Opinion Science Technology

By Moses AMADI

Moses, Researcher, Biographer, Phonetics Instructor, Speech Writer, Media Entrepreneur, is the Managing Consultant, Legacy BookMedia, Ikoyi Lagos,
0803 447 8257, 0802 564 5347

The Federal Ministry of Science and Technology (FMST) came into existence by an Act of Parliament in 1980 with a mandate to contribute meaningfully to the technological development of Nigeria. Since its inception, the Ministry has done its bit in terms of the primacy of its function as an agenda-setter in science, technology and innovation.
Though some people believe that national development through science and technology remains one dimension of Nigeria’s national life that has been subjected to discourse for too long, the Honourable Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, is showing great determination and positive spirit in overcoming the odds by targeting national priority in order to make a difference in various walks of life.
The Minister who believes that the entire national economy revolves around science and technology, is making a commitment of positive change in bringing a hopeful alternative by exploring the potential of the Ministry for its pragmatic utility. According to him, this is capable of promoting national economic diversification and competitive domestic production.
Since assumption of office, the Minister has supported dedicated investments in various sectors of the economy through science and technology, as an instrument for influencing the growth of national economy, and ultimately, leapfrogging the nation into exemplary status.
Available records show that before 2015, the 17 agencies under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology used research findings more for career advancement. This is not bad in itself but should be limited to the confines of tertiary institutions. In a broader sense, the Ministry under the leadership of Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu wants a slight change in focus that will involve creativity and innovation. The idea is to ensure that research findings become commercialisable products and services. Through this, Nigerians can begin to see that gradually, many of the products that are imported can be replaced locally.
The relevance of science, technology and innovation to the national economy and daily living cannot be overemphasised. The Ministry is adopting a new approach that will impact various sectors of the Nigerian economy through technological innovation.
According to the Minister, agriculture is essentially 90 per cent science and technology. But what is clear is that several decades of national mismanagement has progressively denied the country any measure of food sufficiency. Nigeria with a population of about 200 million people should be able to attain food sufficiency through a value chain process. This approach is a life-changing scientific discovery that will significantly increase food exports and drastically reduce food import penetration.
Nigeria used to be a major grower of cotton which formed part of its major exports. But the cotton fields were attacked by bollworm, and the possibility of attack on other crops was high. One of the agencies under the Ministry of Science and Technology, NAFDAC, working in collaboration with other institutions found a seed that is resistant to bollworm which also has bigger yield. This represents a big start in reactivating the cotton industry, as evidenced in the springing up of cotton fields in the northern part of the country, including Gombe state.
Harvest losses by farmers is a major concern, and the Ministry has seen the need to develop a technology that will help in minimising such losses. The technology will have two components. First, is the need for a technological instrument that will help process food crops and fruits that are harvested. Second, is to convert the harvest into the form that it will be needed and used during off seasons so that the produce can be consumed all year round because of their nutritional value. Reports indicate that the Ministry is working on machines that will help process food harvests in very large quantities.
In the manufacturing sector, the Ministry wants a discontinuation of large importation of materials which has created challenges of capital flight and weak currency. It is the pressure on the naira that causes devaluation of the currency. Unemployment situation is worsened because local jobs are exported. With its level of preparation, the Ministry is optimistic that in no distant time, the country will start producing many of the things that it imports.
In the health sector, there are certain diseases that are peculiar to people who have the same colour of skin such as the sickle cell anaemia. It’s a disease that is peculiar to black people. The Ministry is engaged in intensive research for possible remedy of this disease which it says it is getting good results.
There are high nutrient biscuits that help children who are suffering from malnutrition to recover very quickly. Such biscuits are produced and marketed by Nasco Foods which is one of Nigeria’s largest confectionery firms.
From the natural medical perspective, authorities from the Nigeria Natural Medicine Development Agency (NNMDA) acknowledges the Honourable Minister for better appreciation for the potential and relevance of traditional medicine knowledge and associated bio-resources.
The agency was established in 1997 through a Ministerial Order, and ever since, it has been trying to legitimise its existence. The legal backing was eventually achieved through the assistance of the Honourable Minister. As a result, the Act establishing the agency was signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari on June 24, 2019; a big achievement for the agency. The Honourable Minister also approved the establishment of six zonal centres for the agency, knowing that traditional medicine knowledge is more located at the grass root level.
Based on its mandate, the agency carries out activities to improve on R&D infrastructure. At the moment, the agency is contending with a small laboratory but it is about to complete a big and complex one for more productive research work.
According to the agency, the Minister has given a lot of support and encouragement to the body. One of the challenges the agency had before 2015 was poor funding and late release of funds which it could not access. In 2015, the agency had zero capital but the Minister felt that was not good enough for the natural medicine sub-sector, and helped in addressing the matter.
The agency complements what the Honourable Minister indicated as some of the new advances in terms of research in the health sector. In terms of R&D, the agency has been able to come out with some products. In line with the malaria eradication programme of the nation, the agency has been able to develop an indoor herbal spray which can be sprayed in the house without the user leaving the room. The necessary laboratory and field tests have been done and submitted to NAFDAC for listing.
For the management of malaria, the agency has also developed a product in tea form which has been listed by NAFDAC. It reduces the fever associated with malaria. Normally, patients that suffer from malaria find it difficult to eat, but this product increases the appetite of patients. The product is also being pushed through the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP) for possible patent and then commercialisation.
As one of the agencies under the Ministry of Science and Technology, one of the mandates of NOTAP is to promote the protection of intellectual property through patents. Industry watchers say that patent is the best measure of innovation in the world. From reports, when the Honourable Minister assumed office in 2015, there were only 6 patents that passed through NOTAP. But that number has grown up to 58; an indication that research and innovation are making impact in the commercialisation agenda.
There is also herbal tea for the control of blood sugar for diabetes. The product has got NAFDAC listing and is ready for commercialisation. Another breakthrough for the agency is the product for erectile dysfunction and increase in libido, which is almost getting ready according to the management of the agency.
Product for the management of both breast and prostate cancer is another creation of the agency, having completed the quality assurance process with regard to the safety and stability of the product. Individuals who have made requests for the product are asked to sign consent note. The agency is getting encouraging results as it procures remedy for cancer which is responsible for many deaths in the country. Clinical trial of the product is ongoing, at the end of which the product will be presented to the public.
One of the products that can assist in preventing people from contracting the Covid-19 disease is the 100 per cent herbal hand sanitiser. It is another product by the agency made from medicinal and aromatic plants in Nigeria which have antiviral and antibacterial properties.
According to the agency, the medicinal plants are scientifically-proven, and have the capacity to reduce fever, manage cough, pain and open up the airways. Today, the agency has completed the herbal remedy for the management of the symptoms of Covid-19, whose clinical variants range from asymptomatic through mild to moderate. Patients whose cases are severe and critical that require ventilators and oxygen support, can use this product. However, the agency believes it is proper to do the necessary analysis before it can go public with the product.
Apart from human-related illnesses, the agency has come out with a research result that increases egg production in the poultry business, in addition to addressing a major disease that affects the poultry industry. These research efforts have been exhibited at the National Science and Technology Expo with encouraging responses.
In sports, one of the agencies of the Ministry of Science and Technology in Zaria has succeeded in producing a football that is cheaper and meets international standard.
As part of its mobilisation programme, the Ministry is targeting young people in all the 774 local government areas of the federation to promote science and technology to identify those who in future, will become good scientists. The Ministry supports events organised by every local government area in Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and Biology, and the best is selected. The same competition is replicated at both the state and federal levels. President Muhammadu Buhari has so far given scholarship awards to the best three winners to study up to PhD level in any Nigerian university in any science-related discipline.
Gender balancing is part of the Ministry’s agenda of capturing the interest of the girl child in science and technology. To this end, the Ministry has engaged professionals and reputable women in science and technology to visit girls’ schools, particularly in the rural areas to encourage the girl child to show interest in science and technology. Because of their closeness to the people, the Minister has visited traditional rulers to plead with them to use their offices and pass the message to their subjects and the girl child.
In 2016, shortly after Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu became Minister of Science and Technology, he started techno expo in this country where those who are science-inclined come to display their tremendous works in terms of machinery production, among others, for commercialisation purposes.
However, the Expo which has been carried out annually since 2016, is not just for the agencies under the Ministry. It’s for all research institutes in the country including the universities (whether public or private, federal or state, faith-based or secondary schools). About three years ago, when the Expo was organised in Abuja, a man who attended the Expo saw the equipment he was planning to buy outside the country at the traders’ stand. He was compelled to shelve his trip.
Nigerians in the informal sector have also made contributions to knowledge in science and technology, and participated actively at the Expo. The Ministry of Science and Technology encourages this group of people by providing grants and connecting them with the appropriate agencies that can advance such research works to the level where they can be commercialised. Available statistics show that the Honourable Minister has been making funds available to them religiously since he assumed office.
The Energy Commission of Nigeria is another agency supervised by the Ministry of Science and Technology with Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu as the Honourable Minister. The Commission was established in 1979 by edicts and started operations in 1989. Ghana followed in 1997. This was after ECOWAS Heads of State met in Cotonou in 1985 and took decisions, having analysed the importance of energy within the sub-region for its development. Each member state was allowed to establish a government agency to coordinate and plan for the development of energy resources within its own state.
The primary mandate of the Commission as stipulated in the law now under Energy Commission Act and Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, is energy security, strategic planning, coordination of national policies in the field of energy in all its ramifications, and diversifying the energy base of the country.
In doing so, it has become a centre of gathering and disseminating information in the implementation of national energy policies. It makes recommendations for the exploitation of new energy resources, and monitors performance of the energy sector as well as liaises with international energy organisations for the benefit of the nation.
Experts say before the establishment of the Commission, the oil and gas and power sectors had policies that never had a single national energy policy from which scholars, investors and development partners could actually lay hands on to know government direction in the development of energy resources.
In 2003, the Federal Executive Council approved the National Energy Policy which is an omnibus policy document involving the oil and gas, electricity, environment, nuclear energy, among others, because energy is a multi-faceted field.
That was a milestone for the establishment of the Energy Commission of Nigeria whose collaboration with the International Atomic Agency has shown that by 2030, Nigeria will need nothing less than 100 Gigawatt of electric generation capacity, given the nation’s population growth and the projected level of industrialisation.
This will involve demands on petroleum products which becomes a guide to the number of refineries the nation needs to have and the quantity of crude oil for export. The Commission believes that the ECOWAS network is very important in moving electricity from regions with surplus power to regions with low supply.
Beyond laying the policy framework and roadmap for the energy mix of the country, the Commission, in the pursuit of its mandate, established six energy research centres that are university-based; one in each of the six geopolitical zones of the nation. The one in the northeast which is the National Centre for Petroleum Research and Development located at the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University has a mandate for research and development on hydrocarbons and any other energy resource from underground like geo-thermal energy. NNPC’s effort in determining crude oil deposits in the Bauchi-Gombe axis was as a result of the research work done in Tafawa Balewa University.
There is the Sokoto Energy Research Centre. There is also the National Centre for Energy Research and Development based in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. These are basically for solar and other renewable energies. Experts say that the level of development within the renewable energy sector now in the country is as a result of the work done at the Nsukka and Sokoto energy research centres. The first solar water heater was established in 1988 at NIPSS by the Sokoto Energy Research Centre; it provides clean water for drinking and sanitation.
There is abundance of sunshine in the country. In the coastal areas, there is abundance of wind. It has been established that the north-western part of the country, for instance, Katsina, is very valuable for wind energy. It is said that the Musa Yar’Adua Administration played a role in the Katsina wind energy project. Ibadan is also said to be known for wind energy. The Commission says these sources are in the process of being harnessed and converted into final energies.
The Commission has equally made inroads in solar energy devices, solar renewables, solar PVs, solar PV technology, among others. According to statistical data, the Commission has installed over 300 solar-driven water boreholes in rural communities from 2015 to date.
The Commission has also mounted solar street lights in rural communities. Similarly, it has installed mini-grids in rural health centres for the improvement of health care delivery. Records show that between 2015 and now, the Commission has installed over 10,000 solar street lights. There are other research outputs including solar water heaters installed in hospitals and rural clinics. One is domiciled in the Sokoto University Teaching Hospital installed by the Sokoto Energy Research Centre. There is another one at Enugu installed by the UNN. There are solar driers, solar-driven irrigation systems, among others.
However, for a more profitable solar industry, stakeholders believe there is a need for solar cells to be produced in Nigeria. By so doing, the cost of solar panels will be reduced. Foreign investors come to Nigeria but they do their research in their home countries. That’s not good for us. They should be doing the research here.
Every commercialised research product in Nigeria will help grow the economy. This calls for greater participation by the private sector to ensure that the products from research agencies are put into use to solve societal problems. The Ministry of Science and Technology has made it clear that the private sector should invest in research findings which must be industry-driven as well as meet the needs of society.
It is not in the place of research agents to carry out research efforts and also engage in commercialisation. Commercialisation should be private sector-driven. Local investors will make more impact because the prospect of reinvesting their money in the economy is very high. Banks can loan some of the money out for business activities, jobs are created, taxes are paid for the development of infrastructure, and the economy grows.
This was partly the reason why the Ministry of Science and Technology, at a stage, contemplated on establishing a Science and Technology Bank. The idea is that, with money put in such a specialised bank, credit can be given to investors. This will save them the trouble of approaching commercial banks to access loans with 20-30 per cent interest rate, as against the proposed Science and Technology Bank’s interest rate of about 5 per cent. That will be an incentive because in the end, the nation benefits more. As those enterprises grow, they will pay taxes, and government will generate more revenue to solve other economic problems.
Perhaps the Science and Technology Bank would have formed a collective patrimony that would have further promoted the standard for collective progress among research agencies and institutions.
Such collective flourishing breaks the perceived silos mentality in the Ministry. The confusion over the silos mentality syndrome among research agencies, has a historical perspective. When the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology was established, all the research institutes and agencies were under the Ministry. Over time, the Ministry went through certain changes. At different stages, the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology was merged with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Industry respectively. At other periods, the FMST was scrapped completely and finally reconstituted during a military government.
That’s why some of the agencies are in other ministries. But any nation that has a Ministry of Science and Technology, naturally will put all the agencies and research institutes in one place for maximum impact and efficiency. According to the Minister, one of the first actions he took was to make sure that there was no duplication of efforts within the 17 agencies.
Sadly, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council which is supposed to galvanise and consolidate the collective achievement of the research agencies was relatively inactive for about 30 years. This is because the Council which was the lead organ to implement the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, enacted in 1986, could not convene a meeting. That may have been the reason why Nigerians didn’t get the full benefits from science and technology.
The Council met for the first time on January 7, 2016 after the Honourable Minister, who worked for the resuscitation of the Council, took office. The Council convened under the Chairmanship of President Muhammadu Buhari even though the President asked the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, to represent him.
The Council now has 16 ministers in addition to members from the organised public sector including MAN and NACCIMA. Apart from the Federal Executive Council (FEC), there is no other Council that attracts such membership in terms of quality dignitaries and number. The Council brings various interests together including governments at the sub-national levels because the development of the nation cannot be left in the hands of the federal government alone.

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