Daily Trust (Abuja)

Nigeria: Innovations Three - Pulling Out the Stops

For over 10 years, Bolade Jesse has found a way to teach students electromagnetism in ways they can comprehend easily - using a kit he developed.

The kit contains circuitry and magnets described in standard physics text, and shows exactly how current is generated, runs and undergoes any number of variations.

"Students complain that they know just much about electromagnetism in theory but they don't know how to apply it," Kadiri Daniel, an academic at Federal Polytechnic, Auchi, observes.

In his estimation, having a one-stop kit that bares the mysteries of electricity and magnetism is a godsend.

But the kit hasn't felt like a godsend for inventor Jesse, even after a physics panel at a scientific conference in Asaba approved it years ago.

Armed also with an approval from the federal education ministry, he said, he offered the kit to willing parties. "Ondo State government acquired some" for their schools, he tells Daily Trust, but the production was so cumbersome he had to return to work.

Production in China was his best bet, but his first trip there ended in near disaster after he was offered a fake visa.

On arrival in China, "I was handcuffed and put in custody for three days then deported," he remembers. And upon returning and confronting whom he considered the source of the fake visa, "the officer bulldozed me out of his office."

But China, with its cheap labour and fast growing production scene still holds the best hope for his invention. He wants to make the kit a "much more robust, one touch operation, so there wouldn't be disappointment of one not working."

That's when mass production can begin, starting with moulds to produce the kits many at a time. "Mouldmaking will cost N15 million in Nigeria but in China I can get it for N10,000 but I have to import in bulk," according to Jesse. That will set him back several more millions he doesn't have.

Then the magnets that are the heart of the kit are a second consideration. "There are no magnet producing companies in Nigeria, but there are 400 of them in China," he remarks.

Jesse's depicts just how cumbersome it is to kickstart inventions in Nigeria. People like him band into groups as the Association of Nigerian Inventors, ANI.

ANI wants the government to put money where inventors can access them, says its secretary general David Ally, himself an inventor. It also offers a platform on which inventors can pool resources to "promote knowledge and commercialisation of intellectual property work."

Nearly all are classified as inventive work - physical products like Jesse's EMF kit, and processes like Ally's set of electronics reverse engineered to use power off a solar panel and cutting out the need for an inverter.

The set includes a desktop workstation as well as TV set that also serves as a computer monitor. Without an inverter, the gadgets store power in excess of 10 hours, Ally explains.

The gadgets are taken off the shelf-standard sets on the market. Ally says they are "carefully selected components that will serve our purpose." They come built with LAN and wireless interface as well. But "the process is patented."

The way he justifies it, "If you can keep your offices working throughout the day whether there is power or not, it is good enough."

But many are yet to stumble upon decidedly useful and affordable homegrown technologies to run their offices and business in today's climate.

And the innovators behind the works are doing little to push their innovations into public domain.

"The knowledge is very, very low," Ally estimates. "Most people who have invented something don't even know they have to seek protection - in patents and such."

They have to first know that innovation can bring reward to them and anyone interested in using or investing in their ideas.

But therein lies a bigger problem, Ally asserts. "Our society doesn't have a lot of venture capitalists ready to put their money in people's works, (in many cases) because people don't know there is reward."

Seeing this requires a paradigm shift on a gigantic scale that Nigeria just hasn't been doing through research and development and at its universities.

Nigeria's innovativeness ranks fairly good in the arts, but its technologies leave a lot to be desired, especially making its tech innovations widespread.

At an exhibition of innovations from schools in November, Minister Of State for Education Nyesom Wike observed that many innovations started in Nigeria are taken outside the country to be developed and put to use.

Take Nigeria's electricity: infrastructure is not widespread, supply is not steady and there is huge dependence on generators such that households and businesses run their own power stations to get work done.

It is a problem of immediacy, but "our education system has not been directed toward solving our immediate problem--and that should be our preoccupation," says Ally.

"Our universities should start thinking about our problem. They should proffer solutions not only writing papers to the government and dropping them.

"They should also proffer means by which those papers can see the light of day. If you just write papers and drop them for the government and it doesn't go further from there, that means you haven't really done anything," he added.

To look at the extent of innovations exhibited in November, Nigeria's schools beg to differ. But majority of those innovations, in the works for years, are still far from being picked up by interested investors--let alone mass production.

Which is why some other schools favour innovations that don't depend on huge investment or venture capitalists. The move is toward more new-mode money-spinning do-it-yourself classes.

Federal Polytechnic, Auchi pushes entrepreneurial courses in things as paintmaking, says Justice Idiaghe, a Laboratory Science technologist at the school. The way he describes it, the entire work can be done in a single room. "You add all your ingredients from stage one to the final stage in a room. All you need is a mixer."

"We want to move from situations where students will graduate and all they want to do is look for a job. We are thinking of situation where we can train them, give them the practical skills so that they can be employers of labour."

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