Determination meets inspiration

Seeing an accountant in action fired the dreams of a super-competitive eight-year-old Babajide Ibironke, now CFO of Nigerian energy supplier Viathan Group.
Babajide Ibironke FCCA learnt an early lesson in humility that has stood him in good stead in his rise up the career ladder: he failed his first ACCA audit and assurance exam. It was a pivotal moment that in hindsight made him realise that unlike his previous accountancy studies, the ACCA Qualification ‘is totally different. It is about application, not regurgitating what you have learnt.

‘I realised that ‘ACCA offered a more practical base that could make me a fit-for-purpose accountant. I wrote the paper again and passed – and never failed another paper in qualifying.’ He went on to complete an ACCA-Oxford Brookes University degree in applied accounting with flying colours.

Now CFO of Lagos-based Viathan Group, which supplies much-needed power to key government services such as hospitals and water, Ibironke has turned humble beginnings into a stellar career. Named Nigeria’s CFO of the Year in 2016 and 2017, he has served in ACCA’s International Assembly and, since 2020, been a member of ACCA’s global governing Council.

Born in Ilesa in south-western Nigeria to a cocoa farmer father and itinerant trader mother, Ibironke says he grew up with the same dreams as most other guys. ‘I just wanted to be a footballer, a pilot – I wanted to do exciting stuff.’

The thought of accountancy was never on the table. ‘I wasn’t born with a silver spoon – I wasn’t born with any spoon! But my parents tried as much as possible to make sure I was educated.’ It may have been a modest upbringing, but he excelled at school. ‘From the age of five through to my high-school graduation, I never came second,’ he says.

Brief encounter

That lifelong competitive streak found its focus in one brief encounter at the age of eight. He had accompanied his cash-crop farmer father on a visit to a local bank for encashment, and whilst there met the bank’s accountant, who made an immediate and lasting impression on the young Ibironke. ‘I loved what I saw,’ Ibironke says. ‘I loved the courage, the charisma, the way the man appeared, everything around me – the aura in his office.’ From that day, he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.

After finishing high school, he studied accounting at Osun State Polytechnic, qualifying as a professonal accountant by his second year. He was soon hired by the institution as a graduate assistant to teach accounting to undergraduates, sparking a lifelong love for teaching.

In the late 1990s, though, ACCA had yet to gain the traction it has today in Nigeria, particularly outside of Lagos. However, its global relevance immediately appealed to the young and ambitious student. ‘ACCA was not popular upcountry in Nigeria at the time,’ he says. ‘I didn’t really know anything about it. But I loved challenges and I knew I was going to have to do ACCA. That’s where and how my ACCA journey started.’

Up the career ladder

For his national youth service year, he was posted to a bank in Lagos, where he was ‘exposed to financial activities, financial accounting, and all the stuff I had taught in the classroom’. He also co-founded a professional education school, where he continued teaching accounting and other business skills.

After completing his service year, he moved upward through various Nigerian financial institutions before joining Nestlé Nigeria in 2004. He had been looking for some accounting experience outside of the banking sector and Nestlé provided a wide range of career-building opportunities. He rose to become financial controller for the company’s entire business, as well as business unit controller for the bottled water line in Nigeria. ‘It was a “wow” experience for me,’ he says. And when Nestlé adopted IFRS Standards in 2005, he played a significant role for the Nigerian subsidiary’s dual reporting regime, which pushed him to begin studying for the ACCA Qualification.

ACCA has been key to Ibironke positioning his career for more senior financial roles. ‘Prior to ACCA, I was working like everyone else in a finance function – just meeting the deadline. But with the ACCA Qualification, I could see that it is not just about getting the numbers correct, but being able to analyse and interpret and speak through the numbers to help the business in decision support and add value to the organisation.’

Since qualifying, he has taken a range of leadership roles and CFO positions in Nigeria, including with drinks multinational Diageo, heavy equipment distributor Mantrac, and a Nigerian discount house (financial brokerage) now known as FBN Quest Merchant Bank.

Power for good

In 2019, he became CFO for Viathan Group. In a country with an outdated and unreliable grid that struggles to meet the energy requirements of its growing population of 200 million, Viathan reliably supplies relatively clean energy to a range of business customers. In this way, it helps to replace diesel-powered generators for commercial, industrial and household power consumers, while also advancing the seventh UN Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

Ibironke says: ‘What Viathan is doing is very close to what ACCA is doing, in terms of serving the public good.’ His proudest achievements at Viathan are in redefining the company’s impact: the business supplies energy to 11 Lagos-area hospitals and powers 80% of the public water supply in Lagos State to 6.5 million residents, as well as 160km of street lighting. ‘I used my skills to push those sustainability issues,’ he says. While he admits that Nigeria’s future energy challenges are considerable, he is fiercely optimistic about Viathan’s contribution to making the country a better place for all.

He remains a tireless evangelist for ACCA. He has been a member of ACCA’s International Assembly since 2012 and joined Council in 2020, where he now serves on the audit committee. Having the opportunity to see how ACCA works up-close has not diminished his passion for the organisation, and he flags its commitment to excellence as the reason he stays involved. ‘We don’t just talk about thinking ahead. We don’t just talk about innovation. We actually live those values. That is why we’re different.’

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