Since the attainment of its independence in 1960 and its transition to a democratic government, Nigeria has been facing one of the greatest challenges to its democracy, living in a nightmare of an insurgence. In this interview with NKECHI ISAAC, the Director-General, National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP), Engr. Umar Bindir opines that skills acquisition which is the fastest way for job creation will redeem Nigeria from the quagmire.
Sometime ago, your agency mentioned that it intends to roll out a kerosene fridge. How far have you gone in promoting the manufacturing of kerosene-powered fridge in Nigeria?
The request was to manufacture a prototype and because, this year, we do not have a budget line on it, therefore there’s a big question mark on the speedy progress of the project, but we hope that by next year if we have some funding on our NOTAP industry partnerships we should be able to manufacture a number of prototypes, run the engineering texts and know if we will be able to manufacture it in Nigeria or not.
The aim of this project is to conserve energy and tackle the problem of inadequate power supply but kerosene is not cheap and readily available to rural dwellers; are you considering other sources of renewable energy for this project?
The principles on which the kerosene-fired fridge works is that you have a source of heat directly that is heating the refrigerant and that is where kerosene comes in but actually if we start manufacturing it from where it is we can be able to understand exactly how to modify the fridge and make sure that it can work with firewood, it can work where people are cooking so that you can have the coil of the fridge maybe on gases, if they have access to gas, on the stove if they are using kerosene, or on their local stove if they are using firewood. Whatever source you can have, you can deploy the components of the fridge at that level to force the refrigerant to expand and give you a bit of cooling effect.
But the first thing for us is the technology; if we are able to reverse engineer it, it means that we can have people with skills to make this facility. We can have people who understand how it works and embody the knowledge into a physical thing. Technology transfer is not about the product itself; it’s about the skills, the knowhow, and if we are able to extract this with the help of Friscoglass, who have promised to help us with the documentations to help with the new drawings, how to charge the system, with what type of refrigerant. This is the aim of NOTAP - to develop the capacity and capability at the technology level. Once you understand the technology, producing products is called innovations. It means that you can make various options depending on the options on the ground.
How many jobs will this create directly or indirectly?
Even when the project has not taken off the ground, it is already creating jobs and will create many more when we finally commission it. But, presently, you know any product must have evolved from some kind of technological sources; scientists must have worked to come up with the principles and explanations, which are then changed by engineers to become products that are useful to help people. These concepts that engineers have come up on the table are not really products; you have to work harder to make them simpler, cheaper to make and attractive at the right price. So throughout that chain, it is knowledge work that you are using, but when it comes to this product, certainly, you expect people to be selling the raw materials, so you have jobs there. You’ll expect people to be making the raw materials into products, then you have direct labour. Then you expect people to market and brand it, you have jobs there. Then you expect people to maintain and repair it, you have jobs there, too.
All these are the range of jobs. But you cannot expect to say it will employ 10, 15 or 100 (persons) until you come up with the product. It is a product that is driven by its own brand to demonstrate that it is competitive and people are hungry for it. When you have massive hunger for your product, of course, you a building a big industry that will employ more people, sell more and your impact on the economy will be very visible. This is the intention of this product - which is, to pick these products, raise Nigerian’s skills up to the level whereby they can innovate to make sure that we can come up with competitive products to win the heart of customers, not only in Nigeria but along the West African coast as well.
In terms of job creation, are you partnering with organisations like NAPEP, NDE and other relevant agencies to tackle the challenge of unemployment?
Job creation is a critical component of nation building. I have not seen a country where people are working, they go to their offices or go vulcanising, cut glass, build houses and they come home in the evening and they still have time to cause trouble, or have youth restiveness, or do Boko Haram.
One of the solutions of building our nation is creating jobs, but government in its wisdom has actually created so many institutions to tackle this problem. In Nigeria, we have between 300 to 500 Research and Development innovative institutions implementing government policies at various levels. They consist of a large pool of facilities that are expected to be connected together to push Nigerian knowledge to create jobs and create wealth. This is where you are talking about the NASENIs, the NDEs, the NAPEPs, NOTAP and Raw Materials Research and Development Councils. NDE was created to boost skills, particularly for young people to take advantage of the opportunities in Nigeria. SMEDAN takes care of small cottage companies that are expected to employ Nigerians to take advantages in that sphere. BOI was established to ensure that funding facilities are available at various levels for people with skills and good entrepreneurial knowhow to take advantage of the opportunities in Nigeria. You look at NAPEP; it is in charge of combating poverty but there is no way you can tackle poverty without creating jobs. So, you see, when you start listing these institutions from top to bottom, you’ll realise that the government has actually looked at the situation on the ground and created institutions to take advantage of the opportunities.
It is in this big picture that we have observed that we’re not good in partnering, comparing notes and taking advantage of our strength and reducing our weaknesses. So, last year, we started visiting these institutions to create a synergy, that is, system institutions coming together to compare notes, share resources with a view of actually moving Nigeria forward. This synergy is now a team work to target at creating jobs so that we can measure ourselves.
Recently, you spoke about setting up a Science and Technology park; is there any plan to collaborate with stakeholders to that effect?
This concept NOTAP recognized in line with its own key mandate of transferring technology, commercializing R&D results, that the science and technology park concept is one of the tools that the industrialized countries use to narrow the gap between research development, knowledge work and industry. This is a strategy whereby you gradually close the gap, and based on this observation we realised that Nigeria has a lot of opportunities but because we’re good at working solo and focusing on diffrerent issues cannot see these privileges.
For example, if you go to the industrial estate in Agbara, Ogun State, you cannot believe how many multinational companies that are grouped in one place. These are people who literally arrogantly play with knowledge to produce products that they master and we have failed to absorb the technology to transfer the technology because we have failed to move into it with our own knowledge-hunting strategies and have allowed it to exist as a separate industry. We looked at that and realized that it was an opportunity to establish an industrial park.
In Abuja here, too, we recognize that along the Airport road the institutions scattered which havw to do with knowledge there are universities, Technology Villages, Space Agency institutions and so many others, but because they are not working together they just remain as buildings with people inside, but you cannot see anything coming out of it. If you move in there with a strategy, you will evolve a science and technology park there.
Similarly, if you go to Zaria, they have a rash of institutions together in the same town more than any spot in Africa. There are universities - there are research institutes, polytechnics, teaching hospitals and so on - but if you go to Zaria, you’ll also see high poverty; that is unacceptable. Here you see knowledge and knowledge workers of the highest caliber but on the other side, where this is supposed to affect the community, you see poverty, illiteracy in everything. Again, if we are to move and facilitate for synergy you can evolve a science village in Zaria.
Another good example is in the Niger Delta, particularly in River State. where you have the Eleme Petrochemical, which is now called the Ndoroma Petrochemical. Next to it is the former NAFCOM where fertilizer was produced. Now it is NATORI, another big complex where science and technology is happening. If you shift a little bit, the Port Harcourt refineries are there; you see huge S&T happening there. Next to it is the Onne Oil and Gas, which is a technology free zone. Next to it is the jetty. All these are working separately, and, surprisingly, nearly 100 technology-based institutions on science are operating. All these are non-Nigerian; they are all imported.
If we really want to see the future whereby we sustain the production of petrochemicals, we need to look at these institutions within the same radius and dedicate them as an oil and gas technology park.
Parks of this nature take around 25 to 30 years to develop but you must have a solid roadmap that you cannot deviate from. It is a gradual process that will see an oil and gas village coming to life.
With all this knowledge coming up in Nigeria, what is the office doing to regulate technology transfer agreement in Nigeria? are there some deliverables so far?
Technology transfer is based on the simple principle that technology is available somewhere and it is needed somewhere else. So you are moving it. Our work is to regulate that in Nigeria. There are two ways technology can be transferred: first we need roads, oil, gas and so on; it is technology that establishes them - technology that refines and transforms. We need telephones, radios and televisions and it is technology that moves this sector. We need automobiles and so on and it is technology that drives them.
As a country, when you look at all these things, ideally, you start looking for technology to drive them; we need technology for agriculture, water, etc. Normally technology that drives industries come from the knowledge institutions - the universities, the polytechnics and the research institutions. So Nigeria ran to these establishments; unfortunately, these knowledge institutions are not producing the kind of knowledge and technology required to move the industry, because we are a country, so we went to other countries where they have perfected this; that is the kind of technology transfer that we coordinate. It is not new that anytime you see a big project, it is either with a foreign company or with a huge content of technology service providers from foreign countries. Our ICT development, 100% is from foreign technology - both hard and software.
Technology is moving into Nigeria from other countries - from America, Europe, Asia - and that is why we are standing in the middle to say (while we are consuming these technology from outside) we must also look at our knowledge institution to see if we can play a role, whether it will be 10% Nigeria or 20% from our universities and 80% from outside. This is the intervention of our regulatory role.
We have to check this technology transfer to ensure that these service providers provide us with quality services. We may be over- charged and still not get value for money. That is why NOTAP is there to check the agreements to ensure that they are being fair to Nigeria, and that Nigerians are not overcharged but are getting the actual technology. I’m happy to announce to you that in the last 10 years alone, by checking the charges and cutting off the excess charges, NOTAP has saved the country a quantum of over N300billion from the unfairness of some of this technology transfer agreements.
NOTAP has been a catalyst to ensure that so many ICT companies in Nigeria mature to the highest level. If you keep on importing technology without a strategy to learn, you will continue to import until your economy collapses. So also we have to work inside to make sure that technology specialists are breed to provide Nigeria entrepreneurs with the services they need without inviting foreigners to do it. Our intervention as regulators is paying dividends.