In the News:
Behold Nigerian-built Dredgers...
Jeph Kebbi International – Pioneering Dredge building in Nigeria.
Jeph Okoro now has two dredgers up and running on auto pilot straight from scratch. In a world where his compatriots have to wait on the technology and help of foreign dredge manufacturers, Jeph and his company are a rare breed, operating solo runs. But he poses no competition to the main dredge suppliers to Nigeria…he is just a techno savvy gifted engineering buff who is not shy to try his hands on new things. The type of things that excite Jeph are the stuff of hot cake in Nigerian dredging, and where Jeph based his business in the heart of the Niger Delta is the heart of oil and gas business in this country of nearly 150 million people. Presently, the Niger Delta is in the news for agitation and clamour against environmental excesses by the oil majors. Secondly, the Niger Delta is an area the size of many nations but the terrain is made of mainly mangrove swamps and forests. To develop any infrastructure will have to rely on the mercies of technology that would solidify the ground for concrete structures to stand, and watercrafts that could enable the denizens traverse their brackish waters and pure marine environments. Whichever way one considers this scenario, Jeph and his ilk are as liked here as in-laws…they are needed for life to go on normally.
And Jeph is not taking the opportunities lying low. Five years ago, he coupled his first dredger, Abigail, fresh from scratch, a 20-inch dredger now deployed to many dredging projects all over the Niger Delta.
In 2008, he coupled a second 20-inch dredger, highly improved, named Abigail II, which he is assigning to other lucrative dredging chores, but especially fitted for canalization. This new dredger has the luxury of an extendable ladder, from 16 to 20 metres, all designed and crafted by Jeph.
Now, Jeph is moving again. At the just concluded Nigerian Dredging Summit 2008 held at Protea Hotel in Lagos, Jeph was sighted many times in serious conversation with foreign dredger manufacturers. DDH gathered that Jeph might soon make another acquisition. Will it be a self-designed machine or a wholly imported one this time around? He is keeping this close to his chest.
But making dredgers locally is not common practice; it is a terrain where some have failed in trying. It may not be rocket science but it takes quite some doing to get it quite right. How does Jeph get it right all this time? Short of establishing a full-blown dredge manufacturing company that can compete with European and US rivals, Jeph and his company understand the complexities of trading tackles in shark-infested waters, especially for an operator from a third world country. But nobody can deny that this guy is proving a mettle that is hard to put down. What are the rest of his plans. Is there any (free) lessons for the humble or the inquisitive? Where does Jeph think he is going with this unstoppable display of genius. Will his savvy be appreciated by anyone important? But does Jeph care? What makes him tick, anyway? And for someone who is thriving in such a region of commotion, is there a magic wand? Is his operation immune to skirmishes and if so what is the security? DDH traveled to the Niger Delta to cover Jeph’s operation and to look around, so that some originality of the story can be gained by interested readers.
The trip to the Niger Delta is, to say the least, interesting. In view of the newsworthiness of any journalistic foray into the depths of Niger Delta life these days, DDH left nothing to chance. No significant detail shall be bypassed here due to various reasons, including the fact that the locale is not presently a frequent destination for many people.
Jeph Kebbi International is located off the major expressway leading to the Warri seaport, on a sprawling yard filled with all manners of engines, metals, machines, machine parts and various accessories for marine crafts and dry plants. Assorted plants and equipment, most looking hard-won, dot the grassy environment whose thoroughfares are un-tarred. The only shiny things in this yard are the latest range of Toyota cars belonging to Jeph and his top officers. He told DDH later in the interview that he believed in giving his staff the best available incentives as a motivation for hard work.
The yard is bounded on one side by a waterfront provided by the ever-present creeks that dominate the city of Warri, the commercial-cum-industrial capital of oil-rich Delta State. We have captured our interview and interactions with the various staff of Jeph Kebbi International, including their sly guard dog, in pictures… a kind of travelogue! The interview was mainly with Jeph Okoro himself who took DDH around the facility for the duration of our tour. No need to be scared of engineering and technical jargons, only few were used. Excerpts:
DDH: How was this place when you acquired it?
Jeph: It was total bush. All these areas (pointing to a large part of the yard) were sand-filled.
We were walking towards the jetty where the two dredgers Jeph built from scratch were tied. Before reaching the spot, he veered to another upland location in the yard where he was constructing what he called a “grab dredger”. He was also building it up from scratch. This would afford us an opportunity to see, perhaps, how the other constructions were made.
DDH: Did you say a grab dredger?
Jeph: Yes, a grab dredger. We can get close to it.
DDH: (When we got close enough) This is a huge construction…
Jeph: Everything we own here was built here…apart from these Caterpillar generators (pointing to two medium-sized generators under a nearby shed).
DDH: So you acquired the steel plates yourself?
Jeph: Yes. Locally from the re-sellers. (Then moving on, he showed me a tall fairly used imported heavy duty engine.) You see this engine, these Belgium engines we buy, do you know what we are going to do now, we are going to strip them to the grass-root, rebuild them to standard.
DDH: What is this?
Jeph: This is a Catepillar engine we bought from those who bring them from overseas. We buy them and recondition them to the highest standard as if it is a new one and take it to build a tug-boat. (Laughing) And that tug-boat can give you about 1,500 tons.
DDH: You have been doing that here?
Jeph: Yes, it can give you 1,500 tons and save you a lot of costs.
Now we are near to the grab dredger under construction…
DDH: So you build from …
Jeph: From Scratch. See the kinds of steel we use, very heavy.
DDH: Is this on somebody’s order or…?
Jeph: No, this is for my own use. If you want to dredge a fresh canal, you use this.
DDH: What is remaining now on this machine?
Jeph: Just the spray. We are just waiting for the rain (to subside) then we sandblast before spraying. There’s going to be on it three heavy spud pillars with mechanism. So, as it enters water, it spud down. You see that heavy crane there (pointing to a very big Tata crane many poles away near the jetty) will be on top, doing the grab. Sometimes, it will take almost about 10 cubic once and throw away. If you want to open canal from here now, ordinary ground, to a river, this equipment will do it. If a tree is standing on the way, it can clamp on it, pull it and throw it away.
Back on the way to the jetty, Jeph continued small talk about his modus operandi
Jeph: All my life, I have done nothing else than engineering. If I face plastic processing, you will be surprised; anything to do with plastic processing. And I did that job for almost about 10 years. That was the last place I resigned from.
DDH: You were in employment?
Jeph: Yes. I was working with Metaloplastica then.in Lagos. Wilson was the group technical director. I was working directly under him.
DDH: Did you have an engineering background?
Jeph: Yes. Can you do this without it? Finally, I ended up in process engineering which we are not even practicing here.
DDH: But it can be practiced?
Jeph: Oh yes. Presently, I have combined a lot of things that have to do with control.
Still on the way to the jetty, we asked about some of the machines and machinery on the way…
DDH: What is this..?
Jeph: A swamp buggy used for working the swamps. It just came back from site now where we are doing some maintenance work.
DDH: Now I see a lot of these generators, you must have many?
Jeph: Ah, even at that other side, we have many.
DDH: So, the number of plants and equipment you have must be plenty?
Jeph: We have to survive! The costs you have to run, the kits you have to take.
DDH: What is happening here?
Jeph: These are accessories we use for floating, to support these as sinkers. You know they are both PVC pipes and …
DDH: But do you use all these or some are for sale?
Jeph: No, we use all here. Everything here is for our own use. (Now we reached the jetty and Jeph, pointing to a grey-coloured floating dredger, said) This is the last dredger that we just commissioned, a 20-20.
DDH: These are two dredgers you have here?
Jeph: I built these two.
DDH: You built from scratch?
Jeph: From scratch, from plate.
DDH: So, how did the idea come up to build a dredger?
Jeph: My God, my God, how do I … Well, let me tell you one funny story about it. I built the first dredger when I never stepped on top of a dredger. Only the physics and engineering background of what dredging is about, read in school. This is the very first one (pointing to the dredger on the right hand of the two crafts). It has finished working for its money. It just came from site now, they are doing maintenance.
DDH: And this one you say is a 20-inch, what of this other one?
Jeph: 20-inch also. You can see the balancing on the water.
DDH: Which year did you build this one?
DDH: And since then it’s been working till today?
Jeph: Working till today.
DDH: And which year did you build this other one?
Jeph: It’s just April or May this year this one entered water. It’s just about to go on its first project. This dredger is an improvement on the first one.
DDH: And what is the improvement?
Jeph: Oh, a lot of things: control, articulation of force commensurate with power, alignment, so many things, strength, hydraulic processing, cooling system. Everything had to be improved.
DDH: Who designed it for you.
Jeph: It was all done here.
DDH: You designed it by yourself?
Jeph: Everything was done. Only the engine I brought and put inside, that’s all. The engine and the pump, because I cannot produce that. You see all those winches, I produce them here. I bought this head because I cannot fabricate this head. I looked for a scrapped one outside, bought it and machined it to suit what I want.
DDH: Where do you have your machine shop, here (in Warri)?
Jeph: Yes, we have a machine shop here which I go to, to modify to this shape.
DDH: How many staff do you have?
Jeph: Close to about 80.
DDH: When this first dredger goes to site, how many men do you need to operate it?
Jeph: This one you need about 16 men to operate it; two shifts, day and night.
DDH: Do you have a house boat.
Jeph: Yes (pointing to a big houseboat alongside the jetty) this is a houseboat; it can go with it. They go with everything; the whole materials are inside.
DDH: Now, this houseboat, did you also build it?
Jeph: Of course, everything. We have not even completed some parts of it. The doors, everything was done here. If they had not locked the doors, we would have gone inside and you will see everything. (However, the following day, DDH did get a chance to go through all the various parts of the dredgers and the other watercrafts. Some of these have been captured in pictures.)
DDH: What about the land, how did you land a property like this suitable for this business?
Jeph: I bought it from the community. It’s a long story. Government allocated this place to Elf (oil company) before. Following the politics of that time, they took it from them when they couldn’t develop it. Then they allocated it to themselves. The community now sold it me and I was in a loggerhead with the government. But finally I won. So, this land, I own this land. I even have another big one over there (pointing to another part of town), 38 acres. I wanted to build something there but I don’t know whether I can continue.
DDH: What did you want to build?
Jeph: Oh, there is some kind of things I want. See, my vision here is, I wanted to build a dry-dock, a floating dock for vessels. I have the design already.
Now seeing a 30-ton sand-laden truck coming towards the jetty, we inquired about this aspect of the activities in this multipurpose yard.
DDH: Is that truck coming here?
Jeph: Yes, going to the barge to carry sand. They are taking the sand somewhere.
DDH: Is this your sand?
Jeph: No, this is not my sand. Some people are using my jetty.
DDH : You also dredge sand for sale?
Jeph: Yes. In fact, this dredger (pointing to the new dredger) is going for a sand stockpile project now. I have to do about 200,000 cubic metres somewhere.
We moved close to the dump barge where the truck was heading with its load and it tipped the sand on top of the barge and reversed out to drive away.
DDH: Now, this is what the Lagos State government now requires some sand dredging contractors to provide if they apply for licence to dredge in certain parts of the state, a barge to move the sand via the river. They don’t want them to move the sand by road in those localities. How do you see this?
Jeph: It’s very costly, double-handling.
DDH: It’s called double-handling?
Jeph: Yes, you carry the sand, dump it in the barge, take it to an area before you sell. Oh, the cost will be very high.
DDH: But it’s very environmentally sound?
Jeph: Yes, yes. It saves the road, destroying of the roads, all those things, you can dump a heap of sand there and take barge and carry it, but it’s very costly. You can only do that in a project that can pay you. Because, do you know the cost of the barge? The cost of the tugboat that will move her to the location?
DDH: So what are these truckers doing now in your jetty, are they moving this sand from here to their own jetty?
Jeph: No, they are carrying it to a construction site in the river where no sand is available.
DDH: Is this for reclamation or what?
Jeph: No, for construction, platform construction.
DDH: Are these some of the opportunities for dredging in the Warri area?
Jeph: Of course, very serious. Without dredging you can’t cope with all these things. That’s why I intended that I will go and put about 200,000 cubic metres of sand somewhere. If I put that one somewhere… Like this man, now (Pointing to the owner of the sand in the barge), he bought the whole sand over, so that other people would not buy it. Then he can be sending it in.
DDH: But is there availability of sand in the rivers of Warri?
Jeph: Yes there is sand.
DDH: But the number of dredging people is not many…
Jeph: They are not many although here dredging is still low-key because of the mentality of the “garage people”, because of the community affiliation, they make it hostile.
(The garage people are the organized tipper lorry drivers)
DDH: Now getting back to your machinery, how many plants do you have here? What is this?
Jeph: This is a small tug boat that can work with a crane, for anchor mooring. I built it here to support the dredger.
DDH: You build so many things here..
Jeph: Yes, it has just come back from Port Harcourt.
DDH: And the other one over there is another barge?
Jeph: No, a jet pontoon. (And commenting on the remark that they have so many plants…) We have to do that because it’s what we depend on to do our jobs. When you see the internal features of these equipments, you say whao! With these cranes we are able to do a lot of work and couple things. Like that new dredger, it’s dismountable completely. Both the floaters, they are dismountable into small pieces. The first one is not as dismountable as this.
DDH: Is this part of the improvement you spoke about?
Jeph: Yes, this one you can pick it all in two trailers and go away.
DDH: Now you said you built the first dredger without ever stepping on a dredger? How is this possible?
Jeph: I never stepped on top of a dredger. The idea of engineering is there. Engineering has to give you pump arrangement, engine capacity, what vacuum sucking system means, what a turbo system means… Just like the water pump you use in your house to pump water. When you put water it sucks it if you generate water from a borehole. So what is the power that you require to take a volume of water. Now we look at engine of 1,300 horsepower, that will generate the atmosphere of a pump of 20 inches. That vacuum is serious and it can deliver up to about 1.5 kilometers down distance. That’s a dredger. Now how this function comes on the engineering of it all, electrical, light, everything, you have to put all of them together. That’s why we have those two generators onboard. We have a welding machine on top there. That’s to power the system up there, we have electrical and hydraulic system in it.
DDH: The cutter of the first dredger is small, why?
Jeph: It’s a very wonderful cutter. We designed this one to win sand. This one (pointing to the big cutter on the new dredger) destroys, and in the process you find that some sand will be falling away. This one is like a shovel built into its mouth. It’s designed to stockpile. We have more volume of sand here (with the first dredger). This one (pointing to the new dredger’s big cutter) is designed to build canals, to cut open, so all the excess the dredger will suck it away. The other one is a shovel digger. With this dredger we completed 50,000 cubic metres in five days at the River Niger. That’s when we worked for Agip. That’s why Agip now knows us. In fact, we have a tender there and now we are going to most of the multinational (oil) companies. We are in serious tendering now with Agip. We have a three-year contract with Shell, that’s what we want to start this month.
DDH: So, they reckon with your integrity as plants and equipment operators and builders?
Jeph: Very serious. When they come here, they just look and say ‘forget it’. When this dredger (pointing to the first dredger) worked in Okpai, Julius Berger came. When they came at first, they told them that someone fabricated all these, they sighed and said they are local fabricators! I didn’t say anything. That was the very first job. First three days, I told them to run it on 25%. So, they were not having enough sand. I was just laughing.
The third day I came in the evening and said they should open fire. They were running it on 1,500 rpm. The next morning, everywhere was covered up. As they woke up and saw everywhere covered up, they said, what is this? Is this magic or what? (General laughter) Next three days, Agip flew with their helicopter to the place to come and inspect the dredger and take their photograph. And they have their jobs. This is the one (first dredger) that swept the Agip jetty in Port Harcourt, and even one of the Agip jetties in Brass, those two jobs. From there it went to another job before it came back.
DDH: And you said it takes 16 men?
Jeph: Yes, they work 8-hour shifts. There are two dredgemasters, two or three deck hands, three engineers, and some other ones. You need about 8 persons once on one dredger.
Pointing to some generators, he explained how they use them.
Jeph: You see these Japanese generators I use now, I have forgotten the other ones. These ones last longer.
DDH: Do you modify anything in them here?
Jeph: You modify their voltage here to suit your purpose.
DDH: So, when people come here they are full of respect?
Jeph: Oh many. One man who came here, he looked and at the end he said ‘if we give you chance, you are going to take over our work’. (General laughter).
DDH: How many years have you been doing engineering work?
Jeph: All my life.
DDH: Can you put a number to it, 10 years, 20 years?
Jeph: Thirty-something years. Engineering is all I do. I never earned money from anywhere else than engineering. I can forget everything here now and start a different section all over again.
DDH: All engineering design?
Jeph: Yes, I sit back, and now age is coming. I am no longer active as I used to be.
DDH: And when you design, you must have good (hands)…
Jeph: The background has to be there. Do you see how the dredger is balanced (on the water)? All calculations are made, balanced, floating. You have to do that calculation. You have to take account of all these loads altogether to make something out to get a balancing. And the dredger inside water like this is balanced. That’s not an easy thing.
DDH: Initially when computers were not there, these things were being done. Now computers are there. Do you have any computer programmes you use?
Jeph: There are computer programmes but I have not been using them in my schematic drawings. Reason for it is this: when I go into full-scale production, then I use them to prepare templates. In that one, you can have a template of this dredger on the system. So you can share it almost to about 20 sections. Then just produce your precisions on site, then how you do it (construction) doesn’t concern you. The man from the store will be told we need Part B, Part C, Part D, then people are coupling their parts, that’s all. You book your part and go and collect it and couple. You have areas to couple and you have finished your part.
DDH: But your own is total supervision to make sure that ….
Jeph: Yes, that’s all. The moment you do that design, precision is already calculated, everything is already done. You only work to what was designed, no additions.
DDH: So now we can say you don’t work with computers?
Jeph: I have computers and use them to do my drawings but I don’t use to that advanced stage because it will give me more problems and will require more hands which bill I will not be able to foot at this early stage. The knowledge is there, how to do it.
DDH: Now Jeph, you talk about precision, what was your academic grounding like?
Jeph: We went through a very rigorous way in our days, when we went through Modern School then, when we were paying 5 shillings for a term. (General laughter). After then, we came into the city. I finished my secondary school normally, took some exams. Then I couldn’t go further, no money. I started working. Then I moved to Minneapolis, I attended their school there, completed high school and from there went to the university. I got a B.Sc. I came back, went to the engineering firm I was working in. Then we were sent for mechanical (engineering course). Then we were sent for electric electronics (engineering course). I stayed there for 18 months.
DDH: You mean overseas?
DDH: In the US also?
Jeph: I went back to Holland. Then we were asked to assemble (something) at Stock Reid factory. Our test was, there was a 200 ton hydraulic machine, that time.
DDH: Which school was this?
Jeph: No, it was a centre from where they recruited people to all the factories. Any good hand from there, they send them to a factory for assembly (work or other things). So we were sent to this Stock Reid factory. They build giant hydraulic machines, 200 tons. The brand of the machine was Stock Reid. Whether they have folded up, I don’t know. They produce plastic moulding machines. In those days, they were having plastic cars, I don’t know whether they are still available today. It used to take about 15 to 20 minutes to produce one mould of a car.
DDH: What year was this?
Jeph: Nineteen seventy-something. There, I won a prize of $9,000 then.
DDH: They paid you the money?
Jeph: Yes, that’s when I went for process engineering. They asked me: do you want the money or do you want to go further? I chose going further. They gave me $1,500, the rest they took, and I went further for process and control engineering (course).
DDH: Was that in Holland or another place?
Jeph: No, that was what I went back to Minneapolis to do. I spent some time there and worked in one of their nuclear stations for a period. (Then pointing to a huge crane nearby, he said it was bought fairly used and reactivated to the state of being put to new use)
DDH: So, most of the equipment you have here are of that nature, you buy them over and reactivate them?
Jeph: Yes, we bring them in, strip them to the ground, reactivate them and send them into use. Make sure you put them to the maximum standard that is required for operation. When you go into pre-mob test certification, they will all pass.
DDH: By now the multinationals would respect your capacity?
Jeph: Most of them who come here know. Shell, Agip, many of them know.
DDH: Say a little more of what took place at your process and control engineering education…
Jeph: In the early days of engineering, there was the problem of interface. When mechanical things were working, that was when they started introducing electronics into machines. You find out that faults were coming out. Those faults, the mechanical man will say, oh! it was electrical, the electrical man would say, oh! they were mechanical. That was when they developed this idea of process and control. A man should be able to have ideas of both systems to bring help to the situation.
DDH: Okay. That took you how many years?
Jeph: About two years course. One was already a graduate, so you don’t need too much work….it was actually about one year, six months.
DDH: And then you came back…
Jeph: I came back, joined Metaloplastica and was working in Lagos, where I worked fully before I left.
DDH: And then you set up this?
Jeph: Initially I couldn’t set up this. I didn’t have the finance to do that. I was doing contracts, one thing led to another. We did a lot of electrical installations. I was doing maintenance first; I was maintaining different plants from different companies. In fact, I did a lot of work for NEPA, their power station at Ogorede (near Ughelli in Delta State). I did a lot of work for Delta Glass (company) then because the idea of that engineering, (process and control), was not present with the engineers around then. So, seeing somebody like me, they were happy because a lot of things were solved and I could combine things. I could even remove a unit and re-design it. Even NNPC, I did a lot of work for them.
DDH: This lasted for how many years?
Jeph: I started doing business 1982, doing one contract or the other, etc.
DDH: At what point did it enter your head to build a dredger?
Jeph: The point it came about was this: I was in group 1 amongst Shell contractors but I found out myself that you would live from hand to mouth and there was no future. Why should I rely on another man’s proposals to build my future? So, I decided no. I gathered some money from a contract and said I am going to set up a system for myself. And that’s how I started. When I started some people said this man is crazy, he is wasting so much money. See the amount of money he wasted buying here and all these places. Because (that time) you see all these trucks and trailers with (steel) plates. They would ask, ‘this thing this man is doing, will it work?’ But after we finished and test ran the dredger, and did first and second jobs, now everybody wants dredger. This my office doesn’t rest; everyday, inquiry.
DDH: About acquiring a dredger?
DDH: But all along, you never did dredging work. Was it an accident that you tumbled into the business?
Jeph: Yes, but what I did was that after designing, I decided to employ qualified men in the field to do my jobs for me, because I had never done dredging job before. But the engineering, coupling, etc, of the dredger, nobody can tell me anything about it and that is the heart of dredging. So, I employed one consultant who had been in dredging for sometime. I employed serious hands…
DDH: What did the consultant do for you?
Jeph: He planned me up in the method of approach into contracting in dredging.
DDH: Not in the building of the equipment? My interest is how you got interested in the equipment.
Jeph: I just saw it that dredging could be one of the most viable issues I had because I took up the case study of other local dredging contractors. Many people who were doing dredging failed. I studied them for three years why they failed, owed banks money and so forth. I found out why they failed. One, the engineering background was low. Two, they were using another man’s technology.
DDH: What do you mean by another man’s technology?
Jeph: You see somebody who designed an equipment designed it to suit his own purpose, to make money from you. The dredgers I made are custom-built to suit my Nigerian environment. I can go to Jankara market (a local market) and buy any spare part and go ahead. I do everything to suit what I can get locally here. Engineering-wise, you see those winches, if I have to import one, it would cost almost over N2 million. But under one month, I built it. The whole of that dredger (the first one) was about N220 million and I finished it, no custom duty, nothing. And they work heavily, you can’t beat it.
DDH: Does it break down?
Jeph: It breaks down as any other dredger would break down. What I do? Simple, I put everything from my hand here, so I know what to take and repair it again. If this one does not work, I use that one to modify it. Okay, the engine itself is Caterpillar, I go to T & E, they can give me parts for Caterpillar. If any part breaks down in the engine, T & E will take me only about ten days. Even at that they give me 23.5% discount because of my buying power. I went into this thing this way and I am happy with it.
DDH: Now, talking about the Niger Delta, are you from the Niger Delta?
DDH: Which part of the Niger Delta?
Jeph: From Isoko.
DDH: Now, you have seen what is happening, as an indigene, do you get into politics at all?
Jeph: No, not at all. I am completely very far from it. Because engineering cannot go with politics. You (as an engineer) are too direct, you are too forceful, you are too truthful. Any engineer you see in politics will never do well. They are interested in making money first. I don’t need the money, I need the name, and when I get the name it brings the money. (General laughter). Like now in this Warri, if I enter any shop, and don’t have N1, they will give me credit, any shop. So, that’s the things I enjoy.
DDH: So that’s why you shun politics, you prefer…
Jeph: I don’t even need them. They don’t tell us the realities of life. Engineering is what you garbage in, you garbage out. Politics you can manipulate, engineering you cannot manipulate.
DDH: But you still hope that the Niger Delta problem will be sorted out?
Jeph: It’s left for the politicians. What I enjoy is that I don’t go to any company for job prospecting. Everything comes to this my table. I secured a contract from Shell, I didn’t go there. If they advertise, I put in my prequalification, they qualify me. Do technical evaluation, I was rated about almost 89%. Do commercial bidding, I won. What else?
DDH: You said you had another tract of land which you wanted to develop?
Jeph: In fact, my aim…I needed a foreign investor for that; to set up like a big shipyard that will have all it takes. My intention really at the initial stage was to build an amusement park …because I am going to retire from engineering.
DDH: But is that not too ‘playful’ for somebody as serious as yourself?
Jeph: But I have to be playful at the old age to survive. You have to die smiling so that you can add some days to your years. Engineering is a very rigorous thing, it’s very tasking. Everyday you are thinking. I should be able to work into a place, smile with people and you are spending your money and you don’t care.
DDH: How do you take care of your staff?
Jeph: It’s not having many staff that matter but how you take care of them. You have to give them the best incentives and you ask them to do the best for you. Now, those in field work, after successful job completion, they have a percentage bonus they take. So they are happy. Now, they are planning to go to site, everybody is squeezing in to go there. Because you have almost N3,000 daily for your feeding allowance. After the job, you have some incentives. So why would you not be there.
DDH: Now what you have achieved in building up such an engineering company you would attribute to the exposure you got in Europe and the USA?
Jeph: Yes, you have a driving force, a focus. One thing you see in Nigeria, when we have money, we look for the best car, the best house and the best party to throw money. I am never in any of them. You see the motor I use, (Toyota) Pickup, though I have other cars in my compound. I am not thrilled by them.
DDH: What makes you tick?
Jeph: Engineering. Like the day we finished the first dredger, I took one bottle of champagne and lay down on the ground, when I saw it floating, working perfectly, it was the most joyous moment of my life. That was the first achievement I had ever made in my life. Till today, you can imagine that dredger is still working perfectly.
DDH: If people contact you to do this for them, will you do it?
Jeph: Of course, I will do it for them. But the difference is this, if you watch those who are really interested in dredging, that’s why they are still few, their engineering background is low. So the politicians, businessmen, are those who want to go in and they dabble into it and dabble out. You see, your first interest if you want to succeed in dredging is not to make money. If you have engineering background that is stabilized, then when you are stabilized and established properly, the money will come. That’s the whole truth. But if you now go into the business because you want to make money, the day money fails you fail. And you are somewhere in Paris drinking champagne while a work is going on in site. A Nigerian man won’t work for you normally, he will eat you raw. Before you know it everything is gone.
The following morning, DDH had opportunity to climb onto the dredgers and their engine rooms. Jeph was leading the excursion and explaining certain things…We discussed the fact that Warri as a locality had not the same potentials for sand stockpiling as is rampant in Lagos: sand quantity on demand is far smaller than in Lagos or Port Harcourt. But the potential for dredging work in the oilfields is huge. The constraint as Jeph told us, by experience, is the requirements of the clients – the oil companies. Aside from the dredger, a complement of ancillary equipment whose costs might equal the dredger makes access to this line of business a preserve of very few companies; ancillary equipment like swamp buggy, houseboat, barge and accompanying dry plants, all of which need to be pre-qualified, etc. Plus, competent technical and managerial staff must be demonstrated by bidding companies , complete with their medical records. To summarise the entry requirements, Jeph concluded that, ‘every winch needs certification’. But he also justified this on the benchmark of safety and to ensure that contractors perform. On the way to the jetty, we continued small talk…
DDH: Do you rent out your equipment, like this swamp buggy?
Jeph: Yes, when they are available. We have two (swamp buggies).
Aboard the engine room of the new dredger…
Jeph: In fact, this dredger was sourced locally. Everything in this engine was sourced locally and put together.
Engineers and deck hands were busy going about their duties. Aboard the engine room of the first dredger, Jeph stopped and conferred with one engineer on their present task of corrosion control, and a lot of talk of scraping and direct painting could be heard when they discussed. This was the dredger that took under nine months to build from start to finish. To another man at another end of the dredger, he shouted, ‘you want to wrap the exhaust?’. The addressee responded in the affirmative, and we moved on. When we got the winch of the new dredger, he explained:
Jeph: This winch was made here. This is the only thing we buy here (pointing at something he called the hydraulic sterffer motor) because we have no technique to build the sterffer motor. So you go to spare parts dealers and look out for all these sterffer motors they have, open them, service them and use them to complete the winches. And you discover now that the cost of these three winches will save you over N7m. So far as you can locate where to find this, the rest is ok. Just one of the winches, if you want to buy it they will tell you two point something million Naira to three million. The ones in most imported dredgers is smaller. See this load, (pointing to the whole length of the ladder and the cutter), it will carry it like a small paper.
DDH: What is the length of this ladder?
Jeph: 16 metres, extendable to 20 metres, the extension is outside.