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Promises won’t help Nigeria meet global science speed

While giving a speech at the 2021 Technology and Innovation EXPO in March 2021, Yemi Osinbajo, vice president of Nigeria, promised that the government would allocate 0.5 percent of the country’s GDP to science research and innovation.

Should that happen, Nigeria would be a little halfway to meeting the global average spends on research and development (R&D), as the global average spends is at 1.79 percent.

It would also mean that Nigeria plans to spend at least $2.1 billion (N864bn) on R&D. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Nigeria was worth $432.30 billion in 2020, according to official data from the World Bank. Spending N864 billion on science research would not only be unprecedented but it would mean allocating almost 9 percent of the 2021 budget to R&D.

This is money the government may not have given that it is still battling with a humongous deficit in the 2021 budget, estimated at N5.6 trillion (revised 2020 figure was N4.98trn), roughly 70 percent of the Federal Government revenues and about 3.93 percent of nominal GDP.

It is not the first time however the Nigerian government is expressing intentions to increase investment in R&D and fail to deliver. Nigeria’s total spending on R&D since 2007 has been around 0.1 percent.

But in all fairness, President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has given more to R&D than any other government before him. The present administration has stepped up the budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology twice in 2020 and now in 2021 with the allocation of N157 billion ($411m), but it is far below what South Africa spent on R&D alone back in 2018.

Other countries in the sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) region are also big on intentions and low on execution. This is why despite the African Union pushing an agenda for increased investments in research, especially in the area of renewable energy – that could grow electricity consumption on the continent, only half (48%) of the population in SSA currently has access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Yet without growth in energy consumption, the pace of digital innovation development in the region would continue to drag behind the rest of the world.

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“Last I checked, Nigeria was still grappling with agrarian era issues. We have an electricity challenge and have an abundance of coal. Sadly, we do not take science research seriously in Nigeria to find the best way to exploit our natural resources to solve our challenges,” notes Emeka Azuka, chief semantic engineer at Cymantiks Nigeria Limited and a data science expert.

The UNESCO Science Report released in June 2021 found that while the rest of the world had significantly increased spending on R&D, Nigeria and many countries in the SSA region wallow in promises to increase that never translate to much reality.

Interestingly, South Africa and Egypt have spent more at 0.83 percent and 0.72 percent, respectively, on R&D than the rest of the countries in the SSA region with a total of 0.51 percent.

Nigeria and other SSA countries also contribute the least researchers in the world. The region’s share is 124 researchers per million inhabitants, whereas the global average is 1328 per million inhabitants. Again, South Africa and Egypt are the outliers in Africa with 518 and 624 researchers, respectively.

South Africa and Egypt’s growths in R&D are not mere happenstance. In the period between 2017 and 2018, South Africa grew its gross expenditure for R&D to R38.7 billion ($2.555bn) from R35.6 billion ($2.353bn), and in 2019 the country’s Department of Science and Innovation said it planned to boost the country’s gross expenditure on R&D to 1.1 percent of GDP by 2024, as an intermediate target on its way to 1.5 percent by 2030.

Egypt had from 2013 to 2019 consistently raised its spending on R&D from $11 million to $32 million.

Nigeria on the other hand, as of 2019, was still allocating $175 million as the entire budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is less than 0.757 percent of the 2019 budget and making it the least of all the ministries.

For the past three years, 2018, 2019, and 2020, Nigeria has ranked 118, 114, and 117, respectively, on the Global Innovation Index (GII). The country is ranked 15th in SSA and 25th among 29 lower-middle-income economies.

SSA’s poor R&D activity has meant that the region has lived off the crumbs of innovation from other parts of the world. This is particularly pronounced in the COVID-19 pandemic era where much of the developed world controls the vaccine and health intelligence regarding the virus.

Nigeria and other countries in the SSA are having to depend on donations from the US, Europe, and China where investments in science research are at 2.84 percent, 1.78 percent, and 2.19 percent, respectively. Because Nigeria and the rest of SSA bring very little to the table of science research, they are having to be dictated to by countries that control the science apple pie.

Even in science collaboration, Nigeria and its laggards company are not pulling their collective weight. In the area of scientific co-authorship, the SSA region has managed to grow from 58.9 percent in 2015 to 60.5 percent in 2019, less than 2 percentage points. In that same period, South Africa grew from 54.1 percent to 57.4 percent, a 3-percentage point increase.

Nonetheless, while the Nigerian government dithers on science investment, private investments are beginning to grow and new science research-centric companies like Nigerian-based 54Gene, SYNLAB Nigeria, Stem Cafe by Co-Creation Hub, DataScience Nigeria, and many others, are starting to push the needle in the right direction. But more institutional investments are needed to get Nigeria and hopefully the rest of SSA on the path of growth in scientific research.

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