The encounter with an entrepreneur in the mould of the subject matter of this interview was arrestingly unusual; he insisted on telling his story his own way, after which he would field questions.
In the course of the conversation, it came to light that he is currently a businessman that has successfully explored and transited through many fields of human endeavour. A trained medical doctor, he had been in government both as a health commissioner in his home state of Bayelsa and later as special adviser to former President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan.
After his stint in government, he went into business, as he said, “to sell sand,” from where he became so successful that he was emboldened to venture into other business areas, all of which are capital-intensive.
Dr. Godbless Azibapu Eruani is President/CEO of Azikel Group, comprising a dredging firm, a refinery (work-in-progress), a power plant, and a charter airline. In the conversation below, Dr. Eruani spoke of his challenges as an entrepreneur in Nigeria, the impact of the forex regime on capital sourcing, the influence of high personages in the polity on his endeavours, and the determination to succeed. Excerpts:
How did you begin business?
I studied abroad, commenced training in family medicine and did well, and later came back to Nigeria. In Nigeria I worked in the civil service as a young doctor. I later joined the Nigerian Agip Oil Company, NAOC, and practiced medicine in the oil and gas sector in Nigeria. That brought me closer to the activities of the oil and gas sector for me to admire what is possible and what is not possible. Thereafter, I left and served the first Civilian Governor of Rivers State, Chief Medford Okilo, as a Special Assistant.
As at the time I was resigning from the office of the commissioner, I did not really know what to do, but I tell you something, I quickly realized that the only way to create wealth is sell something, buy something and create something. I said what am I going to sell? I decided on what to do I said I was going to sell sand.
How did you move from medicine to “selling sand” to aviation, power, and others?
I moved from dredging to aviation, to refinery and now to power. When we saw that we need to be very proactive not just having the license we were determined to work because we need to change the status quo. 22 of us got licenses to build refineries, but now it is only two of us that are actually building refineries in Nigeria — myself and Dangote. As things are going we are going to arrive there before him. We have achieved 65 % completion of Azikel Refinery. We are looking to the commissioning of this refinery by late 2018 or early 2019.
With regards to refinery and power plant, what has been the impact of forex?
We have had whole lot of experience, but due to my whole lot of experiencing in dredging I have established foreign relations. I gave got exposed to foreign financing. The US Exim Bank in the United States is like my personal bank, because they helped fund acquisition of the dredgers I use in getting sand.
For the refinery in particular, it is a highly dynamic technical process. The works in a refinery is so much, out of which over 80% of the work there is technical, and the lawyers in this work are based in New York. We get them money from the Western world so they have to be very much involved. We have local counsel, we have a lot of inputs from the UAE.
The entire refinery is in ISBN and OSBL. The OSBL is being designed by a company in UAE called Scol Oil & Gas. The ISBN is designed and built by a company, Basic Equipment. We are also getting some support from China. Some of the steel we are using are coming from China.
We also have some other companies coming from Korea. The forex issue is quite challenging. I am not paying 100% of the money. This project is funded by the US Exim Bank, the African Development Bank and the owner. I have also made a lot of funding to kick start the project. The clearing completed, sand filling that cost over $16 million completed. The entire fencing and road networks are also completed. A lot of Nigerian works are also going on. We tried to use a strategy where the Naira is used largely to deal with the local components and foreign currency to deal with the foreign components. Most of the participating banks will not give you the money; they will give the money to suppliers. In spite of all these, payment of all consultants come from our side. The forex has been a point of challenge but I believe all these will settle at some point in time. What has kept us going is the desire to succeed. We still get lots of funding from our dredging business.
How has commitment to drive all these impacted on your personal life?
It is a very tasking work but as a man you must create a work-life balance. I spend a lot of time on the computer. But you see that it is tilted towards success, so you spend a lot of time driving the process. But I try to find time to relax and enjoy that family part. I know they are a little bit cheated because they are not getting 100% of the time, but you know on completion of this mega project there will be happiness. My children participate in this project.
Anytime they are on holidays they come here, even as they are very young. I make them understand that this is the job that is going on and this is a journey they will continue. I try to create a balance.
You are building a refinery at a time the world’s energy architecture is moving away from fossil fuels. Are you seeing what I’m not seeing?
Yes, there’s already a shift from fossil fuels in the Western world. But Nigeria is not going to move out of fossil fuels in the next 25 years. As I speak we do not have electricity. The first thing in moving away from fossil fuels is having energy and electricity. You need to have steady electricity to be able to achieve it. You need electricity to charge the cars and other equipment. So Nigeria is still developing.
Our mission here is to change the world and we are not just changing the world we are changing from home and from the Niger Delta. We don’t have electricity; we don’t even have fuel. You know that over time there used to be scarcity of fuel in Nigeria. There is no part of the developed world where people even talk about that. So at the moment we want to change our home, we want people to be self-sufficient on these basic needs. For us to get advanced we must first of all have sufficiency of the basic ones.
Our focus is the Nigeria market; let us make the Nigerian market satisfy the Nigerian people., raise our economic development and also because of our multilateral interaction and connection with other international companies we are prepared for the shift to come, but Nigeria has to move gradually to get there. But I don’t see Nigeria getting out of fossil fuel energy in the next 25 years.
Any aspirations for Azikel Group to acquire the status of a transnational?
We will get there. Azikel started as a family run business from the simple way of selling sand, we moved to aviation, not just aviation now in the petroleum sector and the power sector. We are moving gradually and we have good hands. Our expatriate base is over 43 that basically interface with all these companies. We need all of these dynamisms to move to where we want to be. We are already a multinational based on the persons that are working in the organization. It is one thing at a time and one step at a time.
All these pressures, how do you cope?
I have a strategy for that. There is a strategy called re-energizing. I work in Nigeria for two months and I am in the US or another country for one month. That month just like in couple of months, I do a lot of thinking when I am flying. When I go there I do a lot of re-energizing because Nigeria Environment is not easy. I play golf. I am also trying to learn a new thing; I am trying sailing, main sail. Lately, I just joined a flying club and fly myself and enjoy how the flying club works. I use the month to prepare to enter again for another two months. The two months is for work, the other one month is for family, re-strategizing and re-energizing.
You said you put the power project on hold, why?
Not necessarily on hold; the power license expires in 10 years. This refinery project is a big one, such that if I run the two at the same time near success will be a challenge. So the strategy is this refinery will be completed in 2018, 2019. Upon completion, the power project will be scalable, we are starting with 80 megawatts; 80 to 120 megawatts. I don’t want to take the two projects at the same time, because it is financially demanding, managerially demanding even in terms of expertise. We got that license in 2015. In 2018 when we would have finished the refinery we will be three years old and we will kick start that. The land is fully cleared. Fencing is going to go on which we will do locally, then we will stop at that.
What next, because you still have some drives?
The next thing is the big dream that I have, changing the world, and changing the world from home. I want to change home. I want to create the much-needed employment base. I want to create that financial freedom. I want to create that industrialization that is very much needed in the Niger Delta. We want to create a platform for Bayelsans and Niger Deltans to look up to and say this is possible, then I will think I have achieved a major objective.
Actually, oil was discovered in Bayelsa state in 1963 and Nigeria was made the major exporter of crude and the main importer of refined product. When I complete the refinery and we begin selling refined products locally, I will know that the soil of Niger I would have broken a major barrier. That is, oil was discovered here first and the first private refinery runs here first, and thereafter all other cascade of business will follow. People will believe that is Dr. Eruani can do it they can also do it. This is our journey.