We must create heroes of virtue, says Eresia-
What is the implication of this award to your corporate philosophy?
It feels good. What is important is not that we won an award because it does not add anything truly. What it does is that it might encourage other companies to emulate Nigeria LNG. The award is peculiar in that it is given for National CSR, ie impact on the nation well outside the area of immediate or host community. The award reminds us that no matter in which part of the country a project is located, companies can still do CSR that impacts the larger nation, Nigeria. A factory can be located in Oshogbo but it does not mean that it cannot affect individuals in Kafanchan, Omoku or Burutu. Of course, the impact nationally may be to a much lesser extent compared to impact in the host areas. That is simply natural. Nevertheless, there is the need for companies to think broadly in CSR terms for purposes of moderation and balance in the nation. Balance is what ensures durability. So these are the kinds of thoughts that underline some of the positives of the award, ultimately helping to build a better Nigeria.
How can other companies be encouraged to tow the same line and act as agents of good things for the larger community of Nigeria?
If we commend and encourage the likes of Abuja Chamber of Commerce for what they are doing in honouring companies who have excelled in National CSR, companies that look beyond their primary hosts to the nation. This would be one way to support the agents of good things as you say. The idea is to have companies include the broader nation in CSR discourse. As at today, many businesses equate CSR to just activities undertaken in the limited radius of the company’s host community. National concerns are generally not on the radar. Again let me emphasise, so no one reads me wrong, the hosts who bear the immediate brunt which may result from the activities of the companies in their area must take utmost priority;
To repeat, we are very happy to receive the National CSR Award from the Abuja Chamber of Commerce; we are grateful for it, especially to the extent that if hopefully inspires other companies to do as we have done or even to do better than we have done. It is important to say that we must learn as a nation to discriminate between the bad and the good in every sphere of our lives whether in politics, sports or industry. We must learn to applaud and honour the good, while castigating and punishing the bad. A nation that lumps the good with the bad together will never progress because those who do good will feel that their efforts are not worth the trouble. And that may be part of the bane of our nation. We have a penchant for lumping the good and the bad together. Very discouraging to the good. Very discouraging. And conversely very encouraging to the bad, who even now mock the good; exactly what you do to excite the degeneration of values and culture in any society.
What inspired Nigeria LNG to spend $12 million on the provision of laboratories for six universities? And how did you determine which universities get the grants?
As you know, we created and sponsor The Nigerian Prize for Literature and The Nigerian Prize for Science. But The Nigeria Prize for Literature is more prosperous of the two prizes so far. The reason being that the prize has been awarded for almost every year except for one or two years. But for The Nigeria Prize for Science not so; as it has not been award for nearly half the years since creation in 2004. So we had to look again and basically, ask questions. What are the reasons? There are several reasons like inadequate infrastructure for Science, especially research.
So we thought that we could do a bit of backward integration, to move into the fields of the Sciences in universities. There is a plethora of them in Nigeria, so you have to find the criteria for making the selections. We thought it was important to affect every part of the country because science is universal by definition. We then divided the universities along geo-political zones of the country in order to cover every section. Next we used the World Universities ranking and National Universities Commission (NUC) ranking for each geopolitical basket of universities to determine the topmost. When we put these two together, we were able to isolate these, namely University of Maiduguri for North East, University of Ilorin for North Central, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, for North West, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, for South East, University of Port-Harcourt for South-South and University of Ibadan for South West. We then engaged the university authorities to determine what exactly was required to raise their Science/Engineering to one comparable to the best in the world. Once clear about what needed to be done, we worked with the various universities, hand in hand, to create the desired world class theatre of science and engineering, which can at least, be available for research not only for that particular university but possibly for those within the region.
One of the things we have learnt about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is that people who intend to engage in philanthropy often feel they know what the issues are with the potential beneficiaries that they wish to help and often go ahead to try to resolve them from their own point of view because they feel they know. But we did not do that. What we did was to work with the universities, listen to them, work from their points of pain, and then of course, add value on top of that. So we involved the Vice-Chancellors of the universities and the relevant faculties and then we tried to identify what the problems were and then gave them free hands to compare notes with their counterparts in world class universities abroad for validation of the plans and proposals.
And what did each university ask for?
The proposal for each was different, based on their peculiarities. They each came up with lists of things that needed to be assembled in order to raise their labs to the world class target we set. There were those that needed to brand new buildings and equipment. Some like Ahmadu Bello University said they had good basic building structure in place, and would thus commit most of their $2m to equipment. We went to inspect, and jointly agreed on an action plan — spent some of the money still on renovation and face lift of the building to bring it to standard, and then allocated the bulk to equipment. The University of Port Harcourt was crazy about having a modular refinery; something they had yearned for, for long given the premise of their operation, in the oil/gas zone of the country.
They also wanted a befitting and arrogant building to make the appropriate statement, and engender the desired inspiration in scholars.
They also wanted a professorial chair and a structure to sustain that structure. All that we are happy to say we delivered- all proudly sitting now at the University of Port Harcourt. The engineering and science world over there is bustling with excitement. It is like bringing a new world to an old order. Similar is the situation at Nsukka, Ilorin, Ibadan, and Maiduguri, where in spite of the obvious challenges, we have made inspirational progress with the project.
Six universities out of all the universities in 36 states of the federation will look like a drop in the ocean. Is there a second phase to widen the net?
That is difficult to say now for two reasons. First, we have to implement what we have in hand; make sure it is 100 per cent complete and then look to see what we can learn from them. We will also check if we have hit the target that we set out to achieve in the first place and also see to what extent each laboratory is useful to people outside the immediate university community where it was set up. The reason we went for geopolitical areas was for us to create a center of excellence, if you like, in each geopolitical region so that other universities and researchers within the zone could key into these laboratories and work with them. Given that this culture of cooperation is endemic in the university system already, we expect that this should easily happen.
The second factor is of course availability of funds. You all know what the situation is with the oil and gas sector. What many do not realize is that gas is directly linked to oil. Once oil falls in the market, gas also falls. They fall almost in the same proportion.
That is what many people do not know. They tend to think of oil and gas as two separate markets. Correct in a sense, but not quite.
Both are hydrocarbons. They all supply one market. They are all alternatives. Once one is hit badly, the other is affected as well. Our gas used to go to the U.S. The U.S. used to have huge need for our gas and suddenly that ‘huge’ need disappears and not only does it disappear, the U.S. transmutes overnight into a supplier to the world market. What do you then think would happen to the gas price- as at today a dip of at least 70%.
How does the Nigeria LNG monitor the money being given to these universities?
Trust Nigeria LNG, when we are involved, we make sure the money is well utilized. We give out the money in installments, based on milestones. We hardly give out all the money for a project at once. We would usually look at the project you want to carry out and also look at how much you want to spend on a particular phase. Once you reach that phase you have to demonstrate that the money has been well spent. Then you can have the next batches. But it is fair to say that we have been very happy with the way the universities have used the money. They have demonstrated yet again that there are countless good, honest and creative people in Nigeria. They have even enhanced the value beyond the ordinary market rates just by the way they had gone about executing the projects, squeezing out the most from every kobo. Once again I am convinced that we are a country of essentially good people although, unfortunately, a few who happen to be visible, known and powerful, cast a shadow of ill on the country.
Is the provision of these laboratories connected to the resuscitation of the science prize?
It is just a welcome coincidence. We looked at the Science Prize, the root causes of low performance and then we acted to effect positive change. It was also a good time to revisit everything around the science, the extent to which we are involved. We consulted and came up with a brand new Advisory Board headed by Prof. Alfred Akpoveta Susu, who, along with his student, Dr. Kingsley Abhulimen, was the first winner of The Nigeria Prize for Science. He is an old-time professor of Engineering. Other members of the Board are the former Minister of Power, Prof. Barth Nnaji, Dr. (Mrs.) Nike Akande, Chair of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce, Prof. Philip Mshelia, and Professor Michael Adikwu, also a past winner of the prize and current Vice- Chancellor of the University of Abuja.
A few peculiarities have also being introduced to excite interest and invigorate participation. The prize would for instance now focus squarely on rewarding science that solves problems plaguing Nigeria, in particular. The prize has ceased to be interested in works that solve esoteric problems, like landing humans in distant planets; but now focuses on creativity that solves problems that Nigerians are grappling with. The Advisory Board announces a theme for every year, and competition is thus expected to be solutions around that theme. The theme for this year, for instance is “Malaria Control”. Scientist are therefore expected to enter works that have contributed to this. We are at a certain level of our development in Nigeria and there are certain issues aching us as a country. So we are focusing on solving problems that are peculiar to us, like malaria, which has been killing Nigerians all through the ages.
Another thing that can be surmised from the names on the new Advisory Board, is the linkage between Science and Industry. For the first time the deliberate effort has been made through the pedigree of the Board members to integrate Science and Industry; such that industry must inform science, and value from science must have industrial value. That is a novelty and a critical element in the process for the Science Prize. To an extent, a close look at the Advisory Board would indeed reveal a subtle nexus between Science, Industry and Government experience, for these three must interact for meaningful progress in this sphere, as it happens in all progressive societies. We are hoping to send that subtle message, institute the trend in a visible manner, and hopefully again inspire relevant parties in Nigeria to follow.
Yes, how do you link scientific breakthroughs to commercial end use? Prof. Susu won by solving pipeline breakages but up till now, his discovery remains unused. Prof. Jonathan Nok also discovered how to cure ‘Sleeping Sickness,’ yet his discovery is unused.
You realise that in societies where this linkage is strong, i.e. linkage between science, innovation and commercialization of technology, government provides an umbrella. Government guarantees that if you discover something, there is a patent for it, which is protected. You emphasise the point I just made that these three entities- Science, Government and Industry must collaborate for any tangible value to be derived. You need to get these three under one roof. Clearly, this linkage would affect what may be considered as worthy of the Nigeria Prize for Science under the guardianship of the current Board as constituted in line with the new philosophy. The idea is to excite practical innovations that can make a real difference in the lives of Nigerians. That is our desired science; not just science for science sake. Perhaps the time for the latter would come, but for now, we are too overwhelmed as a nation in common daily problems that science can solve, to be supporting star gazing and counting.
Don’t you think that those in the literary, humanistic arts in the universities would be envious you’re doing so much for science and they are left out?
It is the other way round. The community of artists and writers are very much in sympathy with the community of scientists in Nigeria, especially going by the multiplier effect of The Nigeria Prize for Literature and its impact on society. Any time it comes up, there is such a buzz and many writers will tell you how it has inspired them. They may not have won but at least now they are out there, writing, creating and producing, inspired by the prize. And I can assure you the general sentiment from the Arts is that Science should be supported to catch up. Let me illustrate. Prof. Ayo Banjo, Chair of the Advisory Board for Literature, is one of those that have dedicated themselves to talking to the new science Advisory Board, to share experiences to help the new board stand. It is our earnest wish that both would be strong together, helping to build a better Nigeria. As you know, the literary community enjoys a bit more of freedom in creativity and innovation than its science counterpart. Writers, for instance, do not need a lot of machines to create. They can work with minimum infrastructure. Not so for Science. Indeed, Nigerian writers have made a name worldwide, and no country in the globe can dispute that. We have produced literary heroes. So in as much as Nigerian writers need help, it would be Nigerian scientists that need help even more.
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