The latest telecommunications invention in the world is the fifth generation (5G) network. Some advanced countries struggled to be the first to have a commercial launch of this innovation. In the United States alone, Accenture estimates that the industry is expected to spend $275 billion over seven years. The technology can provide data speeds at least 20 times faster than 4G. Soon, technological advances will range from self-driving cars to artificial intelligence.
Incidentally, Nigeria has her own 5G wonder. It happens to be ‘Kilishi’ and ‘Kunu’ technology. Last week, the director-general of the Raw Materials Research and Development Council, Professor Hussain Ibrahim, averred that his council had developed a technology to optimise this ‘Kilishi’ (locally spiced roasted meat) production. In an interaction with the Senate Committee on Science and Technology, Prof. Ibrahim enthused that this technology was the only major breakthrough the institute had successfully developed for commercial use since its creation 33 years ago.
“In our 30 years of research activities, we are still the largest research institute. But to be candid with you, we are making progress,” Prof. Ibrahim added. When a member of the Senate panel drew the DG’s attention to the fact that the agency was wasting Nigeria’s money, his defence was that they didn’t have a laboratory.
Another institute, the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi (FIIRO), had announced its own breakthrough in automated machines for ‘Kunu’ and ‘Zobo’ (local drinks) preparation in 2018. This, the agency said, was to enhance competitiveness and productivity in the food and beverage industry. The then DG of FIIRO, Prof. Gloria Elemo, was quoted to have said that the institute was partnering with an indigenous automation company, Automation and Engineering Nig. Ltd., to produce the automated machine. She boasted that the institute would continue to use technology to enhance the quality and competitiveness of the country’s manufacturing sector.
In 2016, the Ministry of Science and Technology, which supervises these research institutes, regaled us with the plan to produce pencils in Nigeria. Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, the Minister of Science and Technology, promised then that this plan would materialise by 2018. He said it would have a meaningful impact on the economy.
The minister said he chose pencil because though it looked simple to produce, we had not been able to do it. And we had all the things required to produce it. He was optimistic that Nigeria would become Africa’s technology hub by 2026.
Year 2026 will soon be here. But before then, the Projects Development Agency (PRODA) in Enugu has made that breakthrough in the pencil production project. Onu urged Nigerians to come to PRODA to acquire the pencil technology for their investments. The agency, he said, could also manufacture industrial machine parts, including those of aircraft. Its research also focuses on development and production of lithium ion battery, and manufacture and standardisation of the agency’s Electrical Porcelain Insulators.
At least, PRODA has tried, though it has not matched its performance during the civil war. Known then as the Research and Production Department of the old Eastern Region, PRODA made some key inventions that helped Biafra in the prosecution of the war. For instance, the agency invented the famous ‘ogbunigwe’ bomb, which dealt a terrible blow to the ‘enemy’ troops. Even shortly after the war, the agency pioneered the first made-in-Nigeria car. The idea died naturally when the government failed to follow up on the prototype.
It is important to note that the Western world had made more advanced inventions some centuries ago. Thomas Edison, credited with inventing the light bulb, patented the first commercially successful bulb in 1879. Today, lighting companies like Phillips and Stack have further advanced the lighting technology. They have created wireless light bulbs that can be controlled via smartphone app. There are many other century-old inventions.
It is shameful that we have chosen to advertise our mundane technologies when the scientific world is already thinking of a 6G technology. I don’t really blame Onu. He has made a mark by building something where there was nothing before. He deserves praises because if we had produced the small technologies, he probably would be talking about the big ones today.
It all boils down to the leadership deficit the country has been suffering from since independence in 1960. And this is not only a federal or state problem. It exists even in ministries and agencies.
Look at what is happening at PRODA for instance. In September 2018, the agency’s workers, under the aegis of Joint Union of PRODA, reportedly petitioned the Minister, Dr Onu, against the DG, Mr Charles Agulanna. In their petition, the workers alleged that the DG and the management team “have not only performed far below expectation, but have brought more damnation and retrogression to the institute, and research and development in the country.” The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is also said to be investigating Agulanna for alleged series of fraud.
At FIIRO, there is confusion at the top management cadre. The qualification of the Acting DG, Chima Igwe, is the issue. According to the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC), Igwe has no PhD degree as claimed. In a statement it released in February, 2020, the ICPC said Igwe completed the three-year programme at the Universite d’Abomey Calavi, Republic of Benin between 1999 and 2002. He reportedly wrote his thesis, but failed to defend it. Hence, the ICPC concluded, he could not be said to have been awarded a PhD.
Consequently, the FIIRO Governing Board removed Igwe and appointed another acting DG in the person of Dr. Agnes Asagbra. In a further twist to the story, there were reports last May that Dr Onu had ordered the Board to reinstate Igwe. The embattled DG was said to have presented the original certificate of his doctorate degree duly issued on February 14, 2020. The Ministry of Science and Technology reportedly verified and confirmed the certificate through the Ministry of Education. Between Igwe and Asagbra, I’m not sure who is in charge now.
Nevertheless, the Ministry of Science and Technology should begin to take a critical look at these research institutes. Those that have shown promise to do well should be encouraged and well funded. Those that have shown gross incompetence should be reorganised or shut down. We cannot continue to waste scarce resources on agencies that are chronically inept.
In the meantime, can we please stop boasting about our ‘kilishi’-type inventions? Or discuss it in hushed tones if we must? This is to avoid making ourselves a laughing stock in serious societies.
*Igbokwe is the publisher of NewsProbe.