It was tough convincing clients I could match male architects — NIA President, Mobolaji Adeniyi

The newly elected President of the Nigerian Institute of Architects, Mobolaji Adeniyi, talks to JOSEPHINE OGUNDEJI about her career, architecture, and her plans for the NIA

What type of family do you come from?

I was born into the family of the late Chief Kolawole Olafimihan– a renowned obstetrician and gynaecologist, and Chief Violet in London, United Kingdom, on March 16, 1960.

I started my secondary school education at the prestigious Queens College, Yaba, Lagos, in 1971, and later attended Queen Elizabeth’s School, Ilorin, where I obtained my O-level West African School Certificate in 1975.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture from the famous Ahmadu Bello University Zaria in 1980. I later obtained a Master of Science degree in Architecture from the same university in 1982, as one of the few ladies in a predominantly male profession.

Have you always been involved with the NIA?

Right from my university days, I was involved with the Nigerian Institute of Architects as a student member of the association. The institute provided a forum for me, as a student, to collaborate with peers and exchange experiences nationwide and even internationally through various impactful programmes and excursions. I became a graduate member during my National Youth Service Corps days, which gave me the privilege of meeting great architects, such as Layi Balogun, Frank Mbanefo, late Alex Ekwueme and Femi Majekodunmi (all late). Many of them were past presidents of the institute, and they made great impressions on me by their achievements and commitment to the leadership of the NIA.

What inspired you to pursue a career in architecture, and how has your experience shaped your vision for the profession?

As a young girl, I had a very imaginative mind and was a natural artist with a flair for creativity. My parents discovered this early enough, and through a friend of my late father, Chief Kola Olafimihan, I was introduced to Architecture. I have found fulfillment in being an architect, having been a lecturer for eight years before going into private practice. I have had the privilege of nurturing and training architects, as well as being the principal partner and Chief Executive Officer of my architectural firm, which I established almost 30 years ago. I have always loved to impact the environment through my designs, and create spaces to enhance the living conditions of the occupants.

I saw the NIA as an avenue to be impactful to my colleagues as a professional, and the environment. I rose from the post of financial secretary in the Oyo State chapter of the NIA to become the first and only female chapter chair. In my further pursuit of service, I became the treasurer, and after this, I contested and resoundingly won to become the third vice-president of the institute. From there, I became the second and first vice-president and I am now the 30th president and second female head in the 63-year history of the institute. In all these experiences, my goal was to promote the awareness of architecture as an indispensable arm of development in our nation. We live in a society where professionalism is not respected and this can be seen in the chaos displayed in our cities, because most Nigerians do not use the services of architects. I found out that the most effective way of advocacy was through the NIA to individuals, corporate organisations, and governments.

What specific goals and initiatives do you plan to prioritise during your tenure as the president of the institute?

As the president of the NIA, I have unveiled the UNITE agenda for the next two years. It is an acronym that encapsulates my vision— U for unity for progress and impactful advocacy, N for negotiable integrity, transparency and accountability, I for inclusivity and mentorship, T for total integration with allied professions, and E for the empowerment of all cadres of architects.

How do you envision advancing the role and influence of architects within the Nigerian context?

Architects hold an important position in the built environment industry. It is therefore a pivotal part of my vision to position Nigerian architects for greater impact. I will be looking at the following areas. First, I will ensure the promotion of the excellence and diversity of Nigerian architecture, both traditional and modern, and showcase its contributions to the social, cultural and economic development of the country.

Second, I intend to advocate for the recognition and protection of the rights and interests of architects, as well as the enhancement of their professional standards and ethics. I also plan on fostering collaboration and cooperation among architects, as well as with other stakeholders in the built environment, such as government agencies, the private sector, civil society, and academia, to address the challenges and opportunities of urbanisation, climate change and sustainable development.

Supporting the education and training of architects, as well as the continuous professional development of NIA members, to ensure their competence and relevance in the changing global and local contexts is also key to the vision of my administration.

Finally, we shall engage in international affairs and affiliations, such as the International Union of Architects, the Commonwealth Association of Architects, and the Africa Union of Architects, to exchange knowledge, best practices, and experiences with other architects around the world.

What do you see as the most pressing challenges currently facing architects in Nigeria?

The non-recognition of the role of architects, and the incursion of foreign architects, the influx of quacks or non-registered people practising the profession, non-compliance of the government (federal and sub-national) with the laws and regulations guiding the practice of architecture, poor remuneration for services rendered are major challenges faced in the industry. To address these challenges, we must strengthen the role of regulatory bodies and dialogue with the government and appropriate authorities.

Are there particular strategies or solutions you have in mind to overcome the obstacles mentioned?

My UNITE agenda focuses on five major areas to address some of these problems. First, we must have a united force that recognises and caters to all cadres of membership. With a strong united force, we will be able to resist quackery and even foreign incursion. With effective advocacy, we would ensure that Presidential Executive Order Five, which addresses the promotion of Nigerian content in contract, science, engineering, and technology is strictly adhered to. The Federal Government’s approved scale of fees in 1990 has to be reviewed as it is no longer relevant for today’s economic realities. Procurement of the services of architects must be properly defined and entrenched in the Procurement Act. In addition to the above, we shall strongly advocate that registered architects are embedded in all the 774 local government councils in Nigeria as envisaged by the Nigerian Urban and Regional Planning Act. The various state governments should be encouraged to domesticate this law to provide for their proper and sustainable physical development.

As the second female president of the NIA, how do you intend to promote diversity and inclusion within the field of architecture, both in terms of gender and other underrepresented groups?

The institute caters to different groups, such as students, through the National Association of Nigerian Students; female architects, through the Female Architects of Nigeria; consulting architects, through the Association of Consulting Architects Nigeria, and academia, through the Association of Architectural Educators in Nigeria. I also aim to empower the younger group of architects by establishing a young architects’ forum to cater to that demography. Our programmes will also become more inclusive for members with physical disabilities, while I plan to strengthen the benevolent fund of the institute, which caters to the needs of vulnerable architects. My mantra is to leave no one behind.

With the various arms of the institute, we intend to use the UNITE agenda to drive the inclusiveness of all architects in every region of the country and the various sectors through our programmes.

In what ways do you foresee the NIA collaborating with government bodies, industry partners, and other stakeholders?

Collaboration for me is key and the way to go in achieving any meaningful progress. I intend to use our members who have served and are serving in the government as the governance/policy committee members to reach the government in projecting the image of architects.

Luckily, we have had past vice-presidents of the nation, governors, and ministers as our members. We will leverage our present influence in the government through the Minister of Housing, Deputy Senate Leader, and members of the House of Representatives, who are our members to achieve our goals as an institute.  We will also strengthen our collaboration with other professionals and manufacturers of building materials through activities, such as ‘archibuilt,’ a renowned yearly exhibition forum, and others.

How do you see technology shaping the future of architecture in Nigeria, and what steps will you take to ensure that architects stay at the forefront of technological advancements?

Proficiency in technology is a given, rather than a trend in the world we live in today. So, with the support of the executive council, I will ensure that we continue to deploy technology and its advancement to achieve our vision and mission as an institute.

I will promote continuous training through our continuous development programmes to ensure our architects are conversant with the latest technological innovation and international best practices, research, skill acquisition, and mentorship programmes, not only for registered members; but also students of architecture will be a priority as they are our future.

How can the institute contribute to the education and mentorship of aspiring architects?

Through AARCHES, we intend to work on the review of a curriculum to achieve the best global practices. We also plan to work with the Architects Registration Council of Nigeria for the accreditation of schools to achieve and maintain high standards in our schools of architecture. Our recent collaboration with the Commonwealth Association of Architects is focused mainly on the development of an education curriculum to make Nigerian graduates of architecture able to compete globally.

We plan to revive impactful mentorship through internship, and training in collaboration with the ACAN. We are going to adopt a mentee programme, by engaging fellows of the institute.

How do you see the role of Nigerian architects on the global stage, and what steps will you take to enhance their visibility and influence internationally?

Nigerian architects are doing very well internationally. We have had Nigerians as past presidents of foreign architectural institutes.  The President of The Royal Institute of British Architects, Muyiwa Oki, is a Nigerian. He is the first black man and youngest in the history of RIBA. A former president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, Sam Oboh, is a Nigerian and an honourary fellow of the NIA. A past president of the NIA, Femi Majekodunmi, has also been a past president of the International Union of Architects. Charles Majoroh was a past president of the African Union of Architects. Tokunbo Omisore was the vice-president of the UIA Region Five and the secretary-general of the AUA. Demas Nwoko, a Nigerian, was honoured with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale.

We have existing affiliations and alliances with international architectural associations, such as the AUA, IUA, and others. We plan to strengthen these alliances to foster student exchange programmes and reciprocity arrangements. We are one of the most visible institutes and stakeholders in Africa. At the last summit in Copenhagen (Denmark), Nigeria had the second-largest contingent. Our students are doing well in international competitions, and there are many other Nigerian architects excelling on the global stage.

Our focus now is showcasing Afrocentric architecture, and presentation of papers on issues that project our institute and architecture. Collaborations and further discussions on climate change, sustainability, and building resilient communities using our environment are important areas we are looking into.

What strategies do you have in mind for advocating for the value of architecture and the importance of involving architects in various projects in Nigeria?

Architects are vital to the development of any nation, because we provide the design and conceptualisation of sustainable cities. We also play a vital role in developing the economy through the construction industry, which makes up a huge percentage of the labour market; from the manufacturing of building materials to skilled and unskilled labour, to machinery, and even down to food sellers for the workforce. Architects drive the economy through their work. Economic gains through tourism can be achieved through architecture, like the case of Dubai (United Arab Emirates), whose economy is dependent on tourism.

What legacy do you hope to leave behind as the president of the institute?

As the 30th president of the NIA, I envision creating and promoting opportunities for growth and development of all members, empowering them through a structured approach, and restoring architects and architecture to a place of pride within our industry in Nigeria and globally. I plan to leave a legacy of unity, professionalism and excellence.

Some property owners in Nigeria do not value the importance of architects in the construction of residential buildings. Is that something that people should be worried about, especially in terms of safety?

Every building should have an architect, because we are trained to design and supervise safe, conducive and aesthetically pleasing structures to enhance living conditions and promote beautiful cities. Since residential buildings make up a high percentage of buildings in our cities, we must be intentional in ensuring that every building is designed by a registered architect.

Most of the structures that have collapsed were residential buildings where architects and other relevant professionals were not involved. The government must continue to ensure compliance with planning regulations to ensure that all buildings, irrespective of scale or size, are designed by registered architects. The building code should also be domesticated and signed into law in every state of the federation.

What do you think is responsible for that perception?

Many Nigerians are ignorant of the roles of architects, and believe that they are expensive, just like the average Nigerian would rather see a pharmacist than a doctor for medical treatment. In the same way, they want to cut corners by employing quacks to design and supervise their buildings. Most times, they pay much more than when they engage a qualified architect. The quality of their buildings always betrays their wrong decisions.

How do you plan to weed out self-acclaimed or fake architects?

The NIA will publish a list of its members, which will show architects registered to practise in Nigeria. This information would be given to the public and all stakeholders to expose self-acclaimed and fake architects. The NIA under my watch will work with the Architects Registration Council of Nigeria, which is the government agency empowered to prosecute fake architects. Note that it is primarily the responsibility of the governments to get rid of fake architects through their proper and rigorous enforcement of the relevant laws that should shut out fakes and imposters. As primary stakeholders and the professional pressure group, we will continue to encourage the government in this light.

Is the body playing any role in maintaining global standards in the teaching of Architecture in universities?

Yes, AARCHES, the arm of the NIA that comprises academics in universities and polytechnics, is continually working on means of maintaining global standards. With our collaboration with the Commonwealth Association of Architects and discussions opened up with RIBA during my last visit to the president of RIBA, we will continue to engage in maintaining global standards.

Balancing a successful business and personal life can be challenging. How do you prioritise self-care and maintain a work-life balance?

As a female architect with family responsibilities, achieving a harmonious work-life balance has been essential for me. Despite the demands of my profession, I prioritise self-care by carefully managing my time and ensuring that my overall lifestyle is not compromised. My top three priorities—relationship with God, my family, and personal time— are integral to my approach. I deliberately allocate time, energy and passion to each, alongside my professional commitments. As a young professional woman, I scheduled my meetings and site works to avoid conflicting with church commitments. I actively participated in my children’s upbringing, ensuring involvement in school activities, and even accommodating breastfeeding schedules during site meetings. Over time, as my practice grew, I found more time for travels and larger projects. Quality time with my husband, despite our busy schedules, and family holidays became non-negotiable. Maintaining an exercise routine, including walking, playing table tennis, and spa visits, has been crucial. It is all about meticulous planning and prioritisation, without excessively sacrificing one aspect for another.

What motivates and inspires you on a personal level, both within and outside the realm of the architectural industry?

What motivates and inspires me on a personal level is my unwavering passion and determination to exceed expectations and make a lasting impact. Being a woman in a male-dominated profession, I am driven to prove that gender is not a limitation to achieving excellence. I see each day, month and year as an opportunity to explore new frontiers, accept fresh challenges, and demonstrate my capabilities.

Guided by my motto, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” I embrace the mindset of constant improvement, and always strive to be the best version of myself. That mindset is my ultimate source of motivation.

As a leader, how do you continue to learn and grow personally? Are there any books, mentors, or experiences that have had a profound impact on your personal development?

As a leader, my journey of learning and personal growth involves studying great leaders and their lifestyles. Life lessons gleaned from their writings, successes, and failures shape my development. Real-life case studies, particularly of people I know, have a profound impact on me. I draw inspiration from outstanding female architects, such as Zaha Hadid, whose rise against all odds and non-conformist ideas resonate deeply with me. In addition, real-life figures such as Prof Akinkugbe, Prof Adeoye Adeniyi, my father, and my late aunt, Chief (Mrs) Felicia Adesiyun (all late), have significantly influenced my personal and leadership growth.

On the Nigerian architecture scene, leaders such as Bukola Ejiwumi, the late Layi Balogun, and D.O Fadele, including our living legends and past presidents of the NIA, continue to inspire me in my leadership journey.

Can you share a personal mantra or piece of advice that has guided you through the difficulties of entrepreneurship and life in general?

What propels me through the challenges of entrepreneurship and life is my unwavering ‘can-do’ spirit. I persist and remain undaunted in the face of failures. My mother’s profound impact on my life is a constant source of motivation. I vividly recall her post-surgery declaration, repeatedly affirming, “Bolaji, you will be great.” Those powerful words continue to drive me as I strive towards achieving greatness, fuelled by the grace of God.

What inspired you to become an architect and how have you been able to thrive in a male dominated industry?

As a child, my imaginative mind and love for creating things were nurtured by my late father, who encouraged me to develop my artistic skills alongside a science background. Inspired by his architect friend, he introduced me to the profession by taking me to building sites. Thriving in a male-dominated industry has been a challenge, where females often face skepticism about their capabilities. Initially, it was difficult to convince others that I could match my male counterparts, but with perseverance and showcasing my capabilities, I gained trust. Being a woman posed challenges in networking for commissions, but I am grateful to have created a reputable name for myself in the profession.

What challenges did you face in the early stages of your career?

In the initial phases of my career, as a young woman, I encountered skepticism from clients and organisations due to my age. Many doubted my capability to manage significant projects. Balancing professional commitments with familial responsibilities also posed a challenge, limiting my time for full immersion in the architectural business. However, I overcame those hurdles by demonstrating my competence through successful completion of projects. Volunteer work for my church and friends’ schools further highlighted my skills, earning recognition and establishing my credibility as an architect.

Can you share some key principles or values that have guided you through life and decision-making throughout the years?

I have been shaped by core principles ingrained in me since childhood. Integrity, discipline and hard work were values instilled in me from an early age. I was raised with the belief that one’s word should be one’s bond, and honesty and trustworthiness should guide decision-making. In our profession, where some may compromise on standards and ethics, my strong Christian values have enabled me to stand firm against unprofessional conducts. These principles have not only guided me professionally but have also been instrumental in my personal journey.

How do you unwind?

To unwind, I immerse myself in the joyful rhythms of music, expressing my love for dance. Table tennis and scrabble are also delightful pastimes that engage my competitive spirit and strategic mind. Additionally, I find solace in exploring unfamiliar places and embarking on vacations, indulging my passion for travel and adventure.

How was your childhood like?

Reflecting on my childhood brings back fond memories of being the first child, pampered and doted on by my parents. Growing up in a loving environment, my late father, who was a gynecologist and entrepreneur; and my mother, a mid-wife tutor, provided the best opportunities by sending me to excellent schools within their means. Their encouragement fuelled my aspirations for greatness in all endeavours. Being the first child, my father, who believed in equal opportunities for sons and daughters, gave me the same privileges as my brothers. I also lived with my late aunt, Chief Adesiyun, a school proprietor and the first female commissioner in Kwara State. Her disciplined approach balanced my otherwise pampered life. Our loving Christian family instilled the values of developing a relationship with God in me.

Family holidays, including summer vacations abroad, added to the richness of my childhood. It was indeed a memorable time filled with love, encouragement, discipline, and spiritual growth.

Are any of your kids towing your path?

Among my children, it is my youngest daughter who has followed in my footsteps by studying Architecture at Covenant University, Ogun State. However, at the moment, she is not actively practising architecture. I believe that as she navigates through the early pressures of married life, there is a possibility she might return to pursuing her passion for architecture. Interestingly, my sons have chosen paths in economics, and are not particularly inclined towards architecture.

Many young people are leaving Nigeria for greener pastures abroad. What is your advice to them on staying back to build Nigeria?

I hold a strong belief in Nigeria, and I share this sentiment with my children, though they currently live abroad. I emphasise the importance of being celebrated in one’s own home, rather than just tolerated elsewhere. I ensure that they maintain their roots and networks at home with the ultimate goal of relocating at the appropriate time. While achieving success abroad is commendable, it is essential to remember that one’s true home is where one’s heart belongs. Despite the challenges we face, Nigeria needs the contributions of its best minds for development. My advice to those seeking opportunities abroad is to gain valuable experiences there but consider returning home to apply that wealth of knowledge in building our nation. This approach aligns with the footsteps of our parents, who went abroad for specialised training and returned to invest in Nigeria. Although the current generation may feel compelled to seek greener pastures due to frustrations with the system, I stress that only Nigerians can truly build Nigeria. My encouragement to young people is to have faith in our nation, believe in their capacity to effect positive change, and contribute to the growth and development of Nigeria.

What advice do you have for aspiring architects?

As long as there is life and development, architecture will remain an integral part of our existence. Shelter, one of the fundamental needs of humanity, is driven by architects who shape spaces, communities and cities. While the roles and practices of architects may evolve with technological disruptions, such as Artificial Intelligence, and Building Information Modelling, the essence of architects in conceptualising and creating spaces will endure. The field may change, but architects, with their unique ability to design and innovate, will always play a vital role in civilisation. To aspiring architects, I encourage them to pursue their passion for design, as the world will always need inventive minds.

Leading a national institute while maintaining a family life can be demanding. How do you ensure quality time with your family, and are there traditions you prioritise?

As I embark on the challenges of leading a national institute with chapters in all states, I recognise the potential demands on my time. Fortunately, my grown-up children have left home, eliminating concerns in that area. My supportive husband, who is a busy medical practitioner, understands my commitments to the institute and provides full support. I am committed to maintaining a balance in my life, ensuring that family times, especially holidays, festive seasons, and celebrations, are cherished and not compromised.

Can you share a memorable family moment that holds special significance for you and has had an impact on your perspective on life and work?

The graduations of my children hold a special place in my heart, offering memorable family moments that profoundly impacted my perspective on life and work. Witnessing my first son achieve a first-class degree in the United Kingdom filled me with pride, and a sense of fulfillment as a mother. This success validated the sacrifices I made to prioritise spending time with them, while advancing my career. My second son’s second class upper achievement and my daughter’s qualification as an architect brought immense joy, affirming that our commitment to providing a solid foundation for our children’s lives was successful. Life, for me, is about making a positive impact on others and shaping their destinies. I am grateful that I did not compromise their future for my career, and this realisation brings me immense joy.

As a mother, how has your experience with raising children influenced your leadership style?

My experience with raising children has significantly shaped my leadership style. Having children with distinct character traits, ranging from introversion to extroversion and a mix of both, has taught me the value of embracing diversity. I understand that people are different, with unique needs and potentials that should be nurtured. That insight guides my approach in leadership, fostering an environment where individuals can be themselves while unleashing their unique strengths.

Discipline is a core value in my parenting, and I have seamlessly integrated this spirit of discipline into my leadership roles. I hold both my children and those I lead to lofty standards of integrity, hard work and meeting targets. Excuses for non-performance are not tolerated, as I believe in pushing for excellence.

Simultaneously, I am a source of encouragement, helping my children and those under my leadership to develop confidence in their abilities. This emphasis on building confidence has become a hallmark of my leadership style, creating a positive and empowering atmosphere for growth and success.