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Answering the youth question

I subscribe to the notion that innovation is the engine of social and economic development in general and agriculture in particular. The current concerns over rising…

I subscribe to the notion that innovation is the engine of social and economic development in general and agriculture in particular. The current concerns over rising food prices have compounded concerns about the state and future of Nigerian and indeed African agriculture. A huge part of the problem lies directly in the low level of investment in our agricultural research and development. In his book ‘The New Harvest’, late Harvard Professor Calestous Juma wrote “Enhancing African agricultural development will require specific efforts aimed at aligning science and technology strategies with agricultural development efforts.”

However, even beyond agriculture, many African countries are increasing emphasis on the role of science and innovation in economic transformation. At regional and national levels, we see many efforts aimed at encouraging more African youth to take up studies in science, technology, and engineering education; promoting and supporting research and innovation activities. Nigeria, being Africa’s most populous nation as well as biggest economy, needs to lead this awakening and tilt towards science and innovation for economic transformation.

On two occasions, I was part of a remarkable team of innovators, business leaders and government officials that wanted to create a vehicle for this drive towards developing the capacity of young people to not only study science and technology but truly innovate across various sectors and commercialize these innovations to achieve economic transformation in Nigeria.

We were focused on providing educational and vocational training services, capacity building, supporting and promoting innovation and creativity in the fields of information and communication technology and agribusiness. The general problem which we sought to address was the dearth of an organized platform which provides both training/skills development and business support services for aspiring young innovative individuals, especially young undergraduates in science and technology. This has left Nigeria with poor records of successful science and technology enterprises and high level of unemployment amongst its teeming youths. Despite the persistence of these problems, the conventional educational system in Nigeria has not been able to provide the change by innovatively responding to the problems.

With the incessant strike actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the relegation of Polytechnics and Colleges to the background, it is clear that there must be new approaches in tackling the education and capacity development of young people in Nigeria.

Therefore, the main thrust of our programme was to create an alternative approach to developing science and technology education, entrepreneurship, skills acquisition, and career path among the youth.  We designed a framework to leverage both conventional and non-conventional approaches to impact skills and knowledge in a way that it puts the learner in the best position to face the challenges and rigours of the real world of both career and entrepreneurship. Our ultimate goal was to accelerate exceptionally skilled science and technology entrepreneurs. The methods we adopted blended both vocational training, entrepreneurial capacity building and business support services through short to medium and long-term experiential courses, apprenticeships, mentorship and business support.

The turn of the 21st century has signalled a shift in the types of skillsets that have real, applicable value in a rapidly advancing world. Creativity, design and making for instance are now at the forefront of educational considerations globally. We thoroughly believe that popularizing a culture of innovating through collaborative environments in our schools, businesses and even government offices will go a long way in positively affecting the quality Nigeria’s future. This was why we took our time to not only learn from the best in the game across the world but adopt our learnings in order to build a sustainable and workable system for the Nigerian youth.

For two years, we worked intensively with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), through The MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (MIT REAP) which provides opportunities for communities around the world to engage with MIT in an evidence-based, practical approach to strengthening innovation-driven entrepreneurial (IDE) ecosystems. We conducted in-depth research on our collective innovation capacity (ability to develop and scale new-to-the-world innovations from inception through to the market). Equally, we took a detailed look at our entrepreneurial capacity (ability to start and build new-to-the-world enterprises from inception to the market).

We analysed various aspects of the two forms of capacities ranging from our human capital (quality of stem education, stem graduates per capita, PhDs per capita and the availability of scientists and engineers), funding (ranging from R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP to total business expenditure on R&D), Infrastructure (ICT Access, Broadband, Availability of latest technology), demand as well as culture and incentives. After other remarkably detailed explorations of the subject of innovation and innovation driven enterprises, we set to work in developing our own bespoke solutions covering the long-term and short term must-win battles that we necessarily needed to overcome in order to accelerate entrepreneurial development.

One of these solutions involved hands-on programmes focusing on skills in innovative problem discovery, ideation, user innovation, stakeholder engagement, making and fabrication, intellectual property law and more in a series of carefully designed, fast-paced learning activities for young people in partnership with tertiary institutions, corporates, risk capital providers and government institutions.

In addition to the well curated content they would learn. We wanted the young people participating in these programs to be coached by experienced innovators, to learn in an experiential way from entrepreneurs, innovators, investors and others from our vast innovation ecosystem. We wanted to be a catalyst, opening their horizons of young people to the latest research, ideas, funding, breakthroughs, failures and importantly innovation frameworks directly from the global epicentres of innovation as well as within Nigeria.

 Last week, as the world celebrated the International Youth Day, I sat down with Nigeria’s Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, who listened with keen interest and granted my request to reignite this project. I have a strong conviction that through efforts like these, we can begin to answer the multiplicity of questions that plague our nation, especially around young people and the release of their true potentials.

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