80. Recalling the typist who became Nigeria’s paper mogul

Business Day (South Africa)
29 July 2019
Professor Adekeye Adebajo

Israel Adebayo Adebajo was born on 21 January 1920 in the south-western Nigerian town of Imobi. He died 50 years ago last week, aged just 49. He lost his father when he was 14, forcing him to assume family responsibilities at an early age.  He travelled to Lagos in 1939, attending St. Peter’s Church School in Faji, and also undertook Secretarial Studies. He, however, never went to University, and was a self-made man.

Israel became a typist with Nigeria’s Daily Times in 1942, while also working as a vendor. To earn extra income, he used relatives to sell paper and stationary at bus-stops. While working for the newspaper, he noticed that the firm always needed stationary, and  set up a business to supply The Daily Times.  As the business grew, he set up the Nigerian Office Stationary Supply (NOSS) Stores in 1944. Within six years, Israel was able to rent out property in Lagos to the British colonial army. By 1956, he travelled to England to meet with his suppliers – such as Rexel – and became the sole agent for important stationary products and office equipment, establishing a monopoly over carbon paper.

Israel also set up the Nigeria Paper Converters Limited as a manufacturing arm. His biggest inspiration and role model was John Dickinson, the British stationer who – having supplied paper to the East India Company at the height of the industrial revolution – set up a company in 1804 to manufacture paper from pulp in mills.  Dickinson’s new methods would help transform the printing and publishing industry, making text and exercise books much cheaper to produce. Israel also wanted to emulate Dickinson by establishing a manufacturing company in the Lagos district of Apapa’s Creek Road.

The British colonial government was a large customer of NOSS Stores, and British crown agents worked closely with the company, paying for goods in bulk. By the time Adebajo returned from England in 1956, he had acquired three houses, and built a country home in the village of Naforija. Shortly after Nigeria’s independence in October 1960, he built an office and factory in Apapa which was then largely swamp land. NOSS Stores on Warehouse road was the first building in the area, and the factory produced toilet roll and accounting books. Israel was a workaholic who was in a hurry to conquer new empires, almost as if he knew he did not have much time to live.

NOSS Stores – with branches across Nigeria – had paid-up capital in 1969 valued at over £100,000 British pounds (about £1.4 million in today’s money). Israel was now able to assuage his passion for cars by buying Jaguars, a Pontiac, and a Cadillac. On his 40th birthday in 1960, the high priest of highlife music, Victor Olaiya, entertained invited guests. He also bought two homes in London, sent his children to private schools in England, and embarked on a world cruise in 1962. His generosity was legendary, gifting houses to family and friends.

Adebajo established Stationary Stores Football Club in 1958, ploughing profits from the company into the new club, and skilfully using the club to market the company.  The team played an attractive brand of flowing, fluent, and attacking football that Lagosians quickly embraced. Israel was determined to end Ghana’s dominance of West African football, and Stationary Stores was the first Nigerian team to play in the African Cup of Champion Clubs in 1968. Adebajo employed players from Ghana, Togo, and Benin.

Israel also served on the board of the Lagos Football Association, and was Treasurer of the Nigerian Football Association for 11 years.  The all-conquering Stationary Stores team that won two Nigerian Challenge cups in 1967 and 1968 had players that have since become legends of the country’s game. Nine members of the team famously represented Nigeria at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

As the most widely supported team in the ethnically cosmopolitan city of Lagos, Stores also sought to unite diverse ethnic and class groups, particularly during its own halcyon days, even as the Nigerian civil war raged between 1967 and 1970.  Israel Adebajo left an enduring legacy on Nigerian commerce and sports. I was two years old when he died. He was my father.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.