Spotlight on Africa Catalyst: Lawal Richard Oluwaseun

Continuing our Spotlight on Africa Catalyst interview series, we talk to Lawal Richard Oluwaseun, a graduate of the Nigerian Institution of Mechanical Engineers (NIMechE) internship programme. The pilot phase and Phase II of NIMechE’s internship programme were funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Catalyst, and Engineers Against Poverty has been partnered with NIMechE since 2018.

The Africa Catalyst programme is designed to support engineering capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa by strengthening the region’s professional engineering bodies. Internship programmes such as those at NIMechE and the Institute of Engineers Rwanda are designed to fill the gap between the theoretical knowledge taught at university and the practical skills needed by future employers, which can lead to significant barriers to employment in the sector.

Lawal talks to us about his motivations for becoming an engineer in Nigeria, his advice for other young people starting off in the field and his hopes for the future.

Can you describe yourself and your background?

My name is Lawal Richard Oluwaseun, from Osun State, Nigeria. I’m a  student of Mechanical Engineering at Obafemi Awolowo University. I had my primary education at Trinity Education Center and Emmy Norberton international school in Port Harcourt. I then attended secondary school at HOLMAC international school in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

I’m a firm believer in the possibility of positive change and I also believe that great achievements require a great team, not just the work of an individual. I’ve always seized opportunities that came my way to make society better. This has led me to carry out various projects: I took part in the national Bookdrive secondary school conference and mentorship scheme, in which we visited and mentored secondary school students. We donated (and are still donating) new and used textbooks to them.

What drew you to engineering?

Honestly, I’m not sure. Since my parents and relatives were illiterate, they had little or nothing to contribute to my choice of career: my environment wasn’t helpful as most of the people around me didn’t know much about school and those that did, didn’t have a relationship with me. I started considering engineering because I love repairing things – although most of the time I spoiled our electronics and generator in the process! I think what actually drew me to engineering was my interest in technology and space science.

Can you describe a mentor?

The national chairman of the Nigerian Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Engr. Dr. Ejilah Robinson. He is leader of high repute, with a compassionate heart and very strong will power. He is also very intelligent with a good sense of humour. I certainly covert his dedication to making Nigeria a better place as well as his good qualities. It’s a privilege to have him as a mentor.

What have been the greatest challenges you’ve faced in the engineering field?

My first challenge was choosing where to specialise. Mechanical engineering alone appeared so broad that picking a specialisation was “jamb”.

Another challenge was balancing academic work with skill acquisition and various leadership positions I held in school. Our schools here don’t teach software and I wanted to be prolific in design and programming software, together with the regular school work. At the same time, I served in many leadership roles as they gave me the opportunity to make my environment better. Everything came down to the fact I had no mentor though.

What were the key highlights from your internship?

I picked an area of specialisation in mechanical engineering and I realised I knew almost nothing. I went on to learn Ladder Logic in Programmable Logic Controllers and I did a lot of real-life projects and designs; something I would never experience at university.

Can you describe a key learning point during your internship?

Every point in my internship taught me something. I improved in terms of punctuality and patience. The time we had to work together on team projects taught me about team work. Working for free taught me sacrifice. And so on. However, the key learning points have always being in the daily and weekly tasks. The tasks were difficult and we normally come out of them with new knowledge, concepts and ideas.

What has been the impact of the internship on you and your career?

I never really had a career before the internship, I was just studying mechanical engineering. After the internship, I found a bigger interest in industrial automation. Now I’m specialising in industrial automation and I will build a career from this.

What advice would you give other young people hoping to go into engineering in Nigeria?

Firstly, I would let them know that just as engineering is a very interesting course, it is also very challenging: especially in a school like mine. I would also want them to understand that beyond having a passion for engineering, they should take their basic physics and mathematics studies very seriously before coming to university. It is also important to get a mentor, to do lots of internships and to learn both soft and hard skills.

Lastly, what are your plans for the future?

I want to become an industrial automation engineer and start my own company. But before then I want to intern with a good automation engineering company or travel abroad to learn more and then come back to Nigeria. I also want to start a business in poultry farming.

I would also like to start a foundation that is aimed at improving education in Nigeria, making quality education accessible to the poorest children and ultimately increase the standard of living in Nigeria.