I wrote this piece, circa 2008, when the NigComSat project was at its effervescence. More than ten years later, NigComSat has failed. Imagine if Nigeria had used the alternative – build indigenous capability as described in my piece. Sure, it was one of those articles, deep in the night, after dealing with transistors and circuits, one sought exhalation of the mind.
The week I wrote that article, I was working on my book – Nanotechnology and Microelectronics – which later received IGI Global Book of the Year Award in 2010. Working on that book, I interviewed a Director General in Brazil who was coordinating a national program to bring Brazilians, in diasporas, to return to Brazil to help engineer a government policy on microelectronics.
The outcome of that initiative is the very reason why electronics passes through Brazil into Latin America today. Yes, from Foxconn to Apple, Brazil is the first call in Latin America.
At that time, I was consulting for a Moscow-based company on an innovation project. I did reach out to Nigeria but it was just hard. But my work in Moscow was superb that the Government of Russia invited me to keynote one of the largest technology events in Russia. That took me to Russia for the first time.
Nigeria needs to make real decisions and give its citizens the opportunities to fail or thrive. Any initiative that is not anchored on strong university system, bringing SMEs and industries together will fail. Governments are never good in technology acquisition and adaptation, and that is why next efforts must be radically designed to have indigenous elements.
Summary Used for LinkedIn
Sure, you might have read the trending piece (click to read) I wrote in 2008 on NigComSat, the largely failed national satellite project. I was a student then, and honestly believed that Nigeria could have done the modeling differently with more homegrown components, for sustainability. Largely, the national space programs are on stasis at the moment.
At that time, I was consulting for a Russian company. Russia was developing new sectors and I noticed the model: markets, startups and universities. Nigeria was doing none of those. I continued my work with Russians till 2012 when the Mayor of Moscow and the Deputy Minister of Economic Development of the Russian Federation invited me to Moscow. They also gave me a platform to keynote the 6,000-participant Open Innovations Forum.
So, as you read the piece, I want you to have the perspective: nations do stimulate industrial sectors. President Trump just passed an executive order on AI. If you scan that document, the path will be markets, companies and universities. If that had been done in Nigeria, it would be another government agency.
We need to be smarter in our policies and execution of initiatives. Humbly, I have served entities and can attest that the best policies happen when there is less of government even though government is driving it!
===The Original Article posted on Gamji===
Lessons from NigComSat and Our Technology Policy
Our nation wants to stand with giants and demonstrate our arrival in the space technology. But instead of doing it with pride by tasking our universities and research agencies through provision of resources to advance our space industry, we chose the easy way out. Simply, we hired Chinese for N40 billion to design, develop, manufacture and launch satellites with fanciful name NigComSat (Nigerian Communications Satellite). Except the name, there was nothing Nigerian about the whole experience. Our leaders have constantly failed to re-engineer our future by advocating policies that diminish bottom-up creative technology diffusion. NigComSat was a missed opportunity to call the nation into science and technology rebirth. Properly executed, many kids would be dreaming of becoming rocket scientists across our cities and villages.
Arguably, having a Nigerian satellite is a lofty idea considering the potential benefits it will bring to our telecommunication sector. It will digitize our economy and facilitate rapid technology advancements in many of our industries. It promises to become one of the fastest means of connecting our rural communities into the world of bits and bytes. Tele-education, e-commerce, tele-medicine and rural telephony would be immediate beneficiaries. It can also create jobs by enabling broadband access and cushion web-based technologies across the nation. Unfortunately, the execution of NigComSat left many Nigerians worried. I think our government must pursue a new alternative.
At the short-term, our government should focus on buying space segment on hundreds of existing commercial satellites and wait until Nigerians can design, develop, manufacture and launch Nigerian satellites themselves. This short-term purchase, 20% of the N40 billion, should cover few years these pseudo ‘Nigerian satellites’ are expected to last. Besides, Nigeria should look at the option of tax credits to private firms that are ready to invest in broadband and web-based technologies, especially to rural communities. As these technologies emerge, efforts must be made to support banks to ensure that we have an effective electronic payment system. We can create more than 6 million jobs in three years if we have a strong e-commerce accessible by 20% of our population and a functional NIPOST (Nigerian Post Office) to move goods around.
For the long-term, Nigeria must use this opportunity and the resources to develop a viable and enduring engineering culture. I propose a National Science Foundation (NSF) to be managed by technocrats that report directly to the Presidency. This NSF will shape fundamental research and science education through disbursing competitive, limited-term grants in response to specific proposals from the research community. This community includes both our tertiary institutions and enterprises with innovative ideas but lack funding.
Also, this NSF will work with Nigerian University Commission (NUC) to replace our existing university model where teachers are promoted largely on seniority with one that rewards ingenuity in labs and classrooms. As NSF adopts the peer review system to manage federal money, it will fund at least 500 Nigerian students yearly for doctorate degrees in science and engineering in our campuses. With these students, our teachers will have committed and cheap resources to solve the problems proposed in their grants. As our research culture matures, our schools must also replace the current system where lecturers are guaranteed lifetime employments despite colossal teaching and research failures with a tenure system. Tenure system will ensure that only the brightest and the fittest are retained while the laggards are fired after 5 years. I suggest 40% of the N40 billion should be channeled into the NSF.
Another 10% from he N40 billion should be used to open a National Technology Transfer Fund. This fund will be available to institutions, enterprises and all agencies that require funds to commercialize technology. Unlike a typical bank loan, this fund must have no interest and should be accessible after viable feasibility studies of the inventions are ascertained. NSF will manage this fund and will work with technology transfer experts to assist the schools or firms commercialize their ideas.
Back to the satellite project, government must immediately expand its commitments to National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) and give them funds to start real research instead of looking for private firms in China to buy satellites from. I propose giving them 20% of the N40 billion with concrete mandates on what must be achieved. As they progress, more funds will be made available.
The remaining balance of 10% would be used to establish an institute, Institute of Space Science & Technology (ISST), under the control of NSF/NASRDA and administered in the four federal universities of technology in the country. This will be similar to the United States Engineering Research Centers which enables multiple universities collaborate, share and shape specific scientific areas. As ISST matures, it will be an organic pathway to train and develop future space engineers in the nation who can actually move to NASRDA and help evolve a truly Nigeria’s satellite. ISST should be encouraged to hire experts from around the world to strengthen their programs.
We are Nigerians; we are smart and ingenious. My understanding of our problems is simply the failure of our leadership to devise means to connect us to solve them. We have the capacity to leapfrog in science if government will produce a plan with leadership. The same government that gave us Digital Bridge Institute, Abuja with understanding that we need constant training to sustain emerging trends in telecom sector does not see a similar need on electricity. New technologies on power systems have made more than 20% of our NEPA (or PHCN) engineers ineffective. Our minor challenge is modernizing the power equipment, but the major one is re-training some technical staff that started work 25 years ago with WASC and cannot cope with the complexity of rapidly evolving modern power technology.
Yet, for any progress in space technology, we need electricity. I propose we reorganize NEPA into autonomous 37 entities in 36 states and Abuja. The state-level NEPAs will focus on marketing and distribution while a single entity will be responsible for generation. Until we create a small level competition in electricity with punishable electoral consequences, we may not overcome this stasis. This will be followed with establishing Power Systems & Technology Centers in four campuses for training and technical collaboration with NEPA. We have to engage the universities to rediscover better ways of continuity, capacity and change management owing to lack of master plans for our cities. University is the epicenter of raw dreams where minds are liberated and prepared to shape the world. It remains an organic system that sustains national policy and vision and no succession plan or development can succeed without those students and professors. It is an asset generation of our mod ern leaders have ignored.
In conclusion, let our leaders give us challenges and make available the resources and structure to achieve them. We will prove to them that in 10 years, we will give them a truly Nigerian satellite and earn respect around the world. It will not only advance our progress, it could become a symbol of our renaissance in science. Yes, it could be a vision bigger than us, but in our history, we have proven to be optimists and ‘can-do’ people, unafraid of challenges. We are Nigerians-people of faith and hard work, though diverse, we are united in nationalist passion to restore our dignity in the midst of nations. We sing the anthem and salute our flag because we love Nigeria.
Ekekwe is a doctoral engineering student at the Johns Hopkins University, USA