Nigeria Can’t Fly Without Science, Technology — Prof Bugaje

Prof. Idris Bugaje is the director-general, National Research Institute for Chemical Technology (NARICT), Zaria, Kaduna state. In this interview with Osigbesan Sultan Luqman, he explains how Nigeria can leverage on chemical technology in the nation building process, especially to achieve Vision 20:2020 and wean its economy off its dependence on crude oil, among other issues of national importance.
You have been at the helm of affairs in NARICT for two years now; how has it been and how would you compare your job now to being a university teacher?
Indeed there are common grounds and some major differences between universities and research institutes. Both are academic environments, but as a CEO of a research institute, there is bigger academic content demand on you. I have to give leadership in research. But thornier is the mobilisation of the funds to carry out the research in the face of dwindling federal budgets. In any case, I still teach with theAhmadu Bello University and supervise postgraduate (PG) students in the Chemical Engineering Department. Ideally, research institutes should be allowed to graduate PG students as I found in many Asian countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia.
What role do you think research institutes like NARICT shouldor can play in the Transformation Agenda of the federal government, Nigeria’s quest to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the country’s aim of making the list of the 20 leading economies of the world by 2020?
Well, let’s start with the Transformation Agenda. The main thrust is employment generation, wealth creation and placing Nigeria on the path of sustainable development. NARICT has developed several technologies that could assist Mr President in the realisation of these goals. We have developed neem-based organic fertiliser technology that will ensure success of the agric component of the TransformationAgenda. We have technologies for the processing of tomato into paste on small to medium scales. Essential oils being imported by many industries can now be produced locally withequipment designed and fabricated in NARICT. Others are lime production from limestone, liquid detergents technology, football making technology, water treatment using Moringa seeds replacing alum and chlorine, biofuels from Jatropha and algae, and several others that could have tremendous impact on employment and wealth creation as well as import substitution. We also house some of the best laboratory equipment for chemical analyses anywhere in Nigeria.
We learnt that you have developed a blueprint to wean NARICT off government subvention in a 5-year time frame; can you give us a synopsis of the plan?
Yes we have developed our 5-year Strategic Plan not long after I assumed office. We examined our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. We came up with a roadmap that will deliver us from dependence on federal government capital and recurrent budgets in five years. All that is needed is N5 billion in five years, in other words a billion naira per annum in five years. This is an insignificant percentage of the federal budget, but could really set us on the path to financial independence. We intend to invest in market-driven researches, set up production outfits on Public Private Sector Partnership (PPP) so that part of the profits will be recycled back to the Institute for expansion of research and production.
We also have the flagship project of the Institute. This project intends to convert non-biodegradable municipal solid waste, agricultural residue and coal into liquid fuels and other petrochemicals. All the nuisance of the so-called ‘pure water’ sachets can now be addressed, cleaning our cities and towns and producing economic products out of wastes. The technology is relatively high. This was the technology deployed by Germany during the Second World War to produce liquid fuels from coal as well as in apartheid South Africa during the global oil embargo. We sought for partners from the West but were disappointed. We are now partnering with Malaysia to realise this project. This, if concluded, will have a tremendous impact on the nation’s economy and leap-frog Nigeria to the next level.
NARICT has built a tomato/chilli pepper paste production plant, minero-organic fertiliser and bio-fertiliser plants on yourwatch. How can Nigerians benefit from these and what are you doing to put this indigenous expertise at NARICT in the service of the country?
NARICT has the only tomato fruit to paste plant in the country. Any tomato paste you see made in Nigeria is only packaged here with imported paste from China or Italy. Our plant was 100% fabricated in Nigeria with assistance from the Peoples Republic of Vietnam. We noticed that all previous tomato factories in Ikara, Dakin-kowa, etc, have all closed down due to the absence of spare parts. Our technology is fully domesticated and so all spares are produced locally.
NARICT has also developed a minero-organic fertiliser based on neem seeds with spinoff companies employing hundreds of Nigerians in Katsina state and Ayingba, Kogi state. Our bio-fertiliser plant is the first in West Africa. This uses microbial organisms to fix nitrogen of the air into plants as well as make soluble other nutrients such as phosphorous and potassium. We are planning to create spinoff companies on these technologies. Nigeria must start to look inwards and develop alternative fertilisers that will help rejuvenate our soils from the decades of damage they suffered from chemical fertilisers, which is also largely imported. We are not asking for the imports to end immediately, but let’s start usingorganic and bio-fertilisers in the national fertiliser mix and gradually reduce the proportion of chemical fertilizer for sustainable agricultural production.
In what ways can we use chemical technology to transform Nigeria’s economy in aid of the nation building process?
Chemical technology is the basis for both the Transformation Agenda and the Vision 20:2020. Almost everything we consume or use from processed food, clothes, fuels, automobiles, domestic utensils, office equipment, medical drugs, etc are all made up of one chemical or another. Countries that have achieved industrialisation did so because they gave chemical technology the central position and funded research to develop the chemical industry. From Europe, North America, Korea, Japan, China etc have focal Chemical technology institutes that were driving their transformation. In Nigeria, NARICT is the only research institute in the field of chemical technology. We need to be supported and financed to enable us reposition the Nigerian chemical industries and support them to meet global competitiveness. Presently, almost every chemical consumed by the functioning industries are being imported wholesale. Yet we have all the basic mineral and agricultural raw materialsto meet the local demands. All we need is some beneficiation and process technologies to meet the specifications of the individual industries. This is the role NARICT could play in the industrialisation of the nation, which is fundamental in nation building.
Critics have accused our Ivory Towers, and by extension research institutes like NARICT, of not building synergy with the larger society by not tuning their research to solving pressing societal problems; a sort of purpose-fit, town-and-gown collaboration to help local industries. What is your take on this?
Indeed the ivory towers must accept this accusation and find ways of redressing the challenge. Yes most of the researches carried out by most research institutes are not driven by market forces. That’s the major difference with Institutes in the emerging economies. NARICT strategic plan was designed to address this challenge. We need to have clear policy direction developed by both government and the industry what Malaysia calls IRPA – Intensive Research in Priority Areas! These IRPA targets are reviewed from time to time due to the dynamism of the global scenario. NARICT has not only developed the 5-year strategic plan, but we have created a directorate for establishing collaboration with industry. Seven selected industries have been identified and visits done with subsequent staff exchange in the pipeline. Soon we are also having meeting with Africa’s foremost industrialist, the Dangote Group along this line.
You are a Professor of Chemical Engineering. How and why did you take to this particular course of study and the academia as a profession?
Well, my choice of Chemical Engineering was also a kind of destiny. I was more fascinated by Physics during my undergraduate days. However, I do not regret having graduated in 1980 as a Chemical Engineer. I worked in industrial sector for some years before joining the academia. But sincerely, Chemical Engineering is one profession that is grossly underutilised in Nigeria. Our primary job is the design of process plants, unfortunately all the major chemical plants in Nigeria, such as petroleum refineries, petrochemicals, cement, fertiliser, food processing and other industries are alldesigned overseas even after 52 years of independence. Look at the Kaduna refinery, it was designed and built by Chiyoda Chemical Engineering Company of Japan. Our chemical engineers in Nigeria are only reduced to plant operators! This must change!
Professionally, what book would you say has had the most profound influence on you?
I am sorry, I may not be able to give a specific book since you wanted it professionally. It was a combination of undergraduate books. In those days even the Chemical Engineer’s Handbook by Perry was selling for N34! We could afford to buy all the recommended books.
How can we as a nation attain scientific cum technological independence, and at the going rate when do you think we’ll achieve that?
Indeed scientific and technological thrust is the foundation of achieving Mr President’s Transformation Agenda as well as the Vision 20:2020. We must, however, review the present scenario, especially the dismal funding of research institutes and poor motivation of its staff. Research institutes should begiven a Commission that will help reposition, coordinate and issue National Research Priority Areas in collaboration with key stakeholders. Research and Development must be done to enhance the competitiveness of local industries and not allow Nigeria become a dumping ground of the globalization process.
Apart from crude oil, what other chemical-based mineral resource(s) can Nigeria leverage on, very quickly, to generate revenue at par with oil today?
There are many. Nigeria is highly endowed with Agriculture and solid minerals as well as human capacity. Each of these can generate more than what we are getting from oil if properly positioned. I don’t need to give you examples of countries with a fraction of our resources but have now joinedthe league of developed or emerging economies. Kano state for example can feed the entire country. The solid minerals in Kogi state can make us compete with DRC and the human resources in Lagos alone if properly harnessed can turn around the entire economy of the African continent.
In all honesty, are we on track deploying the enormous potential of science and technology to developing our country? If not, how can we do this?
Sincerely we are struggling to be on track. I believe Mr President has the political will, himself being a scientist. But there are certain fundamentals that must be addressed to setus on the path of sustainable scientific and technological development. Some I have mentioned earlier, others include atotal overhaul and upgrade of the educational system, allowing science and technology to lead the Transformation Agenda and other development plans, allocating appropriate budgets to the sector and fixing the infrastructural deficiencies in the economy.
You lost your daughter, Amina Idris Bugaje, and personal assistant, Buhari Maikudi, tragically in the Dana Air crash of June 3, 2012, please accept our condolences. You must miss them very dearly?
It was my most devastating moment in life. As a Muslim, I took it as destiny and have resigned to Him for succour. However, the process that we passed through after the incident relating to a paltry insurance claim, which we really didn’t need, was most disgusting.

SOURCE: VNTI G.N

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