… If you have built up capital to start dredging, it is supposed to be N200m… And you know all these marine staff, they are like harlots. … as soon as you offer them one stipend above the other place, they are moving – Ntang.
Mr Richard Ntang is the secretary of the Dredgers Association of Nigeria, an up-and-coming group of indigenous dredging outfits based in various coastal cities in Nigeria, and principally in Lagos. The members’ major sites as at date include Lagos waterfronts of Ajah, Ikorodu, Badagry, Apapa seaport and Kirikiri. Ntang says efforts are on to mobilize their colleagues that have gone from Lagos to other coastal cities. Many are at a loss about the inside workings of the emerging Nigeria indigenous dredging practise, and that is where this comprehensive piece promises to begin to ventilate the space. In this interview, he fields questions about various aspects of their dredging business and future plans for the Association, etc. Excerpts:
DDH: How is it with your association today?
Ntang: The biggest challenge we have is individuality, wanting to go it alone. I have the money so I can raise it all alone. But there has to be synergy and networking. You find out that dredging itself is a cartel and an engineering-based enterprise. It’s not buying and selling, there is more to it than meets the eye. It’s an embodiment of so many things so I tell everybody who is coming into dredging to try as much as possible to go through a consultant. First and foremost, they are going to weigh you. What are you doing? What do you have? Do you want to begin big or start small?
DDH: Does your association make this advice available to beginners?
Ntang: Of course, if you are a member, you will definitely sit with other members who have gone through thick and thin and they will narrate their experiences. But you still have to build up a document that becomes a reference bible because the consultant must have done all the information collation. It’s his duty to discover all the difficulties, deals with the community, deals with government, etc. But there are very few consultants who are on ground. And because you have to be consistently in the industry for the next five years for you to be able to say yes I can guide somebody in this business. So you cannot say that because you worked with a dredging company therefore you are a consultant. That is exactly what is happening, I was a manager in this site, and managed this site and therefore I can manage this site. It is not so. There is division of labour in the dredging industry. You cannot tell a dredgemaster to come and start fiddling with the engine of a dredger. But that is what the indigenous dredge owners are doing and that is why they are not getting it right.
DDH: At the level of the association do you people try to tell them to do things right?
Ntang: Of course, why not but there is a limit to which I can come and tell you how to do things right because in the first instance you did not start right. Because if you have built up capital to start dredging, it is supposed to be N200m. And then you go and take N25m with the hope that you want to come and dredge. Of course, the preliminaries alone will chop off all that money.
DDH: How did you arrive at the figure of N200m?
Ntang: It depends on how you look at it. There are two or three categories of (indigenous) dredging companies now. Basically you come into the industry with two things in mind; one, either you want to come and be dredged for or you want to come and dredge for other people. If you are coming to be dredged for, that is you want to come and sell sand, that is another kettle of fish entirely. Then, you may want to come in as a mainstream stakeholder in the industry, that is you want to acquire a dredger. In this case, you need to sit down and put up what we call a business plan. It takes you through how you are going to get money either internationally or locally to be able to acquire a dredger and how you want to begin to utilize the dredger to service your clients; it takes you to the marketing, to know who are your clients. Like we heard at that seminar where the Shell man was sharing with us. Some people who didn’t come to that seminar may be nursing the idea that I want to buy a dredger and come and give it to Shell, not understanding that Shell has a cycle. So, if you don’t have these ideas and you are not using a consultant, you now go and bring a dredger and bring it when Shell has just awarded contracts, and it takes about three years (?) for the cycle to complete, then your hopes are now dashed as your dredger will sit idle for three years waiting. And then that kind of juicy offer you were hoping to quickly get and launch into a contract and begin to pay back your loan, your hope is dashed. So you start struggling for individual contracts.
So this is what you mean by having to study the industry?
Ntang: The industry needs proper examination.
But the N200m I would think is for major stakeholders?
Ntang: Yes, if you want to bring in a dredger. Otherwise, if you are not intending to come in with a dredger. But if you are not intending to bring in a dredger, the least amount you need to come into the industry is about N120.- N150m. Because you need to start right.
DDH: What will the money go for?
Ntang: In the first instance, you need to consult a consultant. Secondly, you need to get land as a place to dredge. It’s either you are buying the land or you are leasing it. Thirdly, you need to acquire proper permits and licenses that welcome you into the industry. Then you need to pay for the cost of dredging itself to a company that will dredge for you. You need to put infrastructure in place. You must have an office because you are not going to remain in the air. You need to have staff, equipment, etc. By the time you put all these together, you need that money. Even if you want to buy just one equipment, assuming you want to sell sand, you cannot sell sand successfully without owning a payloader, if you really want to see yourself break even in the first instance. Because the cost of hiring a payloader to sell sand for you, if you are not careful, you will just establish that business and work for the bank and for the owners of equipment. And then you find yourself making money and you don’t have anything in your reserve. At the end of the day, you can carry your books and say I have sold N135m and you look at expenses, they are about ninety-something percent. And then the manpower in the industry is not cheap, because it’s an engineering based business, you need professionals to man (the business). In the scale of salaries in the industry, even though we don’t have, which I have been looking at to, kind of, streamline what people in the industry should be earning…the least paid, which is a deckhand takes home about N30,000.00 per month.
DDH: We have also heard that some people pay less. Does the Association deal with this kind of issue?
Ntang: No, we don’t regulate what people pay their people because these are registered entities and there is a limit. If you want cheap labour that can deliver for you, so be it. And different people have different approaches to the way they roll out their emoluments to their staff. Some would prefer casual staff, some permanent staff. Some would prefer to pay allowances in the place of this others will prefer to pay basic salaries… So, it depends on how you want to approach it.
DDH: But generally, is there a generally acceptable standard that this is what a dredge master should earn?
Ntang: If you want to look at what the multinationals do, initially when they all started a dredgemaster was supposed to be more or less like the captain of the dredger. But the industry has not spelt that out clearly. A dredgemaster is still struggling for his position with the dredge engineer. The dredge engineer says he is the one that is keeping the machine afloat. The dredge master says I am the one that brings the thing (sand or spoil) out. It’s left for the industry to weigh who is doing what. What we normally do at that instance is to pair them up (equal wages). If you ask me, I pay the engineer more because he does more of the intellectual work while the dredgemaster sits and presses buttons but there are dredgers that have been so automated these days, so computerized that the whole idea is that you just be there in case there is a malfunction. But because we are still dealing with mechanical dredges we haven’t gotten to that point yet.
DDH: But we gather that some of the multinationals you are citing pay even ridiculously low wages…?
Ntang: They do but what is there is that they are consistent in the payment. It’s low but you are sure that at the end of the month you are going to get your daily bread while the indigenous dredging firms can pay you a fat salary but in the next six months they are owing you the money. That is one of the areas that cripple the indigenous firms. Sometimes they can be too greedy. They make the money, they pay peanuts. They make the money, they promise you, they bring you in but as soon as they start making the money, they hold tight. And these boys (employees) are watching you and know they are making money for you. And you are not taking good care of them; they cripple you. You cannot be a successful dredging man without proper manpower. They can make you and mar you. If you like, go and bring a brand new 24-inch or 20-inch IHC dredger, it cannot function by itself. You need human beings to man it. Once those people are not happy….. They sank (an indigenous firm’s dredger, names withheld) sometime ago when he was owing so much money. By 5 o’clock, the dredger was afloat. By 6 o’clock, when he went to bring the Police, the dredger was inside the water. And now it cost him millions to bring that dredge out of the water. And it cost him more millions to put that dredger back in shape. The money he paid to bring out the dredger could pay almost one year salary of those workers. Most dredging companies don’t have conditions of service.
DDH: Is this a strategy to defend themselves against labour issues?
Ntang: But it can also be a disadvantage. If I give you an employment, definitely we have to agree that if you are leaving, you give me a notice. If I am sacking you I have to give you a notice. Now, if there is no agreement and tomorrow somebody says we have to take this dredge to Port Harcourt, and the following day the person gets another offer, and decides to leave you, and probably that is the main man on your dredge, then you are in trouble because whether you like it or not, you cannot force him to come back. He will ask you, do we have an agreement? I have been developing an HR document which I intend to put forward for all dredgers to use as a guide to employing people.
DDH: Do you mean these are some of the benefits of belonging to your Association?
Ntang: Exactly. And then just like in the banking industry you have the Central Bank to monitor the industry, every other setting should have monitoring and controls. Even as it stands now when everybody wants to dredge, most people don’t have the muscle to dredge. Some are still only nursing that ambition to dredge but they still don’t know where to go. So we tell them to come to the dredging secretariat and get information. And good a thing enough, the authorities know that there is an association that is existing.
DDH: Which authorities do you mean?
Ntang: I am talking about government, Lagos State Government, for instance. Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority, that is, the bodies that actually regulate the dredging industry. And most times they get information from the secretariat.
DDH: Are there cases where they have liaised with you to solve problems in the industry?
Ntang: Of course, many times. Even the peace we enjoy in the dredging industry today is because we have been talking. There were times we had helped them recover debts from the dredging companies, people who were owing them. Lagos State Government, for instance, we hold meetings, they invite us for their meetings. There was a time they had to give us percentages to knock off debts that most dredging firms were owing. But this was within a time frame and people who were smart paid and enjoyed that discount. Those who did not pay, they returned back to status quo. Another thing we did was to tell Lagos State Government that we were paying so much and they should help reduce the taxes, royalties or whatever else you call them. Because so many different agencies of government were always present at the site and we felt that this was like double taxation. They have their consultants who are there on a daily basis taking note of the various trucks of sand that are being loaded out of each of the sandfills. And we pay as much as N700.00 for every truck of sand that leaves the sand fills.
DDH: Are there fees or payments…what are the obligations that members owe the association?
Ntang: When you want to join, you come in with the sum of fifty thousand Naira for registration. And then we have this monthly dues of N10,000.00 which is about N120,000.00 for the year. These dues are meant to run the secretariat and take care of one of two things that occur, for instance deaths. And then we have this N20,000.00 we have been asking people who come along to pay as levies so that we can develop our own secretariat.
DDH: Do you have staff in the association?
Ntang: We used to have staff but when activities at a point were hardening up with most stakeholders, the secretariat had to reduce the staff strength to just about two, myself as the secretary and then the chairman, Mr Perry Nwanguma. In fact, the executive members are more or less running the secretariat, the chairman, the secretary, the treasurer, and then we have somebody who is like the taskforce. We have a secretariat that was donated to us by one of the stakeholders but the association is really looking at putting up its own edifice.
DDH: What’s the regularity of your meetings?
Ntang: Usually we hold meetings once in a month but for the past six months we actually have not had any meetings because of the diverse natures of our different stakeholders. Most of them had to go into politics. So they were neither here nor there. It became difficult to put them together, somehow everybody became very busy. So, it’s only when there is a problem on ground …. The secretary is the one that is running the association as it stand right now.
DDH: How many members do you people have?
Ntang: As at 2006, our roll call was about 33, with about 25 registered members. The rest are not financial members, and what I try to do nowadays is to let you know that if you are not a financial member, I may not be able to provide you with all the information that you may need. So if you really want to enjoy all the benefits that come with being a member, you come and register, pay and get your receipt and attend meetings. Because it’s only when you attend meetings that we can rub minds and discuss the future of dredging in Nigeria.
DDH: What parts of Lagos do you mainly have your members?
Ntang: The whole of Lagos State. Ikorodu, Lekki, Badagry, Apapa, reclaiming some sites at the seaport, etc.
DDH: Does your membership cut across to Port Harcourt, Warri and other places?
Ntang: It does because most of the people who dredge here in Lagos eventually take their ships to other places to go and dredge but the intention of the Dredging Association of Nigeria is for it to be national. But basically, the headquarters had to be firmed up first and there has to be an understanding of what the association is going to benefit everybody; people will have to really know the power of dredging association. Ordinarily this association is supposed to be spearheading certain things and even educating government on what the industry is all about so that they can draw some strength in defining their policies when it come to mining things like sand. But somehow we suffered some setbacks because of members who have not been very consistent and they come back when they have difficulty maybe with government.
DDH: The issue of environmental impact assessment is a vexed issue for your association, is that the case?
Ntang: The EIA is something we have been following up closely. I had several meetings with the office of Lagos State Environmental Pollution Agency (LASEPA). I have helped the agency in creating registration and awareness on the part of my stakeholders. But where we are now, LASEPA needs to do some things further because they are the people that regulate EIA. They are also the people that will allocate consultants to us to be able to carry out EIA. We have actually discussed with them and agreed on certain things. First and foremost, on the fees. The General Manager was magnanimous enough, he listened and we scaled down the fees to a particular level and here we also agreed that we also do what we called a joint EIA for stakeholders who are within certain kilometer radius. Because within here in Ajah, for instance, people are dredging at close distances. When we looked at all of that, we said that if you are dredging within one kilometer radius, it will be better for an EIA to be conducted within that location. But for those who are separate, you do your own EIA in that location. I have been made to understand that EIA is very important and after dredging you need to carry out what we call restitution, you have to put back whatever you have used or to the shape that you met it.
DDH: How is the community relations between you people and the community?
Ntang: It’s cordial except for a few people who would want to carry the story that dredging is going to collapse the place. And that is because they have very little knowledge about what dredging is all about. Basically from what I have seen, it depends on the kind of dredging you are doing. But if not that we are dredging here (Ajah), silt would have risen up to a level where floods would be overtaking that place. I am not talking as a professional but from the little I can see because when we started dredging in that place, there was water and bush running close to the road but today we have reclaimed substantial parts of the sea and moved the water right deep. But there is something that worries the people when they pass and see some of the water coming back. This is because some of our stakeholders want to recoup all of what they have on ground, they go a little deeper than expected and that is where EIA and EA come in. I am sure when LASEPA begins to clamp down on some of our stakeholders, most of them will be disciplined.
DDH: You seem to have a lot of experience on that axis, are you one of the first people who started work in that place?
Ntang: I came in quite late but I have been very consistent. For close to five years I have been on ground.
DDH: Which company did you work with first?
Ntang: Well, I came into the industry through my brother, Captain Inah. My first engagement was as a site manager in his site and started developing myself because I saw prospects in the industry. And I decided to metamorphose into consultancy business, which I was doing before coming in, although not in the dredging industry. I was into the wood industry, exporting wood components.
DDH: What comments do you have make about surveys? Many people would tell you that they have done sand search but it is now becoming notorious for some sand search reports to prove false, because they give you a report that there is sand there and you are there for six months and nothing happens because there is no sand.
Ntang: Sand search report is not supposed to last beyond three months.
DDH: But even so, where can one find reliable, competent, useful surveyors?
Ntang: Go to NIWA (National Inland Waterways Authority).
DDH: Do they have the equipment?
Ntang: Of course, they even have the proper equipment and then you go to registered survey engineers which you have to locate. That is why you need a consultant. The consultants know them, so they recommend them to you; people that will do a proper sand search for you. A proper sand search will cost you some millions. If Julius Berger is to conduct a sand search for you, they will charge you close to N3m because they are going to use their equipment and they will map out their coordinates, identify your burrow pits for you and then you register your burrow pits just like you register your oil wells. So that nobody encroaches you register them with NIWA because they are the custodians of the waterways anyway. You can’t do anything in the waters without permission from NIWA. If you look at their booklet, they carry out sand search but I don’t know if they are doing that right now, if that department is actually functioning. Otherwise, they are the right source of search reports. But if somebody does a sand search for you and you go that place and can’t find sand, you could sue the person.
DDH: Are you saying that the Association does not know that there are these instances of failures or that some of these reports have proven false?
Ntang: Well, since the Association is not regulating most of these things, we try to mediate so that it doesn’t bring quarrel. We become an arbiter and say okay go and redo it and try to get it right this time. But the thing is that most stakeholders don’t do sand search.
DDH: Is it not risky to go and bring a dredger to a site you are not sure contains sand?
Ntang: Of course it is risky. You see sand search is a condition to getting registered with National Inland Waterways Authority. But the thing is this, before you start conducting a sand search, you must be sure that you are going to dredge within three months. Otherwise that sand search report is null and void. There is always movement of sediments and then if you do a sand search in a particular area, and that place is not registered with the appropriate authorities, what stops me from bringing my dredger and sucking up the whole thing. So it’s always advisable for people to stay within their water fronts because that has caused some problems in the past amongst stakeholders and we even had to invite NIWA to come and settle some scores. But in the spirit of the Association, we agreed amongst ourselves that the sky is big enough for all the birds to fly without colliding, so why don’t we do this amicably. Under normal circumstances, dredgers are not supposed to be close to themselves. The minimum distance is about 1,000 metres.
DDH: But on the Ajah axis I don’t think they are maintaining such a distance?
Ntang: They do maintain it. You see when you are moving on the land, you may not appreciate the distance between dredgers. Sometimes, you look at them from a distance as is they are very close but when you go by boat, you find out that they are far apart. Some are in, others are out. And again, you find out that there are not too many dredges on the water. Most of the dredges that you see there are not working, they are wrecks. The only functional dredges that are on the water as I speak now are not more than four or five, Denka Marine, Bright Store, Julius Berger, Westminster Dredging, Chase Dredging and Jazaam, who just came in; and the stretch is about three or four kilometers. And for people like Julius Berger or Westminster, you know they go right into the deep(er parts of the lagoon). Right now as I speak you cannot get sand within 250 to 300 metres from the shoreline, you have to go deeper.
DDH: And this is as a result of the constant dredging that has been going on?
Ntang: Yeah. Which has helped the environment too. It has been able to contain the erosion.
DDH: Is your Association going to do anything about manpower development?
Ntang: Well, I think I will leave that to the individual companies but if they want the Association to help, why not. Like I said before, I am developing a document to take care of the human resource package and will make it available to different dredging companies. They may choose to take it or may not because everybody has his own ideas as to why they want to employ…
DDH: But one other very important thing that your Association can do is to accredit who is who in the industry. It’s not enough for me to come boldly and say I am a dredge master from Julius Berger, and the person I am talking to may not know me very well but because there is nobody to tell him that this man is actually a clerk at Ikota, he may employ me as a dredge master…
Ntang: That is where professionalism comes in. If somebody comes to you and says he is a dredge master, you have to take time out and find out where and where he has worked. And that is the area where the Association becomes (important) because we have a data bank of the dredging companies, so we can easily call the dredging company and say we have so and so person here, has he ever worked with you? For how many years and what is the reason that he left?
DDH: So your Association does that?
Ntang: Yes, we do. If you ask, we can give you that information because we know almost all the staff. Because though the industry is big it is closely related. And you know all these marine staff, they are like harlots. They move from one place to the other so much so that as soon as you offer them one stipend above the other place, they are moving. And as they are moving, they are driving themselves along. Once one person goes to the other side, the next day he is taking the deckhand. And once it gets sour there, he takes them to another place. So they keep on running in circles. But that has not fared well for most of them because at the end of the day, they lose out because once they discover that you are not consistent, the news gets round. So the next thing is for them to run to Port Harcourt or Warri where nobody knows them. But it would be very nice if the Association can put a package they can set as a standard for employing dredging and marine staff so that it gives leverage to anybody who is coming to start off. Or a minimum wage that can be paid.
DDH: Is this what you hope the HR document you are preparing will achieve?
Ntang: Yes, it is part of the recommendation.
DDH: So when is the document going to be ready?
Ntang: It’s ready but it’s not free. It’s under a consultancy. If you want it, you request and we put it together for you.
DDH: Does this document also offer recommendation on the issue of family concentration in emerging indigenous dredging firms?
Ntang: But you know in the African setting, you cannot stop that. However, people who borrow money from the bank know that family business is rubbish. That you business will die after six months because when you put your brother as the general manager of the company and take for instance if your brother is greedy and wants to contest the position with you, he will be building his pocket, with a view of saying bye-bye, I now have my own business even when you have not set him free on your own. So it is really not good in the industry and I would want to advise people who are in the dredging industry to go for qualified hands, make sure that you engage the proper people that know about the industry. Get advice from people who have suffered setbacks. Go to consultants. Most indigenous companies are afraid to take consultants, they just believe that they can do it. Nigeria is a good terrain for business if you understand the way and manner it’s being done here. But if you don’t and you want to bring the American mentality to Nigeria, then you should be prepared for some hard times.
DDH: How many of your members have dredgers?
Ntang: If you are talking about registered members, we just have a few. But the unregistered members who have dredgers are many. But most of them are in the Niger Delta. Before now, we thought we would have been able to get to the Niger Delta and start having meetings.
DDH: Are there disputations about whether the Association should be or should not be? Is the Association registered at the Corporate Affairs Commission?
Ntang: Yes, the registration process commenced since almost 3 or 4 years ago and all that is needed to be done has been done and we have all been waiting for the final certification and all those stuff. But you still find this in-house talk of ‘look, I think people who own dredges should have a different association and people who are just selling sand should have a different association’. But my own school of thought is that the man who is selling sand has come into the business with the hope or vision of owning a dredger. So, probably that’s where he wants to start and before you know it, he is already owning a dredger. But you who is going straight to own a dredger may not acquire the same experience as the man who is selling sand. So it depends on where you want to start. So the issue is there but we have been managing it. So what we do sometimes is to say that if you think that you who own dredgers have an issue to discuss, you can go and discuss it in a committee, and the other people will discuss theirs. But there is a marriage between the man who owns a dredger and the man who is being dredged for to sell sand. You cannot run away from that marriage, it’s interwoven. I want to encourage our stakeholders to know that they cannot do the business without proper registration with the government. And if they pay all that is being owed the government, they will enjoy peace and there will be no need for the secretariat to begin to intervene in so many aspects. And they should come together. We need to form a formidable front so as to approach the government for certain things. For instance, if you are bringing in a dredger, we can speak to the government to reduce the custom duties for people like us because we are helping the economy. But if we are not together and don’t have a common front, it will be difficult to make things easy for the industry. Another thing is drawing money from the banks would have a better thing if we had a powerful association, because banks would always make references to the Association. I have letters from banks asking the secretariat to recommend or trying to find out if this person is indeed grounded in the industry. And if you are not, I will say I don’t this person as owning a dredge or getting into dredging. And you will not know. Though many banks in Nigeria are still not grounded in having people who can really assess the dredging sector. So, if our stakeholders can really come together, loans can be very easy to access. Initially, we thought we could form ourselves into a cooperative society. In one of our meetings, I remember we discussed that we can even enable our members to dredge. We had one way of generating money in the secretariat, stakeholders were putting money. If you had difficulty, maybe you had a break-down, you can come to the secretariat and borrow money at a very minimal rate. These are all the ideas that are in my document; you don’t need to go to the bank. The secretariat has a bank account and by the time you come, we assess you and the process of getting maybe N20m or N10m or N5m becomes very easy for you. And then we can say we understand what is going on, your dredger has broken down, you need about N2m. And then the board or members of the committee will sit and interview you and decide and say, okay give him. And then, we know how to get back our money as long as you are in the industry and you are a member. These are some of the benefits we intend to put in place. The idea of the Association is to make sure that value is being added to the stakeholders. And that we try as much as possible to protect our stakeholders from external aggression from government, individuals, communities and so on.