Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, spoke to our Editors on an array of technological issues, which he believes, are sure bet towards taking Nigeria out of economic and technological doldrums. Among these are the manufacture of fuel methanol, innovative cure epilepsy disorder and local manufacture of pencil. Excerpts of the interview is presented by ANGELEEN NKOWCHA.
You hosted a technology and innovation Expo recently. What did the country gain from that expo?
The country gained a lot, in the past most of our research findings ended up in the laboratories or in the best shelves of libraries and were never taken to the market; you need to take research findings to the market so that you can create wealth, create jobs, fight poverty and strengthen your currency because these research findings involve products that we can currently import. If you can produce them here, you will create jobs for our people and help strengthen our currency.
The technology and innovation expo played a very important role in the sense that it helped Nigeria and the world know what is available in terms of inventions so that investors can plough in. We brought all researchers, inventors and innovators together. The way we organized this expo is the first of its kind. The nation has benefited tremendously by knowing what is available in the country. If we can encourage science and technology, we don’t need to be importing many of the things we currently import.
From what you observed were the investors forth-coming?
It is too early to say so. As soon as I became minister, I called all the heads of our agencies and said to them we will no longer accept research findings that will not be commercialized and we must do everything to get them commercialized. So far, we have gotten three: we started with high nutrient-density biscuit; NASCO food Ltd signed MOU with us and I can tell you that if it is not in the market already, it is almost there.
I was told that Kenya is showing interest, the military is showing interest also; they want to take it as part of military ration. We have two other products which May and Baker has already signed MOU with us.
One of such is in the area of managing epilepsy and the approach is completely different from the way it was being done before now. Then, if someone has that sickness you go for drugs, but now it is a nutritional supplement you put in your meal and you won’t even have the crises. We have innovated that and it is a plus for Nigeria.
Could the two be part of the School Feeding Programme?
We have contacted the office of the Vice-President in respect to that. We believe that consideration will be given to it. What is very interesting is that you just take a small quantity and it meets both the macro and micro requirements and everything needed to produce it is locally available.
From what you got from the expo what is the next step; any commercialization in sight?
The process of commercialization is a very tedious and long process but we will get there; we will quicken the process. We have a National Research and Innovation Fund, if you recall, the Science and Technology Innovation Policy came into being in 1986, but for 30 years, the lead organ, the National Research and Innovation Council, that should drive science and technology in the country, never met for once for 30 years but as soon as I came with the leadership of the President, for the first time, that body met in January of last year and for last year, we met three times and this year, we have met once.
One of the limitations that we face is finance but that Fund is also making provision for the establishment of Science and Technology Bank. We are very hopeful that the fund will come into existence and it will open the way to fund science and technology the way other countries that have done very well are doing. Those countries don’t rely on budgetary allocation; you go outside the budget to look for money.
What is the problem with funding of research institutions; most Nigerian universities have the best brains yet they don’t have water or light and they depend on contractors for everything?
That is why this council is very important; the council comes with a fund and that fund is needed for all these things you have mentioned. When you hear that a country is spending 4.5% of its GDP on research and innovation, it is not done by budgetary allocation. That is not possible. We need to spend more on research and innovation; you can never become a great nation without science and technology and I think that once we get this fund, we will be in a better position to meet some of these funding challenges that we have.
We spoke to a number of scientists and they agreed that we will never get donor support for any scientific project. Does your government realize that?
I am conscious of this and the government is also conscious of the fact there is no way any country will equip you to start competing with them, but there are certain accepts that people can fund to promote science and technology, like in the area of museums and so on. That is why this council that I talked to you about is very important. It is Nigeria that will develop Nigeria.
When we are talking of researching and innovation, we are not just looking at the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology but all research institutes; at all research laboratories in our universities, whether private or public. You can see that even this expo that ended last week, we had private and public universities participating. You are looking at industrial laboratories, the informal sector. That is one thing I made sure the expo achieved, bringing together researchers and investors from everywhere. The fund will help us as a nation to promote research and innovation not just in research institutes, but also in our universities, industries, laboratories and even in the informal sector.
With the current recession, will the money that will be available be massive enough for the kind of project of that magnitude?
We just have to start. So far, since Nigeria became independent, you could not have expected the British to do research and innovation for us. Since independence, science and technology has always been funded through budgetary allocation. This is the first time when the fund is not in place and we are working on it. Whenever the fund is in place then, we will now have another form of funding for research and innovation separate from budgetary allocation. Initially, it may not be so much but gradually, it will grow and we are very hopeful that that fund will help us as a nation to get to where we must be.
Everybody believes that science and technology is key to Nigeria coming out of recession, yet the problems of gas flaring remain reoccurring issue. Is it that Nigeria does not have the political will to stop gas flaring or what? Also, some industrial concerns have been able to manufacture breaks that currently the Nigeria Air Force are using in their aircrafts; some brake pads, manufactured for vehicles. Is it not possible to encourage some industries to mass produce brake pads?
Gas flaring is a serious issue for this country. What we are doing is like setting money on fire. Gas is a valuable commodity. Nations don’t flair their gas, they make sure they harness their gas and use it appropriately. With this administration, the will is there and plans are in process to ensure that with time, we will no longer be importing petroleum products. I am also sure there would be a date after which we will not flair gas in the country.
There is also something the ministry is doing, as part of helping to close technology gaps. We are bringing in methanol to add to our petrol. If you look at all these, sporting cars use methanol and it increases the obtained level of your fuel and this methanol is sourced from gas. If you make a mix of 15%, you don’t need to make any modifications to any car, even cars that were manufactured in the 1990s.
You can also use the methanol in the wood industry, you can also use it for power generation. This gas that we are flaring, we can use to manufacture methanol for the purposes I have mentioned and this will help us.
On the break issue, it is not government that will do the commercialization. It is the private sector. Our own is to do research if we want to get involved in commercialization, nobody will want to do research anymore because it is easier and more profitable to go into commercializing research findings as against the initial risk involved in the research itself, but gradually we are getting the private sector to key in. I just mentioned May and Baker, NASCO foods Ltd; we are getting them to commercialize our research findings.
Can you enlighten us more on the indigenous manufacturing of school pencils?
We promised Nigerians that within two years we will be able to get the pencils indigenously. You can bring different components and produce the pencil here but that is not our intention. Our intention is to make sure that we use our own locally available materials. PRODA is working on it. We gave them till December, this year, to get us pencils so that we can now call on the private sector to take it from there. This is April, PRODA still has eight months to work on it and we will make sure the hit is on them and I can assure you, they will deliver.