Dr. Ibilola Amao: Playing On Men’s Turf
Words By -Yemisi Suleiman
Dr. Ibilola Amao Principal Consultant of Lonadek Global Services is a force to reckon with in the male-dominated Energy, Power, Oil and Gas sector. With a strong passion to change the narrative that women cannot build successful careers in these sectors, Amao is famous for her mentorship role for future women leaders in STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics)
A first-class graduate of University of London, Queen Mary College and a Ph.D. graduate from University of Bradford where she specialized in Computer-Aided-Design and Drafting, Ibilola, is currently focused on empowering young people with digital literacy skills, digital marketing skills, project management as well as exposing them to international markets without necessarily leaving Nigeria.
As her company Lonadek celebrates 30 years of existence this year, Ibilola opens up personally and professionally about the challenges to faced during her early stages of career, how her father influenced her, her experiences with gender-related stereotypes and discrimination and on Nigeria achieving her full potential in terms of energy sufficiency, amongst other issues.
Recently your company celebrated 30 years of existence, looking back to when you started, how has it been so far? How old were you when you started this business?
I started it in 1991 when I got back from England. I was 26, I will be 57 in January. It has been an amazing journey of hard work, focus and diligence. I am learning on a daily basis; like today, I learned about makeup.
You started out as a Technology company before diversifying into energy, what informed that?
My first degree was in Structural and Civil Engineering, while my Doctorate was in Computer-Aided Design. I specialised in 3D modelling for oil and gas facilities. When I came back to Nigeria, I really didn’t want to be on site and So, I decided to use my Doctorate degree in Computer-Aided Design. As a tech company, we started training and exposing Nigerians to use computers to design facilities. In those days, only expatriates were designing facilities with computers, universities were not training engineers in the use of computers and Nigerians were not allowed to use computers in the multinational oil and gas companies. So, when I came back, I just realised that this can’t continue, I started training Nigerians, and to God be the glory, expatriates don’t do those jobs anymore. Nigerians have dominated that space.
Then, I moved from information technology to engineering technology and I realised there was another problem; there were so many jobs that Nigerians could do that expatriates were doing. So, we went into advocacy for the passage of the Nigeria Oil and Gas Industry Development Content Act, which is the local content law, to ensure that Nigerians are trained to be able to do jobs they can do, and have the right of the first user, so that before an expatriate comes into Nigeria to do a job, we must be sure that Nigerians cannot do it. With time, we realised that engineering technology would solve that problem. Recently, with the Covid pandemic, we realised that people are working from home, hence digital transformation is very important. So we decided to go back into advocacy, for capacity building for young Nigerians to be able to deplore information technology skills to work from anywhere.
So, right now, we are training about 30 Nigerians with Amazon’s web services as cloud practitioners, so that they can work from Nigeria. They don’t need to cross the desert; they don’t need to cross the sea. They can work in jobs in Canada, in the USA, Europe in the Far East.
How does that work?
Once we train you in digital literacy and capability skills, you can work on your laptop here and your job can be in America or Canada. There are some shortages in particular areas of competencies. As Nigerians, what we are trying to do is encourage Nigerians to research where those job vacancies are, where the skills gaps are global. If you can discipline yourself and work for six to twelve weeks and up skill yourself for those competencies, and get the international certification and post them on your LinkedIn profile, you stand a chance of being invited for an assessment or an interview anywhere in the world. Some of the people we have trained are working in South Africa, and in the USA.
What are the challenges, running a company like yours especially being a woman?
In the early days, the first challenge I had to overcome was male domination; men didn’t take women seriously. They think it is every girl they can tell to meet them in their guest house just to get a job or contract. I couldn’t provide services directly to my clients because I was a woman. Men didn’t take me seriously; people wanted me to compromise to get jobs.
I had to overcome that by being very serious and focused. I worked as a subcontractor in NNPC for ten years and ten months. I had to stoop to conquer. So, NNPC will get the jobs and they will sub contract them to me.
Those were the years when I got married, had my children and built a track record. I left NNPC as an in-house consultant, set up my own office and started providing services directly to clients.
So, aside from selling software you were also training the people to use the software?
Yes, and that was how we were able to build a track record. Over the years, we have done advocacy, youth empowerment, education, enlightenment and entrepreneurship. Now we are focusing on women; women in energy, women in engineering and women in entrepreneurship.
I believe that young girls don’t need to go through what I went through. I need to share my experience with them, to encourage them that if you focus on continuous professional development, and if you are determined, competent and skilled at your job, you can attract opportunities. You don’t need to compromise to get a job. People will look for you if you are good at what you do.
What do you do with women in energy?
We do girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) outreach in senior secondary schools, to identify young girls who like mathematics, physics, chemistry, and information technology. We also work with STEM teachers, and career counsellors, to encourage these girls, and let them know that having a career in energy, in technology or becoming a businesswoman is not a bad thing.
A lot of mothers don’t encourage their daughters, especially when they hear their daughters are staying behind in school with boys to learn physics. So now, we are trying to encourage more women to study physics, we are trying to encourage more females to be physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics and information technology teachers.
We got a grant from Lagos State to train 60 teachers. Once you get more girls into STEM, then the chances of them going to University to study engineering is higher; and once they do, we start mentoring them and get them their first internship. So, from 400 level and 500 level, they go and do maybe six months in a male dominated sector and get exposed.
What is it with energy that you find fascinating? Again, what do you think a country like Nigeria can do to move into its full potential, in terms of energy sufficiency?
I started off with oil and gas and at some point; I volunteered to be on the committee of the Energy Institute of Nigeria. Through the work I was doing with the Energy Institute of Nigeria, I met the managing director of the Energy Institute UK and then I became a council member in the Energy Institute UK and I served there for two terms of six years. I realised that countries must focus on energy sufficiency to be able to develop and, for a country like Nigeria to move into its full potential, we needed to have enough energy to fire up our manufacturing industry and process our mineral and natural resources.
But we have a very weird orientation; we are just exporting crude and then buying finished products at a very ridiculous amount of money. We have not focused on how we are going to optimize our mineral and natural resources, convert our oil and gas into refined products and get our refineries working. How are we going to use our gas to fire gas turbines, to provide uninterrupted power supply for our people, to fire our manufacturing industries, to create jobs and wealth for Nigerians? I now realise that we are not even thinking properly. Sitting in meetings where people are thinking strategically about energy sufficiency and creating jobs and wealth in their economy and sustainability opened my eyes to a lot of things.
We, on the other hand, are just thinking of how we are going to sell crude and make money in a very corrupt system that is focused on oil and gas, as if that is the only thing. When I got exposed to the sustainable development goals, I realized that clean water, clean and renewable energy is so important, and sustainability is so important. So I now started looking at the entire value chain of the energy sector which is oil and gas, renewable energy hydro wind, solar, etc. There are different sources of energy. Nigeria has different geographical regions with different energy supply mediums. In the North of Nigeria, we should have solar supply farms providing solar energy and using that energy to drive mechanized farming. In Lagos, hydro energy; we can use waves to drive turbines, that was what they wanted to do many years ago, but they didn’t allow it to happen. Then there is geothermal biogas from waste in the agricultural sector. There is even methanol from starch and cassava. There are different forms of energy. I realised that for us to move from a third world country to a mechanised industrialised economy, where there is uninterrupted power supply, where jobs and wealth is created in our country, we need to expose a lot of Nigerians to the importance of energy, different sources of energy, the value chain of energy, and how energy can jump start any economy and sustain the leadership of any country in its optimisation of its mineral and natural resources. That was my attraction to oil and gas.
So, what would be your advice to the government on these issues?
Our government does not really think about these things or really understand the economics of sustainability. Unfortunately, the process of leadership in Nigeria is very warped; the leaders don’t understand the economics of the drivers of Nigeria as a country. We sell crude oil and get money from it, that is all. They don’t really understand that oil and gas can act as a catalyst for us to power up and revive other sectors. We are so blessed in Nigeria, if you look at the pre 1952 resources map of Nigeria, each of the 774 Local Governments has one or more mineral or natural resources.
So, if our government really wants to think for its citizens, every Local Government Chairman in the 774 LGA should be working on their mineral and natural resources equipping the teeming youths to optimise such resources so that every LGA is self-sustaining. Selling crude oil and sharing money from the centre is making everybody lazy.
You seem very passionate about Nigeria?
I am very passionate about Nigeria. Nigeria is such a paradox. I am very blessed to have been born into a royal family. My late father was light years ahead of his time. He was a very patriotic person. I still see Nigeria from the lens of my late father. When he travelled, we travelled together across Nigeria and he pointed out the advantages one tribe had because of the mineral and natural resources, cocoa, timber, cotton, groundnut etc.
I was not just a geography student; I saw geography as a child because my late father travelled a lot. He was Comptroller of Works for the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing before he retired as a Director. So we travelled with him when he was going to supervise building or bridges that they were constructing. Seeing him talk about Nigeria as a country opened my eyes to the fact that Nigeria is probably one of the best countries in the world because everywhere, there are resources, gold, precious stones, tin, steel, etc, I mean we have everything here. Meanwhile, a few people have cornered it and are oppressing the rest of us. So we need to let all the youth know that Nigeria is an oyster, we have everything here, no need to run anywhere. Why are expatriates coming from Australia, America, China, Indonesia, to this same Nigeria? Obviously, they can see what most of us are not seeing. Is it fashion designers we don’t have here? Is it Nollywood? When we come together and decide that we want to do something, we can change the country.
Talking about fashion you mentioned earlier that you wear only Nigerian fashion what informed this dress sense for you?
It started in 2003 in the UK. I bought my last foreign made suit in 2003 and since then, I have been in Ankara.
Why did you decide that?
I went to a technology conference in Houston and I bought a suit in 2003 for a hundred and seventy dollars. At that time, it was a lot of money, and I thought to myself that If I gave it to a tailor in Nigeria, I would be creating a job and wealth for a Nigerian tailor because I have been going round for the past ten years, preaching local content. So, why can’t we take Nigerian content outside oil and gas such as fashion, to other countries? Then, I gave my tailor two old suits that I didn’t need any more, to rip them apart and copy it in indigo, ankara, aso-oke, adire. A few tailors messed up a few fabrics but, eventually, I started getting really nice things.
Are you doing anything special as part of your 30th anniversary celebration?
We are pivoting into education because I am taking a step back from running the company, and encouraging the next generation to take over. We have set up a centre of excellence for digital literacy and engineering technology in Jibowu, Yaba, Lagos. It is like a school where people can get trained to get their MBQ, City and Guilds certificate. They won’t need to go abroad to get these certifications anymore.
What’s your greatest inspiration in life? What keeps you going?
My faith! I am an intercessor. I believe that with God, all things are possible. So, where people see issues, problems and challenges; I see opportunities, projects and initiatives.
I have always been encouraged by my late father but at some point, I had mentors, coaches and support from family and friends, even in our intercessory group, we’re always praying for Nigeria. I just take each day at a time and God has been faithful.
When you’re not working, how do you take time for yourself?
I love to read, I love music, I love watching movies. I love to eat out with my friends and family. I also love to pray and teach teenagers in the church. Sometimes, I travel.
Naturally, I love to help people solve their problems and I’m always trying to discover new ways to do things differently. I don’t get bored at all, but you won’t see me partying on weekends because I work so hard during the week. So, on weekends, I just want to chill, listen to music.
What kind of music?
I love jazz and praise and worship. Recently, my daughter sings and I am falling in love with some of her songs.
What is the best entrepreneur advice you’ve received that has worked for you over the years? Remain humble, keep your feet on the ground and value people because you can’t achieve anything without a good team.