With the inauguration recently of the ICT-Driven Knowledge Park African Centre of Excellence, a World Bank sponsored project designed to strengthen the capacity of universities to enable them deliver high quality training and applied research, especially in science-related education, at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, its stakeholders are optimistic that it will sow the seed of development for the country’s knowledge industry and reduce unemployment. Funmi Ogundare reports

In 2013, the governments of Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Republic of Benin, Ghana, Cameroun, Togo and Senegal, instituted the Africa Centres of Excellence (ACE) project with support from the World Bank.

The project was initiated to promote regional specialisation amongst universities in the participating countries within the West and Central African sub-regions, to address common regional development challenges and strengthen their capacities to deliver high quality training and applied research.

For the ACE project in Nigeria, the National Universities Commission (NUC) is the focal point and the secretariat for 10 of such centres including Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, University of Port Harcourt, African University of Science and Technology, Abuja, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Benue State University, Makurdi, Bayero University, Kano, Redeemers University, Ede, Osun State.

Others are University of Jos, Plateau State, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and University of Benin, Benin City, Edo State.

They are all devoted to facilitate the convergence of technological advances in various disciplines in ICT, food and beverages processing, pharmaceuticals and agriculture and enhance the development, transfer and commercialisation of technology and research outputs.

They are also to promote the launch pad for start-up companies borne out of university research activities, and advancement by partnering companies, who will have the competitive advantage of close proximity and direct access to the intellectual infrastructure and output of the university.

In OAU, Ile Ife, its ACE project is devoted to ICT. It recently Inuagurated its ICT-driven knowledge park (OAK-Park) Africa Centre of Excellence witnessed by the Executive Secretary of NUC, Professor Abubakar Rasheed, partner companies, as well as members of the academia.

In an interview with THISDAY, the Vice Chancellor, Professor Eyitope Ogunbodede said the World Bank sponsored project has made the institution number one ICT-driven in the country, adding that the move is to support the vision of the federal government to reduce unemployment in Nigeria.

“The whole world relies on technology. OAU as a university had the first department of Computer Science and Engineering in Nigeria. We also had the first internet facility in Nigeria and got the centre of excellence in Software Engineering on the ICT knowledge-driven park,” he said, while expressing optimism that a number of people will be employed under the project.

“Aside from that we are thinking of a situation where we will be able to launch the country into the technological world, something similar to the silicon valley concept in the USA . So we are pioneering that for the country and partnering with industries that shares our vision.”

The Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academics and Centre Leader, ACE, Professor Simeon Adebayo Bamire commended the NUC for its efforts in making it possible to be in existence noting that it has enriched and enhanced the capacity of its students and research within the university.

“Most of our students are learned and more knowledgeable about research and in the area of skills acquisition. They are empowered and are able to set up their own businesses and generate their income. It has a way of generating employment that the country is actually suffering from .

For students who have developed software products, he said the center would link them up with investors that will support in commercialising the products so that their companies will be well established.

“Most of these companies we are working with are within the university setting . They will be part of the teaching component while on campus . It is a win-win situation in the real sense of it with those in the industry for the university.

Asked on the way forward for ACE, the DVC said, “It is to continue in this light and build more centers of excellence within the university because we are real managers. We have people who are capable of managing centers of excellence like this and ensuring that it continues to grow . It should be entrenched in other universities within the country, so that we will altogether be able to move the country forward.”

The Dean, Faculty of Technology and Co-centre Leader, Africa Centre of Excellence on ICT project, Professor Adesola Aderounmu who emphasised on the functions of the ACE in the institution, noted that it focuses on training postgraduate students on ICT programmes.

According to him, “We have a department of Computer Science and Engineering that is currently hosting all the programme for the ACE. My job is to coordinate all the activities within the ACE. We have about six or seven activities going on within.

“One of them is to admit postgraduate students into the various disciplines and also to see how we could link them up with the industry in terms of internship. Another is to organise conferences where we can disseminate results of most of the researches in the centre. We also organise short term training courses to access the capacity of the working class and build their skills in the area of ICT.”

Aderounmu who is also the National President of the Nigerian Computer Society said one of the aim of the ACE project is to create spinoff companies such that when the students eventually graduate, they would be able to stand on their own without looking for any job.

“I have some final year students whom we are to link up with the industry to solve problems. We have engaged them to develop some of these products. In the course of doing that, they are developing their skills, such that by the time they graduate they can stand on their own and continue to develop a lot of ideas and software .

“We have already interfaced the students with the industry, the IT companies for instance, are ready to take them in because they have the skills. As the president of Nigeria Computer Society (NCS), most of these companies will recruit them and they in turn, are also ready to partner with the university. We have already established five spinoff companies and directors who make a minimum of $5,000 in a month.”

Asked on the challenges the centre is currently facing, the don said, “When we started the programme, we were concerned with how we are going to attract the regional students. The focus is to find a way to train students from the region apart from Nigeria alone. The World Bank believes that Nigeria is blessed with talents. So one of the things that we do is to attract such students.

“The challenge is that they don’t have money for tuition , another is the security situation in Liberia . For the first two years, it was a big problem, but later we travelled to the region to ensure that the country is peaceful, and we ensured that we gave them partial scholarship. Based on these two reasons, we now have about 37 of them that are interested in coming because of the enabling environment that we provided. The tuition is free, facilities are there and we provided free accommodation. Those challenges are over now.

He expressed optimism about the sustainability of the project even after its expiration next year saying, “ It is for four years and we are rounding up next year. The good thing about it is that before the World Bank will release any fund to you, to continue with a project, they will ask you how you intend to sustain the project beyond the number of years given to you and they would have seen your sustainability model which we have already developed.

“So we have a lot of strategies to generate funds to support the project beyond the four years. With the spinoff companies, they are ready to take the products to the market such that certain percentage of the money can come to the centre to support the companies and the laboratory facilities. Another strategy is short term courses for which we charge people and tuition fee from postgraduate students who registered for training. The model is there so we will not have any challenge by the time we finish the project.”

On his assessment of the project, the Executive Secretary of NUC, Professor Abubakar Rasheed said he was impressed with the ACE project in OAU and that it has proved to be one of the best performing centers in Africa.

He added that the project will go a long way in sowing the seed for the future development of the country’s knowledge industry .

“As you know, knowledge drives the economy all over the world. The kind of knowledge from this centre will help Nigeria to transit to a knowledge-based economy. We are happy that this centre is cited here. We hope that with the collaboration, we will be able to encourage creativity, entrepreneurship and innovations as well as encourage youths to dream for a better Nigeria.”

Some of the directors of the spinoff companies established within the ACE project expressed delight about their feat saying that it has boosted their skills and created employment for them.

The Director, Bleep Tech, Mr. Temitayo Kolade said his organisation uses data and artificial intelligence to create simple applications that cuts across sectors like finance, transportation, health and using data analysis to train platforms that can be used to predict natural disasters and emergency response system .

He said they are currently working with developers who are students of the Computer Engineering department , adding, “ the way it works is that once you come, you become a staff, so you don’t have to start seeking for employment , so you have access to facilities which you can use to develop yourself. We have mentors around, and a learning network and we also get funding from the centre to raise seed capital. So, rather than going out to look for investors, investors are coming to us because of what this centre stands for. As a result, we can have employment, a place to grow and develop our skills and ultimately commercialise our products and make profits from it.”

A Software Engineering CEO of Vision FESH, Mr. Ezekiel Aliu said some of its staff are students and graduates of the institution who are developing the software that can be used by any institution in the country.

“For instance, OAU has a software for Computer Based Test (CBT) which has been used to conduct over 20 exams this semester. They are also using it to conduct post-UTME for over 45,000 candidates this week . It has a very scalable application and as a matter of fact it is so robust that we are running it as a server. “As a research centre, we are interested in building software that is very efficient. Already, we have deployed this application to several institutions and we are generating funds from it. We have several institutions in the north currently using it also.”