lagos State government for land but my application was turned down. That didn’t deter me.
But one day, I was discussing my idea with someone and he suggested that I go to another state government office at Agege. The officer I met mentioned about an abandoned zoo project at Badagry and urged me to go look at it. I went and liked what I saw, so I decided to put in an application.
I got here in January 2010. Then it was a big jungle abandoned by the state government. This was a project started by Jakande administration. But after the coup that overthrew the government, the project was abandoned, cattle-rearers encroached on the land. We started this place on December 12, 2012 at 12 noon. And within that short time we have succeeded in carving a little niche for ourselves.
Handling harsh criticisms
I had more than enough discouragement from every corner! But if you must have focus, so that such situation would not be damning to you. To me, this venture is a dream come true, and I don’t care much about what people say.
A very close elderly friend of mine called me aside one day and said I must be mad to have started this venture. He told me zoological gardens are projects for government, not individuals. Even up till now I still face discouragement even from my family. They don’t see the sensibility in this ‘madness’. But I know with time we would silence our critics because soon we would start reaping from the venture.
It is a business you could start in a little way. There are different types of zoos. There are some called children zoos, in those kind zoos are small animals like rabbits, tortoise and birds. We also have birds and butterfly zoos, and then the crossover zoos- that showcase diverse animals. You can start up zoos in your backyard. It all depends on what you have in mind.
When we came in, my idea of the zoo was different from the ministry’s idea. They were thinking I was going to bring down the trees and build cages to put in animals. But my idea is that the animals should be closer to their own environment. I didn’t want to tamper too much with the environment. So, we needn’t bring down the trees. We built the in-roads into different parts of the forest, so that when each animal is moved into their segment, they would get the feel of being in the forest.
When I got here, I planned starting up in a big way. I was hoping to gather enough capital to buy big animals like elephants, lions and gorillas. But before we knew it, people became envious and schemed to take the land from us. It was then I was nudged to start the business with the little that I had. And I have not looked back since then.
It is really expensive running this venture. It requires physical manpower to maintain the place and do jobs like cleaning the road, cutting or trimming trees. Sometimes I join the labourers to do the work.
The second other aspect is finance, which is a common militating factor in every other business. And the Nigeria’s banking system doesn’t grant loans to people like us that need money to run a zoo. From my interaction with many of them, their own idea of tourism is to build big hotels. Many of them think that zoological gardens are projects that should be done by the state and local governments, and not individuals like us.
Again, Nigerians don’t appreciate and pay well for services provided. Many come here insisting that services like the zoological garden should be offered free of charge. They don’t like to pay the meagre gate fees we charge.
We have one person in each local government marketing our brand and getting clients. We have invoved the traditional and the online media to reach to the public.
Keeping the passion aglow
I’m a voracious reader. I read lots of books about entrepreneurs, motivational books, and bibliographies. I also get ideas from the internet whenever I get confused about any aspect of my business.
We intend to get a swamp dozer to clear the rubbish in the swamps. Already there is a place in that swamp where water comes out naturally from the ground. So, we want to see how we can harness it. And explore the possibility of building a natural stream for people to come and swim and have fun. Some people suggest we should turn it into a fish pond. But I don’t see the fun in that. There is more fun in people swimming in a natural aquatic setting. We intend to bring in more exotic animals like octopus, lion, tigers etc. We also aspire to put in more structures like guest house, restaurant and bar. So, we have so much to do because the task is quite enormous.
Advice to youths and government
Source : SunOnline