Nzan Ogbe: Providing Support for Children, Families Living with Autism
In this interview with Sunday Ehigiator, although the Chief Executive at Levene Energy Group, Nzan Ogbe, gave insight into his background, and his sojourn in the oil and gas industry, his passion to create awareness on autism with his foundation, Zeebah foundation
Let’s meet you
My name is Nzan Ogbe. I am a father of three wonderful children and the Chief Executive at Levene Energy Group and a few other affiliates. Over the past 32 or 33 years, I have had a long career in the private sector.
I have also worked in an advisory capacity in the public sector for a couple of years. However, I am now fully back in my natural habitat, creating and developing businesses and people.
Give us insight into your educational background.
I am a Cross River State University graduate, where I studied Communications Arts. Since then, I have attended several courses both locally and internationally. My focus has always been on being an entrepreneur.
Additionally, I run a foundation called Zeebah Foundation, which supports children and families living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This foundation is my retirement plan, and I plan to retire in a few years and focus on supporting people facing this challenge.
It is a personal issue for me as my only son is on the spectrum, but he is doing very well, and we are thankful for God’s blessings.
I realised that many people do not have access to the support we have, which is why I feel there’s a need to have a bridge. My passions include Formula One, exercising, and my early morning walks, which have been a ritual for over 25 years. I also love my early morning coffee.
Kindly walk us through your career path and growth.
I graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Arts. From a young age, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. After completing my youth service in Sokoto State’s Arungungun camp, I went straight into business with my friend, Archie Duke.
We started selling cars because we had a passion for them and saw a gap in the market. At that time, there were no brand-new car sales, so most people were driving ‘Tokunbos’. We sourced international and local cars and secured potential clients for them, and then sold them.
Our approach was unique because not many people were doing what we were doing at the time, and certainly not at the level at which we were doing it. We knew about cars and researched to recommend the best car for each client.
If a client wanted a car, we would pull their profile, and assess their preferences, history with vehicles, and what they wanted out of the car. We would then recommend vehicles that would fit their profile and stay with them on their journey of owning a car.
We built a huge client base, from middle to upper class. In about 1994/1995, I visited South Africa and saw a huge potential to transfer products, services, or technology to Nigeria.
As I was already in the car business, I saw a car-like outdoor garage product that was very popular in the 90s. I acquired that franchise and brought it to Nigeria, starting with selling carports in Lagos, then in Abuja, Port Harcourt, and Calabar.
Later on, I became involved in the oil and gas industry through some friends who were already in the business. Initially, it was a small-scale venture, but I had access to people like Femi Otedola, who was doing diesel and kerosene business by trucks.
I also had friends who were lower in the value chain and were just doing a few trucks. I found it thrilling and exciting to be involved in this industry, and we did some work in that space until about 2003/2004.
However, I wanted something more solid that was not dependent on another party, so I ventured into real estate. I started buying land from my proceeds and developing and selling properties. This gave birth to my real estate business, which was operational for a while.
With the establishment of Levene Energy, could you please share some of the milestones you achieved with the company?
Well, that’s still an ongoing journey, but I would say that very early on, because of the contacts we had made over the years with banks, corporate organisations, and high-net-worth individuals, we were able to secure a couple of contracts that set the tone for us. We just started to build upon that, and our first significant break became operational in 2016.
In 2019, we participated in Equatorial Guinea’s government bid round for oil blocks. There were about 13 companies and over 30 assets, and we secured four oil blocks in Equatorial Guinea. Back home, we also secured two bitumen blocks in Ondo State in southwest Nigeria in the same year.
That, for us, was the beginning of everything else because it gave us a different view.
I remember seeing some international publications referring to us as Levene Energy, the Nigerian junior securing oil blocks in Equatorial Guinea. It was great for me because, while we are a small Nigerian company, we had gone out based on our capacity. We have always been big on manning up in terms of capacity. We have always hired very professional people.
In my team now, probably on the trading side of the business, we have people who have been in the business for ten to thirty-five years. On the upstream side of the business, we have people who have been in the business for thirty-five to thirty-six years, and they joined our business.
So, we have always ramped up in terms of capacity. It is expensive, but for me, it was the only way to get the best out of the system. That set the tone for us, and we started to push from there.
As time passed, we started exploring a few other lucrative opportunities. It has been a fantastic journey for us and the successes that we have attained. There have been a lot of challenges as well, but we keep pushing on.
How has your experience been operating in the Nigerian energy sector?
When people ask what our biggest challenges are, my initial instinct would be to mention finance, but I would say human resource management in Nigeria is the biggest issue for us, and we are paying a great price for it. I have learned this lesson, but I can happily say that we now have a team I am very proud of and happy with. However, it remains a significant challenge.
I speak to many entrepreneurs who cry daily about this issue. People feel like they are doing us a favour by carrying out their roles and responsibilities, even though these are stipulated. This is very frustrating.
We have an office in the UK, and I can tell you for free that when I work there, the mentality is different. This is not to say that all Nigerians are bad, but this is generally what you will find.
Therefore, you have to select and train your team carefully. An enabling environment includes access to finance, which has become extremely difficult, especially in the energy sector since the Western world took the ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) position regarding fossil fuels. They have said they will not finance fossil fuels again, which is a big challenge.
The war in Ukraine, as horrible as it is, has made people realise that we cannot just use fossil fuels like that. Those are the three significant challenges for us. This is not to say that there are no other challenges, but these are the three most significant.
What advice would you give someone starting a similar business in Nigeria?
My advice to anyone looking to enter the energy sector is to be clear that it is what you want to do, and you need to find where you want to fit in. If you ask my opinion, I will say to you, look at the renewable space, whether it is solar, hydro, or whatever you can do in the renewable space.
That is the future, and there is a lot of potential for growth and innovation. Whether it’s solar, hydro, or any other type of renewable energy, these areas will likely be in high demand in the coming years.
What opportunities lie ahead for Levene Energy?
I think the future looks bright for Levene Energy because we have taken an early position. Although fossil fuel demand and consumption may not decrease immediately, they will reduce in the future. Levene Energy is not a company for today but for the future, and we are taking positions for 3-5 decades down the line.
About 200 million people in Nigeria need access to clean and affordable energy solutions. Even in remote locations, a solar mini-grid solution could provide electricity 24/7 if correctly done. However, access to these solutions is still limited. Levene Energy is one of the first movers, and there is still a huge market to take advantage of.
Tell us more about your foundation.
Zeebah foundation is four years old this year. Our initial objectives were quite mundane. We set out to create awareness and share information about autism because children with autism have been wrongly branded as witches and wizards and blamed for their families’ problems.
It’s incredible how pervasive this misunderstanding is, even among educated people. I remember a wealthy individual with whom I did a transaction a few years ago overheard me speaking with my children and asking why they behaved the way they were.
When I explained that my son was on the autism spectrum, he asked about the symptoms and realised his child exhibited similar behaviours. I urged him to have his child evaluated. This incident showed me how widespread the lack of knowledge about autism is and how easy it is to address certain fundamentals, such as diet, exposure to certain stimuli, etc.
Autism does not discriminate based on age, sex, financial background, or religion. It affects everyone equally. Imagine a village woman in Ado-Ekiti Pupa who has no education and gives birth to a child with autism.
She is ostracised by her family and community, who believe she has brought a curse upon them. It’s a tragic situation that can be alleviated with just a little knowledge and support. This is where we started by trying to create awareness and support for families affected by autism.
Eventually, we set up a pilot centre in Abuja, which now has about 30 children and a team of therapists who work with them daily. The impact of this centre is immeasurable. We’ve received messages from mothers whose children have spoken for the first time in years or achieved other milestones. It’s genuinely heart-warming and makes all our efforts worthwhile.
I don’t take any credit for it personally, though I have contributed to the centre’s upkeep. The real heroes are the staff who works with the children day and night and who have the patience and dedication to help these kids achieve their full potential.
This is the most impactful thing I’ve ever done in my life, and it gives me immense pleasure to see the progress these children are making. Our goal is to build a permanent site and replicate this model in other parts of Nigeria. I want to ensure families don’t have to separate because of a lack of support or resources.
My son is currently abroad because we couldn’t find adequate support in Nigeria, but I want to change that for other families. I pray that we can achieve this dream with God’s help and the community’s support.
To parents who have children on the autism spectrum, there isn’t anything you can teach them beyond encouraging them and letting them know that they are not alone.
Every day is a new challenge for parents with autistic children, and sometimes it’s the same challenge every day. But it’s better to face a new challenge every day than to have the same challenge every day without being able to solve it. It’s a huge challenge for parents to live with, and sometimes just finding someone to speak to about it and knowing there is a place to go for help can make all the difference.
I tell parents not to be ashamed; as an advocate for autistic parents in Nigeria, I am proud of my son and proud to be the parent of an autistic child. I believe God gave him to me for a reason, and I have learnt so much especially patience.
Having an autistic child teaches you patience, and I thank God for it. I always encourage parents never to lose hope and to believe that change can come, but also to keep an open mind that even if it doesn’t come, keep researching and interacting with people.
Don’t listen to lies that will make you feel bitter and despondent. Talk to people because you never know where help may come from. Some may have tried something that worked for their child that could work for yours. I often find myself in a room full of women doing this work, and I believe that men need to support their wives. It’s a huge responsibility, but I trust that with God’s help, we can do it.
Aside from exercising, what other hobbies or interests do you have?
My early morning walk is a ritual I have kept for more than 25 years. It’s a time to clear my head, meditate, and strategies. I used to run and play tennis, but a football challenge 12 years ago damaged my knees. I also enjoy water sports, particularly sailing and boating, when I can find the time.
I’ve come to appreciate the value of solitude and being quiet. Formula One is my passion, and it’s all about strategy. If you understand the sport, you know it involves much planning, calculations, and implementation.
Everything has to be efficient, and even a difference of milliseconds can significantly impact the outcome. Apart from my passions, I love spending time with my children and being around them. They bring me a lot of joy and happiness.
Who is Nzan Ogbe outside of his professional work and foundation?
I am easy-going and fun-loving, although I value my privacy. I enjoy going about my day and doing what I need to do, and I am a big family person.
I want people to know about my foundation and what we are doing to support autism. Our foundation is called The Zeebah Foundation, and all information can be found at www.zeebahfoundation.com. We are doing our best with the resources available to us, and we are pushing to make a difference.