‘We are so passionate about receiving finished goods than making them in our own country’
Roberts Azibaola is the founder, Zeetin Engineering Limited and Managing Director, Kakatar Group. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, the Bayelsa State-born environmentalist, social thinker, entrepreneur and lawyer spoke on his expedition into the Bayelsa rainforest, climate change campaign and his desire to produce electric automobiles for Nigeria.
You recently led your team on an expedition into the Bayelsa rainforest as part of your climate change campaign. How did you come about this initiative?
At every point in time in the history of mankind, someone must take responsibility for a particular cause. In this instance, it is my responsibility. You could say it is spiritual, but then again, looking at it, I was born into this community; I lived and schooled here and I passed through all the phases of growth here in Otakeme. I know the pains people are passing through here and I know what I met when I was a kid and what we’ve lost since then. Someone must do something; I feel passionate about it.
These are inbuilt hassles I have, but the difference now is that I am able to do it without asking for support from anybody. Otherwise, if I was one of those who barely survive and if I was asking people for funding to engage in these activities, they would say I am doing it for financial gains. God has entrusted me with small resource and so, it behooves on me to contribute back to the society and to nature; to ensure that I did something during my lifetime and pass it unto the next generation. At the end of the day, we will leave it for nature and God to remember us for the works we have done and in this case, I want it to be positive impact to the community.
I noticed that you also brought yours children along to be part of the event, is this part of the process of ensuring that this initiative doesn’t end with you?
Yes, I want them to also assimilate what I am doing and combine them with what they learn from the international community. I want them to relate it back to home where their parents come from, so when they grow up, on their own, they will live on that legacy much more than I have done.
Another thing is, when you are sensitising people for a cause, they ask where are his kids? You know, most of the politicians do not go for political campaigns with their children; people are conscious of that fact that kids of politicians are absent at political rallies and I don’t want to be in that line.
If what you are doing is in the interest of society, you will make effort to keep your kids in front; that is why they are here, not only when it pertains to luxury. So, I want to sensitise people to be conscious of the consequences and that is why my kids are here with us today.
What’s the idea behind the initiative, what do you intend to achieve?
It appears in Africa, we wait for the western worlds to do things for us before we do things for ourselves. The world is talking about climate change; we Africans, including the Niger Delta, are a part of this, as it is happening in every part of the worlds. There are so many rare species that we cannot find anymore. Like pangolins; they have fallen prey to man’s encroachment. Trees that take almost 200 years to grow, a single individual will cut it down and sell for N100,000 and the communities are helpless, because their trees are being sold by individuals. We need to galvanise the communities and warn them that what they do here has negative impact in the international community, as well as in their environment.
For instance, all of mankind breathe in oxygen and emit carbon dioxide; trees produce oxygen and once there are no trees, oxygen will cease and man will be in jeopardy. So, all these trees you see here are much more precious than crude oil and they need to be allowed to grow.
We also have the historical perspective; why should we only think of tourism as something that should be enjoyed outside the shores of Nigeria? If we have swamps like this, we should have people coming around to look at the species that are there. I’m very mush concerned that the world is moving in a direction and we are moving in a different direction, because people here — both government and the local authorities— have failed to regulate the use of the forest. In a saner society, if you are cutting one tree, you plant 10. But here, nobody plants; every tree that you see here grows naturally.
In those days, as a youth and an environmentalist, I used to write proposal for funding on climate change, but God has blessed me with small resources. So, this is not about financial gains, but passion. A lot of these people look up to me; I should be able to use my voice and status in the society to help them. Some of the things that have been done in the society are based on ignorance and this is to enlighten them that in 10 -20 years, trees will be scarce and this is not good for mankind.
Talking about your expedition into the rainforest, could your share your experiences?
I went there with my team, into the deep forest. Honestly, it is an existing experience, because my staff members who came with me from Abuja didn’t know what I came for, until they entered the forest. Since they were not born here, coming here was a different ball game for them. It was a good experience and I wish it were something I could do twice a year.
It was beautiful entering the forest; the serenity that is there in spite of the infringements that has happened there. There’s so much peace of mind with the trees covering you; there’s natural food and cool water. It is an experience for those who are not born here and I have had a lot of foreign requests to that regard. Also, we had so much footages that we didn’t know what to cut out, but we were able to put together an hour 30 minutes documentary, which aired on AIT; the reception was fantastic. This is something that if we continue to do, the consciousness will grow. This will have its ripple effect, not just on the Niger Delta region, but also in Nigeria and the rest of Africa.
You also incorporated a Bonfire Night as part of the programme. What’s the idea behind it?
For the Bonfire Night, this community will gathered here in the night; neighbouring communities will also join them. We will discuss the consequences of man’s actions to nature. We also want to remind ourselves what it was 50 years ago and where we are today; that the things that used to be there, those who will be here 50 years to come won’t see them.
Niger Delta is one of the communities with a lot of resources. Not many regions have fresh water, which is very scarce; they produce most of the oxygen. So, we need to enlighten the people to take responsibility for their environment; either they want to live a life that has fresh oxygen that comes to them or a life on populated lands. Another thing is, if we sensitise them, they should be able to say this is the way they want to go, either by getting community action to regulate the use of the forest so anyone who wants to cuts trees will take permission.
These communities have special trees, economic trees that survive the entire community on seasonal basis. The delicacy called Ogbono is one of them; it is not planted by anyone. Every rainy season, the fruits fall to the ground and people go and pick them and sell. Those economic trees have served this community for decades. Now, tree loggers are cutting down these trees for their personal use for N50,000, whereas those trees can yield economic benefit that will last for a century.
If we take action, maybe they will be able to say, ‘no one should cut down trees.’ So, we should be able to have people say, ‘in those days, cutting down of trees were illegal’ and then, they agree that henceforth, if you cut down a tree, you plant another. That way, there will be reforestation process.
What then happen to the wild animals that are going extinct? There are so many of them we cannot see again due to noise pollution and crude oil exploration. The one we can avert, which is hunting and eating of bush meat, if communities agree that henceforth certain animals should not be hunted and eaten by us, that will help solve the problem. We have animals that have been domesticated worldwide, which cannot go extinct, no matter how much we consume them – cows, goat etc. But today, animals like squirrels, pangolins… we can’t see them again, because people are hunting them. So, we need to make laws that will protect these animals from going extinct.
Recently, Nigeria signed the Climate Change bill into law. As an environmentalist who is also working in that line, how can we take this environmental protection message down to communities?
That’s part of the reasons I’m doing this; there is no law without action. You can sign a billion laws, but once you don’t take an action, it is not a law; people must take responsibility and buy into it. These issues must be discussed everyday at the community level.
For instance, when we were young, there were no laws, but just bylaws that guided us. There were forest guards more powerful that even the EFCC today; you cannot cut a tree and take it out without permission. But now, this doesn’t happen, except in areas where the trees are artificial, which are trees planted knowing it will be cut down for timber. Trees are not planted by individuals, but by nature, hence people like me need to rise up across geopolitical zones to take action and sensitise the people. I hope that what I am doing will activate action on the climate change law.
You had this dream of building electric cars in Nigeria, how far have you gone with the project?
The most passionate thing I want to do for Nigeria is to be able to leave a legacy behind, not in politics, but in areas that people least expect. I am not just interested in electric cars, but in automobile engines, including excavators, bulldozers and trucks. My factory is 80 per cent complete and I am looking for resources for my final push, which is almost there.
I am doing all these because humans, whether Africans, Asians or Americans, biologically, we are 99 per cent the same, but our skin colour has left us behind. We are so passionate about receiving finished goods than making them in our own country. We look at it that, in spite of all the abundant resources that we have, we are still lagging behind in industrial revolution, which happened years ago.
The first revolution with metals, we haven’t mastered it. Then, the second with engines, we are still unable to produce a steam or gas powered engine, talk less of electric engine. The world has moved to over five industrial revolutions; we are in the age of software revolution, yet we are not there. Nigeria has disappointed Africa and if I am able to produce locally made electrical automobiles, I would have made statement, which will probably bring Africa to the race of technological development. No part of the world can develop without technology, but the truth is that while government encourages technological development, the government developed no country; it is the actions of individuals and in most cases, those who made the world what it is. So, when I say I want to produce an electric car, people say, ‘this man must be mad,’ but I assure you, it will happen.
One thing that Nigeria has completely missed is that we tied our industrial development to the completion of Ajaokuta Steel Plant and till date, people talk about it. Those who are refining Nigeria’s crude oil don’t produce and those who would have utilised the metals to be produced in Ajaokuta would not have iron ore. In other words, most of those who are technologically advanced lack the mineral resources and they rely on importation. So, if places like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan who don’t have much metals are able to use metals brought from somewhere to do wonders and ship it back, nothings stops Nigeria.
Nigeria has so much opportunity with so much crude; we should have been encouraging technological development, not technological transfer. In this world, nobody transfers technology; you study what others have done and develop yours. In Nigeria, we are waiting and hoping that people will transfer their technology to us; you can only develop by getting hands on things and graduate. First, you do what is called imitation, then inferior and then you get better; that is what China, Japan and Taiwan did and today, they make good products. We need to change our mindset from over dependents and desire for consumable goods, to goods that will be produced in this country.
You trained as a lawyer; at what point did you start having this idea?
My life has been the one of observation; I am the very lazy person in my family and my parents didn’t know the laziness is not about unwillingness to do something. I look at things on how they should be done differently; I sit down and observe. I have been in this transit of always thinking. I am a man of ideas and those ideas are not within the four walls of the law profession, because I am thinking most at times of how things are made.
Yes, I read law, but I have a foundation in the sciences; I was the best student in sciences in my secondary school days including mathematic, physics, and chemistry.
So, why did you study law?
At the time I left secondary school, I wrote my WAEC and had a misfortune of having one of my sciences (biology) seized and I desperately needed to get into the university, as I wanted to study Mechanical Engineering. Biology then was one of the major requirements, but the desperation to satisfy the curiosity of my mum, as my mates were entering the university, forced me to choose law.
While reading Law, my mind has always been in calculations and physics. I followed NASA a lot and there is nothing that happens I am not aware; I follow a lot of scientific discoveries and since I couldn’t go to study engineering afresh, I had to be self-taught, which I did by watching a lot of YouTube videos and use my intuitive knowledge to see how it could have been made better. So, yes, I am vast in scientific issues and mechanical engineering.
Are you partnering with any foreign firm on this project?
Yes, our partners are from Turkey; they are some of the best producers of machines. Some of the machines we bought from them, they came to install them, and then I asked if we needed more machines, they said it appears we had more machines than they do. So, I suggested we work together, while we fabricate the frames. They agreed and it’s been a smooth sail, because they saw that we have the passion and we have the capacity.
So, we are working with even those who make helicopters in Turkey and for each of them that have come, they have given me an open handshake to work with them. We are building this synergy and very soon, we will come with something that will be worthwhile for Nigeria. In the end, everything will be home grown.