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Zinox Ekeh Ibom

COVID -19: Nigerian companies have records of innovation to turn pandemic challenge to gold

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There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a serious challenge to the global economy, Nigeria inclusive. However, I seriously think that within this challenge, there are opportunities for Nigeria to scale as a nation. The opportunities abound. Such growth will only happen, if Nigerian companies and innovators are encouraged to make use of the window of opportunity presented by the crises orchestrated by the pandemic.

Nigeria indeed has the population and the human capital capabilities. Beyond population, Nigeria needs a critical ingredient to make use of the chanceto succeed presented by this pandemic. Nations like the US, China and India give us a gleam of what such ingredient should be. These nations are not just known for their huge populations, but for their innovative ideas. Therein lies the answer to Nigeria’s quest to defeating the pandemic and turning it to a thing of blessing in disguise: innovation that is readily supported by the Federal Government.

Insteadof looking inward to explore the natural and human resources available to fight the pandemic, the Federal Government seems to bemore interested in promoting other countries’ ideas and innovations.

Let us take the issue of face masks, for example. Nigerians were shocked when the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC)said Nigeria was exploring the option to import one million face masks from China. I find such plan as preposterous in this era when the government should be creating workablestrategies to rescue the Nigerian economy from being asphyxiated. It is sad that this is happening at a time when Nigeria is seriously seeking alternative to crude oil to live on.Worse still, it is happening at a time when millions of Nigerians are set to lose their jobs and other means of livelihood as a result of the harsh economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. By relying on imported face masks from China, Nigeria is inadvertently creatinga huge number of jobsin the Chinese economy at the detriment of poor Nigerians.

Simply put, Nigerian policymakers can use face masks as a serious tool to turnaround the Nigeria economy for the better. What does it take to produce face mask? Nothing serious. Believe me when I tell you nothing serious. Nigeria has both the human and natural resources to produce face masksfit enough for local consumption and the export market.

In Ibadan where I live with my children and grand-children, I can count at least 300 tailors. One sad thing about these tailors is that there is no business for them because COVID-19 has killed the business of tailoring. Nigerians are more concerned about feeding right now than about wearing clothes.

But the government can turn things around for these tailors in particular and the economy in general.  How? The government can organize these tailors into groups, and make them to operate in school halls where they will be supplied with constant electricity to enable them producethese face masks. I am very sure with such conduciveenvironment, each tailor can make nothing less than N3, 000 on daily basis from producing face masks.

This arrangement will not benefit these tailors alone. A lot of other Nigerians are going to gain from this simple innovation. Textile and logistics companies to be engaged in supplying the textiles and transporting the finished products will benefit from this innovation, just as the average Nigerian on the street will gain from this, in the form of affordable, locally produced face masks.

If need be, the government can also derive taxes from these locally made products. This simple innovation on the long run may help to grow the nation’s GDP and reduce unemployment rates. If Nigeria replicates such a set up in every state, the benefits will be too great to imagine.

I know some people may be concerned about the efficiency of such face masks at preventing COVID-19. This concern is not out of place. After all, NAFDAC said few days ago that face masks made from cloths are not capable of preventing the virus. This is my problem with every Nigerian agency: they know how to criticize without proffering solution. What is wrong with NAFDAC collaborating with other relevant agencies to train a number of tailors on how to produce internationally certified face mask against COVID-19? I do not think anything is stopping the agency, except lack of creativity.

Every country is searching for the cure for COVID-19.But look at how many Nigerian professors and research agencies are wasting away. If I can recall very well, Nigeria has agencies and institutes capable of producing globally acceptable herbs or drugs for COVID-19.  Certainly, the Nigeria Natural Medicine Development Agency (NNMDA), the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRID),Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Nigerian Council of Physicians of Natural Medicine (NCPNM) and various pharmacognosy departments in our universities exist for a reason, such as the one presented by COVID-19.

One would have expected the Federal Government to borrow a leaf from the European Commission (EC) and collaborate with the Private Sector Coalition Against Coronavirus (CACOVID) to fund these research agencies and institutes to formulate curative or preventive drugs or herbs for COVID-19. Madagascar, which has looked inward in proffering solutionsto her COVID-19 challenge, has shown that it will be easier to get quicker solution to the pandemic in Africa than elsewhere. Nigeria, like many African countries, is blessed with herbs and human resources capable of solving the COVID-19 pandemic.

How shocked I wasto see the Chairman of Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, a decent and very professional man reportedly saying that the Nigerian government was making plansto import the Madagascar herbs to fight the pandemic in Nigeria! It calls for serious concerns because Madagascar has never hidden the name of the plants used in preparing the herbs from the world. Nigeria surely has such plants in abundance.What is preventing the government to organizeresearchersof herbal medicines into groups to develop a cure from the herb?

It is obvious that lack of creativity and patriotism are the only cog on the wheel of Nigeria’s fight against COVID-19. As a commentator once said, Nigerians are interested in promoting other nation’s innovations because of kickbacks and returns. It is abhorring to see how we have allowed our quest for self-gratification to overrule that of our national interest.

If you look beyond the public sector, you will see that Nigeria is also blessed with innovative brains doing well in the private sector. There was a time Nigeria used to import bottled water, until someone deemed it feet to produce bottled water locally. Today, I have lost count of how many locally produced bottled water companies we have in Nigeria.  You will be marveled by the number of jobs bottledwater companies have generated in Nigeria.

At the early stages of Nigeria’s telephony history,Nigerians were fraudulently billed per minute in the telecommunication industry, until Mike Adenuga came in to change the phenomenon in early 2000.  He introducedper second billing method to save Nigerians from such unnecessary billings orchestrated by foreign owned firms in Nigeria. Like Adenuga, Aliko Dangote has gone ahead to show Nigerians how creativity can propel Nigeria to be self-sufficient with basic things of life: salt and sugar, just to name a few.

There are many more of such innovative Nigerians doing great things whom the Federal Government can partner with. If I may use a typical home grown Nigerian group in this technology age as an example of the power of sustained innovation, it will further elucidate my points.

I have been following the innovative ideasof Mr Leo Stan Ekeh, Nigerian’s biggest digital serial entrepreneur and innovator of our time. I have been following his moves because of the interest of my wife, children and grandchildren in anything that has to do with technology.  I must mention here that my second and brilliant son worked for Zinox for few years before he moved with his family to the UK. Also my step daughter worked for his e-commerce company, Konga before she left New York last year to further her studies.

Ekeh led Zinox Group to create and domesticate first African indigenous computer brand.  It seems easy now. But I can recall that when Ekeh started the African indigenous computer project decades ago, many Africans had only seen computers on the television. The Obasanjo administration was smart enough to recognize the Zinox project and encouraged it to scale.

We know the benefit of that smart move by both Ekeh and the Obasanjo administration today. Many Nigerian homes now have access to computers and other auxiliary technologies. Being the first ICT company from Nigeria to be internationally recognized as an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), Zinox has been at the forefront of supplying to the Nigerian market affordable technological solutions, including high-end personal computers (PCs), laptops, power solutions, workstations and now it has even diversified into lifestyle products such as television sets, Home & Kitchen appliances and other similar products.

Within the Zinox Group, I am told, is a number of tech-driven companies such as TD Africa which has redefined the face of tech distribution in Sub-Saharan Africa, TDiLife which is presently doing the same in the FMCG segment and many others. The Zinox Group is a product of serious innovative thinking which has the capacity to represent Nigeria equitably well anywhere in the world, I must tell you.

As a real successful African father, Ekeh has gone ahead to transfer his innovative acumen to his son, Prince Nnamdi Ekeh- the Co-Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Konga and his colleagues now driving their new age vision. I am pleased to see that Prince Ekeh and his colleagueshave not taken for granted the opportunity given tothem by Mr. Ekeh. They have simply become the leader of the Nigerian e-commerce space today.  Konga, after its acquisition by Zinox has in less than three years,emerged as the company to beat in the Nigerian e-commerce business. It is heartwarming to see this indigenous brand is winning the war of owning the Nigerian e-commerce market against multinationals. Like Mr. Ekeh would always say – “No nation can claim to be truly independent until it has technology independence.’’ This resonates more now that our educational system is shut down because of lack of technology while other smaller countries are using e-learning to educate their children.

Since it was founded, Konga has never relaxed on its oars. Last week, I was thrilled when my grandson, Tobi, told me that Konga was hosting the first virtual live auction in Africa. It looked simple. However, one thing is to have an idea and another is to make it happen. Konga has shown itself to be a company that thinks and actualizes its thinking.

When others in the private sector were making donations whose outcome were difficult to account for, we saw how Zinox and Konga came up with the innovative idea to directly feed over 7,000 vulnerable Nigerian familiesevery day for two weeks during the heat of the lockdown experienced in Lagos, Ogun and FCT.

This is the theme behind this article.

For Nigeria to overcome the COVID challenge and turn it to a blessing, the Federal Government needs to support innovative companies and individuals ready to give it all to fight the war against the pandemic.

In conclusion, Nigeria is blessed with both human and natural resources. The Federal Government needs to tap into these resources to ensure that Nigeria is not only able to fight the pandemic but also it is able to turn the pandemic into a blessing in disguise for Nigerians with the new normal. It is only then, post-CONVID-19, that Nigeria can remain relevant in the committee of nations again.

Ademola Ekun is a public affairs analyst who writes from Benue on the occasion of his 72nd Birthday

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