interviewBy Ahmed Usman
The Director-General, National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP), Dr. Umar Bindir, in this interview with USMAN AHMED, speaks on the core mandate of the agency and contends that technology is the way out for the country to develop into a top nation. He also explains how the agency has saved the country over N150 billion in its regulatory function just as he calls for synergy among government agencies so as to achieve the transformation agenda.
Can you briefly tell us the history of NOTAP?
Yes! This is an institution that was established since 1979. It is a modern 30 year-old government agency. At that time when it was established, the major objective of establishing this particular agency was based on the observation that Nigeria as an independent country also wanted to evolve and metamorphose into a modern country; a country that is well respected; a country that also wants to provide fantastic goods and services to its people.
Therefore, it needed good roads for this big country. The agriculture resources needed some strategies of value addition; therefore, we needed some industries. It also needed infrastructure like power, water, schools, and health facilities and so on and so forth. Fortunately or unfortunately, all these basic necessities of life requires technical knowledge, technical expertise, and literacy.
It requires high level of knowledge which is science; it requires high level of skills and expertise - which is technology, to actually drive. But, the country did not have these things and therefore it was left with the option of going out of the country to acquire it from foreign lands.
So, the county depended on the Europeans; to a certain level on Asians and on Americans, to actually have all the best or procure knowledge to provide roads, water, etc. This is the basic principle of technology transfer - meaning transferring technology from areas where it was available to our country where it is not available.
And this transfer has a lot of implications: legally, because people can abuse you and put the agreement in their favour; financially, because they can over-charge you since you don't have it; technically, they can refuse to train you if you are not well organized and will probably put a posture that any time you have a problem, they will come and solve it, take your money and go.
Literally, it is not in your favour and certainly it has implications of their direct involvement in terms of their social responsibility, which they do whatever they want. So, you do not know where you are heading to and, therefore, they can just do anything and think you should take it.
These issues of unfairness of transferring technology to Nigeria was the same issue faced by the then developing countries like USA, Brazil, India, Malaysia and even China, etc. These bench of countries came together to said that the first world countries seems to be taking advantage of the developing countries by transferring technologies which sometimes are outdated, and transferring it on their terms, whereby we were never going to develop.
Therefore, something fair has to be sorted out and they approached the United Nations to sort it out through the World Trade Organisations dynamics. It is the same western countries that have got control of this international structures and it could not scale through to become an international standard, so they left every country to go back and do it on their own, and that is how NOTAP emerged as a technology transfer regulatory organizationl, an organization that was supposed to look at technologies that are coming into Nigeria: Are they legally friendly? Are they also friendly to Nigeria when it comes to the financial charges?
Are they fair when it comes to the domestication of the technologies; building capacity, training, research and development, etc? Are they also fair when it comes to sourcing raw materials - i.e. if we have them they will source it from us and so on?
This is how the agency was established literally to give the country a strategy of strengthening itself technologically to develop for the future. It started as the National Office for Industrial Property, which was then under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and as it developed over the years, it was easier to recognize that it has implication on research and development, science, technology and innovation, and that is how it was transferred to Ministry of Science and Technology to become the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion.
And the major ingredient of the work is that for Central Bank to process the financial remittances by people who are transferring technology so that they can buy dollars, pounds or yen or Euro from the Nigerian foreign exchange system, and take it out. NOTAP has to confirm that the technologies that they have transferred are fair and notable, give them a certificate endorsing that, yes, to a certain extent, this is fair, CBN you can sell dollars to them.
Can you give an assessment of the Nigerian situation in terms of science and technology?
You see, picking the pieces from the beginning, we started recognizing that we also needed to build the capacity of Nigerians at the highest level, to "improve the local content for knowledge, for technology and creativity so that we too can gradually be defined as an emerging country or ultimately as a developed country".
And you may want to ask yourself; where do these skilful people come from? Where do you get people who can actually work very hard and come up with superior knowledge that you can call science? Where do you have these skilful engineers and technocrats that can transform the science into useable things so that our industry can develop? Where do you get the very skilful people managerially, to be able to establish industries to harness our raw materials, adding values, creating job opportunities and wealth in our country?
The answer is you must have a good education system. You must have institutions of higher learning such as universities, polytechnics, research institutions, colleges of education, etc. These are the factories where you can get this critical mass of people coming out. It was in the 1940s when University of Ibadan as a campus of a British University was established and that was how we started. Now as we speak Nigeria has 125 universities evenly spread all over the country.
We have 36, 37 federal universities, 36 or 37 state universities, and over 50 private universities. So, we are recognizing the significance of these infrastructure to breed the critical mass of people we require to take this country to the next level.
In addition to these, we also have 125 polytechnics, nearly 100 colleges of education we have over 300 institutions of the federal governments' level alone that you can call research or innovation institutions or policy implementation institutes.
So, this is where Nigeria is in terms of the knowledge infrastructure, but going down the line; have these infrastructures succeeded in breeding the critical mass of highly skilled manpower to take our country to the next level? Why; because as we speak, we are still having challenges of domesticating the local know-how to manage our own petroleum resources. Here we are with one of the huge deposit of crude oil and gas, but unfortunately we could not add value to it.
This has nothing to do with corruption and so on that a lot of people are talking about. We have failed to develop a solid knowledge infrastructure to even arrogantly demonstrate to the world that we know how to exploit, process and lift it; to we know how to create jobs and services to our people. This is where the gap is, and therefore, certainly we are struggling there.
Similarly, when you look at the power sector, for a country that has got one of the largest deposits of gas, even on the thermal system based electricity supply alone you know that we have not displayed the arrogance that we need to showcase to the world that we have the resources, we can add value to it; that we too have bred the desired engineers that can come up with very power system on the thermal system approach to be able to reach our generation and transmit it to everywhere, distribute it and market it effectively. Again there are challenges there.
If you look at agriculture, it is not new; even the Minister of Agriculture has been saying this - that this is a country that has a vast irrigable land - nearly half a million square kilometres, and water is everywhere. If you look at the water ways and the tributaries scattered everywhere, Nigeria should not be importing anything. Yet, we are importing rice, and that again is a clear index that we have not worked hard to breed the very patriotic technical people to take advantage of that.
So, in summary, we have the knowledge system but have not matured to the level whereby we take advantage of the opportunities that are very clear to be able to move Nigeria to the next level.
Therefore my assessment of the science and technology status of our country is that it is in a developing mode; definitely we need to amplify the speed so that we can take opportunity of the primitive opportunities that are sitting there, to create jobs, wealth and put our country on the list of proud countries in the world.
So, what are NOTAP challenges and the way forward towards delivering its mandate?
Well, first of all the ingredient for making progress must be championed by standard. The very first thing that most countries do to be able to break the barrier is to standardize their operations. Institutions in Nigeria are many; we are not short of specific institutions to actually do specific things. But when you go into these institutions, you find out that we have it very difficult to standardize the requirements by these institutions to meet the mandate set by these institutions.
For example, NOTAP is established to be the agency that can implement the foreign technology transfer strategy so that we can domesticate the technologies and also be able to mature to become an industrialized country. To do that, this agency requires specifically a number of capacities: you need some people who are well trained and continuously retrained to ensure that the energy in this changing world is sustained to do these works. We need facilities in terms of buildings, computer facilities, motivation and so. These are some of the challenges faced by nearly all government agencies.
I think we need to overcome them so that individual agencies meet their capability requirements and therefore their key performance indicators can easily be measured. This is one challenge that NOTAP has. NOTAP is not in a very good shape when it comes to the building where we are staying. We are still in temporary building, but as government, therefore, you have make do with the best capability to the capability that you will be able to deliver.
Also, NOTAP needs to review its own skills and capabilities in terms of numbers of people that we employ, train and so on. The second big challenge globally is that most countries recognize that you have to develop what we call systems of innovations, i.e. institutions must partner to be strong. In Nigeria we have not been very good in synergizing, partnering and creating networks between institutions to be strong; to help our leaders obtain these goals that they have set for our country quickly.
We like working individually; we like working as islands; we don't want to partner; we are constantly quarrelling on the basis of mandate, on the basis of funding. We must be able to break these and demonstrate a unity of purpose to help our leaders.
For example, NOTAP regulates technology transfer to private sector people, who are importing technology. Now, the same people are regulated by the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) in terms of registration. The same companies actually go to the Central Bank to remit their money for import and export purposes for technology.
The same organizations also pay taxes to the rederal inland revenue. Many of these agencies or companies are visited also by Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON) to see whether their operations and their products are standard. Many of these companies are also visited by National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
It would have been better for these regulatory agencies to have a synergized forum, a forum whereby we meet either once, twice, thrice or even four times in a year to compare notes, to know how we make progress in terms of agriculture, how our industries doing, the technology remittances compared to net sales or the total inland revenue for taxes. This synergy is not there, and then again this is a challenge so that you find each agency of government working very hard but you are like roaming around the same point. So industries will talk to about seven agencies. It is difficult to have a one-stop shop per se.
But it is for the heads of these agencies with their technical teams to constantly compare their notes, make references to the kind of development agenda. In this regards, the transformation agenda for the 20:2020 of government is also hurting NOTAP. Everybody complains about funding, but if you look at the funding challenges of most agencies, actually it emerges because we are not synergizing. We spend like ten times because we are not synergizingl; that is why agencies like NOTAP don't get adequate funding to do regulations very well.
Other agencies are doing part of these regulations. If we are talking to one another, the burden of poor funding would have been eased. So NOTAP regulations on the basis of financial regulations alone, technologies that we think Nigeria should not pay can be cancelled, over charge is reduce; over the last two years alone we have saved the economy a quantum of nearly N150billion that were actually regulated here.
This type of information and the reasons why these is emerging would have been quicker and have more impact on the economy if we are synergizing. We would have done more of these regulations if we can have more financial support to visit industries more and interact with them. The final big challenge is the maturity of the policy on these regulations to help our leaders say yes.
We are now in good shape policy-wise to say for example, in the next five years Nigeria should be importing 50% less of rice because we know the varieties, we know the planting techniques, we know we are manufacturing the fertilizer, we are training our farmers, we know how to package etc.
But this kind of policy statement cannot emerge from the Ministry of Agriculture or industries; and if they don't happen we say there are cabals. There is no cabal anywhere; it is just that we have not gotten our heads together to start thinking in the same line.