How Nigerian Hospitality Entrepreneur, Obi Cubana Became a Billionaire ‘Overnight’
Obi Cubana's dream to become a civil servant was dashed when the National Assembly disengaged him
Obinna Iyiegbu, known by many as Obi Cubana, is a Nigerian business magnate and a typical Igbo man who rose from nothing to attaining remarkable success by sheer hard work and doggedness. Prior to his mother’s epoch burial in July 2021, his brand name, Cubana, only resonated in the Nigerian entertainment and hospitality industry.
Obi is the Chairman of Cubana Group, owners of many leading nightclubs and hotels scattered across the Nigerian states. He became a national sensation and a social media force when his billionaire friends stormed his hometown in Oba, Anambra state, for his mother’s burial. These individuals, who are accomplished businessmen, were armed to the teeth with local and foreign currencies which they lavishly sprayed at the ceremony.
Obi Cubana, 46, was born and raised by civil servant parents – both teachers – whom he described as core disciplinarians. He completed his early schooling at Central Primary School and Dennis Memorial Grammar School. He proceeded to the University of Nigeria Nsukka, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science in 1998.
In 1999, during his compulsory youth service at the National Assembly in Abuja, Obi had hoped and prayed for him and his fellow corps members to be absorbed into the government body as full-time employees upon completion of their service year. Like his parents, he was going to settle for the life of a civil servant.
Unfortunately for him, they were not retained by the National Assembly. As expected, he was sad, knowing how tough the Nigerian labour market was and still is. The civil service life would have guaranteed him pensionable earnings. Even though it is a rat race, it was a big deal for Obi, a young graduate living in a land of scarce opportunities. After all, that was how his parents were able to raise him. So, to Obi, it made perfect sense to want that kind of job.
The reality dawned on Obi when he started job-hunting. He relied on his second-class upper grade to land him a reasonably good opportunity in the labour market. He hit the streets hard, combing the length and breadth of Abuja, but all his efforts were futile.
The Making of Obi Cubana
When it seemed like the struggle to get a decent job would snuff life out of him, Obi gave up and resorted to helping people secure apartments in exchange for a commission. Propelled by the will to succeed, Obi gave the hustle his all. In no distant time, he had become known to be a reliable house agent in Abuja.
Through a happy client, Obinna landed his first breakthrough. The client asked him to furnish his new house to taste. Upon the completion of the project, Obi had made his first million. In total, he raked in N1.1 million. After this, he also executed a contract for the Pipelines and Product Marketing Company (PPMC), a subsidiary of the NNPC, Nigeria’s oil corporation. Obi bought himself a Mercedes Benz V-boot with the proceeds from these ventures. And his affinity for the hospitality industry spurred him to invest the rest of the money into a bar and restaurant business. He ran the business alongside his brothers and friends.
However, note that he and his friends lived in a tiny apartment before and after Obinna made the money.
“Me, my brothers and friends were living in a Zone 4 Abuja apartment at the time. That room was 12 by 12 in size, and we were 6 occupants. We’d put the mattress on the floor,” Obi Cubana recalls.
The restaurant business was making them good money until a tragedy struck and destroyed all they had worked for. The then minister for the Federal Capital Territory, Malam Nasir El-Rufai, ordered the demolition of the structure occupied by Obi’s restaurant. The minister said it was not part of the city’s master plan.
This event shattered Obi. It seemed the setback was insurmountable. Soon after, Obi’s entrepreneurial spirit reawakened. He and his friends managed to open another bar and named it Ibiza. It turned out that the demolition of his first restaurant was a blessing in disguise as the new one took off like a rocket. It attracted three times more customers than the first. Obi would even passionately serve customers himself when his staff was overwhelmed.
Ibiza eventually birthed the Cubana brand, a luxury nightlife venture with a chain of nightclubs and hotels across Nigeria. According to Obi, Cubana Dubai and London are in the works.
Unusually for Nigerian businesses and entrepreneurs, one of the best models that helped the Cubana brand grow faster and more significantly is partnerships. He adopted this growth hack early on as he never did any business without seeking a partnership. When he conceived the Cubana idea while in South Africa, he reached out to friends and associates and succeeded in getting some of them to commit their funds to the project.
On what stands Cubana out as a business, Obi says: “We’ve always hinged our belief on integrity, hard work and focus. I wasn’t looking for a business I’d do for a few years, make money and go. We’re trying to create brands that will outlive us. A business that our children will take over. You know the older generation in Nigeria doesn’t build on something that will live after them. That’s why once they die, the business dies along with them.”
Obi Cunana, however, admits that he had failed at other businesses before delving into the hospitality space.
“I’ve done phone business. I would import phones from Dubai, but it failed woefully. I’ve done a boutique business, named Body and Legs, in Garki. It was one of the best shops. I failed woefully. So, I noticed that I don’t know how to do commerce and trading, but in terms of rendering services, which is what I’m doing in entertainment now, I excelled,” he adds.
According to a BBC report, Obi Cubana, who has garnered 2.2 million followers on Instagram, is worth about $96 million.
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Obi Cubana is married to Ebele Iyiegbu, a Nigerian lawyer. The pair started from scratch, before the money and fame. While they were dating, Obi was still living in a 1-bedroom apartment with five other persons. In 2008 when they got married, they moved to a 3-bedroom flat.
“It wasn’t about the money, but we were happy…peace brings prosperity. Money does not keep marriage, but money makes marriage easier,” says Obi Cubana.
Ebele serves as the director at Casa Cubana homes, the real estate arm of the Cubana empire. The couple has four sons together.
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