Professor Christian Nwajagu, is the Director-General, Scientific Equipment Development Institute (SEDI), Akwuke, Enugu State, an institute owned by the federal government. In this interview with Nnamdi Mbawike, he talks about the challenges facing science and technology in Nigeria.
Many people don’t know about SEDI; could you throw more light on the activities of the institute?
The Scientific Equipment Scientific Institute, Enugu, is an Institute under the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI), under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology. SEDI is one of the parastatals of NASENI that has the mandate to develop and manufacture equipment for primary, secondary and tertiary institutions as well as design and manufacture equipment for hospitals and also for small and medium enterprises.
In your assessment, has SEDI been able to meet the mandate given to it?
I must say that we have been able to meet this mandate to a great extent because we have been to, indeed, produce equipment for teaching science in primary, secondary and even tertiary institutions. We have been able to supply over 2,500 of such kits to secondary schools across the nation, actually, some years back.UNESCO has been able to start the patronage when they bought the kits for primary and secondary schools levels. We have also developed equipment to intervene in the agricultural sector: our Mobile Cassava Grater has become very popular. In Enugu State alone, we have supplied over 600 of such which was bought by the governor and donated across the local governments. It is an equipment that is used to intervene in all these restive areas in the country as a poverty alleviation programme. We have managed in that direction but not without many difficulties, which is mainly funding; we have not been able to get enough funding to put in place the infrastructure we need. Government must have to brace up to these needs and help us to enable us help the nation.
Recently, SEDI discovered Reversed Prime Mover Single Cylinder Machine; has government reacted to this wonderful innovation?
Well, I have been able to make the press know this but, you see, for government to react in concrete terms, there must be a proposal set before them. There must be a memo that is set before them; this memo will have to come, not from me, but my minister. This we have not been able to accomplish but I still believe that since the public is already aware, the next step will be to get my minister to get full details. Then he will be able to take it to the Federal Executive Council. It is at that level now that they can make fund available to popularize this and get it to the market, either by private partnership or by giving order for a small pilot plant to be set up. The machine is completely indigenous. It is produced from scraps that are available; nothing is imported except the machines used to produce it. It is a single engine, the one every vulcanizer uses to attaJust imagine the number of fulcunizers across the nation and this equipment is all imported from India - you can see the amount of foreign exchange we are giving away to another country, the jobs we are creating for them. This is what we can arrest if we are able to, as a decision of political will, take this from where we have stopped and then assist us to mass-produce this component. That will a be a very welcome development.
If properly funded, do think that SEDI has all it takes to manufacture a car?
I believe so, but it is not totally our mandate. We must link up with the National Automotive Council, if government gives us that challenge, we can and, actually, it is still part of my heart’s desire that government should really challenge us because when we went to Malaysia, their government challenged institutes like SEDI, NASENI, and they were able to do this. So if we link with appropriate organs, like National Automotive Council, SEDI has most of things needed but does not have the mandate to produce car. So if two of us can link up, we can do it. So, my desire is a day that government will really challenge us.
What kind of challenge do you desire from the government and, if given the mandate at last, could SEDI face handle the task?
It is when the government sees the need to make it a policy statement - ‘we are mandating NASENI in conjunction with the Automotive Council to give us a car in the next five years;’ that’s all. That means we now do our own planning, do our own budgeting and present it; by such statement, they will be willing to make fund available for it, of course, supervise it and make sure it is done.
Does SEDI receive adequate funding from the government?
SEDI is not funded adequately and that is very very unfortunate, because when I read of the amount of money that enters into other sectors, it worries me that government has not found the need to practically address the issue that they know is a problem. In 1992, when government found it necessary to have a National Science Policy and they set up NASENI as the implementing arm, the government wanted this country to have in place infrastructure that will enable us to design and produce these machines by ourselves. They saw it as a policy; they set up NASENI, but to fund NASENI to be able to do it it is still a problem. If a machine requires N100 million for it to be produced, N99 million will not produce that machine because, even if it is only one span plug (that remains), it will not take off. So that is where they have not been able to key into the real problems that face science and technology. Unless they see our passion, the way we think and understand that when we are demanding this - and we are insisting, it is because it can’t be achieved without it, and that is why most countries that have developed in this third world, their presidents are at the helm of affairs of development - so, they see what is happening. And until we come to that level, it will be difficult, because all what we are doing now is that we are just paying lip service to this. With the little we are given, we do the much we can. This single stroke cylinder engine, I would have produced in only one year - it took me five years, because we had to proceed slowly as money comes. It is something that can be done within one year.
Actually, when they were setting up NASENI, Mr President was supposed to be the chairman, but something happened and it was put under Science and Technology. NASENI Decree 33 of 1992 put in place funding for it - one percent (1%) of the National Federation Account that will increase to three percent (3%) by the year 2010 when they were doing it in 1992, but that one per cent was never realized.They knew that fund was needed for this.
Since you assumed office, you have continued to express dismay over low patronage of made-in-Nigeria products, especially your products; has the situation changed?
It has not changed much, because first of all, our people have, when I talk of neocolonialism, it is not just that we were left without physical infrastructure, our mentality was also colonized and that is even more difficult. Our people derive pleasure in importing products. Also, the major problem we also have is even when we develop a technology that can easily replace the imported ones, they derive pleasure in saying that we are partnering with foreignoverseas firms. They are proud to say ‘my Chinese partners, my British partners’. Even when we produce better equipment, we find it difficult to convince them. For instance, I want to build something for somebody and I give you all the proposal and say ‘pay 50 per cent’; he finds it difficult to pay you in advance, because he does not trust you. But when a Chinese tells them to pay 100 per cent upfront, they will pay; it is unfortunate, so they are still not patronizing us even when our products are of better quality. Before, we were able to get the government to patronize our science kits, it took the direct intervention of Mr. President. They almost didn’t want us to produce them but Mr. president said, ‘go and give it to NASENI’ and that was why we got that job. So, it is still a problem, but I believe that, somehow, with this transformation agenda of Mr. President, we may overcome this Nigerian factor that is so prevalent.
What do want government to do to encourage people to patronize made-in-Nigeria products?
Well, government is already doing the much it can. Government has got policy but I believe that if government can give us funds, and we begin to produce sufficient quantity, it will be easier, because when most of the products are in the markets, and maybe they impose more duty on imported goods, once their price comes at par with our own , people will begin to patronize us, but if we don’t have electricity, our products will be more costly than the ones produced in China where they pay virtually nothing for electricity.
What is your relationship with South East governors like?
The only governor in the South East that I recognize for now is Sullivan Chime who has patronized us and is still determined to patronize us. It is difficult to get these governors; they have their own priorities, but I still believe that something has to be done: we must come together, especially the South East. We need to improve our relationship with them but, for now, they have been very elusive.
What factors do you think are responsible for the incessant collapse of industries in Nigeria?
Number one is power. If you are setting up an industry in Nigeria, you must plan for generators; but you cannot use generators to break even in some products. You can break even in selling beer (laughs) but, if it is industrial equipment, you cannot. That is the major issue, but I’m happy Mr. president is tackling it with Barth Nnaji in charge. But they need to join hands with NASENI to make sure that we won’t need to import the spare parts, that we won’t need foreigners to maintain it for us, that is what we need, crucially.
Then, of course, other policies like the fact that we have to import almost all the raw materials, if we have the facilities, the infrastructure to process our own, it will be cheaper and better.
Third is skilled manpower; a situation whereby you must get all the expatriates from abroad to be able to do a job and you pay them 10 times what it should have been, your profit is gone.
Apart from inadequate funding, what other challenges is SEDI is facing?
Apart from funding, I must tell you that it is this idea of low patronage and the fact that our private sector is very sceptical; otherwise, if the private sector has been favourably disposed and we link with them, we may generate money as we offer our services. But, most private sector, as I told you, prefer their partners to be white people.