Joshua Ogunwole, a professor of soil science, is the Vice-Chancellor, Bowen University, Iwo, Osun State. A visiting TWAS associate (2010), fellow of Alexander von Humboldt, a Fulbright Scholar (2009), who was in 2015 admitted to the College of Research Associates of the United Nations University – Institute for Natural Resources for Africa, shares his thoughts on how to transform the nation’s agriculture and education among other critical national issues with BOLA BAMIGBOLA
What should government do to ensure food security in Nigeria?
When we talk about food security, we’re talking about food availability, affordability and reaching everybody, no matter their location. We are also talking about access to quality food. To be candid, all government needs to do is to provide the enabling environment for the private investors to run our agricultural sector. There are times that it is a problem to reach the remotest parts because of our terrible roads.
Government should not be in the business of making food available; its business is purely regulatory and ensuring that there is good environment for things to work. It must remove multiple taxes from farming and packaging materials. That will make food available and affordable to the people.
Government must also be able to make agriculture business attractive to investors, especially in the area of food processing and packaging. In Nigeria, our problem is not production. For instance, we are the largest producer of cassava in the world; and at the same time, we are the highest consumer of garri. Obasanjo’s administration wanted us to make starch from our cassava for export, which is needed in any industrial packaging. But when our product got to the international market, the price for starch per kilogramme was less than the cost of production locally. There was no way we could be relevant in that market. That has to do with our production system, which is very expensive. Government must look into the provision of tools that would make us to produce at competitive prices. Once government can do all these, food will become available and affordable in the country.
What effect do you think the present state of insecurity will have on the country’s plan to produce sufficient food?
There are many facets to the herdsmen crisis we are facing. The first one has to do with the climate change, which is one of the major challenges causing the strife between herders and farmers.
Usually, herdsmen will move from Niger, Chad and so on during the dry season to the northern Nigeria. When you go to the Sahel and the Northern Guinea, there will still be biomass for the animals to feed on. But with the changing climate, those places are getting dried up too. This is making the herdsmen to push into this side of the country more than they used to do. When they are coming, they do in droves. They come with tens of thousands of herds. You can imagine the devastation ten thousand cattle will bring to a farmland. The onus is on the government to work on the Sahel and Northern Guinea Savannah, by providing pasture and water, so herdsmen will not have to come deep down to the South. The government will have to do that to checkmate the activities of the herders, if they do not want to go ranching; and from all indications, the herders will not want to go ranching. They won’t because most of them are nomads. The ranch will only be for those who are sedentary Fulani herdsmen. The only way is to create a buffer somewhere.
There is also the political aspect to the Fulani herdsmen crisis, but what I’ve addressed is the technical aspect.
Do you share the view that the increase in crime rate shortly after elections in Nigeria has to do with claim that politicians arm many youths during electioneering?
The rise in crime rate is not in Nigeria alone. Crime has always been there, whether there are elections or not. The point is that every one of us must do everything possible to bring down the crime rate in Nigeria. There are things that should not be mentioned in this country after 50 years of independence. Many people living abroad do not feel at ease coming home; they rather will stay where they are than come back home. It is laughable that in this digital age, some of these crime activities still take place. Nigerian government needs to sit up in this area of security and address it properly.
Why do you think academics are no longer conducting research works that can solve major current problems in the country?
I disagree with that position. In the area of agriculture alone, there are enormous research works in this country mostly that are on the shelves. I recall sometimes ago, one of the researches done here was adopted in Brazil.
For any research work to be meaningful, there must be a marriage between the university doing the research and the corporate organisations that need results of the research to function. That is where the problem lies in the country. There is no marriage between the research organisations and the industries. There is even no trust between the two bodies. That is why industries prefer to use the results of researches outside the country.
Government has also not provided the environment where the users of the research results and the researcher can converge. In the United States of America, Massachusetts Institute of Technology does research work on aviation. The MTI is aligned with Boeing that makes planes. The organisation funds half of the budget of the MTI; everything they do on aviation is tested by Boeing.
For research work to thrive in any country, there must be a concerted effort by the government to link research institutions with their key corporate bodies that can use results of the research work.
For instance, despite being a private university, Bowen University has been trying to do research in collaboration with organisations outside the country. This is to enable us to co-share the cost of equipment, research efforts and so on. Research is not cheap; and don’t forget, we don’t get subventions from anywhere. We are not even a beneficiary of TETfund or any other grant for research like the government-owned tertiary institutions. In the next few years, Bowen University will emerge as a centre of excellence for space science research in this country. Currently, we have a specialised GPS that is just brought in. All this interference in telephone communications is what I mean by space science research.
In the next few months also, we will be hosting the SuperDarn Radar equipment. Between now and August, we will begin to assemble the antenna. We are seriously working to address space interference so that telecommunication can work well in the country. Also, we are into an agreement with the Sasakawa Global 2000 in the area of agriculture. We have observed that extension is one of the biggest challenges in Nigeria. Our collaboration with the company will help bridge this gap. We will be the first private university in Africa that will partner with them.
There is also a plan to put the safe model of Sasakawa into our curriculum so that our agriculture graduates can be far better and serve as a link between the research world and the end users who are the farmers.
You spoke about lack of funding for research work. Are you satisfied with the size of Nigeria’s budget for education?
The truth of the matter is that the entire education system in Nigeria needs overhaul. It is not just about budget. If you like, multiply the budget, nothing will happen if the sector is not overhauled. Nigeria does not know where she is going in terms of education. Nigeria is not preparing the various sectors of the education in such a way that we can say this is where our destination will be in the next five years or 10 years.
What strategic plans will you suggest to accelerate the development of the education sector in the country?
In the education sector as of today, there are no plans for the gifted students. These are students who need to be separated and worked on so that the genius DNA they are exhibiting will be proficient to see. What I have also noticed about our education system is that it is gradually moving from public-dominated to private; and with time, the private institutions will run the education system in Nigeria. There is already a collapse in the primary education system. That is why people will not want to send their wards to public primary schools. At secondary school level, we have missed it as well. The missionaries came with their schools and we felt that they were not doing what we wanted; we took the schools from them. And now, we are giving them back to them because we know we can’t run the schools well. The university system, which has been run by the government, is gradually shifting. Though the entire private universities in Nigeria do not have the high number of students, but it’s a matter of time. The private universities are already making their points. We only need to support them. It is a fact that many private universities are struggling for students’ enrolment. However, many private universities are beginning to make a difference.
If government wants to take normal action, it should make public and private universities compete by allowing them access to some grants, especially for research work. We should not forget that if a research result is good, it would be said that the result comes from Nigeria first, even before the name of the university will be mentioned. Also, students are taught with findings of research work. It makes them strong, big and great. If government does not want to allow private universities to access research grants, they should create education banks. You cannot be running a university and you are borrowing from the banks at 26 per cent interest rate except you want the university to fail from take-off. In other climes, people like us approach education bank for loans to develop and improve our infrastructure and conduct research work. Interest rates in those countries are usually in single digit.
Similarly, students, who cannot afford to pay for their education, can walk up to the bank to secure a loan, while the government will work out a way they can pay up later. Ethiopia is not as rich as Nigeria, yet it is practising this. Government must begin to look at the establishment of education bank, if it’s truly serious about developing the education sector.
Some people are of the opinion that private universities are established by their owners to make profit. What is your experience in this area?
Anyone who knows about the running of a university will not say that. Even the National Universities Commission will tell you that it will take almost 40 years to 45 years before you can start making gains from a university. If I personally want to do business, I would rather go into oil and gas than to establish a university. University is not a high school. In university, you must invest money in serious research work, if you want to be ranked among the best. A university is known by its research efforts, not by mere teaching. That is why it is different from high school. If anyone has the mindset of starting a university to make profit, the person is going into a wrong business. University keeps gulping money. Bowen University, for example, is in its18th year and we are still asking the owners to, at least, support us with a sum of N1bn this year. Universities are set up to give back to society.
Despite this huge amount that is required to run university education, how well can it be managed to make sure that high standard is maintained?
Every university has its own internal quality assurance mechanisms. There are also external quality assurance mechanisms, usually carried out by the NUC. So, when you are talking about quality, there is no way you can run a university in Nigeria without meeting the minimum standard requirements. Internally, you must determine what you want to be; the difference you want to make and what you want to be known for.
What are you doing in the area of human capital development at Bowen University?
As a university, our business is about developing human capital. Most of our lecturers are PhD holders. We have professors that have made names in their various disciplines. We send some of our lecturers on training. We also invite resource persons. We believe strongly that if you want to build a nation, you build the people.