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Harnessing Research Findings: Premium Tools for Nigeria’s Development

The importance of research findings cannot be overemphasized. This was the crux of the message delivered by President Muhammadu Buhari last month, while declaring open the Five-Day Technology and Innovation Expo 2021 organised by the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology.

With the allocation of about 0.5 per cent of GDP to research and innovation, the Federal Government believes that the research industry will receive a boost even though it is below the African Union’s Executive Council decision in 2006, which mandates all member states to set aside 1 per cent of GDP investment to improve research and innovation.

Excerpts of the President’s message are as follows: “…We are aware that only a few countries have met this target but as a result of the challenges of this critical sector of the economy, we will allocate a minimum of 0.5 per cent of our GDP to research and innovation as a way to fast-track meaningful development…”

One agency of government that has made efforts to seek how research works from universities can be utilized for national development is the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). Last week the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC) of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, and his top management team met with the management of Nile University of Nigeria, at the Commission’s Head Office in Abuja.

Danbatta, in his address to the management of Nile University of Nigeria, declared that one of the cardinal pillars underpinning the Commission’s Strategic Management Plan is partnerships with relevant stakeholders, through mutually-sustainable collaborations.

In his words, “The Commission will remain fully committed to ensuring synergy, through its strategic collaborations with relevant stakeholders, such as the Nile University of Nigeria, in order to ensure that the overall socio-economic development objectives of the Federal Government of Nigeria are met.”

Earlier, the Vice Chancellor of Nile University, Prof. Osman Aras, who led the delegation, said the institution was open to public-private partnership and synergy with NCC, as it has done with other government institutions, with a view to enhancing human capital development in the country.

The commercialisation and effective utilisation of research findings are vital to the growth and development of any nation. It shows a mark of sincere commitment to wealth creation in building a strong economy.

In Nigeria, with government’s drive towards diversification, the volume of scientific research produced at the universities and research institutions provides a veritable source of revenue generation.

Consequently, in July 2018, the Federal Government launched guidelines on commercialisation of research results and inventions with the objective of commercialising the numerous research results. But the challenges facing researchers in Nigeria go beyond guidelines for commercialisation which lie at the root of some of the country’s developmental problems. Such challenges have resulted in the country’s inability to successfully convert many of its indigenous research works into tangible useful products for economic growth and development.

Funding is an issue with regard to research and development. There are some research findings lying unused in many tertiary and research institutions across the country. According to authorities at the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), the institute has developed products from natural resources which have activity against diabetes and tuberculosis. But such research efforts are currently gathering dust on the shelves without funds to take them to the commercial stage. The institute has reached out to different individuals and organisations but there seems to be a lack of interest to partner with the institute.

One of the things NIPRD has done is to develop the contextual processing protocol in mapping natural resources across the 36 states of the federation, and establish processing mechanisms using local people to harness local products, process and get them to either the Nigerian market or ready for exportation. The institute has preliminary evidence that eucalyptus grows in the North-central and Northwest regions of the country.

NIPRD is presently in collaboration with Kaduna and other state governments to develop derivatives from eucalyptus, dogonyaro, among others. It is estimated that Kaduna State has a considerable amount of eucalyptus covering 6,000-10,000 hectares of land.

Armed with its indigenised technology of extracting essential oil from eucalyptus, the institute signed a MoU with the Kaduna State government that commissioned a business case and feasibility study. Statistics show that from pharmaceutical research, India makes millions of dollars from dogonyaro every year. Experts say that dogonyaro can also be used for many things like tea leaf, oil, cream, hair shampoo, among others. But in Nigeria, it is mainly used for shelter.

It is our national experience that we don’t have many wealthy Nigerians who are funding specific forms of research as it is done in saner climes.

Research facilities have created a number of innovative technologies but adoption level is low. Stakeholders in agriculture have declared that the Agricultural Research Council in the 90s did a compilation of all commercialisable research outputs in the agriculture sub-sector and came up with no less than 250 commercialisable research products. Unfortunately, many of these research outputs have not been commercialised.

Generally, what is at stake is the credibility of research institutions. Sponsors want to make sure that their investments are result-driven and not diverted for other uses. It is only a few reliable individuals and organisations in Nigeria that enjoy incubation or develop funding from known donor agencies including Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to be able to do research projects in Nigeria.

In most cases, despite the support of government in the development of incubation centres, the infrastructure required to support research findings is not readily available. There are issues with the status of some research institutes in terms of the infrastructure even though the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI) has a responsibility to support technology infrastructure. Besides, the agency has a mandate not only to promote research results but also endorse proof of concepts for pilot manufacturing plants to demonstrate viability and commercialisation of research findings.

The private sector must come in to develop human capacity and the needed infrastructure, including laboratories and workshops. But they seem not to have the appetite to pick up research results and utilise them for purposes of developing products and services. In other words, investors are reluctant to key into the litany of research results or prototypes that are already available in the laboratories across the nation yearning for commercialisation. There are numerous products that are patented, yet the challenges of taking them to the market are there.

Meanwhile, technology transfer licencing is seen as a prerequisite for successful commercialisation even though experts believe that there is poor culture of understanding, comprehension and maturity of intellectual property system in the country. According to authorities, patents, trademarks, industrial designs, among others, remain intangible, prototype or example of solutions until they are converted to create value in society.

For any research and development product to be commercialised, the intellectual asset of the researcher has to be protected by the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP). The respect for trademarks, patents and piracy is important because in Nigeria, there is a propensity to pirate products, which does not represent a positive signal for investors.

Researchers with patentable innovations should seek the assistance of NOTAP in writing claims, filling the necessary forms, taking the forms to the patent registry and paying for the patent fee. At the end, the researcher is called upon to collect their patent certificate. It is after this process that the intellectual asset can be said to be protected.

In strengthening capacity building, NOTAP came up with the Industry Technology Transfer Fellowship which is a voluntary contribution by the private sector to develop the capacities of Nigerians. According to NOTAP authorities, the institute is the first to attempt to crack the dominance of software coding and development by foreign countries. The institute is convinced that using imported software, leaves indigenous organisations vulnerable.

Research institutions need to sell themselves in a manner that will convince investors to have confidence in them. Nigeria must be intentional about this just like Kenya and Indonesia have done. In 2010, the Kenyan government established an agency called Kenya National Innovation Agency. The purpose was to link research activities with industry. Indonesia has an enclave for over 100 research institutes established in an area. It was an arrangement by the country to ensure that all research results are coordinated and properly directed.

Over the years, the problem has always been the disconnect between research and industry in Nigeria. Investors believe that several research outputs are based on researchers’ perceptions of the problem and not necessarily what is needed by industry to solve problems. It is worthy to note that industries that benefit from research results tend to fund research institutes in order to develop their products across the spectrum of industry.

A similar scenario plays out in MIT in the United States where companies like Apple, General Motors and other big establishments have research programmes in top universities in America which they are funding to improve their products. This sort of alignment or synergy will ensure that research is supported by industrial grants. It is important to know that there is a market, and for any research to be relevant to industry and society, it must be need-oriented or based on felt needs or need assessment. This is so that at the end of the research, there is direct application.

However, these research findings have the challenge of mass production. This calls to question the utility of machine tools factory in Oshogbo, the workshop session of Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited, and the Steel Rolling Mills of the past. Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited should be able to produce basic steel that is required for basic manufacturing, but that has not been the case.

These companies must have faced the same fate as the current local manufacturers that have challenges of providing their own electricity, roads, among others, which hinder favourable manufacturing production. This means there is no incentive for manufacturing which plays a role in developing the economy, as official figures indicate that the contribution of manufacturing to GDP is as low as about 9 per cent.

The cost of funds is high with about 18 per cent interest rate. There is multiplicity of taxes for manufacturers including paying for the services that regulatory agencies statutorily should provide. It is difficult to diversify the Nigerian economy without incentivising the manufacturing sector. This is critical for the survival of the manufacturing industry on a sustainable level.

Just like every adventure is targeted at a goal, investment is about deploying capital and having return on investments. Investors are not interested in deploying resources on products they are not very sure of.

Furthermore, researchers strive for originality in their research findings. As a survival strategy, they concentrate mainly on basic research which they publish to get promoted. But that does not bring any economic development to the system.

Investors are looking at profitability and product value. The fact that a researcher has developed a product and has a prototype does not make it readily available for commercialisation. That should be the beginning because the commercialisation process involves mass-production, distribution and market research. Research institutions should focus on innovations that support economic development and programmes that address vital challenges. That makes it easy for commercialisation. Unless there is a synergy between research and industry, the vibrancy of research and development efforts are unlikely to translate into products and services.

With the knowledge that government alone cannot fund research and development efforts, the private sector has a social responsibility to step in. Some private universities in the country are doing some good works.

The commercialisation challenge rests with the fact that Nigeria does not appear to have venture capitalists who will take up research products. This is because knowledge of the availability of research findings is weak. The venture capital industry needs to be developed in Nigeria.

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The United States has a structured approach in managing venture capital to ensure transparency. Venture capitalists are given incentives including tax breaks by government from making such donations. The huge successes recorded by Silicon Valley, Netflix, Google, Amazon, among others, are largely linked to venture capital. A few years ago, these companies were not heard of. Venture capitalists or angel investors understood such businesses, risked their monies and took the companies from conception stage all the way through product development and manufacturing.

Nigeria’s inability to turn research results into tangible development outcomes is hurting the country’s economic growth. The country does not seem to mature out of policy because every time there is a new government, the nation returns to existing or previous policies. A research master plan is supposed to be developed for the country which other research institutes are supposed to key in.

Nigeria has a plenitude of research institutes, and the potential inherent in those institutes in terms of spin-offs, can trigger growth and development. This will be enhanced by policies that can ensure that research results are translated to practical reality.

The fulcrum for activating all of these to make sure things work well will be the active participation of the Council on Science and Technology, under the Chairmanship of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Every research result from a particular ministry should be complemented by the efforts of other ministries. In this interrelationship, ministries must be made to agree to work for a common goal. That is the wisdom behind making the President the Chairman of the Council. He alone has the power to coordinate research results from other ministries for maximum effect and impact on the economy.