From Hard Times to Self-Reliance and Innovation in Nigeria

Last week, my incurably APC-optimistic relative declared with a blank stare, “Nigerians are suffering.” It is an impossible situation –poor power supply, the absence of fuel to power generators, and worst of all, the boiling heat. Many people spend long hours struggling under the burning sun during the day, and at night, sleep in incredibly hot rooms without power supply and with windows shut to avoid mosquitoes. An impossible situation. But this article will be predictable if I continue with my retinue of complaints. It leads to blame and offers no concrete solutions. The intention of this article is not to join in with the long band of complaints about what already exists but to explore what possibilities will lead to solutions. 

Challenges are well known fodder for change and innovation. In times of challenges, a demand for a solution inevitably emerges. It has happened everywhere. The light bulb was necessitated by the risk of fires and sickness brought about by the using candles and gas to light up homes in 1800s. Or closer home, the satchet milk success story emerged during a period of austerity and being Africa’s biggest telecom market emerged from a huge communication gap in Nigeria. We are even now seeing that an air conditioning rechargeable fan is a solution to the blistering hot weather and are fast selling out. 

But not all of these innovations have been home grown. To a large extent, our creativity has been stifled by our dependence on oil and importation of goods. This is the reason why the current President Buhari-led government has placed self-reliance as a priority. The lithium test to assess whether Nigerians will be self-reliant as the President has predicted in his campaign, is whether we are creating solutions to our everyday needs or problems. Check your air conditioning rechargeable fan, if you bought one, no doubt it is an innovation from the Chinese. Or they are made by other nationals who find solutions for our challenges and we buy them. 

Emerging countries like China and India have long seen challenges such as ours as an opportunity to innovate. In fact, India and our African peer, Kenya and are now applying innovation as a key to addressing their societal and developmental problems. And the results are already emerging. With $31 million worth of foreign investment, India is 2015 top destination for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) ahead of China and United States and now widely tagged as a global innovation achiever. They did this by harnessing skills in knowledge and creativity. Also, with their mobile money initiative which closed the 80% unbanked gap in the country, Kenya is leading African innovation. Nigeria does not seem have a strong innovation consciousness even though there is a demand for innovative products. The country ranks 128 out of 143 countries in the 2015 Global Innovation Index. We are ranked alongside countries such as Zimbabwe, Yemen and Burundi. 

However, this does not mean that we are incapable of innovation. Rather the opposite is the case. We have a huge untapped potential. For one thing, Nigeria has a burgeoning youth population of over 116 million people that are consumers of the latest technology and have a knack for breaking with the past and having a new way of doing things. This is happening today. Young Nigerians even at computer village in Lagos engaged in all kinds of legal and illegal activity. Potential unharnessed. 

What is missing is the opportunity to harness and nurture these initiatives and move them from ideas to production to global attention. But how do we do this? First, Nigeria needs to be intentional about gaining knowledge of the conditions that are needed to stimulate innovation. The greek quote, “Know thyself” comes to mind here. Through qualitative research we can understand how Nigerians innovate best. We can also understand, what creativity is taking place in in different industries and sectors and the potential impact of innovation in the Nigerian economy in the next decade. This means documenting the changes that are occurring from today in our time to understand as best as possible the opportunities that could be harnessed. However, it does not appear that this initiative has happened. 

The current government has made several attempts to convince people that Nigeria is at the cusp of change. However, change cannot happen unless we take a different action from the one of the past. Innovation is the step to change. We must start to generate new action, new productivity and new results in our own home grown way. Until we commit to, harness and nurture solutions to our own challenges, Nigeria stands the risk of repeating history. And unfortunately, this could mean missed campaign promises, heavy dependency on imported goods, stifled youth development and aggravated poverty. 

Dede Kadiri writes for InnovationMatters based in Lagos