–Azibaola, Chairman, Zeetin Engineering
For Bayelsa State-born Robert Azibaola, the Chairman, Kakatar Group Limited and Zeetin Engineering Limited, it has always been news oozing out of the court and the stable of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). But beyond the unpaatable news is a Nigerian engrossed in taking the country to a different dimension never experienced before in the field of engineering in the country.With his establishment of Zeetin Engineering whose innovation is to ensure the first fully Made-in-Nigeria automobile engine, Azibaola, an activist and lawyer turned engineer, believed that Zeetin is activism taken to a different level. And he assured Nigerians that Zeetin Engineering’s goal of becoming a centre of excellence for precision and innovative engineering solutions in the country is a done deal. He spoke with Saturday Sun during a visit to the Idu, Abuja, Zeetin Engineering factory.
Are you an engineer by training?
No. I don’t have any claim to be an engineer.
So, what arouse your interest in engineering?
I am interested in engineering because throughout my upbringing, it has been my passion. You could be born with some passions in you, but at the end of the day, you are driven to read something else just because you want to probably satisfy your parental curiosity to have their son or daughter as a lawyer. I actually read law.
Have you been practising?
I practised for a few years and then, it was not my thing anymore. So, I had to divert. But throughout my university life, I was a student union leader, an activist.
And that took greater part of your life?
Yes, the movement for Nigeria’s democracy in the 1990s.
Is activism what informed your life of simplicity?
It is partly so; but probably my background. I try as much as possible to look at the possibility of getting to the level of humility that people in the olden days, probably the Bible stories, would. But I am still trying. I have not been able to achieve my goals.
What informed the establishment of Zeetin Engineering?
I was a human rights, an environmental rights and a pro-democracy activist and I fought for all these goals during the period I was there as a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) person. But I thought that I have a passion in engineering. That is not only the issue. The issue is also that there is a level of activism that Nigerians have not realised that there needs to be. And that has to do with our ability to be self-reliant and independent of the developed world. Why should the black man continue to import things that are abundantly given to us by God?
Growing up as a child, it was luxury to see somebody drove a car. Countries protected their inventions and hardly sell products that will enable you to produce other products. But as the world developed and population grew, people needed to be employed; people started making machines that need to be sold across the globe to make money. So, most of these issues have been relaxed by the developed world.
I wonder why Nigerians keep buying majorly finished products, while they don’t buy machines that make those finished products. I don’t want to be buying luxurious goods instead of machines that I can easily buy and bring to Nigeria and make those luxurious goods.
Nigerians must begin to make and receive their own products no matter whether we call them fake or original. We must make and improve on our own products and get to the point when we can say yes, we have arrived. Until that time, we will continue to depend on other countries for everyday goods and needs. Remember we used to call ‘China products.’ But today, China has taken over the manufacturing economy of the world. Even Japan, at a time, people felt oh, these were Japanese products. Everybody preferred America or Europe. But today, the world goes to Japan, South Korea, China for products designed to international standards. If you want European standard, they give you European standard; if you want American standard, they give you American standard. It is only my continent, Africa, that doesn’t have its own independent standards.
Why did you cite the factory in Idu and not in the Niger Delta?
You don’t invest in a business based on sentiments. This is purely a business consideration.
Your goal is to be a centre of excellence for precision and innovative engineering solutions in Nigeria. What exactly do you mean?
We have here, already put in place, machines that you cannot find possibly anywhere else in Nigeria. We have here, a super five-axis machine. Five-axis machine means that it has X, Y and Z axis movements which we studied in the secondary schools, but in addition, it has two other axes, A and B.
What functions do they perform?
The axis, X, Y, Z, A and B, each goes its different direction. But once you combine all, possibly, as you are, it can carve your replica in three-dimension. Provided you can design, it will produce it. It is called CAD/CAM (Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacture). You design and input in the computers. Once you put the substrate, the material to carve or utilise and gives it a command, the machine will carve it for you, provided you use the right tools.
How does this impact on the masses especially the youths?
The whole idea is that Nigerians see engineering as more or less civil engineering. Everybody wants to be a civil engineer, build a house, build a road, tar or pave the road. That is what we generally know to be engineering. But that is not the mother of engineering. The mother of engineering is mechanical engineering. We are not self-independent because we neglect to encourage mechanical engineering in the country. If mechanical engineering was prioritised, by now, we should have been designing and building the cars that we need; we will be designing and building off road machines like bulldozers, excavators, pay loaders, tractors etc. Once you are able to design any machine, you have conquered the first important step. The second step is to produce, which can be outsourced or produced in-house.
What we want to do here as a centre of excellence is to encourage the youths to be able to design with computer software, any product they are inspired to. And gratefully, Solidworks, one of the most renowned three-dimension software in the world, has given us free licences, thousands of them, to train, certify and give to youths to aid and improve their designing capabilities. So, we are going to train them. Once we train them, they will be able to design their own products and bring it here and we will help them produce it. It is really to make their dreams come true.
So, at the end of the day, we are going to have a truly Made-in-Nigeria automobile engine?
Very soon! I mean, engines are made in advanced countries in the garages of people. All these race cars you see, a lot are designed and made in the garages of people. So, I don’t know why a country of 200 million people plus has not been able to make a simple automobile engine. It is a national embarrassment.
Is that realisable in Nigeria?
Yeah. Why not? As long as we have the will; because we have here, machines that are just two in Africa, versatile for the job. And you guess where the other one is?
Exactly! So, South Africa has one of this five-axis machine and we proudly have it here too. The cost of this machine can buy maybe five Rolls Royce. But we chose to buy the machine than buying Rolls Royce. I would probably have been enjoying my life with Rolls Royce all over the place instead, but it makes no meaning. I will rather buy the machines that make the parts of Rolls Royce.
Are expatriates part of your team?
We are wholly a Nigerian company. Everybody here is a Nigerian. We are many, but not too many to encourage other talented Nigerians to join us. It is a call to national duty.
Will you also manufacture cars here?
Of course! We are starting with the engine. Once we produce the engine and have the trademark for it, we will proceed with the production of the car. The thing about cars is that nobody manufactures all the parts of a car. For the average car, there are about 30,000 parts. The biggest companies in the world, car manufacturers, don’t make 20 percent of those parts. They are supplied by other various producers of individual parts. The most important thing is to be able to produce the engine, the drive train and the car body. We are also interested in other important products like locomotives and train couches. It is an exciting challenge we are into.
What separates you from Innoson Motors?
Innoson is a great Nigerian. I don’t want to de-market him. There is a possibility of marriage where we can build a symbiotic relationship. There are things we can do that Innoson may not be willing to or interested in doing. We are willing to welcome him. In areas where he has comparative advantage over us, we are willing to also go to him and say in this area, what can you help us do?
But that is not even the issue. The issue is that we are looking at the average upholstery maker in Aba or Onitsha or Lagos or Kano to create a competition for and say look, can you do the upholstery for a Nigerian car as beautiful as maybe, one of the best automobile upholstery in the world? At the end of the day, it should boil down to the selection of material rather than the quality of finishing. Once the selection of material is made and it is neatly sewn, it should be the same standard as the best in the world. So, we want to create that atmosphere of everybody having a role to play in this. Those items that will be imported, we will gladly import. But there are basic things that must be done here.
How are you able to fund the factory because the machines here are expensive?
We bought most of the machines here before 2015, from profits of the projects we were executing.
When you are not busy with Kakatar or Zeetin Engineering, what else do you do?
I don’t have any other thing I do. I work. Everything about my life is work.
So, how do you relax?
I don’t know what relaxation is.
What game do you play?
No, no, no! Those things are distractions.
Is that why you have a slim physique?
What I do is better than doing football and playing lawn tennis. It gives me more of can-do-spirit and exercise. I do more of exercise here.
What is your choice of fashion?
I do more of jeans and T-shirt for work, but I do suits. I like good suits, I like good shoes, but recently, I have been thinking, why should I be wearing suits?
So, you don’t do the Bayelsa, Ijaw style?
No. It makes me lazy.
There are those who hold this position that you are fronting for your cousin, former President Goodluck Jonathan. What is your take on that?
(He laughs) Fronting for him in terms of what? This is not Goodluck Jonathan’s thing. Although he is a scientist, a geologist, but could you imagine if Goodluck Jonathan wants somebody to front for him, will he choose a lawyer? He will not choose a lawyer. This is about passion. But what has Goodluck got to do with producing a car engine? It makes no sense. If Goodluck probably wants something, he would look at the oil industry; look at where there is big money. Does this place look like where there is big money? This is almost humanitarian in nature and trying to help Nigeria, to support Nigeria. When Goodluck came here, he was amazed. He looks at me most times as a lawyer and not as an engineer or an innovator. When he came here, he asked, who is in charge? I called my manager and said; see, oga is asking who is in charge. And everybody laughed.