The setting is the ground floor of a tastefully furnished duplex at Surulere, Lagos. It is raining lightly; it has been raining, in fact, since morning. At the gate, the security man and a few other people stand under a small shelter, and they all seem to agree that it is the Ooni of Ife who has mysteriously sent the rain to Lagos to disrupt the Eyo Festival.
The large hall which would have been the sitting room has been converted to a conference room. This is where they have been meeting every week since January – a group of seven teenagers who are building a robot. This summer, they will be in Washington DC, USA, to represent Nigeria at the First Global Robotics Challenge, competing alongside 163 other countries.
“They are upstairs, but they are very busy; in fact they are in the middle of a crisis,” Mrs Remi Willoughby, the teenagers’ supervisor says. A versatile teacher, Mrs Willoughby has taught robotics for many years, mostly in Texas, US.
In the minutes before the students return, there is palpable tension in the room. Another member of the advisory team, and Chairman of Alofos Science and Technology Foundation, Professor Olusoga Sofola, has arrived. He and Willoughby discuss the emergency with much concern. When therefore one of the students later comes to announce that the problem has been solved, there is jubilation in the room. It is like a scene in a sci-fi movie: you would think the earth has just been saved from destruction.
Gently, they file in, all seven of them – Seun Omotayo, Tawa Giwa, Fetisimi Adegbamigbe, Ayodeji Umar, Toluwalase Agoro, Ayomide Adetunji, and Niyi Talabi. They sit around the conference table, with their robot placed at the centre. Two young scientists also serve as their coaches.
“It was a state of emergency,” Mrs Willoughby explains. “Yesterday they couldn’t do anything. So I had to send an SOS to three different groups, and as soon as they got it they sent someone to contact us. So they are learning. That is how problems are solved.
“The challenge this year is about water. The reason they chose water is because they are asking: ‘What are the global threats that could cause the earth to cease to exist after some time?’ Ten of them were identified, and water is one of them, because research has shown that over 50 per cent of the under 5 today have no access to clean drinkable water. As a result we have more children in the hospital than we should. It is a worldwide problem, but it’s especially prevalent in Africa and Asia.”
The Team Leader is the soft-spoken Toluwalase Agoro, a pupil from Oxbridge College, Lagos. “It has been fun, but very challenging,” he says. “We went through a lot of designs before we came up with this design. And for each design, we worked hard to develop it; there were some we dropped, before coming up with this current one. We encountered many challenges, but we were able to cope. We have done most of the work now, but we are not relaxing. We started building this in January. At this stage, we are now developing the programme which would work on the robot.
“I have always been interested in robots. It’s a new way of doing things; it’s a more efficient way of solving problems. All over the world, scientists have already started using robotics to build cars and other things; if we can apply that to other sectors, in Nigeria and elsewhere, it can help to make life easier. For example, if this year we are focussing on how we can use robots to solve problems related to poor access to potable water.”
As Team Leader, Agoro, says he makes sure everybody works together. And like every member of the team, he has learned discipline and determination in the months he has been on the project, and is certain that there is a lot that the country can learn from their experience.
He says, “Robots are important. They are the future. And this project means a lot to us because we are also the future. Take agriculture, for example, a robot can be used to plant and harvest seeds. And in a country like Nigeria where the sector has been neglected for a long time, that is very important.
“So I would advise the government to invest in robotics, because robots are the future. In fifty years from now, there will be robots everywhere, and it would not be good if we are left behind. We are using robots to make the world better.”
Perhaps, the most accomplished member of the team is Niyi Talabi. Now a student in the Department of Systems Engineering at the University of Lagos, Talabi represented Nigeria at the World Robotics Olympiad (WRO) in 2012, 2013, and 2015.
According to Talabi, because robots work about fifty times faster than humans, it saves time and energy to deploy the machine in places where greater efficiency is required.
“Unfortunately, robots are not easy to come by. You have to spend your time, spend your money, and your sleep,” he adds.
This year’s challenge, he says, is of a higher and more advanced level “This is a new kit; it’s just coming out for the first time. So we are the first set of students using this kit all over the world.”
It is refreshing to find teenagers holed up, as it were, in one location for months, looking for solutions to global problems, talking about development and global health and the survival of the universe.
Mrs Willoughby says, “The overarching goal of this competition is for students to learn teamwork. In the world of robotics, you have to collaborate because you can’t do it alone. If we can teach these children that collaboration is key to solving world’s problem, then they can achieve anything.”