An engineer of about 40 years experience in Petrochemical engineering, Mr. ALFRED OKOIGUN, who was inducted into the Nigerian Academy of Engineering(NAE) as honourary fellow on Thursday in Lagos, is also the Founder/Group Managing Director of ARCO Group Plc. In this interview with ZAKA KHALIQ, he spoke on the need for the country to invest in science and technology for rapid economic growth and development just like what is being witnessed in China, Israel, Malaysia and so on.
How do you feel to be inducted as the only fourth honourary fellow since the inception of the Nigeria Academy of Engineering(NAE) 21 years ago?
This induction means a lot to me. When I got the call that I was going to be honoured, it came to me as a very big surprise because this honour is not given every year. The last one was given about eight years ago and four honorary members inducted in 21 years of this academy.
So, I feel very proud and happy to have been recognised this way. For me and for those who have known me over the years, I am deeply passionate about engineering and science and technology.
I developed this in my secondary school days, when we went for an excursion in Shell company, where I knew that through science and technology, we can extract crude oil from the ground, process it into various products for nation’s growth and development.
And that was the reason for my love for engineering. When I went abroad, the first time in 1977, I saw the great work of science and technology and what we can do with it. But then also, I disagree with some school of thought in the olden days that people can be held down by witches and therefore, they can’t progress in life.
To people that still believe in this, I will advise you that you go abroad and you will know that is not true.
With science and technology, you can get to the peak of your career faster and that is what has happened in other parts of the world. So, with that in mind, and especially, the way I went to abroad, the same feeling when I was told my name was among 12 students Petroleum Training Institute (PTI) selected to go abroad on scholarship in 1977, I am having the same feeling now.
When I got the call from the academy, I was very elated because I knew the value of people in this academy. These are people who have worked to the peak of their career and now, they are given back to the society. These are people that are never tired, because they want to make contribution to the growth and development of science and technology in Nigeria as well as the development of our nation. So, who am I not to partner with this great academy.
Why is it that Nigeria has not really progressed in science and technology like other countries?
Why Nigeria has not progressed the way it should is because we fail to recognise the roles of science and technology to national growth.
Other nations such as China, Germany, Malaysia, Singapore, Israel knew this and their respective country is better for it.
In those days, Malaysia, Singapore, China were aback, but immediately they started to embrace science and technology, you could see the impact it has made on their respective economy.
Let’s take China as an example; where was China 30 years ago? But today, China is competing with America. Why? This is possible because of science and technology. And how did they do it? They started by encouraging the youths, that once a time had travelled to study in universities in America and U.K and are already working there, to return home.
There were a lot of Chinese going to study in higher institutions across America and Great Britain then, and when they finished their study, America hired them, which is what is happening to Nigeria today. Top brains in Nigeria go abroad and they are not coming back. Go to any sphere in the world today, these Nigerians are doing great jobs but they are not encouraged to come back.
But what China did was to encourage Chinese to come back. How much are they paying in China? Maybe 60,000 dollars a year. The country said, if you come back to China, we give you $60,000 to $80,000 a year and in addition, we will also give you research grant of $200,000 to $ 250,000 a year. With this incentive, 80 per cent of those who were in America came back to China and the country’s development started with a serious leap.
That is also similar to what happened in Israel, a country populated by 8.5 million people. Today, Israel is the number one in startup engineering business. They are next to America. So, that is what science and technology can do for you.
But the thing is, those in this field of science and technology did not know how to beg or lobby and in Nigeria, if you don’t beg or have somebody, you are not going anywhere. We have to change that concept.
So, therefore, what I am going to do going forward, is to support and continue to support the academy in advocacy on the good things science and technology can do.
As you know, I have interest in science and technology and I want to contribute more to the growth and development of engineering. Arco petrochemical engineering firm has been encouraging our youths and we will continue to do it.
Do you think Nigerian engineers have what it takes to compete with their colleagues globally?
I will tell you without any doubt that we have top quality Nigerian engineers and as you too may know, we have them performing well in other parts of the world, doing excellently well, but unfortunately, they are not doing so in Nigeria. This is because of the challenges of the environment. But this is what we want to break now. We are trying to encourage them, that inspite of all the challenges, let create a posisibility that they can do as much as what their counterparts are doing across the world. They have the brain, the knowledge, but sometimes, environment can be influential.
With the challenges you mentioned earlier, how will you advise relevant stakeholders to rise up to their respective responsibilities?
For example, in Nigerian Academy of Engineering (NAE), we are already doing that and Arco Petrochemical Engineering Company is partnering them on this. What we want to do is to begin to assist some of the young engineers who are doing tangible things, who, ordinarily are unable to bring their expertise to the open market. We want to make effort to look for them because one thing about engineers is that they don’t know how to make noise. They don’t know how to solicit for or beg as they believe they have got the knowledge and you will be the one to seek them. This is the principle all over the world.
China is doing it, America has done it many years ago. In China today, if you have a Phd, from top universities in America, China will just give you $60,000 to $80,000 annually and research grant of about $200,000 to $250, 000. You don’t solicit for it. That is promotion. We are not there yet, but these are the things we will want us to imbibe.
Where do you want to see Arco Petrochemical Engineering Company in the near future?
First and foremost, at Arco, we are looking at a company that will outlive not only the founder, but anyone who works at Arco. That means, we are talking about sustainability and growth. We are working on that and that is the focus.
In any event, there must be challenges, but the important thing is to believe in where you are going to build your goal. And if that goal is to build a sustainable company, then, those challenges are irrelevant.
The youth in engineering don’t seems to be challenged to be able to innovate. What will you want to advise the institutions who chunk out these graduates year in year out?
The youth should not be moved by the immediate luxury, let them believe in building their future. They should be committed to their beliefs, be honest in dealing with themselves and others and if they can have these values, there are many avenues to which they can come out. Don’t be limited by challenges, if you believe in yourself, you will do it. Have your idea, believe in it and then push it. But when you say Mr. A makes more money without doing so much because he knows A, B, C and D, that is a path that is not sustainable .
Now that the federal government is trying to fix some of its refineries and with private individuals, such as, Dangote coming to float refinery, what does this portends for the petroleum sector and the nation’s economy?
My advise to the government this time around is to challenge Nigerian engineers by asking Nigeria Society of Engineers(NSE) and NAE to proffer solutions to the challenges facing the petroleum sector.
For some of us who are in the business, we will rally round together. We must believe in Nigeria, that is the only way we can do it. We must reduce our appetite for foreigners and believe in our local capacity.
In the past, everybody patronises foreigners and the local engineers are not recognised, but things are changing for the better. The President has just signed its law now, that is, the executive order on local content in science and technology and with that, it will be another encouragement for the local engineers.
Are players in the engineering sector complying with the local content act?
We are making some efforts. There was a time it was not there, but now, its there. So, let’s hope that we will do better to make sure it works.
And your advice to the government?
My advice to the government is let’s believe in ourself. Nobody can do it for us, let’s build our capacity. Indians have done it, Chinese, Malaysia, Koreans have done it. Lets believe in ourself, we must promote Nigerian brands.