Professor Sulyeman Age Abdulkareem, the Vice Chancellor, University of Ilorin (UNILORIN) is a chemical engineer of international repute and a business tycoon. In this interview by MODUPE GEORGE in Accra, Ghana, he speaks on how he started the satchel water business in Nigeria; his achievements in office, unionism challenges and other issues. Excerpts:
You are known to have discovered and initiated the non-patent satchel water business in Nigeria. How did you come about achieving this feat and how has it fared?
I have always told myself that every problem around me is my problem. If I don’t get to know about a problem, then I can ignore it, but if I should get to know about it, I always believe there is something inside of me that I can tap to solve it. My efforts in life have always been to try to solve as many problems around me as I can. When I was studying for my PhD, I had an Argentinean supervisor who informed me that he had a difficult assignment and asked if I was willing to solve it. He wanted to use a semi-conductor to carry out the cleaning of petroleum products. These two are not related, but he saw a link in the variability of some characteristics that he could use to clean petroleum products. It was a very tough job, but in three years I was able to come up with a patentable invention. I got so much money for myself through this that I asked ‘what am I going to do with this money now?’ When I returned to Nigeria, I didn’t set out to produce satchel water, I wanted to bottle water, but I didn’t have the kind of money the manufacturers of the empty bottles were asking for. So, in trying to seek a solution to the problem, the idea of satchel came. I must tell you that I made a lot of money from it because that time the business was a monopoly. This was around 1994/95 in Ilorin, Kwara State. I was selling only to university and polytechnic students. I thank God the pricing was so right that for almost 20 years, the price stayed at N5. I was told recently that the price has gone up. Then, at that rate I was able to make 100 per cent return for myself. I would produce in bulk, sold to retailers at N3 and was able to pay my workers.
At a point, people started calling me to ask how I was doing it. I was able to share my experience and the project became so big that NAFDAC said the business was worth about N10 billion dollars daily in Nigeria. However, governments later thought of banning the ‘pure water’ business because they said that everywhere was getting dirty by it. You know, people would buy on the road but would not properly dispose of the nylon bag. And I was taught in engineering school that if you cause a problem then, you must be ready to fix it. I didn’t envisage that it was going to be littering the whole city. So, I went back to the same ‘pure water’ nylon (the waste satchel) and, using my chemical engineering knowledge, I came up with five other products. I introduced my idea to the people making candle that instead of looking for expensive wax they could use the waste bags. I did that for almost a year. Also, I was able to make shoe polish out of the waste product. I discovered a product that is now being produced on a very large scale in Osun State: I converted the same pure water satchel into a material called “oleo sorbet” – meaning that “it is oil-loving.” Where there is oil and water, it will pick the oil and keep the water intact. This is so useful anytime there is a spillage and you want to remove the oil on top of the water. This is a material that will not sink after you have processed it; it can float on water indefinitely, separating the oil from the water the way it was before the spillage occurred. I believe that is where the future is after retirement.
It is a consensus that Nigerians perform intellectually well abroad than at home. Was this also your experience?
Actually, this is true. I was above my colleagues from the beginning of my study abroad till I got my PhD. The reason was that I knew I had to work extra hard because I found myself in an environment where you were assumed to be stupid and unintelligent. Every day of my stay abroad, I had to keep pushing myself further. Even after I had made a name for myself, there were still people who played the doubting Thomas. They didn’t believe that as a black man, you could be intellectually sound. So you must prove to them every day of your life either through your work or academic life that you actually belong where they see you and they must give you respect.
You have been the Vice Chancellor of UNILORIN for 21 months now. How has it been charting the course of this institution?
It’s been challenging, but I thank God for the all achievements so far. I have been able to record a lot of progress in the aspect of welfare and academics of the university. We are once again shining academically nationally and internationally as it was in the recent past. Lecturers have taken a new attitude to lectures; they now see lectures as being paramount and are giving more attention than before. We have been able to refocus our fund allocation to research more than ever before and I believe that has helped a great deal, because people have now realised that there are lots of things to benefit from concentrating on research. I have also been able to charge them that researches must be able to solve societal problems and be tailored towards the millennium development goals (MDGs) so that we are not only solving our own problems, but providing global solution that will not only benefit Nigerians or Africans but the whole world.
Also, every money that comes into the institution over the last 21 months has been pumped into research, either by sending people somewhere for training or buying equipment that would enable them to perform excellently on their job. I believe if adequate provisions are made for education, we can start experiencing miracles in Africa at all levels.
How has unionism in UNILORIN fared under your leadership, after having experienced attacks?
Unions will always be there, so I believe one must just find a way of living with them. I have tried as much as possible to tell the union that I envision a situation where the union will sit down and tell me how to better run the university. Maybe out of habit, one of them told me that unions are not supposed to be friends with administration. I strongly believe that is a wrong concept. I am saying that because I have worked in the US both as a student and worker. Having said that, the union must be willing to share sensible and useful information with administration and so must the administration be willing to give the best of condition to the union in other for the both of them to improve. In a work place, everybody is part of the system and therefore you cannot afford to maintain an antagonistic survival; you must learn to work together for the benefit the entire system. No one should be in a system to sabotage the system and hope it will survive. I know I have stretched out my hands in friendship to the union, I hope someone shakes my hand eventually and learn to work with me because I believe I don’t have to be anti-union. I remember telling them that, ‘look whether you accept it or not I am a member of the union because you are still taking my dues.’
You lived and studied in the US for 22 years and Saudi Arabia for 20 years. In what way have these experiences affected your style of leadership and what new have you brought to the table?
I am a different person and again I love to help everybody in the system. From my training, I have learnt that what is public and private should never be mixed up. This is one of the lessons I learnt from watching Americans, Britons and all these foreigners. What they have to do officially public or private are never mixed-up. They will never take public money and make it their own. When it is private, they tell the public to bolt out because it is a private affair. It is in mixing those things together that a lot of our leaders and those in power abuse what is available to all of us and to the point of even rubbishing themselves too.
I have people who challenge me openly but my feeling to that is that it is unfortunate that they don’t realise that as a leader or someone placed in charge, there are some things that I must do, not because I like them, but they are the best for the system. Even if those things affect me, they still must be done that way because they are public issues that must be dealt with officially and publicly. For instance, if you come to me in private and say, ‘oga, can you assist me with N10, 000. Sincerely, if I have I will give you the N10, 000 without thinking about it, but if I don’t have I will tell you that I don’t have; not that I will go and look for a way to steal it. The issue though is that westerners realise that whatever is public is sacrosanct and must be handled as such. I guess the reason why we have many deviates here is because the two are not handled differently; we poke nose into what we are not supposed to. Where people want to bring private things to do damage to public things, we don’t stop them. Once you don’t mix the two together most times, things work out.
Recently you charged academics to desist from getting promotion through dishonest means. What prompted this charge?
I don’t have problem with that because I will not compromise standard for mere riches. When I’m measuring people, especially when they are many, I make sure that the same yardstick is used for everybody. When it comes to academics, the merit of what is presented is what is going to be evaluated. I have had instances where people who are close to me don’t deserve to be promoted and I have heard people come to remind me that they are my friends. I didn’t dispute the fact that they are my friends, but the truth is that I am not only evaluating my friends, I am doing it alongside other people who also deserve to be treated right too. I can’t use different yardsticks for my friends and use another for other people. So, if my friends can’t make it this time, I hope they will do better the next time, knowing what made them to fall short of the opportunity by improving on themselves too. I believe it is a favour from God to find yourself in a position to judge other people, so, you must to be fair.