As the global community, especially Europe, grapples with the challenges posed by the war between Russia and Ukraine, some economic experts have expressed the view that African nations with strategic industrialization momentum are advantaged to realize their dream.
However, the provision of infrastructure remains essential to facilitate the concept.
In Nigeria, the government and the private sector seem to be struggling to close the infrastructure gap in all aspects of the economy.
Driven by the belief that the much-needed industrial revolution must be anchored on the provision of necessary infrastructure, some indigenous entrepreneurs have committed themselves to pioneering various specters of such development.
The Lee Engineering Group, founded by Dr. Leemon Ikpea, is one of those championing this noble quest for the industrialization of Nigeria. But the company’s unique selling point is the belief that transformation only happens through active participation. So instead of just being a marketer, selling European produce for quick returns, he chose to bring the chicken home.
Stakeholders in the oil and gas industry are aware that Lee Engineering Group has committed resources to establishing a steel products fabrication plant, located in Warri, Delta State. The commissioning of the plant is scheduled for this year and some local engineers have been trained to equip the manufacturing equipment.
However, not much is known about the face behind the strategic transition of technological know-how and the supply of skills acquisition to support the initiative.
Indeed, the move towards pioneering local manufacturing of industrial tools and equipment in the oil and gas industry where the Lee Engineering Group was born dates back to 2009, when Dr. Ikpea incorporated Lee international Services Srl Italy and appointed Dr. Dott Giuseppe Paone, a former lecturer at the University of Milan (Italy) as Area Manager, Business Development, Purchasing, Project Management, Europe and Africa.
Specifically, Lee International Services SrL was incorporated in March 2009 as a subsidiary of Lee Engineering & Construction Co Ltd with the main purpose of providing international services, training and technology development transfer, labor supply highly qualified, technical designs, project management and international consultancy.
So the choice of Paone, who has been passionate about business management in the oil and gas industry since 2006, can be seen as putting a round peg in a round hole.
Speaking to reporters in Warri recently, Paone, who is on a site assessment visit, said the manufacturing facility will contribute immensely to Nigeria’s economic and industrial transformation.
Speaking about the economic benefits of the plant, he said: “The first impact will be on employment. The second will focus on the economy itself because, instead of importing from abroad, Nigeria will become more independent. Those that will produce the spare parts needed for petrochemicals and refineries will be available from workshops in Nigeria, just like we have here at Lee Engineering. These pieces could have come from elsewhere, apart from Nigeria. So you only import raw materials and then produce the necessary parts here. This increases the wealth of the nation.
Linking the current situation to the industrial development experience of his home country, Italy, he said, “In the early 1960s, Italy (after World War II) was destroyed.
“I read in the books and my grandfather also told me that Italy had become like the Ukraine of today – destroyed.
“The United States came with funds and we started to rebuild. The development is rapid in the 60s. We started industrialization from carbon steel, stainless steel and petrochemicals. “Today what I see now in Nigeria is the same. You are living the Italian 60s. So you are growing so much because since 2011 you are the number one economy in Africa.
“Nigeria is the 5th largest exporter of crude oil in the world. It is Africa’s largest economy. The first country in Africa in terms of development is Ghana, but the country is small. Nigeria is much bigger. So you’re progressing so much, with a lot of middle-class citizens here. “When I came here, I noticed a lot of factories. The middle class demands modest houses, and also a lot of services.
Paone, who agreed that the Warri workshop or manufacturing facility was started by Lee Engineering Group chairman Dr Ikpea, said the concept was to complement the business the company was already doing in the oil and gas industry.
According to him, most of the machines and tools used for the creation of the factory were purchased from Italian suppliers.
Highlighting the critical role the plant will play in the country’s quest for industrial development, Paone said that although the goal is to produce pressure vessels and heat exchangers for low, medium to high pressure for a use in the oil and gas industry, the same machine can manufacture other industrial tools and equipment using carbon or stainless steel as the material.
“Speaking of stainless steel, let me give you an example. In the food industry, we have to transport things like milk, beer and beverages with trucks. You will notice that behind the trucks there are tools and caps. We have therefore built the machines that can make it possible to use these tanks for the transport of beverages.
“We are not just focusing on oil and gas. Why do we want to do this? We know from industry experience in Europe that in developing countries like Nigeria, these goods are consumed by the middle class. The demand for these goods will therefore increase. Their needs will also increase. We want to be leaders in their offer.
To ensure the smooth and perfect operation of the plant, Paone emphasized that Lee Engineering is committed to training the local workforce. In this regard, more than 30 people have been sent for training in the handling of the machine in Italy.
He, however, regretted the impact of the global lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing out that trained staff could not deploy their skills immediately as a result. But he added that Italian partners have continued to regularly send staff to Nigeria to refresh trainees.
Highlighting the need for retraining and plans to ensure a smooth transition, he said, “When people are trained, they start working. And, for this phase, we can organize and supervise the beginning because the start is the most delicate for the company. The start will be supervised by people who have been doing this for decades, who know exactly what to avoid, what to do and what not to do for safety reasons. After this supervision, the workshop will become, day after day, more independent and better in terms of production.
According to Paone, Lee Engineering’s manufacturing facility is expected to begin a test this month.
Talking about what the process entails, Paone said, “Commissioning activities involve installing and tuning machines correctly. If there are instruments like flowmeters and such, you will check that they are balanced and working because the state of the water here is different.
“At the end of the commissioning, you make a startup. It’s like buying a vehicle, you turn it on. If it goes well, it means that all the preparatory activities for the startup have been successful. For the vehicle or the car, you will check that everything is in order before you start, right? Startup is when the key to the machine is handed over to Lee Engineering as it is in full working order. The processes may be different from machine to machine, but the goal is just to get the machine working.
Paone is not unaware of the role of funds in the actualization of a vast project like this. He did, however, congratulate Engr. Ikpea for sponsoring the factory, but noted that the government can accelerate the industrial revolution by facilitating access to multinational development funds for development purposes.
“We are investing so much in this project as a company. Of course, at the moment, all funding comes from Chief Leemon Ikpea, President and CEO of Lee Engineering.
“But since we are aware that it is possible to obtain funds from the UN and related agencies or from the World Bank, we are working in this direction. I make appointments with some people to find out if they can provide funds – not in the form of loans, but knowing that we are contributing to the development of the Nigerian economy. It’s a common thing to do.
Meanwhile, there is an indication that Nigerian entrepreneurs may find it very difficult to tap into the pools of funds offered by multilateral sources due to the absence of representatives on the board of these organizations.
For example, a financial expert who does not want his name printed confirmed to our reporter that the country does not have representatives in most United Nations development agencies.
“That, for me, is not good. This shows that the government and the country are not taking advantage of the opportunities available for the entrepreneurial and industrial development of this space. The implication is to resort to the use of local funds for long-term investments which are usually very expensive.
Meanwhile, Paone pleaded for Nigeria to take advantage of the situation in Europe to accelerate its industrial development.
According to him, the market conditions, currently, are the best. “With the recent drop in energy supply caused by the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war in Europe, all policies there are currently being changed in an effort to help get gas supplies. Europe currently has a good relationship with Nigeria, and I think this represents a very good opportunity for Nigeria to take advantage of the shortfall. I mean right now – not next year, but now,” he said.
Interestingly, while many Nigerians watch and wait for the government to create an enabling environment for investment in their chosen field, people like Ikpea are paving the way to make a positive impact. Moving from marketing foreign products in Nigeria to setting up factories where manufacturing and manufacturing takes place. Indeed, it is the only way out of the woods. Nigeria must lead the concept of African industrialization and charity, they say, starts at home