Tuesday, 1 March 2016

MustRead: Positioning Nigeria As The Technology Hub Of Africa.

A lecture delivered by Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, Minister of Science and Technology as guest lecturer of the 2015 convocation lecture of the University of Lagos holding at the university main campus, Akoka, Yaba, Lagos on February 29, 2016

It is with happiness that this afternoon, I stand before you in this historic auditorium, in one of Nigeria’s finest Universities, in the ancient and historic town of Lagos to speak on a topic: “Positioning Nigeria as the Technology Hub of Africa” which is of great importance to the future of our nation. Each time I enter into the main campus of the University, here in Akoka, Yaba, I remember with a great sense of nostalgia those first few steps I took in 1973, about 43 years ago, as a fresh student, one of the pioneering students, in the then newly established Department of Chemical Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering, in pursuit of my undergraduate study in chemical engineering. 

My presence in this great institution of learning reminds me of the promise which knowledge holds in the pursuit of liberty and freedom for the advancement of humanity. Also I cannot fail to remember the important role which the ancient city of Lagos, which remained Nigeria’s Capital City until 1992 and is currently the nation’s Centre of Excellence, played in our march to nationhood as one people with a common destiny under God. Indeed Lagos is a true melting pot inhabited by people from every part of the country. This shows our diversity. It also shows our commitment, as a people, to be united and strong just like the five fingers of the hand, which when clinched together as the fist can be an instrument for collective achievement.

I most sincerely salute all those who taught me both within the Department and in the Faculty as well as in University-wide courses. It is important that I specifically mention three of them: Professor A.F. Ogunye, Professor A.A. Susu and Professor O.O. Omatete. Prof A.F. Ogunye, as the Head of Department, offered leadership and working with his colleagues nurtured the young department to grow into one of the best not only in Nigeria and Africa but in the world. I learnt very important lessons from the tireless manner Prof Ogunye devoted himself to offer good leadership to the then young department. When a decade later I was confronted with a similar challenge, as the pioneer Head of Department of Chemical Engineering of the University of Port Harcourt, I also worked tirelessly with my colleagues and offered the necessary leadership to nurture the new and young department in the oil and gas city of Port Harcourt. Professor A.A. Susu, in a very meticulous and committed manner, directed my undergraduate research project. He exposed me to the hidden secrets of engineering research. Professor O.O. Omatete taught me several courses at the undergraduate level. It later turned out that both of us attended the same university for graduate study and also had the same thesis supervisor, a highly renowned scholar, Professor Ted Vermeulen. I owe a lot to all my teachers at the University of Lagos. At times, I wonder what would have happened to me if I did not have such brilliant, hardworking and dedicated teachers as I did. In a special way I commend the Vice Chancellors who have at different times led the University and made sure that the flame of knowledge and hope which was lit by an Act of Parliament when this University was established has been on for the past 54 years. I am convinced that this Vice Chancellor, a great scholar and administrator, as well as future Vice Chancellors will work hard to ensure that this light will shine brighter and brighter such that one day in the future this University will be ranked as the best in the world.

When I graduated from the University of Lagos, I completed the one year National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) programme after which I travelled to the University of California, Berkeley, in the USA, where I completed the Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Chemical Engineering in 1980, some thirty six years ago. It was when I was in the United States of America (USA), at a time that she had just conquered Space by successfully landing a man on the moon and returned him safely back to earth, and also had the largest economy as well as the most sophisticated military, that it was clear to me that science and technology was the most important determining factor separating nations into either developed or underdeveloped.

It is important that in the history of nations, no single nation whether in the ancient or modern time, has ever been great without science and technology. A nation can be rich but not great by the possession of abundant natural resources as all that money can be lost with the collapse of commodity prices. Starting with Egypt no nation ever ruled the world without science and technology. Egypt, surrounded by deserts, was able to use the water of River Nile, the longest river in the world, to irrigate its land and grow enough food to sustain a large population. The great achievements of ancient Egypt are seen in the mighty pyramids which remain a true wonder of ancient civilization. So many others including Rome dominated the world up to the United Kingdom in recent times. The United Kingdom utilized the power of steam and the production of iron and steel to build a civilisation that made it possible for her to exercise influence in virtually every time zone of the world thereby controlling nearly a quarter of the world at the peak of her power. Today, the English Language has virtually become a universal language spoken as a second language all over the world. The United States of America had virtually all the major inventions of the 20th century. She is the sole superpower, with the largest economy and the most sophisticated military in the world.

It is instructive that at the end of the Second World War when the urge for all nations to become independent was intense, the world was convinced that the three countries of India, Nigeria and Brazil held the greatest prospects for rapid development. As time passed by, India and Brazil met those expectations. However, Nigeria which has an abundance of human and material resources and was for a very long time the sixth largest exporter of crude oil could not. The reason is simple and very clear for all to see. It is important to point out that there was a time when the problem in Nigeria was surprisingly how to spend money that had accrued to the treasury.

Nigeria has never paid sufficient attention to science and technology. Our pupils and students run away from the study of mathematics and science in our primary and secondary schools. Many parents discourage their children from pursuing a career in science, engineering and technology. Very limited work is done in research and development in the industry, universities and research institutes. Indeed most of the industries depend on the research work done in their home countries. Very little attention is paid to the innovation going on in the informal sector of the economy, as the infrastructure needed to harness the creativity of our people in the informal sector is lacking.

It is important to point out that even the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology which should coordinate science and technology activities in the country was in the past treated as if the nation did not know what to do with it. It took up to 1980, 20 years after we became independent, for the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology (FMST) to be established. I commend President Shehu Shagari for his vision in doing this. Shortly after the Ministry was established, it was merged with the Federal Ministry of Education. It was later demerged. Shortly after, the FMST was scrapped. Its numerous research institutes were scattered and given to many other Ministries including agriculture, health and industry. A short while later the FMST was re-established but not with the full complement of its original research institutes. As this confusion went on, adequate funding posed a big challenge. Just last year 2015, as many as four agencies in the ministry had zero capital allocation in the 2015 budget. In many cases the overhead in the recurrent expenditure was barely enough to buy diesel to operate generators needed to provide enough power for the efficient operation of the Agencies. Also the National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (NSTIP) which came into existence in 1986 could not be fully implemented since the lead organ to drive it, the National Research and Innovation Council (NRIC) took as long as 30 years to hold its first meeting. Also the National Research and Innovation Fund (NRIF) which should fund research and innovation in the country is yet to be put in place. As all these happened in the past, other developing countries such as India, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia behaved differently. On attainment of independence, they put science and technology at the center of their developmental process. I am happy that President Muhammadu Buhari’s Administration is changing all this.

In my book: “The Greatness of Nations: Technology in Nation Building”, I drew attention to the important role which knowledge and its strategic utilization can play in stimulating the development of nations in their respective search for social progress and human freedom. Be they small or big, history has shown that nations that prospered and made significant contributions to human civilization were those which embraced knowledge, especially technological knowledge.

Even countries, small in population and landmass, have attained greatness by embracing knowledge. Singapore, one of the smallest countries in the world, stunned the world when within a relatively short period of 35 years of her existence as a sovereign nation, surmounted many problems and overcame many challenges to become a modern nation. She then built the world’s number one airline, best airport, the busiest trading post, and enjoyed the world’s fourth highest per capita real income at that time.

Explaining how the awesome power of technology was used to transform the country the father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, in his book: “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story; 1965-2000” revealed how by integrating technology into the country’s economic and social development efforts, Singapore was positioned for survival and success in the then fast emerging knowledge-based global economy.

At this juncture, it is important that I point out that it is common knowledge that nations that are anxious to modernize and become competitive in the global arena must place a high premium on the acquisition of knowledge, especially scientific and technological knowledge. It is also necessary to observe that just as the acquisition of knowledge has helped nations embrace prosperity; its neglect has impacted negatively on the fortunes of countries. Indeed, both Jim Nelson Black and Arnold Toynbee in their respective monumental works; “When Nations Die” and “A Study of History” agree that lack of knowledge and vision have led to the disintegration of structures and waning of forces that have helped make human progress possible.

As a nation, we should embrace knowledge and emphasize technology as an important instrument for national development. It will arm us with the necessary tool to address our economic challenges. As I speak, we must seek for alternative ways, which science and technology offer, to diversify our economy, reduce poverty, protect our environment, defeat illiteracy, create jobs, recreate the middle class, check insecurity and restore honour and accountability in the conduct of government business.

History has shown that no nation that has made sustainable progress has been able to do so without emphasizing science and technology. Such emphasis sustained over a long period of time, has always helped quicken the pace of economic growth and development. Japan did it. Many countries including those with large population such as India, Brazil and China are doing so.

India, one of the oldest civilisations in the world, entered the 21st century with a population of more than one billion people. As a conscious effort to fast track her development, she had from the early days of independence embraced science and technology; she has witnessed tremendous economic growth, recording spectacular achievements in many areas of human endeavour. Today, she has become a net exporter of food, a most remarkable achievement for a country with a huge population, especially considering her recent history of adverse food shortages. As I speak, she has emerged a major global industrial power, with awesome military capabilities as well as becoming both a Space and a Nuclear power.

China, with about one fifth of the global population, has been able, in recent times to double her economy three times over to become the second largest economy in the world. Though once a poor country, she was able to record an unequalled economic growth in modern history, averaging more than a per capita GDP growth rate of 8%, stretching over a period of three decades from 1979-2013.

Brazil is the most populous nation in Latin America. She is also the industrial power of the region. Employing the enormous power of science and technology, she has emerged one of the world’s largest economies in agricultural production, scientific research, innovation and technological development. By the year 2015, she had emerged the world’s ninth largest economy with strong potentials for further advances in the near future.

In view of all the things that have gone on in the world, we must always remember that political leaders and scholars of various schools of thought agree that knowledge is an important instrument to unlock the doors of underdevelopment. Indeed, one of the greatest Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, Sir Winston Churchill, in a 1943 broadcast to his country men and women, had remarked thus: “the future of the world is to the highly educated races, who alone can handle the scientific apparatus necessary for pre-eminence in peace and survival in war”. Even the imperishable words of Charles Steinmatz (1865-1923) found expression in the monumental national development achievements of Israel. According to him: “there will come an age of independent nations whose frontline of defence will be knowledge”.

Nigeria as the most populous nation in Africa, with the largest concentration of black people in the world, occupies an important place in Africa’s search for economic prosperity and political stability. As has been shown, if she is to provide the direction which the rest of Africa should follow and help nurture the emergence of a new African civilization, then she must lead by example by nurturing indigenous technology, create new technology as against being a mere destination of foreign technologies and hence help strengthen economic growth, promote self-reliance and self-esteem, as well as strengthen our competitiveness in the global arena, thereby becoming the technological hub for Africa.

Indeed as a nation which the rest of Africa look up to provide the direction it should follow, we must encourage the emergence of the requisite manpower equipped with the necessary technological skills that will help improve productivity and move us away from being a consumer to a producer nation. Nigeria is blessed with fertile land and favourable weather conditions. No snow. No volcanic eruptions with its attendant devastation. No earthquakes of note. No devastating floods except caused by our negligence. We neither experience hurricanes nor are we confronted with the destructive power of typhoons.

I am confident that Nigeria can make the difference if we remain focused and determined in the new direction which the President Muhammadu Buhari’s Administration would want Nigeria to follow. The Federal Ministry of Science and Technology (FMST) is determined to help achieve these goals. First, we should seek to feed ourselves. A nation that cannot feed her citizens is a country without self-esteem. Technology is the tool that will enable us feed ourselves and restore our self-confidence. Technology will help us reduce poverty, create wealth, fight illiteracy, reduce human suffering, preserve our environment, produce our needs locally and improve our capacity for export trade, thereby strengthening our economy and our currency, the Naira, through increased export earnings.

Secondly, we need to discover, understand and venerate our past so that we can better appreciate the future. A people without a past cannot successfully plan for tomorrow. We should employ the tool of technology to rediscover who we are and unravel our rich past to enable us know our history and unlock the hidden achievements of yesterday to help us secure today for a better tomorrow. Self-discovery is very helpful in gaining self-confidence which is essential for creative work. Indeed knowing the achievements of our ancestors and the richness of our past is the tonic we need to aim to surpass their achievements and be a leader in the world. In order to achieve this, we will encourage research in our universities such that they can become globally accepted centres of scholarship that can compete with the best centres of learning in other parts of the world. It is our intention that in the near future, we should be able to produce Nobel Laureates in medicine, physics and chemistry. The cooperation and collaboration between the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and our Universities will grow stronger in the years to come. Many branches of our research institutes will in the future be located in or affiliated with universities. We are convinced that working closely with universities will be helpful in such a way that in the future, at least one university in Nigeria will one day be ranked as the best in Africa and one of the best ten (10) in the world. This will enable Nigeria embrace a new African Civilization that will position the continent as the respected cradle of human civilization.

To enable us achieve this, it is important that we begin early to mobilize the citizenry toward appreciating the role of science and technology in nation building. This explains why already a conscious mobilization effort has begun with the aim of sensitizing the citizenry on how we can utilize Science, Engineering, Technology and Innovation to strengthen our economy, reclaim our national pride and energise enduring happiness.

We need to teach our children, science related subjects in such a way that they can learn the subjects with greater ease. Charity, they say, begins at home. We must encourage our children to show more serious interest in science subjects and mathematics as a way to awaken their consciousness early in life to appreciate the benefits of science and technology in human progress. Already, we have initiated measures to equip some of our Primary and Secondary Schools with science laboratory equipment in order to awaken greater practical interest in these subjects at a tender age.

It is also our intention to initially build a Science and Technology Museum in order to show our rich past in technology and also explain how technological ideas are conceived, nurtured and developed as well as acquaint the people with perceptible ideas of how science and technology can be utilized to advance the frontiers of human progress. In doing so, we intend to use the Museum to explain with clarity all natural phenomena, thereby raising the consciousness of our people through promoting the relevance of science and technology to our everyday life.

As a measure to bridge the gap between research findings and product commercialization, we have initiated a novel programme of action aimed at encouraging the commercialization of current and future research findings in our universities and research institutes. This is aimed at ensuring that good ideas grow into viable products and services of immense market value to both entrepreneurs and the general public. This will ensure that our research efforts are market driven, thereby responding to the urgent needs of our development as a nation resolute in its search for self-reliance, import reduction and is export driven. The recent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and Nasco Food Ltd involving the production of high nutrient density biscuits with the Federal Institute for Industrial Research, Oshodi (FIIRO) as the implementing Agency, is a good example. To encourage inventions and patents, we have initiated efforts to strengthen intellectual property laws in order to ensure that good ideas are protected. We are conscious of the fact that in any nation, there is a direct relationship between the number of patents granted and the level of economic development. Also inventors and innovators work best in an environment where their intellectual property are recognized and protected. Investors are more willing to invest in research findings where patents have been secured. This will be very helpful in the commercialization of products, as an important instrument for economic development. This improved cooperation between the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and the Organised Private Sector (OPS) is the only way to go. The OPS can benefit tremendously from the research and innovation work done in the research institutes by expanding their business opportunities through commercialization of research findings.

In order to strengthen our regulatory responsibility so as to achieve greater harmony in the system as well as efficiency on policy implementation, we have encouraged Inter-Agency cooperation and collaboration among the 17 Agencies under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology. This is to ensure that resources available to the ministry are most efficiently utilized. Also this will make it easier for the operations of the Agencies to be more effectively monitored in order to achieve optimum results. We have been able to enforce discipline and strong work ethics whereby all staff of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology come to work at the right time. We have demanded and obtained increased accountability and transparency in the conduct of government business. All these are aimed at promoting the cardinal values of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s Administration.

Also it has become of critical importance to our country, in view of the adverse effect of the sharp drop in the price of crude oil to the revenue accruing to our treasury, for us to utilize science, engineering, technology and innovation to diversify the economy. I am happy that the Muhammadu Buhari’s Administration has initiated a bold step aimed at deepening the role of Science and Technology as Nigeria’s engine of economic growth. In this regard, it has given a practical expression through the take-off of the National Research and Innovation Council (NRIC), which though inaugurated on February 18, 2014, only met for the first time on January 7, 2016 as the major organ to drive science and technology in the country as envisaged in the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy which came into existence in 1986, some thirty years ago.

The NRIC has the President as Chairman. Its composition includes 15 Ministers and two representatives of the Organized Private Sector. The Federal Ministry of Science and Technology serves as its Secretariat. It is our intention to institutionalize this important body. In the near future, a Bill will be sent to the National Assembly with the aim of enacting the relevant Act that will establish the Council as an enduring instrument of government, charged with the important responsibility to drive Science, Technology and Innovation in the country as a key component of our development process.

Also it is our intention to harness and efficiently utilize innovation wherever it occurs in the nation to help increase our productivity. It is therefore in this regard that we intend to harness the informal sector by encouraging our talented craftsmen/women and indeed all inventors that abound in different parts of the country. In today’s globalized world, talent alone cannot make one fulfilled. It is only when talent is developed and utilised that self-actualization can truly be achieved. We intend to establish Technology Villages in the six geo-political zones of the Country. This will help us properly shape and sharpen the innovation of the creative genius of our creative minds into finished products and services to be of benefit to our dear country. In establishing these technology villages in different parts of the country, each location will place emphasis on the skills that abound in such places. It is important to mention that when I served as Governor of old Abia State in 1992, some 24 years ago, I commenced with vigour the process for the establishment of a Technology Village in the State. The project could not be fully realized due to the sudden nature of our departure from office.

I am happy to state that the President Muhammadu Buhari’s Administration through the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology will work speedily to close all technology gaps in the country. Currently there are many technological gaps which we have allowed to exist for a very long time. This is no longer acceptable. We will employ the shortest possible means to close these gaps. We will support the Organised Private Sector (OPC) to produce and manufacture locally those goods and products that we buy and import from abroad in large quantities, year after year. The Federal Ministry of Science and Technology will achieve this, through a new flagship programme: Technology Transfer Promotion Initiative (TTPI). Through this important programme, investors who want to manufacture goods in Nigeria and also are willing to transfer their technology to Nigerians will be encouraged with a basket of incentives made available by the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology working with other Ministries, Departments and Agencies of the Federal Government.

We are also aware of the enormous difficulties which many inventors and innovators face with funding to convert their brilliant ideas into products and services in the market place. We also know that our financial institutions are not structured to meet these needs. We can no longer afford to allow any obstacle to either delay or prevent the commercialisation of research findings, as this has a serious impact on job creation, wealth creation, poverty alleviation, reduction of human suffering, and national pride. We will in the near future propose the establishment of a Science and Technology Development Bank (STDB). Whereas the National Research and Innovation Fund (NRIF) will assist research and developmental work in the country, the STDB will provide venture capital for commercialisation of new ideas as well as support local manufacture that encourages technological development in the country.

In the near future, the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, as a way to encourage local development of technology, will come out with practical steps to appeal to Nigerians to patronise Made in Nigeria Goods. We believe that it is a patriotic duty on the part of all Nigerians to encourage Made in Nigeria Goods by buying locally made products. This is the only way we can build a big, strong and resilient economy. We will continue to work to bring together government, industry, research institutes and universities for the good of the nation. We will be organising a Technology Exposition where major research findings, prototypes and pilot plants where necessary from all research institutes, universities, industry and organized private sector are brought out for investors and the general public to see as a way to facilitate commercialisation of research findings.

Most distinguished ladies and gentlemen, while the major thrust of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology is to focus research and innovation on areas that will help us feed ourselves and reduce imports into the country but we will also ensure that our nation will embrace all areas of science and technology. We cannot always be copying from others. We should aim to lead in some areas so that others can come to learn from us. At this juncture, I want to rededicate myself and my colleagues in the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology to the service of our dear country. We will give our best because we know that only the best is good enough for our dear country. It is important I call on all Nigerians to support us in this important but difficult journey. In this journey, mistakes may be made. I ask my fellow citizens not to judge us only by those, but also to consider our love for country, our passion for our job and our commitment to serve the common good. It is important to remember that for over 55 years after independence, we never followed the right route of attaching importance to science and technology in nation building. This new route we are taking will take time for the good results to show. We should show patience and understanding, the type shown by farmers who after planting the seed must wait for it to germinate, grow and mature before harvest is due. I call on all Nigerians to be united in this new journey. We must all work together. The investment on science and technology must come from all levels of government and from all Nigerians. This is one project that every Nigerian must own.

In view of all the things that had happened in our country, I am convinced that the Almighty God has a strong reason for making Nigeria the giant of Africa. The challenge we face is to live up to this expectation by recognizing that to whom much is given, much is also expected. The future of Africa lies in Science and Technology. Europe is where it is today, because of science and technology. Asia is moving steadily toward this direction because of science and technology. Latin America is on course because of science and technology. Why should Africa, the birth place of man, not do likewise? It is important to ask the following questions: Who built the mighty pyramids in Egypt, the Zimbabwe walls, the great artwork of Igboukwu, Ife and Benin? Could our ancestors have done such great things without science and technology? No. Our generation, this generation must do more. No one asks anyone else to respect him or her. It does not work that way. Respect is earned. The time has come for Nigeria and Africa to rise up and use science, engineering, technology and innovation to efficiently exploit the enormous natural resources God put in Africa for us. If other people from far and near can come to Nigeria and Africa to take and use our abundant natural resources to develop their countries, what is wrong in our using the same resources to develop Nigeria and Africa?

Nigeria should lead the way for Africa. Science, Engineering, Technology and Innovation are the answer. It is also the way. I am confident that if we remain determined, hardworking, creative, resolute, and focused, surely Nigeria shall be the technology hub of Africa to the glory of humankind and the acclaim of all humanity.

I thank you so much. May God bless the University of Lagos and bless our dear country, Nigeria.

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