SULEJA, NIGERIA -- The fruits of Austin Onyejiaka’s work are impossible to miss amid the chaotic commerce alongside the main road in this dust-choked suburb.
Women hawk large loaves of bread in bags. Atop their heads, young boys carry huge buckets stuffed with clear bags, not bottles, of drinking water. Customers, at roadside stalls, buy sugar and salt stuffed into his products.
Bags. Plastic bags, sold in rolls weighing over 100 pounds, are his business. Here in his native Nigeria, in a town just outside the capital of Abuja, Onyejiaka runs three plastic factories, employing about 50 workers — a tiny cog in what fast has become the powerhouse economy of Africa.
But Onyejiaka’s physical presence here on a recent weekday — barking out orders to his general manager, cracking jokes with employees and explaining to a visitor his vision for growth — is only fleeting. That’s because Onyejiaka, 39, actually runs his operation from an office inside his Miramar home.
It’s a grueling business life, fueled by an energetic and engaging personality. Onyejiaka awakes at 2 a.m. — or 8 a.m. in Nigeria — to incessantly work four phone lines, placing orders, finagling contracts and directing employees.
“I stay awake with them. It’s like I’m physically present with them,” Onyejiaka said. “They always have to be in touch with me, and I have to be in touch with them.”
As business winds down across the world, Onyejiaka rushes his children to school, then heads off to a part-time job selling cars at a Miami Lakes dealership. By the day’s end, he picks up the kids from school, spends a couple hours with his wife before trying to nod off by 8 p.m.
“Basically I only have five hours to sleep,” said Onyejiaka, who with a South Florida business partner is also starting up a private security company. “Maybe, once in a while, I catch a nap.”
The factories produce about 87,500 kilograms of plastic per month. Onyejiaka estimates that the factories bring in about $31,000 in profit every month — not a paltry sum in Nigeria, although he believes he can triple that as the business expands.
Onyejiaka grew up in Lagos, the economic and cultural hub of Nigeria, and studied petrol engineering at the Federal University of Technology Owerri. In 2001, he and his older brother started the first plastic factory, First Class Poly, in a ramshackle 10-foot-by- 10-foot building in Suleja.
His brother ran the business, which grew slowly. Onyejiaka immigrated to the United States in August 2005, one day before Hurricane Katrina. Like many immigrants, he started off in a blue-collar job: cleaning toilets and floors at a library in Weston.
Over the years, Onyejiaka scraped out a living, selling new and used cars while earning a master’s degree through Walden University. He also met his wife, Ezinne, who was born in the United States of Nigerian parents.
But tragedy hit in November 2009, when his elder brother, Ike, died unexpectedly of illness. Although relatives in Nigeria took over the business, it quickly faltered.
Onyejiaka agreed to take over operating the factory, but he could not move to Nigeria: His American-born wife wanted to stay in the United States.
Nigerians outside the country, particularly in the United States, have long thrived in the business world. Overall in 2013, the World Bank estimated, they sent back $21 billion in remittances to family in the country.
To be sure, the economy in Nigeria itself is booming. Thee government recently announced it has revised how it calculates its gross national product; the new figure, $512 billion, means Nigeria replaces South Africa as the continent’s largest economy.
The country of 169 million people, most of whom live in abject poverty, has one of the world’s biggest oil reserves, and boasts booming tech, fashion and cinema industries.
But as with many emerging-economy countries, Nigeria is a difficult place to succeed for small businesses such as Onyejiaka’s. Rampant corruption, high taxes, high exchange rates with foreign currencies, poor roads and sporadic electricity all make start-ups exceeding difficult.
And as Onyejiaka has found out, getting access to loans in Nigeria is daunting compared to the United States. While using his savings, he also maxed out his U.S. credit cards to help invest in growth.
Banks in Nigeria are notoriously “risk-averse,” said Lukman Raimi, an economics professor at the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education at Lagos’ Yaba College of Technology.
“The banks require collateral as security for loans, which most small businesses do not have,” Raimi said. “Small businesses require loans for raw materials procurements, expansion, payment of salaries during period of cash flow challenges.”
And the environment on the ground makes business for Onyejiaka, operating from across the world, that much more difficult.
He travels to Nigeria every three months or so to make sure business is running smooth. And each time, the difficulties of conducting business here become apparent.
On a recent tour of his factories, on a sweaty, hazy day, Onyejiaka shows a visitor a recycling machine he purchased to purchase back used plastic, re-mold it and sell it again as bags. But the portion of the machine that cuts the plastic sheets broke down, and parts are only available in China, not Nigeria.
For now, the recycling portion of his business is on hold as he tries to secure the parts.
On the tour of his second factory, a large red building a bumpy ride down from the main road, revealed an unwanted surprise. Production had ground to a halt.
The Nigeria government provides spotty electricity, so like many businesses, Onyejiaka set up a transformer to keep production humming.
Onyejiaka allows local residents to tap into the power for personal use, but a neighbor plugged in a “cold room,” a giant freezer used to maintain and sell ice blocks. That blew the power.
“I gave him light for free!” Onyejiaka hollered to his general manager, Yumusa Bameyi, 34.
The neighbor’s line was removed from the power supply. Production resumed.
For now, business is humming along. He hopes to branch out into producing Styrofoam-style containers, an idea on hold until he can secure more funding.
Several weeks later, back in Miramar, the grind continued with flurries of phone calls and e-mails.
“He’s always calling,” said Bameyi, his general manager. “He’s very sharp and he doesn’t sleep.”
On a recent afternoon, a mini-crisis emerged when Onyejiaka called to check on production. His employees revealed that the competition had begun offering plastic products on credit – a very bad idea for his own company, Onyekiaka barked.
He shot down the idea in a heated conversation with his staff. In Nigeria, the time was near 10 p.m.