Ndulue Uchenna Frank is an engineer by training, and director of H-PTP Energy Services Limited based in Lagos, Nigeria. He has 22yearsof professional experience in well construction, deep water drilling, cost control, efficient contract management and project delivery process. He has worked in several local and international environments. In this interview with ZEBULON AGOMUO, Editor, BusinessDay Sunday, he spoke on a variety of issues, including why Africa should move fast to start investing in technology as it will get to a stage where the current technology will no longer be supported by the developed countries and African industrialists will be starved of energy to be able to operate or even compete globally. Excerpts:
By way of proper introduction, could you please tell us a little about yourself?
I am a father of four kids, three beautiful daughters and a son; they are so dear to me, and the reason am working so hard to set them up in life by providing them the best of education.
Having said that, I am an engineer by profession- joined Schlumberger immediately I finished my NYSC 22 years ago; worked through the ranks in Schlumberger to become a business line manager, managing Schlumberger Well Construction, Drilling and Measurement business line across the West African Geo unit.
I was able to steer the business from near collapse after the Covid-19 pandemic period to a profit level, averaging over 20percent IBT consecutively over 4 quarters before I took an earlier retirement in April 2022 to focus on something else in the oil industry.
As a Well Construction or Drilling Engineer with specialisation in deep water client interface and cost control management, what does your work entail?
I basically spent most of my career in the well construction side of the business, where we bring in all the expatriates in constructing wells. I worked across different terrains, from Land, Swamp, shallow waters to Deepwater environments.
Deepwater is a different and challenging environment in well construction when compared to other environments, this is where specialised skills are deployed in jetting in the conductor pipe before the start off drilling operation.
In these areas, preparation and accuracy are key when it comes to the jetting in conductor and experience plays very important role in the execution as no two jetting in of conductor are the same. In cost control, I work with the client in establishing areas where we can make meaningful impact in controlling the overall well cost as that is the key part in survival of every asset owned.
What is the biggest project you have delivered? How did you feel after delivering such project?
I have been actually involved in delivering a lot of projects throughout my career, but the one that stands out was the delivering of Bonga wells for SNEPCo operations between 2018 – 2019, this project was unique as it started during the operational ramp up where there was a lot of shortages in both equipment and personnel, and the services required was complete, I was able to pull the team together in delivering the services as required, running the operation for complete one full year without any insure. During the performance review, the only comment that came from the Drilling Manager is that this is what is expected from Schlumberger.
What would you remember as the biggest challenge you have ever faced in your career? How did you resolve the challenge? Have you ever thought of quitting?
The biggest challenge I ever faced was supporting the operations during the Covid-19 period, we must plan for different scenarios to get the operation going as things could go down south within a short period of time.
I managed operation within the West Africa region where negative Covid-19 test is required before the personnel is accepted on board the rig; I have been forced sometimes to run operation without any single personnel on the rig and was still able to deliver.
You have worked in the oil and gas industry both in Nigeria and abroad for 22 years now; what has your experience been and what would you term your greatest achievement so far?
Working outside the country comes with its own challenges; however, I will say the benefit is something else. It is a different ball game altogether, quite different from what is being experienced in Nigeria.
It exposes you to different ways of working, sometimes I call it culture and you will begin to understand how to manage those challenges to be able to meet the overall business objectives.
Managing people with different cultures could be very challenging in working environments, being able to manage people with different cultures and backgrounds to achieve the overall business objectives is one of my greatest achievements.
You have worked on different projects with different teams in the United States, Ghana, Côtéd’ivoire and Nigeria how has your experience working overseas helped in your new role?
Working in different parts of the world have exposed me to different cultures and working environments, different ways of approaching challenges that we experience daily.
Those exposures made me to start asking some questions and pushed me to start looking at where we can make some changes. I would like to talk about the cost of well delivery which is where we are currently focusing on this point.
I noticed that the cost of well delivery in Nigeria has been on the high side compared with what is obtainable in the developed world and we started looking for how to bring down the cost of Well construction in Nigeria. So far so good as we have been able to demonstrate that it is achievable in Nigeria.
How has technology and innovation contributed in cost control, contract management and in efficient well delivery process? Could you please, share your experience in relation to pre- and post-COVID times?
I spent my entire career in the oil industry working for Schlumberger that has been in the forefront of technology innovation, throughout my career, I have been involved in introducing different technology all aiming at improving our customer experience.
The Covid-19 pandemic came with a lot of challenges, where there were lots of restrictions with respect to personnel movements, having personnel quarantine sometimes up to two weeks to be able to go offshore and still be able to manage the available personnel pool and cost to keep the business running.
In this case technology came in handy as we have to deploy crew management system to be able to cope with the challenges and the demand of the job.
What would you term the biggest drawback of Deepwater Well construction in Africa, if any?
Well Construction cost in the Deepwater environment is what I consider the biggest drawback, being able to raise such fund is very challenging in the oil and gas industry and by the time you factor in the environment, it becomes more complicated.
Most of the International Oil Companies (IOCs) that have such big pocket to invest in such environments are no longer willing to do so because of the pressure from their host country on fossil fuels, and the small independents are not willing to risk such fund in Deepwater environments especially in Africa. But with the ongoing war in Europe, the narrative is changing as the western world is looking for alternative energy source from Russia.
What would you say is the future of Deepwater Well Construction? How prepared are you for this future vis–a-vis the lessons the Coronavirus pandemic has thought business leaders across sectors?
With the ongoing war in Europe, the appetite by the IOCs to investing in Deepwater environment in sub-Sahara Africa is increasing as they are racing to find replacement for the energy being imported from Russia.
So, I expect increase in well construction in this space within a short time and with the supply chain still recovering, I also see slight increase in the cost of well construction.
And for lack of substantial investment over the past couple of years and increase in energy demand that could not be covered by renewables, I expect the oil price to be above $90 for the next couple of years which will create some confidence, and this will drive investments.
The biggest challenge I see is that the cost of delivery will increase because of limited resources both in equipment supply and services.
There have been some advances in implementation of new technology because of Covid-19 pandemic lockdown in the industry and I expect it to continue to be able to address some gaps that will arise during the ramp up.
The energy transition debate: African leaders want more time to enable Africa industrialise with resources available to her before joining the clean energy transition proposition. What is your take on this? Give us your thoughts on the energy transition.
This is a topic that has dominated the airwaves for some time now and I am happy that the African energy experts in the industry are voicing their opinion when it comes to energy requirements in the continent.
For sure, there is need to take care of our continent because of global warming, however Africa needs to be carried along as they don’t even have enough energy to keep developing now without the support of the developed countries.
My own opinion is that Africa should move fast to start investing in technology as it will get to a stage where the current technology will no longer be supported by the developed Countries and African industrialists will be starved of energy to be able to operate or even compete globally. In other words, we need to start developing our energy to be able to survive the energy transition.
Like in many other science professions, there is a dearth of skilled manpower in Deepwater, Cost Completions Engineering, especially in Africa. How do you think this can be mitigated?
When I joined the industry in 2000, there were two companies in the industry that were known for basically a training ground and they are Schlumberger and Shell, the reason you see most of their ex-personnel everywhere in the industry.
They still train as of today, but their contribution has dropped significantly and with the poor condition of service in Nigeria, most skilled personnel prefer to go and work in the Middle East where they will be able to earn in the hard currency, thus leaving a big gap of skilled manpower back home.
This is an area H-PTP Energy Services Limited have come to fill, since we started, we recruited a lot of young Engineers and we started training them from scratch, our strategy is to have a mixture of home-grown Engineers with experts in the industry to try to bridge the gap. We also ensure their condition of service is good enough to be able to retain them in the country.
Are you involved in any form of mentorship of young people, whether in Africa or abroad as a way of giving back to society? What is the focus of this mentoring programme? How structured is it?
Personally, I have trained a lot of young engineers to take up bigger challenges in the industry, I also believe we need to at all time train people to be able to move up to a bigger role.
When I was in Schlumberger, I was known for getting people to move up to take up responsibilities.
This is the same principle we have adopted in H-PTP Energy Services, empowering younger generation to step up as we know that we don’t have much time left and we need to groom younger engineers to fill in our positions.
For all our trainees, we adopted similar approach as Shell training programme, it is a combination of both intensive classwork and field exposure; they are also being appraised quarterly to monitor their progress.
What’s your family life like? We know it could be quite a bit of a challenge for people in your profession, especially when you have to be on a project for a long time?
This is the most difficult part as you see yourself staying away from home most of the time; however, I try as much as possible to make out time to be around my children in some great moments in their life, because this is what you will look back and be proud of. I tell you it is not always easy anytime you have to leave them behind to return back to work.
How rewarding is your job giving the risk involved?
There is nothing more fulfilling than doing what you like and enjoy doing; I am a person that always cherishes seeing results. In most cases, I see difficult times or challenges as an opportunity to find a solution and that is what keeps me going. I like being attributed to have successfully delivered projects and that is what keeps me going. One other thing to mention is that no two projects are the same, they all come with different challenges and difficulties, so finding a solution and taking it to conclusion is something I personally derive joy from.
How do you relax, when you are not thinking of supply chain, business development and cost control issues?
Interesting area to talk about. I relax most of the time watching soccer (mostly live matches), this is one way I relax taking away worries of work and other things.
And when there are no live matches to watch, I like listening to live band music of the old, it brings back memories of growing up and I tell you these are the moments I have come to cherish so much.
This is the reason I enjoy CLASSIC FM anytime am in the car. I also like exercising to keep fit as we need it to keep going.