By Moses Nosike
Engr. Margaret Aina Oguntala FNSE, FNSChE, FNIEE is the MD/CEO of Bamsat Nigeria Limited, a Council member of COREN, and three time Vice-President of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (2014, 2015 and 2016). She was a past Chairman of Nigerian Society of Engineers Ikeja Branch (2009 – 2011) and a past general secretary of the Association of Professional Women Engineers in Nigeria (APWEN).
A fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Environmental Engineers (NIEE).
In this interview, Engr. Margaret reveals why prefers science than other subjects and how she ventured into sales of industrial chemicals, and other issues relating to female engineers in Nigeria. Excerpts:
How it all started…
I was born 56 years ago in Ondo State, but grew up in Kwara state. I went to the University of Benin and I lived in Kano. You can see that I’m a Nigerian in the true sense of it. I now live in Lagos, to complete the circle.
I ventured into Engineering because I found it easier to deal with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. And that is because it’s more of visual; you can see what you are doing. When you carry out experiments, you see your results. The results are more visible than things that have to do with History where you have to think, but yet you are still not sure; someone has to tell you that it happened. Because of that, I was more interested in the things I could see and then the calculation. In Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, you can get 100% easily, unlike the other courses – History, Literature and others – you can’t get it, because the perspective that you are coming from may be different from that of your lecturer or your teacher. But in Maths, it is the same thing. The basic theories are the same thing all over.
Practicing Engineering as a woman in Nigeria, how has it been?
I would say it has been fine. I will start from the fact that we were not so many, and then there were cultural biases and all of that. Even now, people are not sure that a female Engineer can do as well as a male Engineer. But some other people have come to realize the fact that Engineering is all about mental ability and capabilities. It is more of mental work than physical work. I would say I have been lucky. I ventured into sales of industrial chemicals; that was where I started my career after my NYSC in Kano where I worked in the brewery and I was a supervisor for the process. So when I got a job as a sales executive in 1988 with a Lebanese company that was into sales of industrial chemicals, I was going around looking for clients that needed industrial chemicals because my company didn’t give me a vehicle, and even when I was pregnant with my first child. The company also relied on me to suggest companies we would deal with which will also determine the kind of industrial chemicals we would import. I also had to look for clients who would need those chemicals and advise them as well. For instance, we were dealing with paint industries, so I had to go round the painting industries in Ikeja, convince them why they should buy our own chemicals, and my office was at Matori. There were some of the upcoming industries that didn’t know what to do, but that was when I started my own company, doing feasibility studies for those companies – helping them determine how to set up their businesses, what kind of industry and raw materials they needed and how to get them and all that. And I was also selling some chemicals as well. Along the way, I had to diversify into other things. At some point, I decided that it was easier for me to be an environmental consultant. Then I had to go to the field to inspect new and proposed plants for industries for the sake of environmental analysis and impact assessment. Sometimes it is not easy. Sometimes when I talk to some clients, they would ask, “Woman, will you be able to do this?” You have to prove to them that you can. Of course, I didn’t work alone. There were people working with me. So the aspect that requires physical strength, the men would handle it. I will say it has not been too difficult.
How were you able to convince some clients who didn’t believe your capability of handling their jobs, and how easy was it, bringing in clients to your company?
It is one of the reasons the company is still alive – because we have had clients. I can still remember there was a time we had a job with Guinness Nigeria Plc. They wanted to have a game. They had their idea but didn’t know exactly how to go about it. So they needed a company to design an equipment for the raffle draw and they needed so many of them. A number of companies bid for it, but my company got the job. So when I went to the man, he was not sure if I could deliver the job, because apart from the design and fabrication, you also need to go round to install. I had to prove to him that I could. He said, “Instead of giving you the whole job, you first have to install two locations for us to see before we can approve”. But the truth is that we did it faster than he expected and we got many other jobs from that. He respected me based on the fact that I delivered on the job. And we have been doing so many other jobs for them since then.
Later on in my career, I had a few friends who are Civil and Mechanical Engineers. We put heads together and decided that since we didn’t have the facilities to start as individuals, it would be a great idea to come together to start something. We agreed that I will be the Managing Partner and they would do the basic construction work and the rest. Even though I’m not a Civil Engineer, I know the rudiments of civil engineering as a versatile engineer should know. When we have to go for meetings, they would represent the company, and I do some supervision.
From your experience, what impact do you think women engineers have made in the national development of the country?
I would say that women engineers have made a lot of positive impact. And that is because we now have a lot of them in the sector, working and proving themselves. We have a lot of successful engineers in the system. I know a quite number of them, but let me mention a few. We have Engr. Olu Maduka who is a very successful Electrical Engineer. She has been a member of many multi-national companies because of her wealth of experience. We also have Engr. Idiat Amusu. I think she is the first female Agricultural Engineer in Nigeria. She designs compressors, boilers and fabricates them. And for companies, she has some clients like WAMPCO and others, and that is how she has contributed to the development of those companies. There are so many others like that. We have a lot of them in the public sector. Look at what Engr. Aramide Adeyoye is doing in Lagos as Special Adviser to the Governor on Works and Infrastructure. She has made a great impact in the space of infrastructural development of Lagos.
Since we have good women engineers on ground, why does Nigerian government still rely on foreigners to handle some of our engineering works?
It is a challenge. It is a political problem and again, a mindset. An average Nigerian believes that imported goods are better than made-in-Nigeria goods. It is not only in the engineering sector. The average Nigerian feels that imported goods are better. But for government, I believe that government can do a lot to develop the Nigerian Engineers rather than depend on foreign expatriates. Expatriates will not build our country for us. When they invite them, government can cause a drain of our resources and brain because the fact remains that Nigerian Engineers are as competent as their foreign counterparts. Some of our members who school abroad do better than them. Those who work abroad perform better than them. So, what is the problem? It means that we are competent here and that fact has been well established. What government needs to do is to look inward, patronize Nigerian Engineers at every level of government so that we can build our capacity, because we don’t have the kind of exposure and opportunities that those people have. The Germans, the Chinese, they have developed their own engineers and then we bring them here. All we need to do is to develop our engineers in-house. We can even send our engineers out to work for them. It has nothing to do with our level of competence. For me, I see it as political and a way for some people to make foreign exchange. On our side, we engineers need to form more of conglomerates than small companies. But then, you need a conducive environment to do that. The Executive Order 5 would address some of that because jobs that can be done by Nigerians are not expected to be given to foreigners, and where the Nigerian company doesn’t have foreign expatriate, you should be allowed to invite partners from abroad which is the way other countries have developed.
How do we revive our education system to suit employers’ demand and further prepare our graduates to meet international standards?
I graduated in 1986. I was in the University of Benin between 1981 and 1986. I know what existed in the Faculty of Engineering as at then. I went to the University about four years ago and I could have shed tears because most facilities with which we were taught were no longer available. Most of them are moribund with many obsolete. That could be one of the reasons the education system is decaying. There is no equipment to get practical and show them what has been taught. So, when they graduate and are ushered into the labour market, many can’t relate what was taught with what is existent in the society. I would advise government to invest more into our tertiary institutions. I also think that the private sector could be a help to our education system as Corporate Social Responsibility. For instance, between 2009 and 2011, I was Chairman of the Nigerian Society of Engineers, Ikeja Branch. We decided to adopt Government Technical College, Ogba as our project, and the reason was the fact that we realized at the time that technical education was actually pushed to the background. Everybody just wanted to become a graduate. So when the pyramid turns upside down, instead of having less engineers, we are having more engineers. So the top is heavy and bottom is low. As a result, we go to neighbouring countries to look for artisans, technicians and all of that. What my branch of NSE decided to do was adopt that college to see what we could do to help them develop. When we got there, almost all their facilities for teaching were not working. What kind of graduates would they produce? So what we did was to approach Mikano. We discussed with them and told them that we would like them to visit the college as well and see what they could do. They went there and did quite a lot. With their help, we refurbished some of the equipment and bought some new ones for them. And all we needed was to convince them that they – Mikano – needed the graduates of that college, and they also needed to give back to the society. They did it and even took some of them for internship. The Nigerian Society of Engineers does something like that. I’m aware of that, we could do more. That also means involving the private sector. We have had instances where some other industries partnered with us in the past to encourage innovation.
The Council for the Regulation of Engineers in Nigeria (COREN), of which I’m a member representing the South West geo-political zone; plans are at advanced stage to begin to look at the outcome of education more than before. What we call it is outcome-based education, which starts from “What do you want to achieve?” For instance, if there is a student who wants to study Electrical Engineering, what does she really want to do? The need of the industries are taken into consideration in teaching the students. It is not like my own time where were taught generally. The essence of it is that there will be more emphasis on skill development, also bridging the gap between the industrialists and the academia. So right now, COREN is training what we call evaluators. One of the functions of COREN is to accredit universities for engineering programmes. Now we have to do the accreditation based on Outcome Based Education (OBE). It is not going to be like before where we have generally syllabus. We are training evaluators now, who would be able to evaluate the syllabus and as well go around and evaluate the activities of the institutions and see how what they are being taught is valuable to the industries.