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Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Engineering of Fear by Funmi Oladeinde-Ogbue


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Engineering is one of the most precise professions in the world. Engineers solve some of the world’s most complex problems. When faced with a challenge an engineer is incredible at dimensioning it, designing solutions, with the most precise calculations and scenarios that when implemented makes even the most ignorant person believe there is a God. They are trained to work in teams and fear failure or being out of the team.

An example of a major Engineering feat in Nigeria is the Great Wall of Lagos. For as long as I can remember the Atlantic Ocean was a major threat to Lagos with the capability of sweeping Lagos away, the waves of the ocean had for decades pounded the soft, sandy shoreline on a timescale far surpassing human history its waves were a major threat to the city and its population of over 20 million people. The coastline was eroding, driven partly by higher water levels caused by global warming but also from the impact of dredging to provide sand for construction of the city so largely all man-made problems. According to a World Bank study, Global Warming also caused the Atlantic to invade Africa’s western coast by up to four metres (13 feet) a year, badly hitting some economically vital areas. Several attempts were made to push back the ocean, but they all just led to new problems.


In December 2005, the government launched the Shoreline Protection Project, which involved the construction of a kilometre-long wall of interlocking concrete blocks and stone. A Belgian dredging vessel, the bizarrely named, Congo River, was hired to do most of the heavy lifting. It was planned that 140 million tonnes of sand would be dredged from the floor of the Atlantic and they would create a new city — The Eko Atlantic. Nine million square kilometres of land would be reclaimed and sit where, a decade earlier, the ocean sat, and a city one-and-half times the size of adjoining Victoria Island. The dredging and land reclamation were done by Belgian firm Dredging International (DI), while Dutch firm Royal Haskoning designed and built the Great Wall. Providing architectural services were MZ Architects (with offices in the Middle East and North Africa) and ar+h Architects. Together the team achieved an engineering feat which many refer to as the 8th wonder of the world symbolised by the “Great Wall of Lagos.

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The Great Wall of Lagos according to the definition on the website of the developers is as follows “The revetment uses a proven method of accropode units as primary armour for the structure. Each accropode is made on site and weighs 5 tons. 100,000 accropodes will be placed in a predefined grid, using a GPS system for pin-point accuracy. The basic principles of revetment, as a proven engineering solution for river and coastal protection, have been used for centuries, if not millenniums, around the world. The sea wall is designed and tested to handle the worst storms in hundreds/thousand years, putting into consideration global warming and rising sea levels. As the final step to the Great Wall of Lagos, a 8.2 kilometre long, 12.5 metre wide, promenade will be built on top of the Great Wall. The Great Wall of Lagos provides forte for the Eko Atlantic City and makes safe from erosion.


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Urban engineers at DHI, the world-renowned Danish hydraulic research centre, carried out extensive scale model trials. Data analysis by computer models showed that the Great Wall could withstand the worst expected storms over 1,000 years.
Anyone that has lived in Lagos at that time will remember the great floods of the bar beach that had essentially made most of Victoria Island unliveable and had defied all solutions until these super talented people were called in to solve the problem and solve it they did. They came to Lagos, Nigeria and solved this problem for us and left albeit with our beautiful Sophie (we had left our puppy with one of the engineers and his wife when we were going to the UK on assignment and by the time we returned they have moved to the next engineering challenge with our beloved Sophie).

What they did leave behind though is the deep fear that we as Nigerians cannot solve our own problems and conceptualise our own solutions, design such complex engineering projects and implement sophisticated solutions to our problems which essentially is what I refer to as the “Engineering of Fear”.

Engineering of Fear is the inability to see a simple solution to complex problems and the belief that you as individual don’t have that genius factor that’s required to design and execute engineering feats such as the great wall of Lagos. This phenomenon is even worse in the oil and gas industry which accounts for 90% of the revenue of Nigeria but 10 percent contribution to GDP which means those linkages to other sectors and our everyday lives are not happening. “It’s not oil that is driving our GDP,” Segun Awolowo MD NEPCI was quoted as saying. “Oil is just about 9%, agriculture is also about 27%, but what is driving our GDP is services, financial services, communication services, IT services.”

In the Oil and Gas Industry engineering feats even much more complex than the Great Wall of Lagos is an everyday occurrence. The industry is home to some of the most innovative and mind-boggling engineering advancements and where most of us in the working world in Nigeria today have grown up, cut our teeth, started our careers and in most cases ended it. The Oil Industry however accounts for the highest examples of the engineering of fear. This is because there is so much technology, complexity, innovation, fear of getting it wrong, inability for people to do things in a simple way, think of simple solutions to problems that has now made sure that when people get into the industry they can never leave as they just don’t know how to fail or how to do things that could pale in comparison to what they have seen is possible in their day to day activities at work, what they have contributed to or the standards they feel they must attain. So, what that means we are all so afraid to leave, to try or most importantly to believe in ourselves and in our own limited abilities to solve our own problems.

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One such project in the Oil Industry that I myself was personally involved in was the Bonga Project. I started working for Shell Nigeria Exploration and Development Company (SNEPCO) which was at the time the Deep-Water company of Shell in Nigeria and what we fondly referred to as the Lean and Mean Shell company. It was established to be a centre of excellence for Deep water and had the finest brains in the Shell world at the time and was tasked with developing the Bonga Field which was first discovered in 1995, and was in water depth of 1,000 metres deep across an area of 60 square km. It had the capacity to produce more than 200,000 barrels of oil a day and 150 million standard cubic feet of gas a day at the beginning. By the end of March 2010, Bonga had produced over 280 million barrels of oil.
Bonga was planned to set new standards for the Nigerian energy industry. The skills and technology used ensured that there were many firsts on the Bonga Project. It had one of the world’s largest FPSOs in the world at the time; Three hundred metres long and the height of a12-storey building, Bonga’s deck (the size of three football fields0. Production comes from the wells on the seabed into the FPSO, it is processed onboard, stored and then sent to the single point mooring (SPM) — a buoy anchored nearby that is used to load it onto tankers for export. When fully laden with oil, Bonga weighs 300,000 tonnes. It is held in place by 500 — tonne anchors linked by 20 km of high-strength chains. Constructing Bonga was an international effort involving thousands of workers across the globe. Samsung Heavy Industries built the hull in South Korea. Tug boats then towed it 24,000 km via Egypt’s Suez Canal to Wallsend in the north of England, where it was fitted with processing equipment modules before making its final journey to Nigeria where the last of the equipment was installed. It was a beautiful thing to have been part of the Bonga story.

Bonga sitting in more than 1000 meters of water
Leaving Bonga and SNEPCO was one of the most difficult decisions I ever had to make in my career. Not only did I doubt my abilities to plan and execute such complexities on my own. I also felt everyone else on the outside world was not on the same intellectual wave length as those I had seen accomplish these amazing engineering feats and thus worthy of my time and respect but most fundamentally, I was afraid. I was afraid of failure and all that it symbolises. I worried I would lose my professionalism, my reputation, my place in life, my sense of pride. I was worried I would lose my income. I had come to believe I must engineer everything. I must control everything in my world. I felt I needed to anticipate every single scenario and have a solution for it after all this is what I had seen done at Shell. This was the training I had received. Only the best would do. In those days we laugh at those seemingly simplistic solutions that other professions tend to have to problems. What we forget is this “Practice makes perfect” and that necessity must by necessity mother invention but only if you try.

I believe those of us that have been afflicted with the Engineering of Fear need to learn a big lesson from this. Not every problem needs a complex solution. And every simple solution can be perfected and made complex with time. You just need to start. According to Prof. Howard Stevenson Professor Emeritus of the Harvard business school “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard for resources currently controlled”. What this implies is that for a person that has spent their career as an engineer or around engineers embarking on an entrepreneurial journey where they cannot control everything or have 15 different scenarios and 37 different contingency plans in case anything goes wrong and they have not simulated 1000 years in advance .

What this then explains is why a country that has produced thousands of alumni of these Engineering companies who have accomplished these engineering feats cannot produce PPE for our medical workers, produce COVID-19 test kits or even the simplest valves required in the Oil Industry. We cannot even provide basic electricity for our country for crying out loud. We fail to solve our countries basic problems. We wait for the perfect conditions before we can act. We worry about fear of failure. We plan, anticipate, and unfortunately fail to act and implement simple solutions. This is why countries like Senegal, Madagascar and Ghana experiment and make progress.

I wish to state that we need to learn from the banking industry, they have taken a more simplistic approach to things right at the start and they have grown. I remember the days when bank MD’s were referred to as “cowboys” because of their seemingly uncouth approach to marketing, their simplistic models of profit making. Then came the Banking Reform. This reform focused on bank consolidation through the mechanism of merger and acquisition. This resulted in rebasing of commercial banks from ₦2 billion to ₦25 billion, while the 89 existing commercial banks in the country became 25. Yes, only the strong survived but today Nigeria’s banking sector is the second-largest in sub-Saharan Africa behind South Africa. Total assets were worth N39.6-trillion (naira) in August 2019. They have gotten sophisticated with time, practice and deliberate reform.

I hope the revolution that needs to happen in the medical industry will take a leaf from the banking reform story. On my own entrepreneurial journey with my companies I have transitioned from Ancorapoint, Libra Security to Jake Riley, a consulting that provides HR and Technology consulting services and Zigma Limited an Engineering service company, I don’t know it all and I don’t always yet it right however despite not achieving complex engineering feats, solving world hunger or building the great wall of Lagos we have had many wins, are creating jobs, meeting client needs and whatever we set out to do, we do and I have truly seen that practice makes perfect. We solve problems, execute projects, fulfil our client’s objectives and have achieved 100 percent growth year on year.

I have enjoyed the journey and moments of immense pride from when Jake Riley won the Best Cloud Company of the year award in 2019

And when we worked with the NCDMB to organise the Nigerian Oil and Gas Opportunity Fair also 2019.
Other project that made me proud is when Zigma completed the first independent produced water treatment plant on the Ozeingbe field on OML 111 for NPDC or when we produced living quarters for IDSL in the North East as they shot seismic in the region

With the NPDC team during the Factory Acceptance test in Houston Texas USA. We got the all clear

Zigma Caravans arriving on site in Kersana, Borno State, Nigeria
Or when our trucks spent one week going from Lagos to Portharourt, Rivers State, Nigeria to deliver much needed medical supplies to Total.

It’s never a dull moment in Jake Riley and Zigma and I have learnt business is a journey. Those complex engineering feats will one day be accomplished by us but till then we soldier on.

I hope you find our journey both inspiring and challenging to break the shackles of fear that tend to hold back those who have been trained as I had to expect complex and precise solutions and take a chance on your dreams and solutions no matter how basic or simple. Rome was not built in a day. The most important thing is to launch out when you need to and put yourself out there to solve problems and there are many of them in our world. One of the greatest fears that Engineers or those of us around them is fear of failure so I enjoin you to have courage and I leave you with the quote below;
“Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities . . . because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” — Winston Churchill

Eko Atlantic
Jake Riley and Zigma Photo archives


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