Director-general of the Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHESTCO), Prof. Paul Onyenekwe, tells NKECHI ISAAC that the government needs to pay more attention to the development of science and technology if Nigeria’s plans to attain socio-economic development are anything to go by.
What are the main areas of research for SHESTCO?
The Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHESTCO) is designed to carry out multi-dimensional/disciplinary research in nuclear technology, biotechnology and genetic engineering, chemistry, physics, mathematics and simulation. The specific areas are captured in the eight functions of the complex and one of them is the development of facilities for the effective practice of application-oriented science and technology in Nigeria. This means we are supposed to develop facilities where people from other research institutes/universities can carry out research work. Also, we provide the opportunity for others to achieve their respective mandates and not just that of SHESTCO.
Another major function of SHESTCO is carrying out research and development activities involving the highest levels of technology available in the world, to strengthen the technological base of Nigeria’s economy. Nigeria’s economy is supposed to be science, technology and innovation-based, knowledge-based. Our function, therefore, is to ensure [that] we carry out research and development activities that will help us solve topical problems/challenges in society.
In as much as we are involved with basic research, we are also involved in product-based research. We understand the basic principles of science. When you do that, you’ll be able to apply it. That is the basic research. We use this basic knowledge to produce products.
Talking of topical problems, seeing how much havoc the novel COVID-19 pandemic wreaked on the global and Nigerian economy and health systems, what role did the institute play in proffering solutions?
We helped in the production of some of the non-pharmaceutical products required. We were able to design a fully-automated, handwashing machine, as well as some of the liquid soaps and disinfectants required for cleaning. At the onset of the pandemic, people were selling all sorts of things in the name of ‘sanitisers’. We came in and bridged that, coming out with standard products which were distributed at very affordable rates, especially within our vicinity.
One of your areas of research is nuclear technology; yet, there is the general conception that Nigeria is not yet ripe for the application of this technology because of the associated risks. Do you agree?
This perception is incorrect. How can a nation be unprepared for innovative technologies? We have the required personnel, so many trained nuclear scientists from most of the best universities around the world – and many of us have participated in a lot of coordinated research projects – and international training sessions/workshops where Nigerians participated as resource persons.
The only problem, just like in every other area of science, is that we lack thepolitical will tosupport research and development in all areas; not just in nuclear [science].
So, do you think we have the required hardware to engage in nuclear technology?
It is only when we need them that we can get them as a nation. But we have enough for research. We have the Centre for Energy Research and Training, Zaria; Centre for Energy Research and Development, Ile Ife and other research centres in other universities doing that. In 2006, the Nigerian Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC) was established and it has been working very hard to ensure Nigeria utilises her enormous potential in that sector.
Nigeria is currently talking about diversification. What areas do you think she can apply nuclear technology to boost her economy?
We can apply nuclear technology in power generation, especially in renewable energy. It is an area that can ensure we make progress as a country in the long run if we can nurture it. Sadly, we have a huge problem with the power supply. Most companies spend enormous resources on power generation and our inability as a country to cut back on that loss has seen us lose huge investments to neighbouring countries. I can assure you that the moment we fix our power system as a country, we will see different results. So, one major area in which we can deploy nuclear technology is power generation.
Another area is gamma [ray] radiation. Gamma radiation cannot be said to be a nuclear reaction, unlike the proper nuclear reactors which are very important in agro-processing, mainly food safety. Considering Nigeria’s size and the diverse climatic conditions we have, this can be used in agro-processing. We grow certain crops in particular regions and they have to be transported across state and regional lines, to those who need them. Now, if we have the gamma radiation facility, we can harvest the food when they’re just about to ripe then radiate them to preserve them to keep them firm, until they can be transported to where they are needed. When they get there, they are treated a little, then sold. These food crops can be preserved for up to 21 days.
One major problem we have is contamination. You are aware that most farm produce we send abroad are rejected because they are highly infected or have residue of pesticides and other chemicals used for preservation. With gamma radiation, there are no residues.
It is very important to note that the process is like a computer; garbage in, garbage out. It only brings out what was given to it. So, if your product is in good condition, it brings out same and if you put in poor produce it brings out same, too.
Is there any side effects to using gamma radiation for protecting agro products?
There are none. I have worked with the highest dose applicable in food processing as a person. There have been no effects recorded that I am aware of globally.
Are you saying we have a technology that is not utilized, in terms of tapping the potentials of gamma radiation?
This is very correct. We have not tapped it at all. Ghana, Egypt and many other African countries are using it.
You did mention that SHESTCO provides opportunities for other institutions to achieve their mandate. Have you collaborated with some of these institutions to help them with their mandate?
We have collaborations with so many institutions, especially universities. The University of Abuja sends some of its doctorate students and staff here to come carry out their research work. The African University of Science and Technology (AUST), Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Airforce Institute of Technology Kaduna, University of Port Harcourt, Federal University of Technology (FUT) Owerri, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria etc. We work with these institutions to produce certain things.
You said we lack political will in developing science and technology. How will you describe the government’s disposition towards developing the sector, especially in funding research in institutions?
The issue is that people consider research to be like a building; you give someone money and, just like that, the project gets off and results begin to show immediately. This is not so with research. You can work for a year and not get any results. Still, you may get a result in one day. Science requires patience. That’s why scientists/researchers are very patient people because their occupation has conditioned them so. They have patience and faith in what they are doing. In Nigeria, the moment you write a proposal, you are queried on the quick wins. This is not helping research in the country.
So, what will be your advice to the government in this regard?
Research and development cannot be funded with the current ‘envelop budgeting’ system we have. If you need certain things for particular research and you do not have one of the items listed you may not go anywhere. They can create a template for your research work and write a proposal, just like what the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) is currently running. You write your proposal, tell them what you want to do and the cost implication which is vetted by experts. In the end, if it suits them, you get the funds to carry out your project.
With the ‘envelope’ system, you may just design and they give you an ‘envelop’ that has no relation whatsoever with what you have. In that case, we end up like the pressure cooker without a cover.