Science and technology hold the key to Nigeria reaching its full potential

Victoria Island waterfront in Lagos. President Buhari needs to emulate China and South Korea by urgently investing in science and technology to take Nigeria’s economy to the next level. Reuters/Joe Penney

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari must make science and technology a priority if the populous West African country hopes to flex its economic muscle.

Buhari can achieve these goals by expanding the country’s economy and making it more globally competitive. An important step is to address the damage done to Nigerian science, technology and innovation.

There is cause for celebration in some areas. Nigeria is ranked among the 20 strongest economies in the world and has the largest gross domestic product (GDP) in Africa.

But it won’t progress if it doesn’t urgently invest substantial resources in key sectors. These include its agriculture, transport, health, engineering, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and manufacturing sectors.

Nigeria has gone backwards at a time when countries like China and South Korea have been able to make great strides in science, technology and innovation while at the same time growing their economies.

Lost ground

Nigeria has invested little in science, technology and innovation over the past three decades. The country’s gross expenditure for research and development as a percentage of GDP is 0.2%, less than half the world average of 0.4%.

Many smaller African countries have done far better than Nigeria. Mozambique spends (0.5%), Mauritius (0.4%), Uganda (0.4%) and Botswana (0.5%).

This lack of investment has handicapped research and development in strategic industries.

The Nigerian agribusiness sector has remained stagnant for decades without generating the innovation that’s necessary to transform the industry.

Nigeria used to be a world leader in the palm oil industry. Today, it is nowhere near the level of production enjoyed by Indonesia and Malaysia - two countries which use technology better.

Despite being the largest producer of cassava in the world, Nigeria has lost its position as a market leader to Thailand. The cassava industry has weakened because it has not been supported by key government ministries.

What Nigeria can learn from global leaders

Many Asian countries, especially China and Korea, have pursued aggressive initiatives with major investment in research and development, infrastructure and educational capacity. In the past five years, Asia’s share of global research and development investment has increased from 33% to almost 40%. China has gone up from 10% to 18%, making it the second largest spender after the US.

Increased investment in research and development in China contributed 60% to economic growth and reduced reliance on foreign technologies to less than 30%.

China produced 1.5 million new science and engineering graduates in 2011 compared to 857 000 in the European Union. A similar objective was pursued by the South Korea in the 1980s making it a global leader in science and technology.

This shows the importance of investing in education in Nigeria where universities have suffered because of insufficient funding. It is evident that investing in universities and research institutes improves the quality of research. This is shown by the increase in publications in top journals and patent awards in China and South Korea.

What President Buhari must do

For the new administration under President Buhari to succeed where his predecessors have failed, he must:

  • Establish presidential and ministerial councils made up of respected scientists for a dedicated science, technology and innovation focus.

  • Invest in science, technology and innovation programmes to diversify the economy.

  • Launch national education reforms focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship. This can only help produce the next generation of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and innovation leaders.

Despite its wealth and human capital, the Nigerian economy is largely driven by the service sector, especially the telecommunication and entertainment industries, and by oil extraction. The country needs to restructure the economy, develop new infrastructure, enhance economic performance and push greater societal change.

The new government must move swiftly to build a strong foundation for science, technology and innovation. Without this, the Nigerian economy may not step up to the next level. As a result the country may be denied an invitation to the G-20 gathering of leading industrialised nations.