With his Wellman group, Nigerian entrepreneur Chris Iyovwaye caught a wave of localisation sweeping Africa. Now, he is one of a generation of successful business people transforming the continent – in this case, the blue economy. But he wants to do much more... for the next generation.
Bonface Orucho, bird story agency
Nigeria's new Dangote oil refinery in the Lekki Free Zone of Lagos is fast being recognised as a global engineering masterpiece. And it's not just its size (the seventh largest in the world) that is arresting. This is a vastly innovative assemblage of cutting-edge machinery with a list of superlatives (like the world's longest subsea oil pipeline) that goes on and on. At 112 meters tall, it towers over Lekki.
As with all recent mega-projects in Nigeria, the plant included a substantial amount of localisation. Which is where entrepreneurs like Chris Iyovwaye, Managing Director of Wellmann Group come in.
Iyovwaye's Wellmann Group specialises in marine transportation and heavy-lifting services, a market niche the group has stepped into, using modular trailers, barges, and tugboats.
“In the Dangote Refinery project, we competitively participated in offering logistical services for key machinery … we were the only homegrown company, the rest were expats,” explained Iyovwaye, in an online interview with bird story agency.
With the aid of Wellmann's cutting-edge equipment, which includes jacks boasting a weight capacity of up to 500 tons each, the company was able to ferry massive elements of the structure to site, something the architects had failed to accomplish until Wellmann got involved.
“For over two years they didn't know how to take it to site … we ferried 39 structures that would ordinarily cost more than US$27 million, at half price,” Iyovwaye explained.
“With perseverance, we've built a strong team of over 110 employees, primarily engaged in the Nigerian oil and gas industry," explained the entrepreneur further.
“We have positioned ourselves such that you cannot undertake a key project in the Gulf of Guinea without requiring our services and I think this has been our biggest leverage,” he said.
Born in the bustling city of Warri, and raised by his grandparents while his parents pursued higher education in the UK, the father of four spent his youth doggedly navigating his own path of education.
“The major challenge early on was passing the days without my parents – both of whom had moved to the UK – but over time, their absence toughened me up,” he explained.
His entry into the world of entrepreneurship was marked by a blend of tenacity and foresight.
Upon returning to Nigeria in 1994 following three years abroad, he chose to pursue two fervent passions: studying international relations and diplomacy, and establishing a company. The latter decision would profoundly mould his future.
“I however had to learn and as fate would have it, I learnt from the best, including through landmark projects such as Shell's Bonga Oil Project.”
The late 1990s marked a significant turning point in Nigeria's journey of oil exploration. Unveiled in 1996, exploration on the Bonga oilfield took off in 1998, tapping into substantial oil reserves – an estimated 1.2 billion barrels.
“Between 2002-2003, that was towards the end of the construction phase of the project, I was lucky to supply valves … it was my first major breakthrough,” he explained.
Having worked with the Wellmann Group on past projects, Tony Jeffcock, the Managing Director, of Barclays Corporation, said that Iyovwaye's attention to detail set him apart.
“He has focused on providing the best possible technical and commercial solutions," he explained.
“He's very sincere and focused … he knows his nose and competence and can prove it,” said Tony Ngerem, general manager of Gramen Petroserve, an engineering and construction company specialising in oil and gas projects.
However, for Iyovwaye, whose present accolades include the over-US$5 million annual turnover at the company he runs, success is very much the result of years of hard work, planning and investment.
Iyovwaye has transformed his once-modest company into an enterprise that stands as a pioneering force in the African marine logistics and heavy-lifting market.
"Remaining consistent, being grounded and focused have been my driving ideals," he shared.
For this Nigerian entrepreneur, the significance of opportunities in Africa's blue economy cannot be underestimated. In the past, blue economy prospects in Nigeria were almost exclusively linked to oil and gas, which acted as a pivotal driving force for skills acquisition. The capacity building from oil and gas has provided a catalyst for a much wider economy.
“I wish there was a better way to show our youth that there's nothing anyone is doing out there that cannot be done by Africans,” Iyovwaye explained.
Oil and gas may have given him the start he needed but Iyowaye believes it is imperative for African nations to employ their resources sustainably and strategically. This includes utilising revenues to foster climate resilience.
“For instance, I come from a locality where there are so many mineral resources but the government of the day is not aware of the dangers of overexploiting these resources irresponsibly,” he explained.
After spotting what he termed a "leadership gap", he tried his hand in politics for the first time in March 2023, seeking to become the governor of his home state, Delta State.
Emerging without a victory, he explained he still holds a deep desire to see a change in the mindset of young Nigerians and young Africans, stressing that transformative leadership is a key requisite.
Iyovwaye would like to see Wellmann Group become an integral part of that story, building capacity and at the same time encouraging a future of fast-paced growth. For the group, that would include expanding across Africa, using current alliances in Angola, Ghana, and forming new connections in studied markets like Mozambique and Gabon.
“We're looking at establishing a legacy business that can run for more than a hundred years,” he explained.
"At 59 years old, I reflect on our journey with gratitude,” he concluded.
bird story agency