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‘Government should make Nigeria safe for businesses to thrive’

By Odita Sunday
16 October 2021   |   2:36 am
Dr. Okechukwu Henry Obi is the Managing Director of Florence Petroleum Ltd. and Ecumenical Investment and Developmental Company Ltd, a bulk petroleum trading concern registered in Nigeria

Obi

Dr. Okechukwu Henry Obi is the Managing Director of Florence Petroleum Ltd. and Ecumenical Investment and Developmental Company Ltd, a bulk petroleum trading concern registered in Nigeria, Ghana, England and Wales. In this interview with ODITA SUNDAY, he spoke on the need for government to make the country safe and secure for businesses to thrive.

How did your journey into business start?
I GAINED admission to the University of Calabar in 1996 to study Medicine and Surgery and I graduated in 2003/04 academic year with a Medical degree (bachelor of surgery). My medical internship was at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital in 2005. I did my NYSC at the General hospital, Saminaka Kaduna State in 2006, and was retained as a medical officer at the same hospital by Kaduna State Government.

But due to my entrepreneurial spirit and zeal, I had established three private clinics within Lere Local Council area immediately I completed my NYSC program. By January 2009, I sold off the three clinics and relocated to Jos, Plateau State, while still working with the General Hospital Saminaka.

In Jos, I used the proceeds of the sale of my clinics to purchase two tanker trucks and rented a petrol station where I retail petroleum products. By 2010, I resigned from my employment as a medical officer with Kaduna State Government and concentrated fully on building my business in oil and gas trading and real estate. Within this period, I did a post-graduate diploma in Business Management and a master in Business Administration at the University of Jos post-graduate school.

I proceeded to the United Kingdom and did Diploma in International oil Trade Supply, Refining and Transport/Shipping in the Oxford Princeton University programme (UK). I equally did a professional certificate programme in downstream oil and gas management at the Institute of Enterprises Management and Analytics. I am a member of Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and a member of the Energy Institute, London.

From the medical field, how did you get into your business and what influenced it?
I have always loved business and entrepreneurship, because of the business background of my parents. As a student, I always engaged in one business venture or the other. I knew I wasn’t going to last long in the medical profession, because as a young medical officer in the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital and General Hospital Saminaka, Kaduna State, I normally travel to Cotonou those days to buy vehicles and sell to my colleagues, friends and referrals in order to make some cool profit margins.

So, when I met people like Alhaji Awalu Rano (AA Rano) in the year 2008, I knew I wasn’t going to continue in the medical field again because it wasn’t giving me the satisfaction and freedom that I desired.

What has been your experience doing business in Nigeria so far?
Nigeria is a virgin forest with a population of over 200 million people, and young and energetic youths, making a good fortune in Nigeria is a kind of guarantee. Though there are so many challenges, as you solve some of the challenges, you make more and more money. The market is very huge in Nigeria. We make good of turnovers monthly and we are not even close to the market leaders. We do business in the United Kingdom and Ghana, but you cannot compare those places with the kind of transactions that occurs in Nigeria.

The candid advice I will give to upcoming Nigerians that want to go into our kind of business or any kind of business for that matter is to first of all look for a mentor and serve that person. Or, you can do an apprenticeship for some time and learn as much as you can learn from that person before venturing on your own. Our kind of business is very capital intensive, so it takes a lot of time to build up capital. So, you have to be patient and trustworthy. Integrity is the watchword; without integrity, just forget it. You will just be hitting hard rocks, before you know it, nobody will want to do business or associate with you again.

What incentives do you think the government should give to budding businessmen in the country for them to forge ahead?
The only incentive I want the government to give us is to make Nigeria safe and secure for everyone. Government should provide enabling environment for investors and entrepreneurs like us to keep faith in the country.

When I started out in 2006, I drove from Saminaka to Jos, Jos to Bauchi, Jos to Kaduna, Zaria, Kano, back to Abuja without fear of killer herdsmen, bandits nor kidnappers. But now, whenever I am in the country, I dare not travel by road to any part of the country, even to the Eastern part of the country. It is that bad.

So, we are not asking the government to give us money; we know how to make our money. All we need is security, peace and peaceful coexistence between the north and the south. My best friends are from the North. In fact, the first-ever business support I got was N5M in 2009 from a Muslim guy called Bashir Inuwa Ali; I had just met him like a week before then. I was looking for a business loan from a bank and the bank was delaying, so he just asked me what I need, I said N5M, he just gave it to me without collateral nor signing any form of agreement with him. We are family friends now. AA Rano also has given me credit facilities that banks haven’t given me; no collaterals, no sales purchase agreements signed. Just go and sell and bring back their capital. So, why will I not want to remain in the same country with these guys? Let the government make the country safe and then we will all prosper.

How do you see the growth of commerce in the present democratic dispensation and what is your candid advise for improvement?
The growth of commerce and industry in the present dispensation has been in reverse direction majorly because of insecurity. Foreign direct investment has plummeted; USD inflows have dried up. You don’t expect any reasonable foreign company to invest in a country where the security of life and property is not assured. My advice for improvement is to get the security of the country right, then every other thing will fall into place.

What do you think should be done to improve our waterways and what are the hurdles those involved in it encounter?
Nigeria is endowed with an extensive inland waterways system, but the maritime environment is faced with a lot of challenges, ranging from sea piracy, which we have encountered a couple of times, to inadequate berthing space for mother vessels, poor dredging challenges, dock problems, reduced channel width due to silting and unwholesome obstacles, inadequate functioning plants and equipment, inadequate financing and funding of port operations, the proliferation of government agencies in port activities and waterways and duplicating the same work and charging multiple taxations and levies.

In the same waterways, you see Nigerian Inland Waterways (NIWA), you see NIMASA, Marine Police, Navy, Army, DPR, NPA and others like touts and community boys; there are inconsistencies in government policy. All these and more are some of the challenges we do encounter in the marine industry in Nigeria. So, I think the government should harmonise the operation of these agencies because whatever monies we spend on them trickles down to the final consumers, which then impacts negatively on the country’s GDP.

What’s your assessment of government involvement in the marine business and what do you think should be done to encourage growth?
Presently, the government is doing well with the lunch of the deep blue project, which in my honest opinion is the beginning of goods things to come. Right now, there has been a reduction in the incidence of sea piracy attacks up to the Gulf of Guinea.

Government should be eager the develop the blue economy. Nigeria being a country blessed with a great number of littoral component states and waterways of great lengths should strive very hard and concentrate its oil resources and revenues in developing a blue economy. Blue economy alone can out-perform any other form of economic activity you can think of.

The ocean is the largest and most critical ecosystem on earth. The blue economy is the use of the sea and its resources for sustainable economic development. It consists of sectors like fisheries and aquaculture, marine biotechnology, renewable energy and shipping, hospitality (like beech side hotels and bars) majorly; it centres on trade and actions around large bodies of water. If well harnessed, it will solve Nigerians socio-economic problems, because it will help achieve economic diversification, create high-value jobs and ensure food security. All the ports in Nigeria should be developed in order to reduce tension and traffic congestion in Apapa Port.

In the area of dredging, what do you think are the impediments, using River Niger as a test case?
River Niger is the biggest and longest river in Nigeria but unfortunately left unattended to. The failure of successive governments to dredge the river in time has contributed to the impassibility of the river. Dredging of waterways and channels are a very big capital-intensive project. Though can be divided into two, capital dredging and maintenance dredging which is less capital intensive, but requires regular venture. These are not done as they should be; we have dredgers lying all over the place in Nigeria abandoned, probably procured with bank funds and subsidies. We should engage those dredgers to be doing maintenance dredging regularly; small-scale ports should be developed around the riverbanks.

There are also fears of those living downstream of the lower River Niger who feel that the dredging may aggravate the erosion of the riverbanks and increase flooding incidences. These people had protested against the dredging of the River Niger in the past, thereby stalling the work over the years. Apart from this, silting of the River Niger happens more often, so there should be maintenance dredging done regularly in order to make the River Niger channel navigable to barges and low draft vessels.

With these, I can get a low draft vessel and self-propelled barges to lift refined products from saying Walter Smith Refinery in Oguta to Onitsha port to deliver to coaches, from there to the North and sub-Saharan region. We will create multiple jobs along the waterways. Food supply will be made from the North to the South via the same partway. Nigeria is very, very rich, but let’s fix insecurity.