AVIATIONLINE: We know you were at the helm of affairs in the Skypower Aviation Handling Company, SAHCOL, subsidiary of the liquidated Nigeria Airways. Also you just retired from the Skyway Aviation Handling Company, SAHCOL, subsidiary of SIFAX Group that bought over SAHCOL. Let’s leave your days in the old SAHCOL for another day and concentrate on you second coming to the new SAHCOL. When exactly did you return to SAHCOL?
OWOLABI: I came back in 2012. To be specific, January 18, 2012. I was abroad when I was called by the Board Chairman of SIFAX Group, Dr Taiwo Owolabi. There were other aspirants whom I cannot readily name now but who I know the Chairman knew very well. There were a few others for the position of Managing Director.Not that I was the sole candidate. Finally, the Chairman decided in my favour; to offer me the position. You will be shocked to know that he too wanted to see how successful I would be. It took some few weeks before we finally signed the contract. And it was not that I was just given the position on a platter of gold. Unfortunately, it was during a strike; that heavy strike between the government and the labour on issues bordering on fuel subsidy removal. I think you remember that time. It lasted for about a month or two weeks. During the period, economic activities were paralysed throughout the country. That was the time I came in. You know, some of the airports too, the unions are there also because they are part of the labour.
But as God would do it I have some of my friends among them; my brothers in the union. They saw me on my first day because the whole airport was blocked. There was no movement. I and one Mr Albert, we were given the opportunity to go in. My first assignment was to meet the staff that had been there for two days: to have a chat with them and to thank them for holding on. Because you know the airlines that came in, even though we were on strike, some of them would not want their flights to be delayed unnecessarily. And most of the Arik flights we were handling had been rescheduled as a result of the strike till the night hours when the union leaders had gone back to their houses. We thank God for everything; that’s how we started.
AVIATIONLINE: Which structures were on ground then, which innovations did you put in place to change the company’s public sector orientation to that of private sector and what was on ground when you were leaving?
OWOLABI: I thank God again with the staff that we picked to join us for what I would call the rescue mission of SAHCOL and the change the Chairman was looking for. He was very specific. He had very few minutes with me but with very specific instructions: honesty, hardwork and that I should count on his support. With those words he said I should go and take over.
But because the company had been there before gave me opportunity to know exactly what I wanted. And before coming we have been able to do some rehearsals among ourselves; the few people that I wanted to work to work with me. To map out what are the areasof our need and what we really needed to do. Even though we had almost finished all the plans, but we needed to agree on how to share some percentages before I could see the handling company of my dream. I am very sure with the new dispensation, they would be able to continue with it and complete it, handle it effectively with the best of hands in the face of competitors emerging everywhere in the areas of cargo handling, airline industry and passenger handling as at that time.
AVIATIONLINE: Which value would you say you added to SAHCOL during your tenure as MD/CEO?
OWOLABI: I would rather want to put that question this way: What value did we add to SAHCOL? I don’t want to claim the glory all alone for whatever successes we recorded during my tenure. A team worked with me. A tree does not make a forest. It should be: What value did we add to SAHCOL? A lot. As at today we have the best warehouse industry for cargo warehousing in Africa. The second of such warehouse is coming up in Ghana. But for now I think the way we are going now I know we are the best in terms of procedures to get your goods. We have reduced it so that it takes hours. As long as you are able to settle your documentation with the Customs and Excise Department, whether it is raining, whether it is sunny, with almost 24 loading bays you are free to load your goods. This means that 24 trucks can load at the same time, whether it is raining or sunny or whether it is cold or whether it is even snowing! (Laughter). What I’m trying to emphasise is that we are one of the best in terms of warehousing. As at today we have the best cold room storage facility in the country. That is why I say we are the best handling company in the country. We have six (6) heavy cold rooms, preparing for the government’s intervention in terms of agricultural products. If you recollect, I have been one of the advocates of packaging products to be airlifted for export. The reason is that when we bring these heavy tonnages into the country, the planes that bring them, the freighters, always return empty. And that needs to be addressed because it will reduce the tariff for those who bring these things into the country. It will reduce their tariff since they will have load for export. Also at the same time, those who are in the business of these issues they will have a lower tariff. You know why? The empty belly that the airlines need to carry back will be filled up. It’s the same fuel and the same personnel. Why not discuss with the airlines or the freight forwarders and so on, even at 60%, they will be ready to do business.
Now that you have a government in place during which tenure the oil we so rely on so much is drying up. The price is drying up; not the oil. I believe strongly that the government is looking inwards to what we can export which we have a lot both in the North and the South. We have the big mangoes in the North, so also cashew; we have minerals and so on, that we can export. And the beauty of it is that when you go by sea to any of the countries you want to go with these products it takes two or three weeks before arriving at their destinations. But if you use the airlines, I mean, aircraft, for such freighting.
Take Europe, for example, it takes two weeks, to America, with an Express, two weeks or three weeks. But take, for instance, with 40 tonnes, 50 tonnes of cargo, you freight it to America within 24 hours, such consignment will be in its destination. Or we take it to 48 hours. How many 48 hours do we have in three weeks, both in and out? So even when you have a lot of things in containers and you have so many containers that you may not be able to have on the freighter but the volume that you have that you can utilise to use and turn around, will even be much better than going by sea.
But what am I shouting for? What am I emphasising? It is for the government to come into the area of packaging to help the farmers, to help those who are ready for export. I am not asking the government to come in and do things, no. I am asking government to come in in the area of technical know-how. It can use agencies like the Standard Organisation of Nigeria, SON, and the Export Promotion Council to liaise with the countries to where we want to export our products. Every country has its own standard. It is only in Nigeria we have standard that we don’t follow. When you look at the American specification, we know it is different from the British specification even onvehicles. It is the Standard Organisation of Nigeria that can resolve such issues. So the government I keep on re-emphasising that they need to come to assist is in those areas. I am not saying the government should go into the farms and start carrying the load for the farmers. No, the government should rather help them; go to these countries, find out their standards and what they expect from them, sign agreement with them like it was done with Cocoa and Rubber in those days. There were standards; it was such that if our Cocoa we wanted to export did not meet the standards it would not go out at all. It would not leave the country. So also these issues I’m emphasising. Those are the areas I’m saying government should assist to make sure the authority, that is, the logistics, time frame, the Customs, the Port Health, the Immigration, or whatever. Those authorities that do slow down these issues at the airports need to be looked into.
They (the farmers/exporters) should be a group, not individuals. They should be grouped into sectors to look at these things when they get to the airport at once because they are perishable, approved and sealed. Why do I come into this area? It is because SAHCOL is well prepared, more than prepared for such things. And these are the areas we expect government to be prepared for but they should allow private companies to come into so that they will not be carrying too much load on their head. When I was told that FAAN was building cargo warehouse all over the country, that’s good news but I knew it would not work.I know they cannot operate it because it is meant for the private sector. They can lease, they can sell, they can do BOT, they can do anything with it except operate directly. These are the areas government cannot come into.
In addition to this, the equipment that are needed don’t cost small money. The government needs to come in to provide the enabling environment in terms of the machinery that are needed because of what operates now in the whole world. Terrorists here and there; it makes it mandatory that a lot of homework, a lot of security gadgets are needed at the airports for these issues to be successful.
Whether Nigeria likes it or not, we should go back to the basics of the good old days when agriculture was the bedrock of our economy. There is no way agricultural products will collapse as oil is doing now. The American government already, they have more than enough of oil. What they were buying was just in excess. They too are now trying to release some of their oil; that is what is causing the crisis. Also the ban on Iran’s oil has beenlifted; so there is a glut in the market. Saudi Arabia has refused to reduce her output. And you can see that these people can afford to sell their oil at $10 or $15 per barrel. So we are in a real problem. But those problems can be overtaken if only we can diversify. Though it will take some time, eventually we will overcome. That is why this government needs to be assisted. It will take some time before these issues will begin to manifest. That is why I laugh when some people complain that this government is slow. It takes time before things can be turned around. It is not easy turning things around even in individual’s home; not to talk of a whole country. To turn around a whole nation’s economy from being oil dependent to commodity based will take some time.
This is the time for us to focus on what God has given us in terms of land and the soil as well as minerals. It is not an easy thing.