|Dr. Abiola Amao|
Ibilola Amao is the Principal Consultant, Lonadek Oil and Gas. In this interview with BUKOLA BAKARE, she speaks on her job as an engineer and also sheds light on her passion for youth empowerment, among other things
You recently shared the stage with Hilary Clinton at the International Women’s Day Celebration in the United States of America. What was the experience like for you?
During the International Women’s Day celebration, there was a global leadership award programme for five amazons who were selected based on the great things they are doing globally. I was not one of the five amazons though. Hilary Clinton set up the Vital Voices Foundation 20 years ago and they celebrated their 20th anniversary as well as organised a global leadership programme for these selected women. I was invited as a Vital Voices Fellow-the VV Top 100 women in Entrepreneurship who are making positive changes in the world. I am in the 100 group. I was invited to Washington DC to speak to young mentees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and encourage them to pursue careers in STEM. Since I was going to be in Washington, I was selected to be one of the 10 women they would honour and call on the stage to receive Hilary Clinton, who was making her first post-election speech on women empowerment. Each of us was asked to say something.
What did you say?
I said to Hilary Clinton, ‘‘Thank you for your passion and vision. You inspire me to continue to fight the good fight.’’ That was the summary of my speech. All the other nine people also said something and she got on stage, hugged us and later on, we took a group photograph with her. After that, I got an email from Vital Voices that I had been nominated as a Global Ambassador Mentee so, I am going to be in North Carolina in the United States of America between May 7 and 13, at the Bank of America’s headquarters where I’d be working with a mentor to rebrand Lonadek, and that’s a global positioning for us so, we thank God for that.
You’ve also been recognised for your outstanding contributions to STEM. What motivated you to study Engineering?
First and foremost, my favourite subjects were mathematics and physics. My late father was a civil and structural engineer who then became a titled chief in his hometown. He died 10 years ago and during his lifetime, I saw him work as an engineer with passion. I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer but my father convinced me that in my lifetime, Nigeria would not be designing and building aeroplanes, which has turned out to be quite true.
What made him say that?
My father was a very visionary person and he could see that people were not committed to the tenets of success in terms of hard work and discipline. The leadership at that time was also not technologically focused; people were more interested in making money, not necessarily enhancing the environment and the economy through technology, so I think he was a bit disappointed as well.
We once went on a trip to America and visited where the Boeing aircrafts were built and he managed to convince me that Nigeria was nowhere near doing that and he advised that I should focus on things that would create value for the country. I focused on civil and structural engineering. Ironically, when I graduated, I decided that I must have a doctorate because in England, once you made a first class in your first degree, you didn’t have to study for a masters. I earned a doctorate in computer- aided design and draughting from Bradford University in the United Kingdom and I specialised in oil and gas.
How did you set up Lonadek Oil and Gas?
When I came back from England in 1991, I went to register for the NYSC programme in Abuja. I saw a longer queue next door and I asked what it was for because the queue for NYSC registration seemed shorter. I later discovered that the Corporate Affairs Commission’s office was next door to the NYSC office. I was told that people on the queue were there to register their businesses. I think it cost N12, 000 then to register a business and my father had given me N15, 000 for my NYSC registration. So, I paid the CAC N6, 000 which was a deposit for my company registration, and I employed the services of a lawyer. I used the remaining N9, 000 to get a hotel and sort out my NYSC registration. Of course, I didn’t get my registration certificate until three months after and eventually, when I got it, I knew that I wanted to do something creative. I didn’t want to be working and cheating my employers. I had to do something of my own and that was how Lonadek Oil and Gas was birthed in September 1991.
Over the years, what are some of the challenges that you’ve encountered in the oil and gas industry?
The oil and gas industry in Nigeria is the most corrupt. It is a corruption-ridden industry and for you to decide in your heart that you are not going to engage in bribery and corruption is a major challenge. Over the years, I have been able to see some of the issues and challenges in the oil and gas industry and focus on how I can create value for Nigerians and how we can also do what expatriate companies are doing in the sector so, the focus of Lonadek has always been to empower Nigerians and Nigerian companies .
Most people hold the view that the industry has more expatriates than Nigerians operating in it , do you share this sentiment?
Truth be told, the saddest fact is that our educational system has decayed over the years. The Nigerian government and the private sector are not pumping enough money into research and development, so in the multi-billion dollar oil and gas industry, it is very difficult for Nigerians and Nigerian companies to compete. While we have very intelligent Nigerians who are doing exceptionally well technically; especially our engineers, you have the average Nigerian who after 15 years in the industry wants to exit and set up his own company. You also have an expatriate who does the same thing for 35 years because he has a passion for the discipline. Where we have missed it is that we don’t have the passion to compete and do the things that will make us match the strength that expatriates have. You cannot compare somebody with 15 years experience with someone who has 35 years experience on the job. As a Nigerian, he feels that he is experienced enough to set up his own company and the type of companies that operate successfully in the oil and gas industry require man hours of capacity, years of capability and competence, as well as collaborative efforts to work in teams, partnerships, joint ventures and strategic alliances to be able to win contracts and compete with the business; so, it is very difficult for Nigeria to compete. First of all, our banks give out loans at 21 per cent interest rate. Secondly, the average Nigerian leaves the industry after some years to set up his own business while more experienced expatriates are still doing the same job. If you take a look at all the heads of companies that want to compete with foreign ones in Nigeria and do a sum of their years of experience, they may not be able to compete with a foreign company that has a staff strength of over 400 with the sum of their years of experience running into thousands.
In what ways can these issues be solved, if Nigerian companies want to compete favourably in the oil and gas sector?
That’s the reason I set up the Vision 2020 programme because I realised that this is a problem that will continue to haunt us. We need to have round pegs in round holes and square pegs in square holes, and organise career talks for young people because it is important to harness the young talents that we have in STEM, Nigeria. We must expose them to the industry and empower them so that they can combine their potential with their talents and passion and have the same power to continue to do the things that they were created to do for 30/35 years. I am doing what I love to do and I don’t really run Lonadek because I am not an administrator. I work as a consultant there because I know that my space and passion is in empowerment.
How successful has the empowerment programme been?
It’s been very challenging because we use our funds more than other peoples’ own. The average Nigerian is very happy to spend N20m on a party but cannot even put N1m down to sponsor a young person up to university level so, our priorities are actually different. Our investment methods or understanding of how to invest in human capital is very poor and that’s where we really have a bit of a problem as a country. What we’ve decided to do on our part is that if we can get the right talents to compete in careers where they’ll be for 20 years or more, then, we’ll create competence and capability simultaneously. At the end of the day, you’d find Nigerians who are happy to continue working as experts or consultants in their areas of core competence. Only then can we compete with expatriates in the oil and gas industry. The more we can keep people within their passion, the better Nigeria would be able to compete globally.
You are also the Chairperson of the Industry Advisory Team, Lagos State Technical and Vocational Education Board, what are your roles?
I was nominated in absentia to the board because I was out of the country at the time but I guess people appreciated the fact that I am very passionate about developing young people and Lonadek has been involved in graduate empowerment programmes with companies like Chevron and we’ve also been involved in capacity building programmes. We do a continuing professional development programme and have organised a lot of internship and apprenticeship programmes as well. We’ve also done a skills gap analysis for the Petroleum Technology Development Fund for upstream and downstream. It was on the basis of this that I was appointed as the Chairperson for the Industry Advisory Team and my role is basically to bridge the gap between the industry and the academia, whereby students from the Lagos State technical and vocational schools through partnerships between the private sector and Lagos State technical colleges would have an opportunity to go on internship while they are studying so that they can have hands-on experience through mentoring and add it to the theoretical knowledge gained in the classroom to make them better apprentices and technicians. The goal is also to see that they are well engaged and don’t need to go to the university to become success stories. You’d find out that a lot of Nigerians who have technical and vocational certificates still end up wanting to go to the university because they believe that they have yet to arrive until they attend an ivory tower. In the western world, we have successful people who are doing exceptionally well and have never even seen the four walls of a university because they’ve relied solely on their skills and competencies.
As a mentor to young people in STEM and entrepreneurship, what are some of the challenges that female entrepreneurs face?
There are not many of us in science-oriented professions so when I find any woman in STEM, I make her my friend because I am so happy to find another woman. Even though most of my professional colleagues are male, I try to be as friendly as possible to such women. I also make a conscious effort to work with WIMBIZ and ask them to send me young, promising women to spend six months at Lonadek and undergo an internship whereby, they learn how a woman runs her business. Whenever I am in Nigeria, I spend time with them and give them free access to ask me as many questions as they like. I encourage them to find their purpose and launch out in entrepreneurship, if they are so wired. I strongly believe in mentoring and not only do I mentor, I’m also happy to be a mentee on the Vital Voices Global Ambassador programme.
How do you handle competition?
I don’t believe in competition. I believe that if you are creating value in a unique way, there would be no competition. Many people do what we do but they don’t do a combination of what we do and how we do it. We know what we do and we are driven by national development and socio-economic transformation goals. I don’t know many Nigerians who are interested in a better Nigeria, so whatever we do in our business for profit, our social enterprise for social impact and our CSR is totally different from what our competitors do. There are no two Lonadeks who are passionate about moving Nigeria forward in energy, power and infrastructure as well as oil and gas.
What are some of the memorable moments from your childhood?
My father was a very strong-willed person and he had five daughters and a son who are all doing exceptionally well in their various fields of endeavour. He made us understand that the sky is not even the limit; it is the beginning, if we are able to work hard, be diligent and focused. We never felt discriminated in anyway and when I told him that I wanted to do a PhD after my first degree, he said no problem. He didn’t even ask me any questions, rather he told me to go ahead. My siblings and I all have second degrees, so it was a no-brainer for me. The contribution of a father is very fundamental to the success of his daughter in her career or profession.
…and your mother?
My mother is a disciplinarian who believes that lazy people should not eat so, she taught us to work hard and she also taught us how to do everything that house helps do. I remember her saying, ‘‘Bi won se bi eruni won see bi omo’’ which means that there is no difference between us and the maids. We were never pampered per se and we were made to respect people around us; irrespective of where they came from or who gave birth to them. We are not tribalistic or discriminatory in our orientation.
What profound piece of advice did your father give you as a child?
I remember him telling me very clearly that if I come in contact with anybody whose lifestyle did not match up to his or her source of income, I should be very wary of that person. As such, it is very rare for me to have a friend whose lifestyle is wild.
How would you describe your personality?
I am an extremely open person and I love God with a passion. I am very much involved in Sunday School teachings, church activities and ministry work. I used to be a lay preacher in church but then, I realised that I couldn’t cope with the politics in the church so I became a teen church teacher. I teach teenagers and I’m very happy with that. I love young people and I’m more comfortable and happier around them.
You are a recipient of several awards; tell us about them?
One of the numerous awards that I’ve received is the Energy Institute Champion Award in the United Kingdom and for me, it was such a great honour. Out of six people that were shortlisted, I was selected to receive the award. That was the first award ceremony that I would attend that I didn’t know whether I was going to win or not. I recalled that I attended the award ceremony with my daughter and I didn’t want my tails in between my legs in her presence. I was very excited and happy when I won because I was competing with expatriates. I thought that was an awesome honour and I bless God for that.
How do you feel working in a seemingly male -dominated field?
I don’t even feel like I’m working in such an environment because ever since I was in secondary school, I’ve always been a girl among boys and I understand how they are wired. I see beyond gender and for me, it’s the professionalism in the person that I am working with that counts and I am much disciplined and focused in the way that I work.
Who are your role models and mentors?
My role model is Engineer (Dr.) Olatokunbo Somolu, as well as my late father. I also have very high regard for entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and late Steve Jobs for their contributions to Information Technology through laptops, smartphones and IPads. I think their contributions actually changed the way the world operates now in terms of Information Technology. In the same vein, I’d also like to have a tangible impact on my community and the world and I’m definitely not there yet.
Do you love reading books?
At the moment, I am reading Andrew Mellon’s autobiography. I also enjoy reading leadership books by John Maxwell and I have loads of books that I am reading simultaneously.
How would you describe motherhood?
I think I was not as good a mother as I should have been when my children were growing up because I was busy running up and down and trying to consolidate on what I do, so I relied on aunties, nannies and house helps but I have made up for it. Right now, I’ve reached a point in my life where I deliberately create time to be with my children during the holidays. I run my business and take care of my children so, I have corrected the errors of the past and made them my priority. My husband has also been very supportive and without him, I wouldn’t have been able to make it this far.
Does your profession dictate what you wear?
Those who know me very well know that I love African clothes and secondly, I don’t wear trousers. I have my skirts sewn very long, so when I am climbing a ladder or anything, it’s very difficult for me to expose any part of my body. I’m very comfortable dressing like a woman and I don’t dress like a man.
What are your likes and dislikes?
I can’t stand people who tell lies and those that are proud and arrogant. I just do not want them in my space; that’s why I said earlier that I’m more comfortable with young people.
What would you want to be remembered for?
I think the vision of Lonadek is to identify, develop and engage local talents so it doesn’t matter to me who gave birth to you. If you are talented and you are a cerebrally wired person, I’d love to work with you, career-counsel and expose you to the right industries where you can create value. I’d like to see you become a very successful person in life. I don’t need to meet such people personally; I just want to help them to a point where they’ll fulfil their purpose and destiny, especially in the area of STEM. I want to be remembered as somebody who was able to work with talents and help people chart their career paths to be successful and fulfilled wherever they find themselves.
How do you create a work-life balance?
I unwind when I attend women’s meetings and nobody knows who I am there. I am also a member of the Musical Society of Nigeria and I love music; from spiritual songs to jazz, instrumentals, praise and worship and the likes. I like King Sunny Ade, Yinka Ayefele, and some other people. If their music is played at a party, you could find me moving from side to side on my chair. However, I do not go to parties except if I am really close to the host. I’d probably go to the dance floor at some point but most times, I don’t.
What are the problems affecting the upstream, midstream and downstream sectors in the oil and gas industry?
For the upstream at the moment, the price of a barrel of oil is such that the profit margin is still low so, there has been a decline in activities because from N110 to $20 per barrel, it’s now higher so we’ve had to shrink in looking at the assets all over again and deciding which of them is most profitable to continue exploiting at the new price of the barrel abroad. For midstream, I’d say having a gas market in Nigeria is long overdue. Rather than focus on gas that comes from crude oil, we need more associated gas. If we price our gas appropriately, people will explore and produce more associated gas which can be used to power gas driven projects and give us uninterrupted power supply in Nigeria. Rather than destroy the environment through flaring of gas, if you price gas properly, we will be able to use them for domestic gas projects that will translate into better power supply while fertilizer companies using gas would also be able to affect agriculture positively. In downstream, to think that the last major refinery was built about 30 years ago is an embarrassment and there is a lot that we can do in downstream so, rather than just export crude and buy petrochemical products, Nigeria should become more focused on energy, security and be able to effectively process her raw materials into finished goods.
In this period of recession, how can youths overcome challenges of unemployment?
Youths should be able to look inwards and discover their potentials because nobody is an empty barrel. Therefore, there is something in this world that you can do that nobody else can. Discover it, create value and money will chase you.
What is your assessment of the Buhari-led administration?
In terms of corruption, I think President Muhammadu Buhari is doing a very good job at reducing the level of corruption in Nigeria. In terms of diversification of our over -dependence on oil and gas, we have also moved forward as a nation and I am very pleased about that but our economic policies and the devaluation of the naira is still indirectly or directly an area of concern for me. I believe that Nigeria deserves a better-valued naira, not one that would be exchanging for N375 to a dollar. At some point, it was N420 to a dollar and at some point, it almost hit N500. I think that the rate of exchange should not be more than N75 to a dollar. I’d be pleased and excited as a Nigerian when I can buy a dollar for N75 or less. If you look at the cost of a barrel of petrol, then you should know how much the naira should be. A litre of petrol in England is going for £1.20 and we are selling it at N145, so we should have a cheaper exchange rate.