‘Persistence and adherence to professionalism make the difference in entrepreneurship’
After designing two lecture theatres and a hostel for the University of Lagos immediately after graduating from the university as a Civil Engineer in 2006, Kamaldeen Adefemi chose to toe the part of entrepreneurship in the construction sector. In pursuit of his dream, he incorporated Akade Consult in 2007, where he designed and analysed different structural and civil projects for various firms. Today, he is the Project Director and Managing Partner at Periscope Engineering Limited, a fast-growing engineering consulting and construction firm based in Lagos State, where he is overseeing and implementing various successful projects in both private and public sectors. In 2018, Adefemi’s exploits in the sector earned him the award of Most Outstanding Young Engineering CEO in the industry by the Nigerian Institution of Civil Engineers. In the same year, he also received the Pillar of Support Award from the same institution having been adjudged as one of the supporters and builders of the Institution and industry at large. A registered member of the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria, Nigeria Society of Engineers (NSE) and American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Adefemi shared his entrepreneurial experience with select journalists on the occasion of his 41st birthday recently. He also spoke on the rising cases of building collapse in the country and proffered solutions. The Guardian’s ONYEDIKA AGBEDO was there
Tell us how you came up with the idea of establishing Periscope Engineering Limited, which is today making waves in the construction industry, especially in Lagos State?
Periscope Engineering Limited was incorporated in 2008. We started operation in 2009. Since then, we have been growing from strength to strength. I graduated from the University of Lagos in 2006. I had my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) experience at the Lagos State Development and Property Corporation.
At Periscope, we have created our own little niche and our clients and some of the projects we have undertaken can testify to that. I say so because when you talk about construction in Lagos State, we had and we are still having our own fair share of construction works. We have been part of the LagosHoms project since the Babatunde Raji Fashola administration. In fact, we just rounded off a project in Ibeshe, Ikorodu, which Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu commissioned a couple of weeks ago. We have constructed some roads for Ikeja local council. We consult for some private firms, including Total Nigeria.
So, we are providing services; if the services we have been providing are not of utmost quality and professionalism, obviously we won’t be considered for such year in, year out.
Before Periscope, I had established Akade Consult in 2007, which basically rendered engineering consulting services. Under Akade Consult, I was one of the leading consultants for First Bank of Nigeria then. We designed and supervised the construction of over 35 branches for the bank. But you know it gets to a point where you cannot limit yourself to just consulting. That was why we incorporated Periscope Engineering Limited.
Did you ever take up paid employment?
Well, I have a couple of uncles that are civil engineers. I was fortunate to have stayed with one of them where I got exposed to engineering design. So, design, which is basically the consulting part of engineering, was something I was doing even before I graduated from the university. In fact, immediately I graduated, I designed two lecture theatres and a hostel for the University of Lagos. So, the transition from school, to NYSC and running my own firm was seamless. It wasn’t as if I worked for someone; I really didn’t do that. But because of what I had been doing before I left school and the support of some of my uncles, it wasn’t difficult for me to find my feet.
What were the initial challenges you encountered when you embraced entrepreneurship?
When you venture into entrepreneurship, in the beginning it might be very rough but persistence opens the road to breakthrough. So, in the beginning, it wasn’t just about the money for us; it was about creating that household name in the sector by giving our clients the best quality. When you give quality with timely delivery you are building trust.
The problem we have in the industry now is that when a lot of companies get a project, what they are mindful of is how much they will make at the end. At times, it doesn’t work like that.
For instance, there is a project we are executing for Lagos State government now. We agreed on the project in November 2020 and we agreed there would be no variation. Today, the cost of materials has increased and I am still on the project. So, at this point, I am no longer mindful of the profit; the goal is to finish it and finish it well. You can’t win it all; you win some, you lose some.
I don’t call myself a contractor; I’m a civil engineer. I want to set the pace. Contractors are always mindful of profit but as a civil engineer, you don’t err on the part of safety. We have been recording a lot of building collapse in this part of the country because many of those running into real estate don’t have the requisite experience and professionalism to play in that sector. All they are after is how to make profit. But civil engineers put safety before any other thing. So, it’s been rough but sticking to safety and professionalism has been helpful.
Aside from some contractors focusing on profit, what other factors would you say are responsible for the rising incidences of building collapse in the country?
We have take it from the pre-construction stage. Why I want us to discuss it from the pre-construction stage is because when you want to construct a building, the number one thing you have to do is to carry out a geo-technical survey, which we call soil test. The soil test will guide you on the type of foundation you adopt for your structure. The soil in Ikeja area is different from that in Lekki; the soil in Lekki is different from the one in Gbagada. So, that is number one.
But one of the problems we face, in that particular aspect, is that there are a lot of companies that don’t have that integrity. Because their client doesn’t know anything about the field, when he gives them money to carry out the soil test, some companies will not do that. Because they had carried out soil test at number 10 and your site is number 15, they will just fly the old result and change the name. But if you are moving one metre away from a particular spot, the soil stratification might differ totally. So, in such instance, before you even start the project, the building has failed.
Number two is getting the right interpretation to that soil test. You as a geo-technical engineer will carry out the test and submit the result to your client and the structural engineer. You would only advise on the type of foundation to use. It is now left to the structural guy to interpret it well and use the exact foundation. If you didn’t employ an experienced and technically sound structural engineer, he might not interpret the result well.
Now we go to design. You need a sound structural engineer to design right. A structural engineer must know the rudiments of design. I always tell engineering students on internship in my firm that they must learn how to design; know your design from first principle. There are softwares that we use now that make our work faster. But they are garbage in garbage out. So, if you don’t know your design from first principle, if you make a mistake in your input, it will give you a wrong out. And once that happens, it means you are pushing out the wrong output to your client and of course to the field. These are all pre-construction factors.
When you get to the construction stage, getting the right material is key. We have quality materials here in Nigeria; yes, they might be a bit expensive but you have to get the right materials. The other factor at this stage is: Who is the person supervising the construction? The person on site must be experienced enough to interpret your drawing. Most times, the person that did the design will not be involved in the third stage. So, in a situation where there is problem in the design, you need an experienced engineer on site to interpret well. But there are some engineers that don’t know anything about design; all they know is to implement. So, when there is error in the design they cannot figure it out.
You have just addressed the professional factors. What can the government do to address this problem?
Let’s use Lagos State as a case study. We have the Lagos State Physical Planning Permit Authority (LASPPPA). That is the agency that gives approval for your construction. Do they have experienced engineers to do that? Do they have enough manpower to do that? In Lagos State, construction goes on all year round. So you can imagine the number of applications they get every day. So, do they have the manpower to go through every of those documents?
Once LASPPPA gives you approval to construct, you take that same document to the Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA).
LASBCA is saddled with the responsibility of giving stage approvals. They are the ones that go sites to check and approve every stage of the construction. Do they do that? Do they have the right manpower?
Take for instance the building that collapsed in Ikoyi. Some reports said the government gave them approval for a 15-storey building and the developer went ahead to construct a 21-storey building. Who was giving the stage approvals? Didn’t they see it? So, they have to be proactive when it comes to giving stage approvals. They also have to be proactive when it comes to going round to check the stages of the project in each district. So, they need to do more.
I will also say that one of the solutions is for the state government to register consultants so that whoever wants to construct a building in the state will go into that pool of consultants and pick one. If that is done, you can rest assured that you have the right professionals involved in stages one, two and perhaps three.
What would be your advise to young civil engineers aiming to go into entrepreneurship?
Before they leave school, I advise them to do their internship in a design firm. That was what one of my uncles told me when I was a student. When you go to a design firm, you can easily stand on your own when you graduate. I started Akade Consult with just a laptop because I was able to design. I designed and supervised projects, especially in the Lekki corridor, as a corps member and my clients didn’t know. They thought I had been in the industry for long. How did that happen? It was because I had grounded myself in design. Those structures are still standing today and I think it’s something I should be proud of.
So, once you know the rudiments of design, even if you are not designing but on the field for construction, it is very easy for you to point out mistakes in any drawing given to you. It is also very easy for you to adapt to construction. But once you ground yourself in construction, it will be difficult for you to come back to design.
You are a legislative aide to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila. You are also close to the seat of power in Lagos as a contractor to the state government. Do you have any political ambition?
In 2019, I contested to represent Ikeja Constituency II at the Lagos State House of Assembly on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC). However, I stepped down few days to the primaries. So, it is not out of place. It is service to the people. I have benefitted a lot from Lagos State and I have to give back to the people. I have started doing that in my own little capacity and I wish to more. So, in the nearest future, yes.