The Lagos State Commissioner for Science and Technology, Mr Olufemi Odubuyi, has had a successful career as an ICT practitioner which has spanned over 20 years. Until his current appointment, he was IT Director at Dangote Industries Limited. In this interview by NAZA OKOLI, he speaks of the many projects his ministry has embarked upon and the future of ICT in the country.
You have worked with Governor Akinwumi Ambode for some time now. We see him as that gentleman who smiles very often. What is it that many do not know about the governor of Lagos State?
He doesn’t believe in impossibility. He believes that whatever can be dreamed can be achieved.
ICT continues to generate a great deal of interest among virtually all classes of people, yet there is little to be seen in the area of local manufacture in Nigeria and Africa. What is responsible for this?
I can only speak for Nigeria, because I believe that things are different in South Africa compared to other African countries. But if we look at Nigeria, basically, in terms of ICT, manufacturing of computer, etc, we do have local assembly of computers, but not necessarily local manufacture. There is Zinox, Beta Computers. There is also Omatek. These are all local computer assembling plants. What we need to ask ourselves is: is local market stimulating enough for them to increase their production and improve on the quality of what is being churned out to the market? Something has to feed in to the entire process for it to get a better output. We have to start investing in the kind of research that would make these things possible. Some years back, we didn’t buy things that were made in Taiwan or China or Japan but then over time, in these countries, their products became locally acceptable to them and it soon became easy for people outside to also accept them. So, we need to stimulate acceptance by our local markets. We need to patronise and support local content. But there are so many things that are tied to the rating of our local ICT manufacturing industries.
But isn’t it because of the quality of these locally made products that Nigerians are sceptical about patronising them?
That is one way to look at it. But how can the quality get better if we don’t start using them and start pointing out what the problems are? That is what would drive improvement. The HP, the IBM, etc, all get product feedbacks from the market; they innovate. Sometimes they recall their products. We need these things to get better. I believe that people are willing to invest in ICT manufacturing in the country, but they are limited right now to assembling, because we don’t manufacture computer chips; you still have to import. But even big companies like IBM, which are American, don’t manufacture in America. They are getting chips from all over Asia. Some come from Taiwan, Japan, etc. I believe we will get there but we need to support our local manufacturers.
The toll-free line 112 that we find on police vans in Lagos State was said to have been developed by your ministry. But there have been complaints that the number is hardly ever reachable.
As far as I know, there is no problem with 112. It is an emergency line. We also have 767. These terminate at our Command and Control Centre at Alausa. From there, the calls are routed to the appropriate first responders, which can either be the police, the fire service or the ambulance service. So, it does work. It is a 24-hour service. The lines have been in operation in Lagos for five years now; it is not new. What the present administration is doing is enhancing the infrastructure and the processes around service delivery in terms of emergency response.
You recently charged academics at LASU to focus on research, especially in the areas of agriculture, fishery and waste management, for the development of the state. To what extent is development hinged on this kind of academic research?
It is high time we started thinking about diversification. Our economy is over-dependent on oil. The only sector that can create a kind of sustainable growth for the country is science and technology. We can particularly focus on science and then start looking at innovation. We are in the process of finalising our Lagos State science and innovation policy. Activities going on at LASU are within that policy. So, we are not just focusing on the area of agriculture or waste management with LASU but we have actually engaged LASU. We tell them: ‘Rather than all your research paperwork piling in the shelves amassing dust, let’s prioritise them and then see how we can commercialise them.’ The idea is to create an environment that really empowers people. We brainstorm how we can actualise them; how the research would impact the populace, either socially or economically. During our first interaction with LASU, about 15 research papers were brought out. After prioritising them, we realised that the ones that can be achieved within the first one year fall within the agricultural sector. There were others from other areas that were more technical. So, we are taking it bit by bit, because one of the constraints for research commercialisation is funding. We are looking through the policy to push for some research grants for the state so that if we partner with institutions or even local organisations and companies, then we can, through the fund, help to develop it more so that it would be made available to the market. There is a lot going on. The entire team from the state, which comprises the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Wealth Creation and Ministry of Science and Technology, has visited LASU and met with all the research teams there.
What are the specific goals that you have set for this initiative?
Apart from the social benefits, we also talk about the economic benefits like wealth and job creation. In the fishing sector, there are still so many things that we can do in terms of wealth and job creation. One thing we should consider is that the nation talks about agriculture. If you look at countries like Israel, if you know how small it is, then you look at the output of agricultural export from that country, you would be amazed. Their landmass is limited because most of it is desert. But through the application of science, they have been able to increase the yield over a fixed area of land. So, through science and technology, one can on the same plot of land get the same yield as I would on a 10-acre land without the application of science.
You were once quoted as advocating entrepreneurship training for traders at Computer Village. What range of skills would this training cover?
What we have done in the past was to organise training for unemployed youths and we trained them in the area of computer repairs, phone repairs, etc. Over 500 people participated in the training. Majority of them ended up at Computer Village. It was a kind of empowerment using technology for the youth. It is a programme that we are looking to continue.
But we are talking about the traders themselves. How much can be accomplished with these people, especially bearing in mind that most of them are not educated.
You would be surprised that there are so many graduates there. You need to interact with them. They are not the traditional uneducated traders that you think they are. There are lots of graduates among them. There are phones that you take for repairs and they tell you that they cannot be repaired. But take them to Computer Village and they will be repaired.
Lagos is surrounded by water and we have been told that water can be used to generate power. Is there any chance this would be explored?
Yes, you can generate wind energy from the ocean. But one has to consider the relative cost of the initiative in terms of the capital expenditure and operating expenses. Yes, the possibility is there and I know that our sister ministry, Energy and Mineral Resources, are actually working on a comprehensive power programme for the state, which means that all the available possibilities would be explored.
Lagos State is about to set up a DNA laboratory and your ministry is a key player in this project. What is it all about?
The DNA project is basically driven by our need to ensure that criminals don’t get away. The programme is driven by the Ministry of Justice in collaboration with the Ministry of Science and Technology. It is an ongoing project which shall be delivered within the next 16-18 months. Once that is done, we can guarantee you that there will be more convictions. This is because in the criminal court, everything is based on evidence. And what is accepted globally as best practices are forensic reports. So, whatever you do in the dark shall be revealed by forensic reports. So, you cannot get away with crimes easily. Our repeat offenders can easily be tracked, because once their DNA is on record, if they commit another offence, they can be tracked. Also, it would ensure that the people do not get convicted for crimes they did not commit. These are the benefits that DNA has offered other countries and there is nothing stopping us from achieving the same standards.
Right now, forensic activities are taking place but the requests are being shipped out of the country. During the DANA plane crash, forensic samples were shipped out of the country for processing and returned to Nigeria. But if we have an establishment here in the country, regardless of where the forensic request can come from within the nation, you just bring it to Lagos. You don’t need to ship it out of the country.