Technology: from Conception to Implementation
English translation of lecture by Professor Bart Nnaji, CON, NNOM, FAS, in Igbo at the annual Odenigbo Lecture on Saturday, September 3, 2016, organized by the Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri
It is always a great blessing to be in the midst of authentic men and women of God. These are people who have abandoned the world to follow our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ (Matthew 4: 18-22 ). They are not seeking their own personal salvation alone, but also the salvation of all humanity. The Scripture notes that there is no greater love than the fact that a person should lay down his or her life for the benefit of his or her people (John 15:13). May their heroic lives not be in vain.
I owe the foundation of my life to the Catholic faith. I was born a Catholic and, more important, raised in the finest Catholic tradition. I attended only Catholic primary schools. I am a proud Old Boy of St Patrick’s Secondary School, Emene, in Enugu. In 1977 I was offered scholarships to attend such great universities as Columbia University in New York, but I opted for St John’s University in New York for the simple fact that it is a Catholic institution. Until some years ago, my hometown of Umuode in Nkanu East Local Government Area of Enugu State was embroiled for a decade with a neighbouring community in which several lives were lost, assets destroyed and thousands of our people became internally displaced. The Catholic Diocese of Enugu stood with our people all the way. I experienced firsthand what Pope John Paul 11 meant by solidarity with the human family. The solidarity reminds one of how the Church stood with the hapless and starving millions of Biafrans during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70. Frankly, I sometimes wonder how the Biafrans could have survived for even a month without the solidarity with the human family which the Church displayed during the papacy of Paul V1. I also sometimes wonder where Ndigbo would have been today without the numerous schools, hospitals and orphanages as well as leprosy centres which the Church set up across Igboland and the rest of the country. Each and every one of us should constantly pray for especially the early missionaries who braved all odds to bring Good News to this part of the world.
It is always a great pleasure to address Igbo issues. I am proud of my Igbo heritage. God, in His infinite wisdom, decided to make me Igbo. And I am grateful for this privilege. The Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri, shepherded by His Grace, Archbishop Obinna, deserves our praise and gratitude for organizing the Odenigbo annual lecture series but also insisting that it be delivered in impeccable Igbo. I must confess that preparation to deliver this fairly long speech in the Igbo language has been one of the most intellectually challenging tasks I have faced in recent years. But it has been exciting. If nothing else, my written and spoken Igbo has improved considerably.
I am also grateful to Archbishop Obinna and other organizers of this annual lecture for considering me worthy for this year’s lecture. The topic could not have been more appropriate for me, considering my life over the decades as a researcher, engineer, scientist and developer of services and products. In other words, I am an omenka through and through. An omenkadoes not just create things; he or she conceptualizes something first and then sets in motion the process for making it a reality. It can be argued that the reality may not be of value until it benefits the larger society as a product or service. Whatever a scientist or engineer or researcher does should be of value to society and humankind generally. Time was when it was thought that the researcher or intellectual should have minimal contact with the larger society, hence the university was known as the ivory tower. This was the tradition in the United Kingdom. But the United States has shown that humanity benefits more when the dichotomy between gown and town is reduced. In fact, the relationship between town and gown should be synergistic or symbiotic. A good scientist or researcher is, by definition, what the French calll’homme engage, that is, a practical man of ideas. He or she will have the head in the sky but also the feet planted in the soil.
From Theory To Practice
Frantz Fanon, one of the foremost revolutionary philosophers of the 20th century, once declared that philosophers have long defined problems but what remains is how to put their ideas into practice, so that the world will be a better place. This was the nature of the challenge I faced in 1993 when I was appointed the Minister of Science and Technology. By the time of the appointment, I was holding the position of Distinguished Professor of Robotics and Industrial Engineering and Director of the Artificial Intelligence & Automation Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts. I was steeped in cutting edge engineering research in the United States and most of our products were for the technologically advanced nations. Still, my American background would prove useful for the Nigerian environment which was marked by a huge dichotomy between research and product development. A number of research institutes under the supervision of the Ministry of Science and Technology were producing a lot of things to meet challenges of the Nigerian environment but there was little effort to commercialise them.
The research centres included the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi, in Lagos, as well as the Project Research and Development Agency (PRODA), Enugu, started by the wonderful ex Biafran scientists and engineers under the leadership of Ukpabi Asika when he was the Administrator of East Central State in the early 1970s. I also saw research products by non-federal establishments like the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu. We quickly began work on their commercialization. Commercialization of research products is a major activity of American universities and research institutes. Unlike their Nigerian counterparts, American universities have historically been incentivized to have commercially rewarding relationships with both the private and public sector organisations.
One other initiative we started in the Ministry of Science and Technology was the process of the establishment of technology incubation centres. This was a programme to assist new and startup technology firms with things like management training. We were determined to set up small technology firms all over the country with a view to unleashing a technology revolution. As in the case of commercialization of research products, we could not go far because we were in office for only three months; the Interim National Government in which I served was removed by General Sani Abacha in a military coup on November 17, 1993. But our successors did pledge to continue with the policies. How far the policies have been implemented for the benefit of society is left for you to judge.
Practise What You Preach
Having emerged as a foremost science and technology evangelist in Nigeria, I felt it would be proper if I began to put into practice what I had been preaching while in government. What is more, I was challenged by the example of my former research students from places like Taiwan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and India who would quickly return home to contribute their own quota to the development of their countries and territories. They were rejecting doctoral scholarship offers which came with good stipends.
As an industrial engineering professor, I opted to set up in Nigeria a firm to manufacture parts, bolts and nuts for plants, machines and vehicles, a sector in which the people from my own part of Nigeria already had both a comparative and competitive advantage. A large swath of land was thus procured at Emene, Enugu, for the Nnaji Industry Corporation. The goal was to manufacture things which met the highest global standards, so that leading manufacturers from the United States, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, China and elsewhere would come to Nigeria to source their parts, bolts and nuts.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is case of felix culpa, or a blessing in disguise, that the firm did not take off. If it had, the Nnaji Industry Corporation would have died by now or run into a stormy weather. Why? Poor state of critical infrastructure, especially electricity.
Return To Basics
The non-takeoff of the Nnaji industry Corporation on account of the dismal electric power infrastructure in Nigeria made one begin to think of how to tackle Nigeria’s industrial crisis from the roots. So, when the opportunity presented itself for one to contribute directly to the provision of electricity, one grabbed it with both hands. In 2001, a company I chaired entered into an agreement with the Federal Government to build a 22-megawatt emergency power plant in Abuja, the nation’s capital. It was delivered in record time the following year. And for almost three years it delivered power to State House, the corporate headquarters of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), and the entire Abuja Central Business District without even a second interruption in supply. It became clear to all and sundry that Nigerians could run electricity business to the satisfaction of every person, the way it is done abroad. Electric power supply is, admittedly, no rocket science.
We were still considering how to escalate our performance delivery in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja to a bigger scale when in 2004 the then Minister of Finance, Dr (Mrs) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, approached me to consider how to assist the business community in Aba, Abia State, with electric supply. Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank top executive, had just returned from a tour of Aba with the then President of the World Bank, James Wolfohnson, where they spoke to big manufacturers and small-scale manufacturers at Ariaria Market on their greatest challenge. Each manufacturer identified power supply as the greatest nightmare. Aba, as you know very well, is often called the Taiwan of West Africa because of the ingenuity of the people in manufacturing. Many shoes, handbags and belts in Nigeria today emblazoned “Made in Italy” are actually produced at Ariria Market in Aba. Imagine what they would have been producing if only they had access to credit on favourable terms, good roads and, of course, constant and quality power supply!
Therefore, when Dr Okonjo-Iweala requested that my firm consider building a power plant with the purpose of providing electricity to industries and commercial concerns in Aba and environs, we accepted enthusiastically. This was in spite of such glaring difficulties as huge capital outlay, the novelty of the enterprise, policy inconsistency in the Nigerian business environment and the extant law vesting in the Federal Government the sole right to generate, transmit and distribute electricity in the country until it was changed by the Electric Power Sector Reform (EPSR) Act of 2007. In 2005, an agreement was signed between, on the one hand, Geometric Power Ltd and, on the other, relevant federal agencies like the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) and the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC) to build a 141Megawatt plant in Aba and supply power to residents and businesses in and around Aba. It was to be financed solely by the private sector. The agreement, amended in 2006, provides, among other things, that Geometric Power Ltd be given the option of first refusal in the event of Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) assets in the operational area being sold.
But characteristic of the culture of policy somersault and utter disregard for the sanctity of contract which is the soul of business everywhere, the Federal Government privatized the PHCN assets to another firm in 2013, despite constant reminders and warnings of an existing agreement which made the action vey unfair. The result of this act of impunity has been loss of years by not just Geometric Power Ltd but also people and businesses in Aba and environs. Geometric Power has been paying to Nigerian banks which syndicated the loan for the Aba Power Project $3.5m and insurance firms $1.5m monthly.
The good news is that the man-made problem, as former President Goodluck Jonathan put it on March 24, 2015, when he visited the APP site, has been resolved– thanks to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr Babatunde Fashola. APP will start commercial operations before the end of this year. Consequently, Aba will become the first city in West Africa to enjoy uninterrupted and quality power supply. When the Aba Power Project was conceived, it was designed to be world class. The tubular poles, buried 10metres in the ground, can withstand earthquake; very few cities in the world have this kind of facility. Geometric Power has built four new brand transmission substations, refurbished three inherited from the PHCN, built a 27-kilometre natural gas pipeline stretching from Owaza in Ukwa West Local Government Area in Abia State to Osisioma Industrial Estate on the outskirts of Enyimba City and replaced the dilapidated cables. The turbine is from General Electric of the United States, the world’s biggest electric equipment manufacturer. So far, $520m (about N ) has been spent on the project. If the project had been cited in Lagos or the industrial part of Ogun State which is very close to Lagos, the return on investment would be more attractive, but the strategic vision which informed its location in Aba would have been lost.
The significance of the impending revolution in Aba does not really lie in the number of people directly employed by Geometric Power Ltd, but in the power project’s role as a catalyst for the socioeconomic transformation of Enyimba City. Manufacturing companies like Nemeith plc are starting operations in Aba because of the power revolution. Multinationals like Glass Force, Nigerian Breweries and Guinness Breweries will now be connected to public power supply. Their operational costs will reduce significantly, and more money will be utilized on their business expansions. This means more employment and business opportunities for our people, and more revenues for the Federal Government, the Abia State government and the Osisioma LGA. It also means a good time for the host community which will benefit from GPL’s elaborate corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme.
Second Missionary Journey IN Government
Apparently to make me put into practice for the benefit of all our people some ideas which I had developed in recent times about how the Nigerian power sector could develop radically within a short period, in the fashion which Professor Peter Senge, the world famous management guru at Sloan School of Management at MIT, calls double-loop learning, I was appointed to head the electric power subcommittee of the General T.Y. Danjuma Committee set up to prepare a development blueprint for the new Jonathan administration in 2010. I was shortly invited to serve as Special Adviser to the President on Power and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Power (PTFP). We worked for only one year. We were able to restart the reform of the power sector in accordance with the 2007 Electric Power Sector Reform Act. We got all relevant government agencies to start working as a team for the development of the sector. We were also able to start preparations for the privatization of Nigeria’s six generation companies and eleven distribution companies. In addition, we paid some 47,000 PHCN members their monetisation benefits which were owed them from the days of President Olusegun Obasanjo. What is more, we helped increase the quantum of power generated by almost 1,000MW in one year, unprecedented in our national history.
Apparently impressed by the work my colleagues and I did from 2010 to 2011, I was appointed in July, 2011, the Minister of Power. We continued the work we began in The Presidency as Special Adviser and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Power. Among our achievements was getting international global businesses like GE of the United States, Siemens of Germany, Tata of India and Electrobras of Brazil to participate in both the power sector reform and the development of the sector. Within one year Nigeria achieved for the first time almost 5,000MW, with 200MW serving as spinning reserve which could be utilized if there was a sudden drop in power generation. The national grid was able to wheel this quantum of power, a long leap from August 10, 2010, when Nigeria attained 3,800MW for the first time, only to experience a system collapse within a few minutes. The transmission network was poorly maintained and, therefore, very fragile. We decided to not just revamp the transmission network but also introduce the 675kv Supergrid transmission network. In addition, attention was paid to the distribution network which was neither efficiently nor effectively managed. The Rural Electrification Agency (REA), which was on the verge of being wound up following a reported serious fraudulent case, was brought back to life because there were thousands of communities in Nigeria which had no electricity. Attention was also paid to manpower development. For the first time since its establishment, there was proper recognition of the National Power Training Institute of Nigeria (NAPTIN), which was created to supply manpower to the power sector.
Quite important in the achievements my team and I recorded for the brief period we served in the Ministry of Power is the fact that we brought large segments of the Nigerian population into the sector, making them feel like authentic stakeholders. We mobilized civil society organisations, labour unions, market women, traditional rulers, chambers of commerce, professional associations, etc, to buy into the reform agenda. With almost the whole nation on the same page, it is not surprising that most parts of Nigeria enjoyed long periods of remarkably improved power supply when we were in the Ministry of Power.
Education and Technical Talent Development
Education remains the most popular way to train technical talent in any nation. In recognition of this fact, technical colleges were created right from the colonial times. Pools of skilled mechanics, machinists, electricians, draughts men, etc, were produced from such colleges. For some reason, the schools have since been neglected, with severe consequences. The neglect of these schools is rather paradoxical because it came at a time the country had become technically oriented in its curriculum in order to create a culture of science and technology. The neglect of practical oriented education manifests even at the tertiary level. Polytechnics and colleges of technology were set up to provide mostly middle level technical manpower. But their graduates have been facing unjustifiable discrimination relative to their counterparts who attended universities. Though a polytechnic student typically spends a longer period than his or her university counterpart, the polytechnic graduate is not allowed to go beyond a certain grade level in the civil service. Yet, employers do not report that polytechnic graduates display lower knowledge or skills.
Production of highly skilled craftsmen and women to reach a critical mass is vital for Nigeria’s development. Therefore, technical schools must be accorded pride of place. The country has a greater need for people with considerable technical skills now than ever before. For instance, the new generation of vehicles cannot be maintained by traditional mechanics who are barely literate. The new generation vehicles are technologically advanced and constantly remodelled. Those who can maintain them as mechanics and auto electricians need regular training and retraining in order to keep up with the fast pace of changes.
In a lecture to mark the 2010 graduation ceremony of the Federal Polytechnic at Nekede, Owerri, I canvassed that the two-year training for the national diploma by polytechnics be retained, but advised the three-year higher diploma programme be replaced with the bachelor of technology (B.Tech) degree programme. After all, colleges of education like Alvan Ikoku College of Education here in Owerri run bachelor degree programmes in education. I do not see why the HND should be a terminal programme, thereby almost preventing an ambitious HND graduate who wants to further his or her education from doing so. I use this occasion to repeat the call I made six years ago.
Another point I made during the graduation lecture at the Federal Polytechnic, Nekede, which I would like to stress here is the imperative of Nigerian higher institutions to collaborate more effectively with top foreign tertiary institutions. The National University of Singapore, which is highly respected worldwide, is in collaboration with such reputable American universities as Duke University in North Carolina, United States. The National Universities Commission (NUC) should allow Nigerian universities to develop their programmes with foreign ones. Such collaboration will enable our universities to be up to date in their curricula, apart from facilitating exchange programmes which involve both students and researchers. At a recent public lecture in Lagos organized by the Nigerian branch of the Oxbridge Association, Dianne Abbot, the British Labour shadow secretary for international development, noted that the Nigerian university curriculum is about 20 years behind.
The NUC executive secretary, Professor Julius Okojie, was reported in the media last as saying that the university curriculum is outdated. A former Central Bank of Nigeria governor, Chukwuma Soludo, who is an academic himself, says 71% of new Nigerian university graduates are not employable. A University of Lagos lecturer was reported in July, 2016, as stating that it is difficult for first class graduates of our universities to get employment because the Nigerian university curriculum is still preoccupied with hard skills, decades after the world has embraced soft skills. Long after global scholarship has moved on with behavioral issues, our institutions are still steeped in all manner of theories and calculations which are supposedly so-called hard facts in management science scholarship.
One is interested in what goes on in management scholarship because technology and management go hand in hand. Many of the greatest management scholars like Professors Peter Senge and Geert Hofstede trained as engineers. Great management practitioners like Jack Welch and Lee Iacocca are also trained engineers. It is, therefore, no mystery that fast developing countries like China, India and South Korea as well as Japan annually send hundreds of thousands of their bright young men and women to the West to learn mostly engineering and management. The western universities which have established campuses and study centres in China and the Middle East are primarily concerned with teaching technology and management. The result is the breakneck speed at which Dubai, Doha and numerous Chinese cities are developing.
At the 2009 annual Ahiajioku Lecture which I had the privilege to deliver, I recommended that management science be made compulsory in the last two years of the undergraduate programme in Nigerian higher institutions because Nigeria, like the rest of Africa, does have serious issues with management in both the private and public sectors. The NUC has since directed universities to start teaching entrepreneurship. This is a good step. But there are concerns about the quality of instructions. There are concerns about the capacity of the teachers who may not have a compelling understanding of the subject. It also seems that our vision of entrepreneurship is very limited. Students are taught how to make and sell things like batik clothes. In California which is the centre of entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship is generally considered to be how to provide capital and management training for startup and new firms promoted mostly by young men and women in ICT who are bubbling with great ideas which big firms like IBM may be too slow to absorb and implement. The ideas are quickly turned into products and services, and in no time the promoters become owners of big companies.
Moving forward, it must be stressed that patronage of goods and services is key. The craftsman or scientist or engineer will be out of business, like the investor, if there is no market for his or her goods and services. This is why the Federal Government and its agencies should patronize Aba producers. Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State has been reminding the nation that Aba can supply all the clothes, boots, shoes and belts needed by the National Youth Service Corps, the Nigerian Army, the Nigerian Air Force, Nigerian Navy, Police Force and the Civil Defence and Security Corps as well as the Federal Road Safety Corps. As someone familiar with the ingenuity of Aba producers, I know the governor’s statement is true. As a government which genuinely campaigns for “Buy Made in Nigeria”, the President Muhammadu Buhari administration owes posterity a duty to start massive patronage of Aba products and services. The patronage will create immense jobs for our people, save scarce foreign exchange for our nation and rekindle confidence of the Nigerian people in their country. There should be no worries about the capacity of Aba manufacturers to produce enough materials for our defence and security as well as paramilitary organisations. The greatest infrastructural handicap of Aba manufacturers, which is irregular power supply, will become history before the end of this year.
While waiting for the Federal Government to start massive support for the local industries in Aba and elsewhere, Igbo-speaking states can lead the support for our own businesses by, for example, making Innosons vehicles produced in Nnewi, Anambra State, our official vehicles. Peugeot cars, assembled in Kaduna, were for decades the official vehicles in Nigeria. If there is no significant support for Innoson vehicles, the company will go the way of Anambra Motor Manufacturing Company (ANAMMCO) until Frank Nneji and his ABC Transport Company decided to rescue it by acquiring the auto firm. It is not just governments in Igbo-speaking states which need to patronize Innoson vehicles. Can we imagine the huge impact it will have if someone like His Grace, Archbishop Obinna, could enter a gathering like this in an Innoson vehicle?
From Innovation to Adaptation
The standard practice for developing nations and territories is to embrace adaptive technology and with time move to innovative science and engineering. By adaptive technology, we mean imitative technology and by innovative science we refer to the effort to extend the frontiers of scientific knowledge. China has excelled in adaptive technology and is now moving into science or state of the art research. My own career development as a scientist and engineer has, however, followed the opposite trajectory. Right from the time I was a postdoctoral fellow in robotics engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) up to the time I retired as director of the United States National Science Foundation-endowed Centre for e-Research at the University of Pittsburgh, I was in the forefront for innovation. But in Nigeria I have been confined to practise adaptive or imitative technology. This is what the Nigerian reality demands. Nigeria has been trying to catch up as far as rudimentary technology is concerned. Yet, it has to be noted that there are times when adaptive technology can be regarded as innovation. That is, what is regarded as mere imitation in one place is considered highly innovative in another place. It all has to do with the peculiar demands of a given environment. The bottom line is that one has no regret leaving the practice of innovation in the United States for adaption in my own country. This is what patriotism demands. Patriotism is nothing if not self sacrifice and leadership by personal example. One is inspired in all this by the noble examples of the Rt Hon Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr Michael Okpara, Dr Akanu Ibiam, Chief Sam Mbakwe and many other great Igbo men and women.
Your Grace, My Lord Bishops, Your Excellencies, it has been a great privilege addressing my own people on the role of a scientist and engineer in society, right from the time an idea is conceived to the time of its full development when it benefits members of society. I have relied, to a considerable extent, on my experience over the decades. It has been rewarding sharing my experience.
May the Good Lord who has been protecting and blessing us, in spite of our imperfections, continue to guide us all. Truly, His banner over us is love (Song of Solomon 2:4).