Lee Engineering’s Renewed Commitment to Nigeria’s Infrastructural Development

Peter Uzoho

As the global community, especially Europe struggles with the challenges posed by the war between Russia and Ukraine, some economic experts have expressed the view that African nations with strategic industrialisation drive are at an advantage to actualise their dream.

However, the provision of infrastructure remains pivotal to facilitate the concept.

In Nigeria, the government and the private sector seem to be working towards closing the infrastructural gap in every aspect of the economy.

Driven by the conviction that the much-needed industrial revolution must be anchored on the provision of necessary infrastructure, some indigenous entrepreneurs have committed themselves to pioneer various spectrums of such development.

The Lee Engineering Group, founded by Dr. Leemon Ikpea, is one of those championing this noble quest for Nigeria’s industrialisation. But the unique selling point of the company is the belief that transformation only takes place by active participation. So, instead of the usual stuff of being merely a marketing agent, selling European products for quick returns, it has chosen to bring the chicken home to roost.

Stakeholders in the oil and gas industry are aware that Lee Engineering Group has committed resources to the establishment of a steel products fabrication factory, located in Warri, Delta State. The factory is programmed for commissioning this year, and that some indigenous engineers have been trained to man the fabrication equipment.

However, not much is known about the face behind the strategic transition of both the technological know-how and the skill acquisition bid to sustain the initiative.

Indeed, the move towards pioneering local fabrication of industrial tools and equipment in the oil and gas industry where the Lee Engineering Group was birthed dates back to 2009, when Dr. Ikpea incorporated Lee international Services Srl Italy and appointed Dr. Dott Giuseppe Paone, a former lecturer at University of Milan (Italy) as the Area Manager, business development, procurement, project management, Europe and Africa.

Precisely, Lee International Services S.r.L. was incorporated in March 2009 as Lee Engineering & Construction Co Ltd subsidiary with the prime aim to provide international services, training and technology development transfer, highly skilled manpower provision, engineering designs, project management and international consultancies.

Thus, the choice of Paone, someone with a passion for business management in the oil and gas industry since 2006 can be said to be putting a round peg in a round hole.

Addressing journalists in Warri, recently, Paone who is on the ground assessment visit said, the fabrication factory will contribute enormously to the economic and industrial transformation of Nigeria.

Speaking on the economic benefits of the factory he said, “The first impact will be on employment. The second will be on the economy itself because, instead of importing from foreign countries, Nigeria will become more independent. Those who will produce the spare parts needed for petrochemicals and refineries will be available at workshops in Nigeria, just as we have here at Lee Engineering. These parts could have been sourced somewhere else, outside of Nigeria. So you only import raw materials, then you produce the needed parts here. That increases the wealth of the nation.”

Relating the present situation to the industrial development experience of his home country, Italy, he said, “In the early 60s, Italy (after the Second World War), was destroyed. 

“I read in the books and my grandfather also used to tell me that Italy became like today’s Ukraine – destroyed.

“The U.S came with funds and we started rebuilding. The development was rapid in the 60s. We started industrialisation from carbon steel, stainless steel, and petrochemicals. “Today, what I see now in Nigeria is the same. You are experiencing the Italian 60s. So you are developing so much because, from 2011, you have been the leading economy in Africa.

“Nigeria is the 5th-largest exporter of crude oil globally. It is the biggest economy in Africa. The first country In Africa in terms of development is Ghana, but the country is small. Nigeria is far bigger. So you are progressing so much, with many middle-class citizens here. “When I came here, I noticed a lot of factories. The middle class requests moderate houses, and also a lot of services.”

Paone who agreed that the Warri fabrication workshop or factory was initiated by the Chairman of Lee Engineering Group, Dr. Ikpea said the concept was to complement the activities the company was already carrying out in the oil and gas industry.

According to him, most of the machines and tools used in setting up the factory were bought from Italian suppliers. 

Emphasising the critical role the factory will play in the nation’s quest for industrial development, Paone said although the goal is to produce pressure vessels and heat exchangers meant for low, mid to high pressure for use in the oil and gas industry, the same machine can  fabricate other industrial tools and equipment using carbon or stainless steel as material.

“Talking about stainless steel, I’ll give you an example. In the food industry, we need to transport things like milk, beer, and beverages with trucks. You will notice that, behind the trucks, there are tools and caps. So we built the machines that can enable these tanks to be used for the transportation of beverages.

“We are not focusing on only oil and gas. Why do we want to do this? We know, from industry experience in Europe, that in developing countries like Nigeria, those goods are consumed by the middle class. So the demand for these goods will increase. Their needs will also increase. We want to be leaders in their supply.”

To ensure the perfect and smooth running of the factory, Paone stressed that Lee Engineering is committed to training the local manpower. In this regard, over 30 people have been sent out for training in handling the machine in Italy.

He, however, regretted the impact of the global lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, stressing that the personnel trained could not deploy their skills immediately as a result. But he added that the Italian partners have continued to send personnel to Nigeria regularly to refresh the trainees.

Stressing the need for retraining and plans to ensure a smooth transition, he said, “when people are trained, they start working. And, for this phase, we may organise and supervise the beginning because the startup is the most delicate for the company. The beginning will be supervised by people who have done that for decades, who know exactly what to be avoided, what should be done, and what not to be done for safety reasons. After this supervision, the workshop will become, day by day, more independent and better in terms of production.”

According to Paone, the Lee Engineering Fabrication Factory is set to commence a test run this month.

Speaking on what the process entails, Paone said, “Commissioning activities involve properly installing and fine-tuning machines. If there are instruments like flow meters and others, you will check that they are balanced and are working because the water condition here is different.

“At the end of the commissioning, you make a startup. It’s like buying a vehicle, you turn it on. If it goes on well, it means that all the preparatory activities for the startup were successful. For the vehicle or car, you will check to be sure that everything is in order before you start, won’t you? The startup is the moment when the key to the machine is being delivered to Lee Engineering because it is in perfect working condition. Processes may be different from machine to machine, but the aim is simply to make the machine work.”

Paone is not ignorant of the role of funds in the actualisation of a huge project like this. He however commended Engr. Ikpea for sponsorship of the factory, but noted that the government can fast track the industrial revolution by facilitating access to multinational development funds for development purposes.

“We invest so much into this project as a company. Of course, at the moment, all the funding comes from Chief Leemon Ikpea, the Chairman/CEO of Lee Engineering.

“But since we are aware that there is the possibility to get funds from the UN and related agencies or the World Bank, we are working towards that. I am booking appointments with some people to know whether they can provide funds – not in the form of loans, but with the understanding that we are contributing to the development of the Nigerian economy. That is a common thing to do.”

Meanwhile, there is an indication that Nigerian entrepreneurs may be finding it very difficult to tap into pools of funds offered by multilateral sources due to the absence of representatives on the board of such organisations.

For instance, a financial expert who does not want his name in print confirmed to our reporter that the country does not have representatives in most of the United Nations Development Agency.

“That, for me, isn’t a good one. It shows that the government and country are not taking advantage of the opportunities available for entrepreneurial and industrial development from such space. The implication is to resort to the use of local funds for long-term investment which is usually very costly.

Meanwhile, Paone has advocated for Nigeria to take advantage of the situation in Europe to fast track its industrial development.

According to him, the market conditions, presently, are the best. “With the recent decline in energy supply caused by the ongoing Russian-Ukraine war in Europe, all the policies over there are currently being changed in a bid to help source gas. Europe presently has a good relationship with Nigeria, and I believe this presents a very good opportunity for Nigeria to take advantage of the shortfall. I mean right now – not next year, but now,” he said.

Interestingly, while many Nigerians are watching and waiting for the government to create a conducive environment to investment in their chosen field of endeavours, the likes of Ikpea are brazing a trail towards making a positive impact. Graduating from marketing foreign products in Nigeria to establishing factories where manufacturing and fabrication take place. Indeed, this is the only way out of the woods. Nigeria must drive the African industrialisation concept and charity they say, begins at home

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