For Jelani Aliyu, a car design veteran from General Motors who is also known as the designer of the Chevy Volt amongst other vehicular creations in the United States of America, spearheading a revolution that will change the face of auto design and manufacturing in Nigeria and on the continent is a move that will domicile the country and continent on the pathway of sustainable development as he reveals in this exclusive interview. EXCERPTS:
How has the experience been since coming on board as the Director General of the National Automotive Development and Design Council, (NADDC)?
It has been a very exciting and interesting experience. First and most important is that it is a great opportunity to really play a role in moving Nigeria forward, and specifically in helping grow the automotive sector in Nigeria in terms of local production that is geared towards creating more jobs and obviously providing those products within the borders of Nigeria. Then secondly, it is very exciting to have a team on the ground at NADDC dedicated to this cause
As you are aware, Nigeria has a huge population, and any country with a population of over 180 million is huge and big business, because transportation, automotive, airways are all crucial to the development of any nation because people have to move and goods have to be transported from one location to another.
The role the automotive sector plays in the social fabric of any nation is immeasurable, so it is really a great honnour and opportunity to be able to play a role in the development of this sector. There are a few challenges as it will exist in any situation, but I believe the commitment is there personally; the commitment is there with my team at NADDC to move forward and solve these problems and moving the sector forward.
How would you describe the challenges you have had to deal with despite meeting a committed team on the ground and what specific challenges have you grappled with in order to make those you met on the ground key into your vision and that of the government for the sector?
Well as you are aware, overall, the government of the nation; this administration is very different in terms of its intensive commitment to moving the nation forward, not just a part of the nation, but from the Atlantic shoreline in the south, to the grasslands of the middle belt all the way to the northern part of the country, this administration is committed to making people’s lives better.
And that is what it is all about. You talk about diversification from oil, you talk about industrialization, you talk about better education, and you ask yourself, what are all these about? It is all about making people’s lives happier and better. Being able to make the life of that little girl or boy happier, being able to give that little one an opportunity to have a smile on his or her face, it all boils down to that; that core human aspect of us to enhance what makes us human.
So, the overall challenges in the automotive sector are similar to other challenges we face in Nigeria. I always said the problem with this country is not lack of resources, it is not the lack of human capacity or intelligence and it is not corruption. It is just that we tend to forget who we are and what we can do.
And I think that once as Nigerians we realize that each person is essential to the whole development of the nation and we all wake up and play our roles together, magic will begin to happen.
Your passion for youth development in all areas of talents and skills is well known. What particular plans do you have for youths that are talented in skilled and have some level of expertise that the automotive sector can develop and build upon?
NADDC has lots of initiatives going. The very first one we are working on is the automotive design and innovation competition. This will be opened to all Nigerians, especially the youths and all those creative Nigerians out there. We will have two categories, depending on the person’s interests and strength to choose a category and design certain vehicles, and these vehicles we will ask them to design during the competition will not be sports cars or luxury cars. We have identified two types of transportation solutions that are basic, rudimentary and very appropriate to human and economic development in Nigeria.
So, we will have the competition out there and the winners will be chosen from all the six geo political zones of the country. And then we will also have national winners. We will take these winners to our Zaria office; give them all the necessary support needed, bring in professionals from Nigeria and from outside and take that winning concept all the way to a functional prototype.
Once we get to that prototype phase, then it will be ready for production and we will either license it up, or go into a joint venture with the private sector. Once we get to that stage, it becomes a private sector driven initiative. So this competition will go a long way in identifying these talented kids out there, and give them an opportunity to showcase what they could do. That is one.
The second one is in the near future; we are looking at a dedicated automotive design and development institute very similar to the type of school I went to in the United States. But again, the emphasis on the school will be for applicable automotive solutions that are needed in Nigeria and Africa. Vehicles that particular to us, our terrain, climate, our environment.
The reason for this is because if you look at a lot of the vehicles that are now being brought into our country, they have been designed and developed in the developed world. They have been developed for the streets of Tokyo, or for Australia, somewhere. We need vehicles that understand us, that are in tune with our culture, climate, and terrain. It is only by developing our own innovators and designers that we can achieve that.
When you look at these auto companies like GM, Ford, they produce cars and sell them across the world, everywhere. But when they develop a vehicle for China for instance, they hire the Chinese to design and help them develop those vehicles. When they sell a car in Europe, they hire Europeans to design and develop those vehicles. So Nigeria with a hundred and eighty million people should command enough presence in the market. If for instance our major income earner should come from vehicles, then they need to hire Nigerians to design and develop their vehicles for them. They should be able to hire Nigerians to design and develop the vehicles that are sold here. This is just one part. The other parts are that these young talented Nigerians that we are grooming, when they come out, they can team with other investors and start a whole new Nigerian automotive company.
Apart from the issue of inadequate skills, what other challenges are responsible for automobile manufacturers like GM, Chrysler, Ford not having plants in Nigeria, despite the country being a major economic hub, huge population and endless opportunities?
Like you said, these companies cannot justify why they are not here, and we have discussed this with them when we met in the global coalition for automotive conference in South Africa, and some of the challenges that they envisages are very real.
We have insufficient power. To run a very successful and sustainable auto industry, you need electricity continuously, because if you rely on personal power generation or local power generation, cost will just escalate. So that’s a challenge that needs to be addressed.
Apart from the challenge of power and infrastructure, what other challenges are there, why are the global automakers not manufacturing in Nigeria?
The market is still here, but they are also skeptical on the protection of local production in the country. Nigeria is one of the countries that is moving forward to protect its local production. In the National Industrial Revolution Plan, (NIRP), there is a part that protects the local automotive sector, and protects vehicles manufactured within the country.
There are a number of substandard vehicles being brought into the country that are unsafe, so we must find a way to stop that, and then also give incentives to local manufacturers to produce their vehicles in the country . But we really cannot overlook infrastructures. We cannot overlook the influx of substandard vehicles. We need to find a way around that, but then, I believe when a company really understands the potentials in Nigeria, they can see how big the market is. The potential are enormous.
Another challenge is that in a lot of established markets, vehicles are not bought with a hundred percent down payment. There is usually an automotive finance scheme and we are working with all the relevant stakeholders to see how we can make that happen, so, that Nigerians will be able to go lease a vehicle and put a little down, then pay over time or pay for the amount of time they use the vehicles. So some of the instruments that are available in other developed markets, we are going to see how we can bring those instruments here in terms of vehicles sales and financing.
Why has the scheme not been long implemented considering that is what is obtainable in other countries. What do you think is responsible for the delay in adopting this scheme by previous governments as far as vehicle financing and sales scheme are concerned?
I wouldn’t know that, but now that we are here, we are committed to doing it. You must also understand that when you look at Africa, there has always been challenges that are counter to development. But when you have new technology, new solutions that help you leapfrog and achieve what you were unable to achieve in the past, sometimes, it happens quickly. I think that’s what’s happening. We now have the technology that we can leverage, but we must have the commitment to leverage them. At NADDC, we now have and acknowledge these technologies, new solutions, and we will now use them to attain our objectives.
Having been in office for such a short time and visible gains being seen, in what ways would you want the government and other stakeholders to assist or partner with the council, and what you Nigerians be expecting from your leadership of the NADDC in the coming years?
As a people, we are all blessed. Every individual has something inside of him, and everybody needs to know what that is to bring it out. We can only move this country forward if we come together as one nation; each person knowing exactly what is good and what to bring to the table.
For the other institutions that make up the Federal Government, I think the momentum is already gathering. I think the momentum is now there that we are looking long term and the momentum is now there where different parts of government are working together. It will take more than NADDC to make this work; it will take the financial institutions, those in charge of the land borders, those in charge of the environment, all coming together to know that we are working for the long term interest of Nigeria. There will be challenges, but that does not mean it for today or tomorrow, let’s look at what’s best for us, our children and our grandchildren.
What are you doing to respond to the challenge of vehicles smuggling and illegal importation. Are you working with agencies like Customs, the Police to achieve your objective regarding that challenge?
Like I mentioned earlier, there are lots of substandard vehicles around and also being brought into the country, and that’s just not fair for the Nigerian market and people. So we have a good relationship with Customs, even though we are trying to make that relationship even closer so that issue of local production will be a priority.
The development of the automotive sector must be a two pronged approach. Yes, we have companies like Peugeot that are already here, Volkswagen, Innoson, and now we are talking to BMW, Volkswagen and Toyota to come into Nigeria and produce vehicles, that’s one aspect.
But we must not forget it has to be ground up, we must commit to producing utilitarian type vehicles that we would use in our villages, our hamlets to get people to provide healthcare, education.
So we will do that, we will work with more both established companies that are global, and then we will also support Nigerians and other stakeholders that are providing these very low cost vehicles that will make a direct impact to people living in the most remote areas. This is important so we can approach it from both ends.