By Moses AMADI
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 north-west parts of Nigeria.
At the moment, NIPRD is in collaboration with the Kaduna and other state governments to develop derivatives from eucalyptus, dogonyaro, among others. It is estimated that Kaduna state has a considerable amount of about 6,000-10,000 hectares of eucalyptus. Armed with its indigenised technology of extracting essential oil from eucalyptus, the institute signed an MoU with the Kaduna state government that commissioned a business case and feasibility study. From pharmaceutical research, India makes millions of dollars from dogonyaro every year. 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. Malaria has been a leading cause of death in the country but it is not certain that affluent Nigerians are ready to fund research into malaria vaccine. Instead, Swiss companies are funding research into malaria vaccine as well as other tropical or sub-tropical diseases.
The federal government is focusing on agriculture as a means of diversifying the economy. That underlies the importance of agriculture in any economy. However, agriculture also has its challenges with regard to translation of agricultural research findings into capacity or ability to sustainably feed the nation.
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.
Nigeria is the greatest producer of cowpea in the world but it cannot export the product because of the percentage of chemical residual as a result of much spraying on the crop both in the field and during storage. According to industry watchers, the international standard is about 0.01 per cent chemical content. But on the average, that of Nigeria is about 11 per cent chemical residue. However, a new cowpea breed was discovered last year in December whose chemical residue is drastically reduced and meets international standard for export.
Each time there is a discussion about aspects of agriculture or national food security, one of the things that comes to mind is the poor state of agriculture extension services. The extension service culture in the country or what could be called Agricultural Development Programme has become moribund. One of the key assignments given to beneficiaries of the N-Power Programme of this administration was to serve as agriculture extension service workers. Perhaps what needs to be done is to deploy them in revamping the extension service programme by leveraging on ICT and having a knowledge base where frequently asked questions are collated and addressed.
Recently, the National Universities Commission (NUC), as a matter of policy, has directed that every Nigerian university must have a unit in the minimum or a department of agro-entrepreneurship where students would be taught hands-on skills. In addition, there is a training manual called “How To” which contains information on every commodity in all sectors of agriculture. Nigeria has got to the point where entrepreneurship skills must accommodate the business side of agriculture. Such has been the drive from 2012 when Dr. Akinwumi Adesina was the Minister for Agriculture.
Modern agriculture is driven by knowledge and expertise. The Nigerian agriculture sub-sector cannot be an exception. Incidentally, an appreciable number of young people have been trained, and they now form a formidable team that can serve as a one-stop extension agent.
Generally, what is at stake is the credibility of research institutions. Sponsors or net worth individuals 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 developing 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 as a proof of concept to have pilot manufacturing plants to demonstrate viability and commercialiability 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. 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 intangibles, prototypes or examples 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 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.
The intellectual asset can be licenced out through exclusive or inclusive methods. It is exclusive if the manufacturer of the innovation decides to licence it out to one individual who now has the right to produce based on the manufacturer’s technology. It is inclusive if the manufacturer’s licence is given out to interested parties. On both scores, the original owner of the innovation gets royalties or income from their intellectual effort.
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 was 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 link-up just like Kenya and Indonesia have done. In 2010, the Kenyan government established an agency called Kenya National Innovation Agency and 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 but not necessarily what is needed by industry to solve problems. It is the industries that benefit from research results that 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 so that at the end of the research, there is direct application.
The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) is making efforts to ensure that research works are commercialised. The association is exploring the link between need assessment and research work by signing an MoU with committees of deans of engineering in Nigerian universities where research efforts of universities will be admitted in manufacturing facilities for evaluation. Based on the challenges of the problem discovered, a research work that will take into account, local technology, will be designed. In addition, MAN ensures that its members become part of the board of the faculties to be able to share the knowledge and develop research works.
MAN is making a case for research works beyond being displayed on the shelves, to be more visible for investors. For this purpose, the association partnered with the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC) to organise an expo where research works were displayed for both local and foreign investors to take advantage of. The Ministry of Science and Technology was part of the expo which brought together the private sector and research institutes from the Ministry.
As part of its policy in promoting research works, MAN also signed an MoU with the Chemical Society of Nigeria, a group that is deeply involved in research but without much patronage from investors. MAN set up a committee that reviewed the agency’s research works and zeroed in on some research projects that are viable for commercialisation.
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 is not 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. Researchers strive for originality and reproducibility in their research findings, and 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.
One the other hand, 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. A number of them have started establishing industrial parks, and the food and drinks eaten and taken in these universities come from them.
The commercialisation challenge rests with the fact that Nigeria does not appear to have venture capitalists who will take up research products, as knowledge of the availability of research findings is weak. Venture or risk capital is almost non-existent because perhaps there is no structured way of looking at research and how to manufacture research findings. The venture capital industry needs to be developed in Nigeria.
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 administration, the nation returns to existing or previous policies. A research master plan is supposed to be developed for the country for which other research institutes are supposed to key in.
Effective management of research and development activities is crucial for wealth creation and national development. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the National Root Crop Research Institute are doing great jobs. They have been successful over the years in developing high yield varieties, having played big roles in making Nigeria the largest producer of cassava, yam and cowpea in the world.
IITA is successfully commercialised, organised, structured and able to attract funding all over the world. Based on its research efforts, some countries and international organisations are coming for its seedlings and marketing them in developing countries including Brazil. It is a model that Nigeria should study because the institute has become a success story in terms of commercialisation.
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 this to make sure things work well will be the Council on Science and Technology under the Chairmanship of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Every research result by 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 for the President as the Chairman of the Council because he alone has the power to coordinate research results by other ministries for maximum effect and impact on the economy.
It is lack of consensus on a common goal that creates ‘silos mentality.’ When inter-dependency is appreciated in the Council, the various ministries will play in accordance to rules, knowing that whatever they contribute is a component part of the whole as the end product becomes beneficial to the economy.