Why Nigeria is lacking expertise

11 Jan 2021, 12:00 am
Mojisola Karigidi


In some universities in Nigeria, students in the sciences have never handled a micropipette to work with it.

A scientist working with a micropipette

When I returned to Nigeria from Spain last October, part of the country’s COVID-19 protocol for returning citizens and other travellers involved one week of self-isolation to curb the spread of the virus by all incoming travellers and a mandatory repeat COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to be done two weeks after arrival. But unfortunately, my repeat test was not done until a month after I arrived in Ibadan despite making payment before my return trip.
Delays of this nature could further spread the disease as some people could be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. The importance of timely repeat testing is to have actionable results that would help in limiting transmission. However, shortage of well-equipped laboratories and skilled medical laboratory personnel were the main reasons for the delay. The demand for testing as more people began to travel had exceeded the testing capacity. This might have contributed to the gradual increase in the number of COVID-19 infections in September following international flight resumption in Nigeria, and the sharp increase later in November and December.

Amid a new wave of coronavirus infections, Nigeria is still struggling to increase its testing capacity. Over 10 months after the first COVID-19 case was reported in the country, less than 900,000 people (less than 1 per cent of the population) had been tested as of last month. In comparison, South Africa had tested over six million people (more than 10 per cent of its population) in the same period.

The limited COVID-19 testing can be traced to low government healthcare spending. World Health Organisation's data shows Nigeria's health expenditure per capita peaked at $108 in 2014 and has since remained below $100. Meanwhile, in the period between 2014-2018, healthcare spending per capita averaged $484 in South Africa and $4,300 in the United Kingdom.

But despite similarly weak funding of the education sector, Nigeria has about 170 universities and 134 polytechnics, which produce over 600,000 graduates annually, with many of them graduating from faculties of science and basic medical sciences. So, a fundamental question to ask would be why we have a shortage of trained people to collect samples and carry out PCR analysis.

I have identified two major institutional challenges robbing this country of expertise, not just in healthcare and science but also in all other fields, including agriculture, a field in which I work. The first challenge is that students in tertiary institutions are encouraged to pursue crafts and learn trade. This situation is mainly due to the absence of opportunities for individuals – undergraduates and graduates alike – to make their living in professions related to their academic training.

As a result of the high unemployment rate in the country, the so-called Industrial Attachment Programme has been bastardised. For example, what is the benefit of having a microbiology student in 300 level intern at a tailoring shop? This vocational skill will not optimize his/her training as a microbiologist; neither will it improve industrial performance in that sector. Such mismatched internships at several vocational centres as selected by students are common under the entrepreneurship development programme of our educational institutions.

The tertiary educational system should facilitate the learning of skills that will enhance the diploma or degree programmes pursued. Entrepreneurship courses for students and vocational skills designed for National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) members during the one-year compulsory programme should look beyond artisanship.

As a biochemist, I am more familiar with the depth of this problem in the fields of science, compared to other faculties. In some universities in Nigeria, students in the sciences have never handled a micropipette to work with it. Such students would not be able to independently carry out basic laboratory procedures required in industries at the end of their first degrees. Scientific process skills are more useful and of better entrepreneurial utility to science graduates than learning crafts. More importantly, learning professional skills will help in strengthening the resolves of young undergraduate students to advance in their chosen fields. It will also increase their passion as professionals to deploy those skills in finding solutions.

Aside the fact that professional skills will increase employability, graduates can also set up businesses that focus on their areas of expertise. For example, people with a microbiology or biomedical science background can set up laboratories, which will enable them to seek more knowledge and find solutions to different challenges through scientific research.

I was privileged to study business and entrepreneurship at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in the United States as a Mandela Washington Fellow in 2016. I got the fellowship opportunity based on my work in developing biopesticides for the prevention and control of insect pests that attack legumes and grains kept in storage. I was using my knowledge and skills in biochemistry to reduce post-harvest losses and promote food security. The entrepreneurship curriculum in the American university included grant and proposal writing and statistical packages to enhance performance. It also included visits to large food industries and modern farms actively applying science, technology and innovations to solve real-world challenges. It was a mind-opening experience.

Professional skills are essential, whether in science or any other field. Organisations require skills and expertise to stay in business and compete. Unfortunately, many Nigerian graduates today do not possess the skills that are most in demand by organisations. Part of the reason is because of outdated curriculums used in our varsities. The curriculums are just not designed for the dynamism of the modern economy. For this reason, Nigeria will always need external help to address major projects and crisis requiring technical expertise. As a matter of urgency, the curriculums in our tertiary institutions must be overhauled and the system needs to be retooled.

This brings this discussion to the second major institutional challenge depriving the country of the requisite expertise in various fields, especially in healthcare and other scientific fields. The required facilities and properly trained lecturers to train students are sorely inadequate. Although government interventions, including the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND), have been making efforts to equip tertiary institutions and train staff, many of the equipment remain unused and underutilised for several reasons, including epileptic power supply, absence of experts to operate the equipment and non-availability of maintenance personnel.

The high unemployment and poverty rates in the country can be resolved if these two major challenges are tackled with a high degree of success. Tertiary institutions that are adequately equipped with modernised curriculums, staffed with highly trained personnel, provided with the necessary facilities, and adequately funded will produce graduates who would contribute meaningfully to the economy by helping organisations and industries to solve many of the country’s development challenges, including food insecurity.

Graduates will even be more productive if they are engaged in their fields of training after graduation. Federal and state governments can encourage this to happen by funding more professional practicum or internships to provide opportunities for graduates who are yet to be fully employed to apply their training and learn more while interning at government or private establishments.

Providing start-up funds, mentorship and an enabling environment to thrive upon completion of such practicums will help to reduce unemployment by ensuring graduates are not just employable but are also self-employed and gainfully employing others. An added benefit of this would be in stemming brain drain. The lack of opportunities for graduates, especially those in the field of medical and other sciences, has been fueling brain drain, a subject that has been discussed by various Financial Nigeria columnists and other commentators in the country.

From the foregoing, it would be a win-win for the country if the tertiary educational system were to focus more on imparting critical and disruptive thinking, innovative skills, industry competitive skills and other skills required in work environments to promote sustainable development. For us to nurture and retain expertise, it is very important for the curriculums of tertiary institutions to be redesigned to meet 21 century challenges. Sound collaboration between varsities and industries should be strengthened to improve the relevance of educational training to the workplace.
Financial Nigeria Columnist, Mojisola Karigidi, is a Nigerian biochemist and the founder and product developer at Moepelorse Bio Resources. She is also a Global Innovation Through Science and Technology (GIST) awardee, and an Aspen New Voices fellow.