Mr. Taofik Adegbite is the Chief Executive Officer, Marine Platform, one of the emerging big players in Nigeria’s Cabotage trade and Upstream sector of the oil and gas industry. In this interview, he discusses the success of his firm, capacity building in the maritime industry and cabotage enforcement. The Voyage has the story.
What’s your impression of the maritime sector in Nigeria?
Nigeria has vast maritime potentials which only a fraction has been tapped. It’s saddening to note that most of the vessels on our waters are not owned by Nigerians. And it is also bad enough that none of those vessels are even maintained in Nigeria. You cannot even polish the propellers of those vessels in Nigeria. You can imagine the amount or revenues we are losing in that segment. Now, if you move into the Oil & Gas industry, we have about 200 vessels servicing the off shore which are also not owned by Nigerians. This is not to talk of the mid-stream where you have the various tankers and product carriers.
But your company has been very successful, launching African Vision and now the African inspiration. What has been the inspiration behind these successes that other operators can benefit from?
One thing is key, the foundation is defining purpose from the very beginning. At Marine Platforms from 2002, we sat down and decided we will not do what is easy. It’s simple: what is easy literally means low barriers to entries. If you look at it from the strategic point of view, it means it will be saturated easily. We will not look for quick mans, meaning we are not meant for just material gains or quick returns. We have to grow the company and grow it well. Those were the fundamentals. We decided what we wanted to do and God really helped us.
Talking about the African inspiration, a multipurpose vessel, this is quite expensive. Tell us about this vessel. What can it do?
The African inspiration is a step higher that the African Vision. I’ll start with the African Vision which happens to be 100-ton crane, which is the basic installation maintenance vessel.
After the field is developed, she goes around and makes sure everything is alright at the sea bed. You can do diving’s from there, and you can install your sub-sea trees which have pumps and a seabed. It also has a 69-man accommodation comfortably, maximum of two in a room because we ensured that our vessels are at comfort class. They are DMV certified so that you don’t have men clamped up in a room; not four people in a room or eight people in a room. That’s what you see in advanced societies, and that’s what we are trying to bring home. It has a helipad that can take the biggest of the offshore helicopters which moves crew back and forth. We learnt from the various challenges and we realized that we could have improvement. We now took those learning points to the African inspiration.
From the design of African Inspiration, we decided the kind of vessel we wanted to do. We needed a vessel that will be able to do beyond just maintaining sub-sea; that when our clients require moving a major flow line, we can cope. When you have to move flow line installations, you need heavier cranes and what we’ve seen in the past is that most of our clients did not have a choice, but to go and get those kind of specialist vessels to come into Nigeria. It is a very expensive mobilization and a few of them are servicing different locations. We decided that we will enhance the capacity of the African Inspiration, thereby installing a 250-ton crane. That’s a significant improvement from 100 tonnage, as 250 ton crane will lift virtually anything you want to lift offshore, and that eliminates the need for heavier vessels.
The African vision was 69, the African Inspiration is 120-man accommodation. It is able to hold a lot of cargo in your deck area, and you still have a lot of holding capacity. The tank is bigger, you can hold metalloids, you can hold everything offshore, sitting beside the vessel.
Are the African Inspiration and the African Vision manned by Nigerians?
We’ve gone into highly specialist areas. These vessels are high tech vessels. We know that we do not have the critical mass of Nigerians with the experiences. We got the experts and they train Nigerians. When you are chattering the vessel, we may tell you, ‘sorry my flag state does not allow me to do other nationals.’
In African Vision, we take NIMASA cadets and recruit Nigerian cadets, and we put them on board the vessel. In the African Inspiration, we realized that’s not even sufficient. When you take most of these cadets and put them on a vessel, for instance, someone in Engineering who you brought from school as a cadet and you put on these vessels, they get into the engine room, it’s so intimidating. That engine room is so mystified and you know the expatriate working with him equally doesn’t want to lose his job. So he equally wants to lose his job the more. So what do you see the Nigerian cadets doing? I’ve seen it so many times and it bleeds my heart. A lot of our guys going off shore, they keep cleaning oil, cleaning engines, changing oil, wiping these things flow line installations.
NIMASA is doing the right thing, giving the critical masses the right education, what we need to do further is to insist that these guys start having the right experiences. NIMASA is doing the right thing, but companies like ours, other people that want to go into the marine space, container vessels, cargo carriers, bulk carriers, product tankers and all must be encouraged to go into such businesses. So we need to further enforce the Cabotage law. But I quite appreciate that to buy those vessels is very expensive, so the Cabotage fund must actually be used.
A lot of businesses do say that the banks are not willing to offer credit facilities…
(Cuts in) Yes, it’s a chicken-and-egg thing. Your bank won’t be willing if you cannot guarantee the payment. We didn’t just get to African Vision. African Vision was a $100 million transaction. The first money we took from a Nigerian bank was N5 million, then N12 million, N20 million. We paid back. And then we took $5 million, paid back. Then we went ahead, took $24 million, paid back and we went to $100 million. The moral of my story is, if we had taken the $5 million or the N20 million and we didn’t pay back, they would not have borrowed us again.
A lot of people talk about piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, and on the Nigerian waters, highjacks and all sorts. You’ve been in the upstream system. How many attacks have your vessels come under?
There are real attacks, and of course there are choreographed attacks. Yes, we’ve worked on the rig and there were pirate alarms and alerts. If you ask me, it has reduced. In some cases, it’s even collaboration, insider job. They just come and attack us and our company will pay and there is insurance. In actual fact, when we are interviewing most of the experienced people to work on our vessel, the question we ask is: ‘have you been involved in money sharing before?’ because we found out that one of the things most of the captains do, the very unethical ones, is to steam offshore, turn off the engine, lock the timing that will amount to X quantity of diesel, and when they are coming ashore, then they sail. Meanwhile, they have reported that they were attacked.
What will be your advice to government on the kind of investment or the interventions in the maritime sector to grow it, in the face of dwindling resources accruing from our oil?
I think that the sector is now just getting out of the woods. We should try as much as possible to enforce the Cabotage law, we should try to make sure that the Cabotage Vessel Finance Fund,CVFF is actually going to develop the segment, not to politicize these agencies. We need technocrats, we need experienced people that will champion the cause of developing the maritime sector. We need more ships, we need more training centres. I think that’s another key factor that is depressing. We should have more simulators, further develop the Maritime Academy to give it simulators, and the school that NIMASA is building to give them simulators. You should have companies coming together to build their simulation centres and train people. So I think if we do that it will be very helpful.