Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, recently led a delegation to China and Indonesia to seek ways of expediting action on developing Nigeria’s science and technology sector, especially in local production. Dr Onu maintains, in this interview with the Nigerian Insight correspondent on Sunday that the visits had been a success, with many agreements reached to give hope for local production. He expresses optimism that Nigeria will be Africa’s technology hub by 2026 and how the production of pencil, which he expects to take off within the next two years, will be the metaphor for the country’s leap into local production and massive job creation.
We achieved many things. Our major focus was to find a way out of Nigeria’s perpetual import-dependent status. We can’t continue to be importing everything that we need. That has always created problems for us. We have many Nigerians who should otherwise be busy in their offices and factories but they are unemployed. Also there is tremendous pressure on our foreign currency because the demand to import these items is heavy.
In the main, our trips to China and Indonesia were to help us as a nation to close the technology gaps that we currently suffer from to enable us produce many of the things we are importing. The benefits will be enormous. First, we will be in a position to create jobs, we will be able to create wealth for the nation and we will lift many Nigerians out of poverty. Most importantly, government will be able to generate revenue, our currency will become strong and we will then have the capacity to diversify our economy.
It is an old truth that no nation wishes to share its technology with another. So how does Nigeria intend to convince China and Indonesia to share their technology with her, which we believe is what your trip was intended to achieve?
What specific areas of technology do you want to concentrate on immediately in copying and developing?
It is in all areas that there technological are gaps, whether it is manufacturing, marine and so on. Wherever we find gaps, we want to close them. We are aware we have to expedite action because we don’t have time. This nation cannot continue the way we are going because as our population continues to grow, our demands will continue to grow and the pressure on our currency will continue to grow. We must move with speed to achieve import-substitution. It was a policy that was developed a long time ago but was not followed up. We need to fashion a suitable implementation agenda so we can start reducing imports.
In food imports, for example, there is no reason we should be importing the volume of food we import. The same truth obtains in manufacturing. We may have power constraints, but if we are determined that we must reduce our imports volume, we will ensure that all policies are geared towards achieving the desired result.
You spoke of establishing research institutes. If it is just about establishing such institutes, Nigeria should be competing with the developed nations because it has many research institutes, but with no practical results. So how does your ministry intend to exploit research institutes to make a difference?
No, we don’t have. Here, we have the wrong impression of research institutes. In Indonesia, for example, just one science and technology park in Jakarta, the Indonesia capital, has 47 research institutes. And there are many like those functional in Indonesia. We have not been spending on research. Research is something that is invisible. In manufacturing a tape recorder, for example, many things go into it. But people see only the tape recorder; they don’t see the research and other efforts made to bring the tape recorder into being. There was a time the idea of having something that would record voices would seem a mirage. But those who did the research on it knew what they were doing and spent time and money doing it. Many people would not even appreciate what the researchers were doing.
What specific agreements did you sign in China and Indonesia?
We did not sign any agreement in China and Indonesia. But we reached a number of agreements, which was different from signing agreements. We got many promises. What I want to assure Nigerians is that we did something different now, which may not have been done before. There was an understanding and there were agreements between our own agencies and organisations and agencies and organisations in those countries. We felt that if we signed at that level, because that was what was happening in the past, we could have problems because anything can go wrong and all those agreements would mean nothing. Yes, we reached agreements with those agencies and organisations, but we felt we should have a shield of protection for both governments. These agencies and organizations, even if they are in the private sector, they still need support from their governments.
Many Nigerians will wonder why Nigeria’s Science and Technology minister would choose China, which Nigerians deride as producers of substandard products, to borrow their technology know-how. So why China, and why Indonesia?
China has the second largest economy in the world, while Indonesia has the largest economy and is the most populous country in Southeast Asia. Our interest is to look at where a country has the expertise to assist us. We will not go to a country where there is no expertise that can assist us. We are very selective in this regard. It is important that Nigerians realize we must start producing our own Made-in-Nigeria goods.
At the initial stage, products of a beginner can never match the quality of those of the world’s leaders. We will remember that in the 1950s, 1960s, Japanese goods were considered to be inferior. But that didn’t stop them; they continued relentlessly. A decade or two after that, in their pursuit of excellence, they had improved on quality and Japanese products became the mark of excellence globally.
Can this be achieved before 2026 that you have promised Nigeria would be the technology hub in Africa?
I believe we can, and I will explain why. In 1986, Nigeria had the Science, Technology and Innovation policy for the first time. That policy had been revised subsequently. The last revision was in 2012. In that policy, the main organ that should drive research and innovation in the country, not only in the ministry but also in other ministries at the federal government level, throughout the entire nation including the states, the universities, industries and the organized private sector generally is the National Research and Innovation Council (NRIC). That organ should have been inaugurated in 1986, but the inauguration was only recently done in 2014 and it hadn’t met since then until I came in as Science and Technology minister and I initiated its first meeting on January 7, this year, of course.
You spoke about Nigeria producing pencils. Why pencil and when will the production begin?
Yes, I have heard questions on why pencils. We chose pencils to symbolize the problems that we have and our commitment to local production. To produce pencils, we need wood, graphite, rubber for the eraser and possibly, we will need aluminium to hold the rubber in place. Then, we may need paint to give it colour. But even if we don’t add paint or rubber, already we have a pencil and it will write.
When PRODA is through with its job, it is the private sector that will come in to do the production and we will see the benefits. When production of pencils begins, Nigerians will be amazed at the multiplier effects. It will create a minimum of 400,00 jobs. There will be the small-scale entrepreneurs that will do the beneficiation of the graphite, that is, prepare it for pencil production; there will be small-scale entrepreneurs that will prepare the rubber to be used as an eraser for pencils; and there will also be small-scale entrepreneurs that will also prepare the wood for the appropriate use. Can we imagine creating jobs for 100,000 people. The results will be amazing!
How is the ministry hoping to overcome the lack of a strong iron and steel base in Nigeria to achieve its objectives?
We have to really work to ensure we produce steel locally. Thankfully, we have the iron ore, we have coal. We have no reason not to produce steel here. But even countries which don’t have all these inputs bring them in and they manufacture. A strong iron and steel base is very important though because it is the backbone for manufacturing many items. But it is not only steel that we need; we also need other things like chemicals that we should produce here, natural gas to drive production in many industries, aluminum and non-ferrous metals. We should start working at adding value to the many vital raw materials that we are blessed with already. The federal government is working in that direction.
Has Nigeria any pencil-producing factory?
No. PRODA has confirmed that there is not a single pencil-producing factory in Nigeria and even in West Africa. This is why we are worried. We know this is a technology we can easily handle. Beyond that, the number of jobs we will create in starting pencil production is very encouraging. It will also be good for the image of the nation.
Can this pencil-production idea make any meaningful impact on the economy in the three to four years?
Why not? It will certainly do. The wide aim of the ministry is to commercialise ideas, research findings, etc that we have developed to principal levels. And there are so many of them. We are working with the organized private sector. The National Association of Small-Scale Industrialists and the Nigerian Economic Summit Group had visited us here; they had never done that until now. We are making them understand we have taken a big risk off them by doing research and development and clearing the pitfalls, so theirs is to come in and invest
There have been problems about intellectual property, which discourage innovators, despite the fact government had long established an office to address such issues. How do you intend to address this?
There is a relationship between how many patents the nation produces and the viability of the economy. In this regard, it is very, very important we protect intellectual property. If we don’t, people won’t be inspired to invent. You can’t innovate for another person to take the credit. We will work more with the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment to strengthen the process of protecting intellectual property. It will be an added incentive for people to innovate, to create, to develop their ideas. Once their intellectual property is well protected, our inventors can earn revenue outside.