From Surviving to Thriving Building a Culture of Innovation in Nigeria

Nigerians have developed a positive global reputation for their contributions to innovation across business, science and technology. Unfortunately, this innate spirit of innovation rarely thrives within Nigeria. The Imagine Nigeria report by the UNDP and the Nigerian government explores the strategies and steps that can be implemented to empower innovators and entrepreneurs to institutionalize this culture of innovation locally.  

Imagining a better future for Nigeria must begin with a sober acknowledgement of the here-and-now. Nigeria is currently suffering the effects of decades of bad governance and maladministration. Nigeria’s leadership has been unable to create an enabling environment for its people to prosper and flourish. The problems are well documented: high rates of unemployment, insecurity, unstable power supply and limited access to healthcare. As a result of these hardships, Nigerians are emigrating in droves, seeking the promise of a better life elsewhere. A 2019 Pew study revealed that 45 per cent of adults in Nigeria say they plan to emigrate within five years, and many of those relocating will be skilled workers. According to Home Office data, almost 16,000 ‘skilled worker’ visas were granted to Nigerians moving to the UK in the past year.  

To reverse these trends, Nigeria needs to commit to a deliberate, long-term strategy of national rejuvenation. The United Nations Development Programme recently partnered with the federal government of Nigeria to create a robust roadmap for a better Nigerian future. The strategies and interventions are outlined in the Imagine Nigeria report, a blueprint upon which the government seeks to take steps to drive decisions and policies, geared towards realizing Nigeria’s development potential in the near future.  The actualization of Nigeria’s potential, according to the report, is contingent on building a culture of innovation. But what exactly does an innovation-based economy entail, and how can we get there?  

DRIVING GROWTH THROUGH INNOVATION

In today’s techno-centric world, a nation’s ability to be globally competitive is linked to its proclivity towards innovation. The Imagine Nigeria report suggests that open consultation between the government and the private sector is the first step towards building a culture of innovation. This increased collaboration will provide clarity on what laws and regulations can be created, altered or discarded in order to accelerate economic growth. The Imagine Nigeria report also projects that the government can move to facilitate the launch of 1 million startups within a decade, with partnerships in various industries, and backed up by a $5 billion fund.  

Nigeria can also capitalize on its position as a geopolitical powerhouse within Africa to diversify its local talent pool and offset the skills lost to emigration. According to Rosalind Hudnell, the director of global diversity and inclusion at Intel, ‘innovation thrives better in diversity’. Hudnell explained that ‘among companies with more than $10billion in annual reserves, 56 percent strongly agree that diversity helps drive innovation’. The impact that diversity has on innovation and productivity is undeniable. Fortunately, Nigeria has initiated programmes in this regard, such as the Nigeria Innovation Summit, which over its six editions since 2015, has attracted over 5,000 delegates, hundreds of speakers and panelists as well as sponsors and partners from 25 countries. The most recent edition of the NIS introduced the Nigeria Innovations Experience Talks (NiX Talks) which provides a platform for insights on emerging technologies and the honoring of innovation award recipients from companies, institutions, and organizations. 

Similarly in 2019, the Nigerian government collaborated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to deliver a ‘Radical Innovation’ course in Abuja targeted at civil service officials across ministries, departments, and government agencies. Although the two-day training course had limited footprint in terms of awareness and participation, such programmes are key ingredients to the ultimate goal of building a culture of innovation and must continue to be encouraged.

INTERNATIONAL LESSONS AND EXAMPLES

Nigeria’s current mission of innovation is not a novel one and Nigeria’s leadership can borrow ideas from success stories across the globe and adapt a framework that is relevant to local conditions. There is much to learn from nations like South Korea, who focus on export-led and education-based initiatives. The Korea Institute of Science and Technology as well as the Ministry of Science and Technology were crucial to the development of industrial groupings called chaebols of which LG and Samsung are key examples. Deep collaborations between universities and chaebols also drive research and development, Samsung is reported as having R&D partnerships with Sungkyunkwan University and Seoul National University among others. According to the Korea International Trade Association, South Korea’s exports in 2016 to China and the US alone were valued at $124.4 billion and $66.4 billion respectively. We can also learn from China, where the state guides development goals with multi-year plans in collaboration with private and government-owned firms such as Huawei and China Communications Construction Company respectively. For context, China’s rapid economic growth kicked off in 1979 when market-oriented reforms were adopted and contributed to roughly forty per cent of GDP growth, according to Harvard Business Review. It should be noted that China did not rest on its laurels of being hailed as a ‘development miracle’—the country has since launched its 14th ‘Five-Year Plan’ (2021-2025), considered the centerpiece for China’s system of industrial planning and policy. If Nigeria is to actualize the progressive futures envisioned in the Imagine Nigeria report, then it must adopt policy-oriented governance and long-term planning.     

Other examples for cultures of innovation which Nigeria can learn from include the United States, committed to driving development of advanced and emerging technologies, all with the goals of promoting US economic interests and maintaining its technological advantages. It is within this context that the US Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs periodically holds Innovation Roundtables to explore challenges and opportunities in the emerging technology and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sectors. 

In Rwanda’s case, a Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy Review by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) showed that the country’s focus on ICT has grown the sector over tenfold since 2000, and the Kigali Innovation City is an example of this sectoral development. In 2019, the Rwandan government set up the Cleaner Production and Climate Innovation Center (CPCIC) as a nexus point for reskilling the country’s workforce and provides ‘training for Rwandans in clean production and climate resilient technologies, in both the public and private sectors’.

INSTITUTIONALIZING INNOVATION

On an individual level, Nigerians are already known and celebrated for their innovative spirit. In November 2022, The Cable reported that three Nigerians were among the shortlisted innovators to receive awards for engineering prowess at the UK Royal Academy of Engineering  2023 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. What seems to be lacking among Nigerians is an intentional drive from relevant stakeholders towards creating the support systems that will help institutionalize our latent culture of innovation.

Nigerians are yearning for a new era of growth and development; for the opportunity to be a part of, and to participate in a new and positive expression of national identity grounded in innovation. Case studies from South Korea, China, the United States and Rwanda prove that there are different models for encouraging institutional innovation. The most important factor is that in each country, said strategies were built to benefit local contexts and conditions, and Nigeria’s planning authorities must keep this in mind. With a young population, and abundant natural resources, the foundations necessary to build a culture of innovation in Nigeria are already in place. All that is left is the will to adopt tried, tested and trusted strategies towards achieving this goal

This essay was developed with the support of the Federal Government of Nigeria and UNDP.

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]