From taking on freelance jobs to becoming a consultant sort after, Comfort Ekpe seems to have cut a niche for herself in the safety industry in Nigeria, playing advisory roles and consulting for organisations, helping them to build HSE into their operations. In this interview with Safety Record Newspaper’s Editor, Paul Mbagwu, she tells her story and her efforts at HSE career creation projects. Excerpt.
Tell us about yourself
My name is Comfort Ekpe. I am an environmentalist and an occupational health and safety (OSH) specialist based in Lagos and available as a private practitioner. Most times I work as volunteer for occupational health and related causes. I have a background in environmental management; this is what I spent about six years studying in the university. Funny enough, when I was graduating, I had an opportunity to interact with a foreigner who had a lot of ideas about my profession and told me how related occupational health is to environmental management. Immediately I graduated, I found myself in training. Back then, there was no school in Nigeria for occupational health and safety and I needed a professional course. So, I went to the Institute of Safety Professionals of Nigeria (ISPON), which gave me my first training in OSH just after graduation. Fortunately, while I was on the one-week course with ISPON, I got a job. So it was that easy to get into the industry and my first job was so challenging. I had my first job at a company called Piccolo Brunelli, an Italian engineering firm; I worked there as an HSE coordinator, (on) a multibillion project. After a while there, I had to leave for another company. I left because I discovered I still had more to learn, and in fact my new job was more tasking than the first. The quest for advanced knowledge made me go for another programme in OSH and this was in Institute of Petroleum Studies in Port Harcourt, Rivers state. It was actually the only school I could find in Nigeria offering a degree in OSH. I went in for a Masters degree in OSH. I was still holding my job – I was on a study leave.
Along the line, just like you checked me up on Linkedin, another organisation checked me up on Linkedin from overseas. The organisation wanted me to do something for them in Nigeria on HSE. They said they needed someone with my kind of passion to run their organisation in Nigeria on part-time basis as they were not ready to employ full-time. So, while running the master’s programme, I was on a study leave from my organisation, and also working for the foreign company part-time, representing them in the country.
Tell us about Acquilla Solutions
Acquilla Solution was birthed in 2014. While having the opportunity to work from a freelance basis, I thought to myself, “Why don’t I put something together that I could be able to fall back on when I complete my programme, something that would afford me the opportunity to continue doing what I am doing?” The truth is that I really enjoyed the freelancing jobs, because it actually gave me the opportunity to get into a lot of industries as well. So, Acquilla Solutions was started as a HSE company and the company has three directors, one is a British, one a Nigerian, and I.
What do you do in Acquilla Solutions?
Acquilla does a lot of advisory and consulting (jobs) for organisations, helping them to build HSE into their operations. The funny thing is that most of these organisations will not put safety into their operations until they have an imminent visit from regulatory bodies. Based on my networking ability, most people always refer them to me. Along the line came sales of Personal Protective Equipment which is a major part of some organisations’ operation. It’s not the mainstay per se, but Acquilla takes care of that for organisations. Sometimes, they call me to come and train their staff or for an advisory job and tell us what they want us to do. It’s so pathetic what you see on site; you see some people wearing palm slippers on the site. After talking to most directors, they request for advice on what to do and when you do, they ask you where they can get things you ask them to get. So, sale of PPE wasn’t the main aim of Acquilla Solutions’ business, but it was as a result of the frequent demands from clients we were dealing with. This led Acquilla into part of PPE supply; we are not into retailing. We have the part where we do training. Initially we thought of getting international certification, and before the naira devaluation we had some courses we were running that were international. From last year, because we have different focus, we believe more of hands-on coming out from my passion, looking at the needs in Nigeria. We discovered that most of these guys trained and having international certificates are not really doing anything tangible with them at the end of the day. It is good to have international certificates. I am not condemning it, (because) I have one too. The point is what I can give to Nigerians that will be useful to them. For instance, I am really in support of Nigerians who will go out for first aid training practical hands-on. The certificate can be international, but we can also certify them locally – fire safety, firefighting, scaffold operators, inspectors, erection and all of that. We do fire safety installations, but when my technicians – I have two of them – are not around, it’s a problem. But I have a lot of graduates everyday asking for jobs and when I need people daily to be on site working, you do not find them. So you end up inviting the man who knows nothing about safety to do the job. We thought, so why don’t these guys with the basic education come in to get trained? This was why we birthed the idea of core safety professional training as well. That’s part of what we do as well – to get people trained hands-on; not just to come and get certificates.
We noticed you are into job outsourcing and manpower support. Tell us how you found yourself doing that
I found myself in that while trying to solve a problem. It was a big problem. I noticed that most times when I go to some organisations and they tell me they have a safety officer, I request to see the officer because what I am seeing on ground does not tell me they have a safety officer. This is because if they had a safety officer, they wouldn’t call me in when they have a Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) visit, for instance. Why are they calling me in? So I request to see who their safety officer is. I noticed they would just get one accountant, who is a core accountant, and turn him into a safety officer, claiming that they are trying to show him how the job is done. I let them know that it is wrong. They need to get the right guys to do the job. Nigeria is so blessed that we have so many Nigerians who are trained on OSH today, even though they do not have certificate, but they have been opportune to gather some funds and get trained. And if they get trained and given opportunity to work as per trainee level, they will pick-up. Everybody needs somebody to give them a push. So, I found out that a lot of them have certificates and do not know what to do and clients have jobs but are not giving it to them. So I always tell them, ‘you need a safety officer and your accountant is not a safety officer, and I am going to recommend a safety officer to you.’ But they will decline, saying we charge high. Then I will recommend my trainees to them who I will guide to do the job for them. I send the trainees and supervise them for the organisations which do not need to pay me, but pay the trainees directly. So, I will be as their employer and we see how to get the job done properly. That was how I came about the manpower outsourcing aspect of our business. I am not selling it per se – maybe I will do in the future – but my concern is in making employers to know that they need the right people to do the job, not just anybody.
On that premise, can we say you are a HSE career expert?
Yes, I am.
Comparing the HSE-career labour market to the general labour market in Nigeria, what is its status?
Honestly, I will tell you it’s almost at par. I know too many HSE officers that are unemployed; too many. And when I compare the level of job demands coming from them to other job industries, it’s almost the same thing. To solve that challenge, one of the things I have done recently is to create a job website, which is on the side. Then the other thing I did – because I discovered that there’re some with certificate who don’t even know how to go about it – I came up with a group, because I can’t remember everybody because of too many things that I’m doing. I have a set-up where every a minimum of twenty into the group every three months. So when I get (job opening) opportunities for trainee level, I go there, pick them and send them to the organisations. So, the HSE career labour market is huge in Nigeria.
Is there any hope of reducing that in future?
Yes! There is hope. The hope is in having the occupational health and safety bill passed. When this is done, I do not see any reason why organisaitons will not comply to having qualified safety officers in place. The reason is because they always ask to know why they should employ a safety officer. One of the strengths we need to use to tell those people what to do is the law. So, there is hope. And again on some of the opportunities I am hoping to work on, and I’m praying that I have more support in the future, if it (HSE unemployment rate) is at 100% and we can solve 10% per annum, or in three years, then there is hope.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in HSE?
The first thing is for the person to be very sure that is what he wants to do. One thing that contributed to this employment and unemployment gap is because there was a time when HSE was the boom in Nigeria. It’s still the boom, but there was a time when – four years ago – everybody wanted to take an HSE course, everybody wanted to be a safety officer and they would use their last money to pursue a course because they knew they would get a job in the oil and gas industry.
Secondly, he must be willing to have concern about the safety of lives, goods and property first after knowing what he wants, and that is if he really knows what he wants. I will boldly tell you, as far as I practice what I do, I am not money-driven. I am not doing it because of what I can get out of it. Why I can practice as an entrepreneur today is because I accepted to voluntarily learn first. So, he should be willing to learn. If he is learning from the right sources, he will be ready to weather the storms. And those who have learnt properly, no matter the situation, they still find a thing or two to do. If they love what they do and are willing to do it very well, with money or not, they will do it well. If I give you a voluntary opportunity because I want to support you even though I don’t have the money to pay you and you learn one or two things from me, the day a paid job will come, I am not going to forget you. I will remember that you know the job and there is money to be paid, I will come for you. Be willing to learn, be concerned about lives, be concerned about the environment, and be concerned about your health. Don’t do it because of the money – just be willing to learn, and opportunity will come and you will be amazed.
As an environmentalist, you’re into biogas technology – that’s renewable energy products – and you’re also a pest control specialist. What informed your choice of these?
I have always known from my university days that we could always generate gas from solid waste. There was a time while in the University of Port Harcourt in 2003, I did a research in a supposed landfill and from that research I discovered fire coming out of there. People had always assumed people set dumpsites on fire, but that is not really the case. It is actually the gas produced by the composites formed on the dumpsite that is emitted. This is called the biogas. Biogas is a good technology used worldwide, but Nigeria is not harnessing it. We are only relying on liquefied natural gas at the moment. Being an environmentalist solving waste management problems and then energy problems informed my decision to help people convert their waste to generate gas is the reason.
For pest control, it was actually a public health issue. It was a response to the needs of our clients in the hospitality business who were battling with pest infestation. Seeing them use quacks for that service and then knowing that if a place is not properly treated there’s a tendency that people could get poisoned spurred us into action. If somebody is not informed and is using a wrong chemical in a place, be it in a house, office, hotel or restaurant, that place can actually be polluted instead of actually controlling the pests. So, I was having a problem of clients using quacks that showed up with wrong certificates. Sometimes you ask them for their certificates after they’ve treated a place and they can’t provide it. They don’t even know that they are supposed to actually give a certificate after treating a place. So it means they don’t even know how to do the job. So to be a pest controller, you need to be trained and licensed.
How can a client identify the right specialist to fumigate his environment because of the many quacks around? What are the things to look out for?
First of all you, you need to ask for their license. Find out if the person is trained and licensed. Again, you need to also know what they are going to use to treat your environment. As a client, you don’t say come and fumigate my house; no it’s wrong to assume you need a treatment. Do you know that most of these people don’t need to use any chemical? Take for instance someone who has a rat infestation in his house. The safest method of control could be rat bait. Just use them; they’re good technology and they can even be done locally as well. All you need is to have rat baits in strategic places and you’ll solve that problem, and this is not poisonous to health. So, the right questions will help, and that’s why the client needs to know if the person is trained and licensed to do what they are doing, and he is using the right equipment. For instance, if you go to an oil and gas multinational firm to treat their environment, you will be asked to provide Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). And if you don’t have it that means that you don’t know what you’re coming to do. Providing an MSDS would show them the safety measures to take while their property is being fumigated. What we get instead are people who go to people’s houses to fumigate the place and ask the occupants to leave the place for a period so he could treat and come back to the property when work is done. There should be a plan. So, all of those things should be taken note of before such jobs are given out to anybody. There are associations, (and) government agencies that handle this as well.
Is the biogas economical for domestic use?
It is very economical. The truth about biogas setup is that it might cost a little more. It will cost more than your conventional gas burner and your cylinder, but after your installation you can use it for as long as you want. You don’t need to spend money to refill your gas; all you need is to pull your waste to have your gas in your digester.
How come this is not a common knowledge in the society?
It is not common knowledge because it is a function of how informed the society is about environmental management and how willing people are to embrace new technology about the environment. The world all over is crying for a better, cleaner, and greener environment. It will start from the moment we start to embrace a greener environment and sanitation. This is because biogas production also helps to clean the environment: as you’re packing your waste, you’re also reproducing, so your waste will definitely be reducing. For you to have gas you need waste. So, it’s got to do with environmental awareness.