Dr. Ibilola Amao, a member of several professional and decision making bodies both home and abroad such as the Lagos Chamber of Commerce, Nigeria Society of Engineers, a member of the Governing Council, Energy Institute, UK is the CEO of the multi-award winning Lonadek Nigeria Limited. In this exclusive interview, Amao spoke on diverse issues ranging from her passion for developing local content through capacity building, capability and competencies, the push for more women in strategic positions in energy, power, infrastructure and oil and gas by catching them young through her STEM project, her anti-corruption stance among others.
Can we meet you madam?
My name is Ibilola Amao. I am the principal consultant of Lonadek Consulting, a very happy mother of three lovely children. I am married and I love God with a passion and must say that people around me succeed following their own passion.
How many years have you been in the industry?
I have been in the industry for 26 years.
May we know how you came into the oil and gas industry?
When I came back from England, I served with University of Lagos as an associate lecturer with Professor Ibidapo Obe and then I started Lonadek when I went to register for my National Youth Service Corps, NYSC. Then, Corporate Affairs Commission’s office used to be next door to NYSC. So, when I was on the queue for NYSC, I just asked why their queue was longer than ours. I was told that the people were waiting to go in to register their companies. I enquired about the cost and I was told. I had enough money on me. I gave the money to a lawyer I met there whom I didn’t know from anywhere. I collected his card and I went back to join my NYSC queue. And three months later, he sent me the registration.
After my NYSC, I wanted to work in a place where I will be very, very fulfilled and I got two references to ATR and Partners and National Engineering and Technical Company (NETCO). They were into bridge and piling designs but that was too close to my late father’s field because he was a highway engineer and a director at the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing. So, I knew I wasn’t going to go there. I went to NETCO where I had learnt that they just bought a lot of computers then and that they may be training some engineers. It sounded exciting to me, which is what I used to do anyway. My qualification was quite instrumental to my coming into NETCO and the fact that they had expatriate from Bechtel training Nigerians on the use of computer systems. And because there was technology transfer agreement between Bechtel and NNPC, they wanted to have a Nigerian doing the training rather than an expatriate. So at least they will be sure that the Nigerian is really, really committed to Nigeria. That is how I came in and you know I just finished my PhD then and I was pretty aware of happenings around the industry. It was like a technician who has learnt to use software himself. That was when I trained the first 67 engineers recruited by NNPC for NETCO to be prepared for the Escravos Gas Phase 1. So, most of my NCDMB people today were my first set of trainees!
When was this?
That was 1992 to 1993. The recruitment was from all over Nigeria; it was quota system recruitment for EGP1. So, we did EGP1, then we did Amukpe and Oroni for Shell, then we did 34 flow stations, we did Komoimu, Cawthorne Gas then we did Bonga Main1, Agbami. I left NETCO in 2003 when they were having the Ela Project to set up Lonadek as an independent consulting company. I must say that my best years were in NETCO; it was a family. I got married and I had all my children there. We worked day and night and ran shifts together. We were always meeting deadlines. We had three ladies on my team, the rest were men and we all got married around the same time. It was a real fellowship of brethren and like minds.
So what took you to England?
My late father had his secondary school education in England, so believed that his children should go to England after their O Levels. So, after my O Levels at Queens School, Ibadan, I went to London for my A Levels. Thereafter, I went to London University and Bradford University. After my studies, I worked in England for 10 years. My late father thought I should train to become a chartered engineer that it will help me be a professional and that really helped. Because they way I think is very, very professional. I honestly thank God that I did my training in the UK because I don’t behave like I am free to do what I like, even now I just can’t. Up till now, I leave my house at 5:15am and I get to my office at 6:10 before everybody. Sometimes, my husband will ask me, “Where are you rushing to?” And I am just like, I am so sorry, I have to go to my desk at the right time. Once they have trained you for three years to be at your desk at the right time, to be a professional, it will be very, very difficult for you to change. So, I really thank my late father for forcing me after my PhD to train as a PPL engineer. Those three years were an investment of a lifetime.
Being a woman at the helm of affairs at Lonadek and having previously worked in an established organisation, how have you been coping with the enormous responsibilities of your office?
First and foremost, I tell people that I don’t see male and female. I don’t see sexes in engineering because in my A Levels, we were only two girls in a class of 14. In my first degree, we were only two girls – me and a Chinese girl in a class of 50. In my PhD, I was the only girl in a class of 12. When I was working in an engineering company overseas, I was the only lady that was an engineer. And when I was on site as assistant resident engineer in Whitfield, I was also the only lady on site. So, there is no way you can even begin to see yourself as a lady, you just get on the job. I mean I can’t remember when I ever thought of myself as a girl or a lady amongst men. No! I just don’t even see it. I am always concerned with getting the job done.
How has Lonadek fared in the face of competition?
There are a lot of companies that do what Lonadek does but there is no other company that does the combination of what Lonadek does the way Lonadek does it. And that is my joy. We are focused on value creation and solving problems and it gives us great joy to empower people to solve problems and create value in Nigeria. And in terms of competition, we have had to pay our dues. We are anti-bribery and corruption focused organisation and anybody, anywhere in the world can tell you that we don’t touch that stuff. So, it is been tough but one thing I can tell you is that if we do ever get an assignment, a job or an opportunity, we execute the job diligently to the highest quality possible and deliver on our commitment to our clients.
So, because of our anti-corruption stance, you may not want to use us because we are not going to offer you a bribe, but if you are stuck or you have a reason to want a competent company to do your job and you find us; even if you don’t find us and give the job to a quack, they will find us because we do the job for them at our own price. So, that has been our story. We have done a lot of jobs as sub-contractors because we refuse to pay bribe.
Sitting in a male-dominated boardroom or bidding process, do you feel like being a lone voice especially as your position as a CEO ultimately thrust that responsibility on you?
I don’t have that mindset at all. I was probably born as a tomboy. Wherever I go, I see myself as one of the boys. It is just a no-go-area for me. In fact, when people ask me this question, I will be wondering where they are coming from. I just don’t think like that. Moreover, my late father as a retired lieutenant colonel and a very passionate civil and structural engineer empowered all his girls. He was one of those very exposed people who studied overseas and believed what a girl can do; a boy can also do it. I used to carry crates of drinks like a boy, I used to ride bicycles, wash cars, change tyres, climbed trees. So, I practically did everything and much more than my brother was even doing. I have to say that I am very grateful to my late father. He never gave us any hint that we could be discriminated against.
It is difficult for anyone to believe that you grew up as a tomboy because your dressing and speeches reveal otherwise
O yes, I used to be really tomboy but I have a kind of calmed down as I grew older with the help of the Holy Spirit. When I was in the university, even till I came back to Nigeria, I was always on trousers but when I gave my life to Christ, I stopped wearing trousers. Then I was always in jeans and jumpers, jeans and shirt. My hair was always like… (Prolonged laughter)
How does gender equality sit with you?
Well, I don’t believe in gender equality. I believe the two genders are fairly unique and very different and the values we create are very unique and complementary. I am one of those people who believe there is no equality in a man and a woman. We are so uniquely and differently created that we can only harness each other’s strength and complement each other. In whichever way, I don’t believe in gender equality and I don’t think the two genders should discriminate each other.
What about situations where gender sentiment is whipped to deny women lofty positions without consideration to her competencies?
When there is diversity in a team, it creates maximum value. So diversity could be in character, in behaviour, in gender. It is amazing how people have designed facilities in the past either even scientifically with the male perspective. I mean, when a woman comes into the project team and she reviews it with a maternal, emotional, psychological perspective and she picks up flaws and creates a lot of values. Because the men are thinking like this, the woman comes and starts thinking out of the box from the male’s usual way of thinking. I honestly think that it is to the advantage of every value creating organisation or institution to ensure that there is a balance of some sort or there is mixed gender in decision making team because there is always a perspective the minority or majority gender brings on board.
Does that inform your new passion for educating girl children for STEM?
O yes! I believe that there are too few women in the decision making process in engineering, energy, power, infrastructure, oil and gas which are the areas I play as an engineer and I have come to realize that even though I am not doing core engineering anymore, my engineering background informs the kind of decision I make. And because I am a lady, I think generationally; I carry the pains of my children, my society and my community’s development than a man does for some funny reasons.
I am not interested in immediate gratification or gain and that enables me to think medium and long term comfortably more than a man can. So, I sympathise with men because they have to think short term most times. The value a woman creates is able to create more holistic, medium to long term picture and she is more strategic because she is looking at the big picture in the long term. And the kind of solutions you proffer from that mindset for me is more sustainable and long lasting and more value creating in the medium to long term than the men’s now, now, now.
Take for example, if you eat your seed, your harvest is poor, but if you defer the eating of your seed, you harvest will be bigger and you can even eat better. I think women have that advantage; that is why I am now pushing for more women to be encouraged to become leaders in energy, power, infrastructure and oil and gas. But I think the best way to do it is to catch them young by identifying young people that are passionate about their sciences. I try to encourage them to push as much as possible to identify their strength, passion and talent while I guide them through career counselling so that they can either become leaders or entrepreneurs in those areas. In so doing, hopefully, they will be able to make better decision on behalf of their community and their society. That is what Nigeria lacks at the moment. They have too many short termers making decisions for this country and it is really affecting the economy of the country.
What do you see as the future of our young women?
First and foremost, I always tell young women that I wouldn’t want any young woman to make the type of mistakes I made because I spent so much time chasing deadlines. When I was having children, I had nannies, aunties, house girls, my mummy, siblings helping me with my children. To God be the glory, I got a second chance to spend a lot of time with my children and correct the gaps that were created in that process.
What I will advise any young woman to do now is to make the children their priority because really and truly if at the end of everything you don’t have your children in your space, I mean if they didn’t turn up the way you want them to turn up. I always advise that the women should attend the highest level of qualification and satisfaction she possibly can because when it comes to picking between a man and a woman, if your certification, qualification and expertise is way ahead of the male competing with you, it will be extremely difficult for them to discriminate against you.
So, if a woman attains the highest level of qualification, certification possible, she empowers herself in a way that even after child birth, when the children have gone to secondary school, she can re-launch her career at a level whereby her experience, exposure, expertise and qualifications speak volumes for her. She can accelerate her promotion and even surpass the people who were moving on when she was managing her home. So, that is the strategy I would advise young women to use. With these days of kidnapping of children, battering of babies, I don’t advise any woman to do what I did. I think the environment is too harsh now to raise children the way we did.
In our own days, the house helps were fearful; they won’t do things they can dear do now. I always believe that women really can have the best of both fronts, if they are able to manage their cycles. You must know the times to give at work and home. Managing one’s cycle is so important; otherwise one will end up without children, without a marriage.
What is the staff strength of Lonadek?
We have 32 full-time staff-six staff in Chevron, one in Total, one in Addax and we are beginning to look at manpower supply because we are very passionate about Nigerian expertise being domiciled even in the Diaspora. In terms of Lonadek as a company, I don’t see Lonadek as the 36 of us but I see Lonadek from the lives it has touched.
We have touched the lives of over 86,000 youths since we started our vision 2020 youth empowerment workshop and career counselling in the industry in 2006 and we have trained over 8,500 Nigerians, some of which are highly placed not just in Nigeria but all over the world. About three years ago, I was in Qatar Petroleum to visit one of our trainees who is doing exceptionally well there. We also have people who are doing well all over the world; very highly placed Nigerians who we have trained at some point. The MD of Warri refinery was one of my trainees from NGC maybe in 1996 and the MD of Elemeh Petrol Chemical at some point was one of the trainees as well.
I thank God, for what I don’t have in the bank, I have in the lives that I have touched and I see Lonadek as a family which involves alumni who have gone through our training programmes at different times even those who have left Lonadek.
I remember we spent so much money training six Nigerians for Chevron project they even visited and spent six weeks in our partner’s office in the US. We spent so much money training them in Paris, in Cambridge, Chesterfield and they worked in Angola as well. And when they came back, two of them left and went to Shell, one misbehaved I had to fire him, another stayed with us for a while and left. And one day, I went out on a dinner with my sister, she told me that the money I spent in training these people if had used it to buy or build a block of flats in Victoria Island by now I should be collecting rent.
But I said no, even though I looked at it as a very painful experience, I still could do it. And if you look at the big picture of Nigerian content, when you invest in training Nigerians, you are not doing it for your own company but you would have succeeded in making them a global brand. You know at some point we have got some jobs where these same people were instrumental to it. So, it was a short term loss. Therefore, if we are investing in local resources to develop Nigerian content or capability, wherever they go, they are still Nigerians whose capacity and capability have been further developed. And one way or the other, God will bless you or it.
We see that you have a lot of accolades outside there. Internationally, you are seen doing big things and you are associated with high personalities like Hilary Clinton and the likes and the name Dr. Ibilola Amao has gone far, yet I hear you say that you are not satisfied yet. So what is the next big deal for you?
First and foremost, I will like to touch the lives of young people and women and empower them to see a global perspective in terms of their potential, their talents and their passion. I will like to see them come to a point whereby they are creating maximum value; that they are able to demonstrate the excellence within them by finding their purpose. Aside this, I am very, very pained as a Nigerian. I am continuously embarrassed by our lack of focus, lack of commitment, diligence and dedication to creating value and demonstrating the excellence that we are capable of because of greed and corruption. The very myopic attitude of Nigerian businessmen in the oil and gas industry as well as among Nigerian professionals in the industry is unfortunate. The greed and corruption which blind us from the big picture of what we can actually be and what we can actually become. It is a problem that I am really confronted with on a daily basis and I am always racking my brain on how to solve this. And I must solve this problem just to help Nigerians attain those lofty heights. Can you imagine if we have working refineries, gas utilization plant? In the past, we had appropriate infrastructure in this country, I mean there was uninterrupted power supply because we were working in the hydrocarbon industry and we deployed the resources appropriately and we created maximum value for the Nigerian economy. Our projects were lean because there was no bribery and corruption in the bidding process and the lowest bidder with the best quality work was delivering.
How much money do we have for the roads, education, health, power and all the resources we enjoy when we go to other people’s country? So, really and truly, solving the endemic cancer of bribery and corruption in the oil and gas industry is fundamental to solving this same problem in the lives of Nigerians. It is necessary for us to have a better Nigeria. And my next big deal is how I can get people’s career counselled to a point they are patriot citizens who enjoy what they do and are so happy creating value in their own space. They won’t see the need to collect bribes and they will go the extra mile on their job to move the country forward and move themselves forward.