WHAT NIGERIAN DREDGE OPERATORS OUGHT TO KNOW…
“Without backup equipment, you can never make profit in this business…In the Niger Delta…” I’ve been kidnapped many times”– Sunday Otuya.
Engineer Sunday Otuya needs little introduction to the growing ranks of Nigerian dredge operators, local and foreign. Starting from his employment by National Westminster Dredging in the 1980s, Engr Otuya has today cut a niche for himself as a man-Friday in Nigerian dredging. His hands-on knowledge is simply vast and he keeps improving himself on the small rudimentary details which make the difference between failed dredge operation and a successful one. Presently, he runs a consultancy outfit called Swan Dredging and Marine Ltd, where he maintains open shop for all ailing dredge and allied engineering projects, tools and equipment. He repairs dredgers, pay loaders, excavators and virtually all plants used in the business of dredging. As usual in his line of trade, he has to traverse the environs of the Niger Delta and claims that many times he has been kidnapped and released…so many times that the kidnap masterminds know him very well. Engr Otuya works as a consultant to many established Nigerian dredging companies including Harris Dredging with whom he has worked for a long time. In this interview he has load of advice for Nigerian indigenous dredging proprietors and investors. Excerpts:
DDH: How did you come about repairing dredgers, is it something you studied?
Otuya: When you work in an established organization, you would be opportune to get used to a lot of systems. Westminster Dredging (where he worked) is an established organization. We had so many departments and when I joined Westminster Dredging, we were opportuned to go around. We worked in the workshop, we also worked in … we had a maintenance crew. And aside from the unit engineers you had people who were there in the workshop and when you had a major breakdown, they could take the whole dredger apart. We had a slipway, we dry-dock all our dredgers on our own, we don’t take them outside (overseas). This gave us an ample opportunity with repair works. We were able to dismantle the dredge, separate the barges, remove the engines, we overhauled the engines, paint all areas that needed to be painted, anywhere that is rotten, you re-plate.
DDH: So these gave you the experience about repairs?
DDH: Since working on your own, what common faults and disrepairs have you treated in dredgers working in Nigeria?
Otuya: It varies. You know the kind of environment we are in. The water here is salty and there is a lot of corrosion. You find out that the Nigerian mentality, low maintenance culture, we wait until (the dredger) breaks down. But the international companies have guidelines, every year they must pull their dredges out of the water. And also as soon as you finish a project, we have what we call preventive maintenance, and that is what you carry out every month. When equipment running is working 24 hours, there has to be tear and wear on engines, on your pumps, on all the components in the dredge. So those things you must know how to handle them otherwise (if) you wait until it breaks down, that will knock you out of the business. So these are the things we did there but with our indigenous systems, we want to wait until the dredger breaks down before you repair and that will cause you a lot of fortune. And also, you have to look at it this way. Who are the people we are employing in the dredging industry to man our equipment?
DDH: Are you saying these are the root causes of the faults we are talking about?
Otuya: Yes. An indigenous (dredge) entrepreneur wants to save money, he doesn’t want to spend money. He will employ an MEA (mechanical and engineering assistant) who is just somebody that will change oil, etc, a low-cadre engineer to handle the equipment. Although when your engines are running, you can have them because they will take care to make sure they put water, change the oil, diesel is getting short, they refill. Those are their capability. But when it comes to real maintenance, you need somebody who knows what he is doing. Also, if you look at an engine itself, it’s like a factory. You don’t just say that because you are a marine engineer you will be able to handle everything that happens in the dredge, because you have the hydraulic system, there is electrical, etc. If you look at T & E today, they have Caterpillar engines. You have Caterpillar mechanics who handle only the engine aspect. In that engine also, you have other things like pumps, injection fuel pumps, you have your “governor” (main control system), and all those things. You have specialists that handle all these things but the indigenous operator wants one man to handle all these things, which is not possible. These are the problems. So if you really want to have a complete workshop where you can handle all these things, you need a team which comprises of a hydraulic specialist, a very qualified mechanic to take the engine aspect. When you have problem, you need to invite a pump specialist. If you have problem with the “governor”, you have to bring somebody who is used to the “governor”. And also you need somebody who has the technical know-how to handle the repairs of your barge…to tell you how long you can dredge before you pull your dredge out of the water. I can assure you that some dredges have been in the water for five to ten years, they have not been taken out of the water, so long as the dredger is producing. At the end of the day, you run aground. I read an article the other, some people were complaining that they have dredges and they are not making money. How will you make money when you don’t want to spend money? To make money, you must spend money and you must get people who know this business inside out to help you.
DDH: To summarise these problems, what are the major frequent categories of faults?
Otuya: Where you will always have problems is the engine room because it is the heart of the dredge. It’s like a man and his heart. If your heart is not functioning well, there is no way you can be a healthy man. Another thing is we have to look at the environment. A lot of people go out there to Europe, pick anything (dredge) they see, by the time they bring an engine that is not common to people in this part of the world, it becomes a problem to maintain such an engine. But if you buy a dredge that has a brand name in the engine like Caterpillar, MAN Diesel, Rolls Royce, do you have the representatives of these companies here in Nigeria? Like Caterpillar is a household name here in Nigeria, anywhere you go to you can get your spare parts easily. But also it comes back to having the right team to handle the equipment. Like what we are doing in our organization, we found out that we are short of these men in the dredging industry that is why we established Swan Dredging and Marine Company Ltd. We repair and also advice people on how to go about doing things.
DDH: So the dredgers in disrepair that have been brought to you, how did you about repairing them?
Otuya: I can mention some. We have two to four cases of abandoned dredgers. What we do is when we get such a case, we will first of all visit it, like going for an inspection and look at the state of the equipment. Then we come up with recommendations of what should be done. After that if we discuss with the clients and they agree, we pull the dredger off water. We carry out all the necessary repairs that need to be done. If it is the hydraulic, we get a hydraulic expert to check what is wrong, what has gone bad, and we place order for the replacement and then blow through all the lines and make sure that everything is functioning again. If it is an engine problem, it’s either you dismantle or if we open it and find out that it will be a waste for you to repair such engine, either you buy another one or you buy all the service parts needed and then we rebuild. And it’s like you having another new engine.
DDH: You said you have a typical case in the Niger Delta..?
Otuya: There is one… I remember Westminster Dredging used to own that dredger far back in the 1970s. It was cracked and abandoned. OMPADEC (Oil and Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission) also used it. But right now somebody bought it from the responsible federal ministry and now if you look at it today it’s like new.
DDH: Your organization handled it?
DDH: How did you do it?
Otuya: We pulled it up, put it on a slip way, opened the pontoons, re-plated them; all the parts that needed to be re-plated, we re-plated them. The cutter shaft and everything we took to the workshop. In fact, there was no engine on board any longer, so what we did was to buy a 399 Caterpillar engine and also picked up another gear box to suit it. Right now, it’s almost in a state of going back to business. Such we can do. Even an empty carcass of a dredge equipment, if you have it and provide the money, we can rebuild it for you and make it work again. We just believe that in the near future, if we can have support (we can expand the practice). We are also looking forward to having an affiliation because in a place like Egypt, even Ellicott Dredges have a branch there where they build new dredges. But all they do is build the carcass an then bring the components from the US and couple it and they become new dredges. That’s what we are looking forward to in the near future.
DDH: Do manufacturers have any part of the blame for the equipment woes of dredge owners or operators?
Otuya: No. every manufacturer wants the best for their clients. If you are buying an equipment, they will give you the parts list, all the things you need but you find out that some of us are running away from cost, and will just pick the dredge, no floating line, nothing to come with it. They will come and start looking for one rotten pipe or the other. At the end of the day, you have a sound dredger, you don’t have good back up equipment. You will not make good money.
DDH: Are there really proprietors like that?
Otuya: Yes. They will just pick the dredge and come down here and start looking for lines. Those things are very expensive there but if you spend your money wisely, you will make money. Dredging is not just purchasing a dredger. If you must have a good dredge, you will also have to have a very good back up dry plant equipment because the dredger cannot work on its own. Without the backup equipment, you can never make profit in this business.
DDH: What kind of suitable backup equipment do you think are primary, that must be there?
Otuya: It depends on the size of your dredge and type of business you want to go into. Do you want to just pump (sand) and sell on your own? Or do you want to go into contract? If you must go into contract, you must have an excavator, a bulldozer, a pay loader to transport (dredge material), you must have your work boat, we call it a multi-purpose tug-boat. If it is a bigger vessel, like from 16-inch dredges, you must have all those things. If you don’t have them, you will take a job of two weeks and end up doing it in six months. At the end of the day, there will be problem there. Look at these international companies, why are they making profit. The reason they are making profit is that they have everything they need. And also they have a very good organizational system. They take a job, everybody must be at a round-table conference. You the operational manager, we have a job for four months, what and what do you need throughout the duration of that project? He will come up with his own budget. The technical man, how many barrels of diesel, how many barrels of engine oil, how many barrels of hydraulic oil, how many barrels of gear oil do you need to execute this project? What are the consumable items you would be needing throughout this four months? At the end of the day, you have efficient operation. They will do their job and get out of the site. But we take a job, what do we do? First of all, we travel to London. (General laughter). And before they even start the job, they will go and look for a loan but money had been given to do that job. These are some of the problems.
DDH: Now on spare parts, how do you source your spare parts?
Otuya: Nigeria is blessed, most of these parts are locally available. If you want to re-plate your dredger, all the iron sheets you need are there, they are available in the market. Just look for a reputable company that can supply you those plates. Get a vehicle and bring all the plates, make sure you have very good welding machines and the gases you are going to spend must be in place. Get very competent welders that you are going to use, people who can read drawings and all those things. You don’t just go and pick people who will come and do a cheap job for you. Underwater welding needs very good x-ray welders, you need very competent welders. It’s not every welder that can do it because if you weld, there must be no leak. Because if you weld and leave a very small hole, it’s a problem; you need to bring the dredge up again. You need competent men to do it and we have them all over the place.
DDH: You say we have them, how did they qualify for such skilled jobs?
Otuya: Some of them after their primary and secondary schools, they go to a workshop, very big shops and learn the trade and get certificates like City and Guilds, etc. and some of them are also opportune (to work in the oil industry) because if you can do pipeline welding for oil industry, you can as well (fit into underwater welding). We have a lot of them in this country.
DDH: Have you encountered a situation where spare parts unavailability crippled the repair of a dredger?
Otuya: Yes, we have cases like that but also it boils down to non-planning, if you plan very well you are not supposed to run into such problems because you bought a dredger in Europe and the manufacturers…these things are also like the bicycles you have, you find out that in every car you have, it is not even the people building the cars that build the engines. The engine blocks, etc, they have other people manufacturing them. All they are doing is bring various parts and join them. So long as you buy those (dredge) equipment and you also have links, we have a global village now, it’s a small world, from your bedroom now, you can do business. On the internet you know where to source your parts from. But what we need do is, if you have a 34 – 12 engine in your dredge is you must have a backup. Make sure you have a spare in your workshop because those things they don’t give (long warnings), they fail you when you least expect. So, if the engine disappoints, all you need to do is bring the other one out and put the other one in, and within two – three days you are back to business. Like my client we are working for, four – five months ago, we had a problem on the dredge. The power take off is bad. And we have a complete unit here as spare. So I just called my Chairman now on the phone and said, we have a problem. And for us to start sourcing for spares, we would lose maybe two or three weeks. So, I advice now we pick the spare we have, two, three days (after installation), we are back to business and then we now look for spares parts to repair the other one and keep. If every operator can do that the case of abandoned dredger for two, three, four months will not arise.
DDH: Is it only dredgers you repair?
Otuya: Currently and even in the past, we service generators, anything engineering we handle. Ninety-five percent of our business is on dredging, that is where we specialize.
DDH: Do you have a lot of customers, how is the work load, etc now?
Otuya: No, because if you check the dredging companies, most of them have their maintenance units. Except if they have cases which it is beyond them, they now look outside for help.
DDH: Are there other ranges of services demanded from you by dredge operators?
Otuya: You know when you say dredge operators, there a re a lot of things involved in dredging. Like I said earlier, it’s like a factory and you have a lot of departments that make it. So many of the indigenous companies just get an equipment and start pumping sand. But if you really want to go into dredging proper, you need to have a lot of departments. One of the foremost is the survey department because they do a lot of work; they go out there first as soon as the job is coming in. You need your survey department to carry out a lot of investigation. This investigation is where you are going to build your cost from because the report they are going to bring in is what you are going to use. Some, like the government agencies, if they have a job, the bid will be handled by a specialist. At the end of the day, by the time they come, you already know what you are going to do. But if you have just a reclamation job and all those things, you need to do a lot of things: you need to send your surveyor there, check the volume of sand that is going to go into the place. You also need to check where you are going to get your sand from, you need to do a kind of report, a kind of drilling, to check where you are going to win the sand from. After that you need your operation department to swing into action, they will also go and carry out their own investigation. They get their own report, before you to the technical department that is going to give you the equipment to do that job; how many equipment do you need for that job. So all those things have to come into place. And you have the account department that will now study all the bills and see “if we go into this project, are we going to make money or not?”.
DDH: Are you saying that your consultancy handles all these things?
Otuya: We handle them, we advice our clients.
DDH: When they get such jobs, do they come to you?
Otuya: Some of them come, very few. Some feel that they can handle it but at the end of the day, they run into problems. (General laughter). We don’t laugh. We only try to see (what we can do to help).
DDH: Are there cases where you were called to repair a vandalized dredge, like the situation in the Niger Delta? And what are the common things they vandalise and the way operators can guard against such happenstance?
Otuya: They visit dredges and look for things they can easily pick, like generators, air-conditioners…Small generators like 5 KVA, 10KVA. Those boys will pick it and put it in their boats and go away. VHF radios and all those things. Those things are very small but very sensitive and without them also, no operation. To guard against them, it is difficult because you may even have security men on board but they are not armed. So what are you going to do? You only pray that they don’t come near you but once they come there is nothing anybody can do about it. But like other things, if they really mean to destroy, sometimes they use dynamite. Somebody going underneath your dredge or going into the engine room, putting dynamite, it’s going to destroy a lot of things. So, what you need do after (such an occurrence), you must surely bring that equipment out of the unit and then either take it to your yard or base and then see the damage and see how you can get it repaired.
DDH: But this is the case of violent attacks. What about those that go when you are not there to steal?
Otuya: In most cases what such people come for is oil, they come to steal little things because every engine component is fixed and you need technically-inclined people to bring their tools and start dismantling and all those things, it takes time too. But they will just go to look for diesel, for pumping machine, they will pump diesel from your tank. Those things, what we do these days is to build a lot of security around your tanks and make sure you get them welded on and do a lot of things that will at least take them time and difficulty. But sometimes they still succeed in getting at them.
DDH: But the violent ones are mainly in the Niger Delta?
Otuya: Though sometimes the sea pirates even in Lagos here they come. Apart from Niger Delta, it has happened to us here even in Lagos. I remember two or three months ago, some of my crew men were working in the night, a group of about seven armed robbers, I call them sea pirates, armed, they came, and unfortunately for them, one of them was caught. He was taken to the Police station. They came with guns. But they ran out of luck and one of them fell into the water as they were running away. So the crew now went with speed boats and chased him and brought him out.
DDH: But is there vandalisation arising out of sabotage?
Otuya: People do it; it’s like any other industry. The hazard is there, that is why we also try to advice clients, if you are going to do a job in such places you must make sure you have very good security system. You get either the Navy or Police, armed. Although they still come but it will not be as disastrous as if you don’t have security. But otherwise sabotage in Nigerian dredging industry is very rare, it’s minimal. Because there is a saying that the sky is so wide for the birds to fly without hitting each other. We don’t have to fight one another. Look at the case of Ajah, we have about five to eight dredging companies operating in one axis. Everybody is making their money, so very rare.
DDH: Although rivalry between local and foreign dredging companies is there?
Otuya: Of course. That one is heavy. And also, it is people who make it so heavy because I remember in those, the foreign companies did not want the indigenous one to survive. They felt they were a threat to them but today, there is nothing they can do.
DDH: There was the case you said one foreign company blew their used dredger in the Atlantic instead of selling it to local startup dredging outfits…
Otuya: What actually happened is that I remember they sold two of their equipment to a private man in the Niger Delta, in Warri. And unfortunately, the man used the same equipment to compete with them on a Shell project and started executing Shell project with those equipment. So they said, if we can sell an equipment to somebody and today he is trying to put us out of business, the best thing is to stop selling these things to them. But then, it was very rare for Nigerians to go out to Europe to buy dredges and all those things but today, even if you sink your equipment, dredge manufacturers are ready to bring new dredges to you so long as you can guarantee payment. So those are things of the past.
DDH: Are you familiar with all the dredgers or do you have some you specialize in?
Otuya: The only area I am not conversant with is the trailer (hopper) dredgers. But you have few of them. At Westminster Dredging, we were opportune to work with one or two. But anything cutter suction, suction, just name it, it’s our baby.