Agubata: Empowering Youths in STEM Will Drive Industrialisation

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Dr. Felicia Agubata, an Assistant General Manager at the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency and former president of the Association of Professional Women in Nigeria, is passionate about equipping youths with the skills. In this interview with Funmi Ogundare, she explains the need for Nigeria to continue advocating for STEM to drive industrialisation, among other issues. Excerpt:​

You were a former president of the Association of Professional Women Engineers in Nigeria (APWEN) and now a technical board member of the Prototype Engineering Development Institute (PEDI), Ilesha Osun, under the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI). How will you describe both roles?

APWEN’s role is about engineering leadership. The key thrust is advocacy for more females to go into engineering as well as to ensure that they make the best use of career opportunities. At APWEN, we also ensure that the ethics of the engineering profession are upheld. PEDI has its own context. It is a formal set-up, while APWEN is an association. PEDI is about working in concert with other appointees to ensure proper interpretation and execution of NASENI’s mandate as the vehicle for Nigeria’s industrialization. Research and development that will lead to industrialisation in Nigeria need to be driven and realised through the institutes. PEDI is one of the institutes. As a technical board member, it is incumbent on us to bring our experience, innovativeness and technical competencies to bear on the assignment.

How will your appointment to the board impact technical education and boost youth employment in Nigeria?

We just came back from a retreat of all technical board members and stakeholders in Abuja. Post-retreat, it became clearer what is expected of every member. I want to commend President Muhammadu Buhari for the will to do the needful by ensuring that NASENI becomes an independent agency. That is the major way Nigeria is going to be industrialised. I must also commend the Executive Vice Chairman of NASENI, Prof. Mohammed Haruna, who, over the years, has worked tirelessly to ensure that the Act establishing NASENI was signed into law by the president. This way, a framework to achieve their mandate was put in place. Essentially, the technical board is made up of engineers and scientists. We are eager to bring onboard our experience to drive the assignment and ensure that the institute becomes the pride of the nation. It boosts industrialisation and would have a multiplier impact across a broad spectrum of critical areas of our economy, including youth engagement and actual employment. For instance, PEDI has a lot of prototypes, such as rice polishing machines and 3D printing machines(PEDIBOT), ready for commercialisation. It is not just about innovation because the institutes are also allowed to engage in reverse engineering. For instance, if you have a particular product that has been done somewhere, you can, with a proper level of approvals and agreements, mass-produce it.
How can the government create an enabling environment for research and innovation to thrive?
We must necessarily work towards identifying and removing barriers to enabling environments, especially the controllable factors. Some will obviously be knotty to deal with: steady power supply.
Be that as it may, things will definitely change for good with collaboration and focus. We have the capacity and capability to deal with some of the key issues. If the executive vice-chairman and his dedicated team could bring NASENI to this level, I believe research and innovation will thrive in Nigeria as no nation can progress without industrialisation. It will provide employment for our teeming youths and provide revenue for the country. Once you have an industrialised nation, people are not going to remain on the streets because they will be engaged. Ensuring an enabling environment is still a work in progress, but the government can do more in terms of research and development. The government needs to fund research institutes very well and invest in talents.

Don’t you think Nigeria has a long way to go?

I don’t think the way is too long. With what I saw during the retreat, products on display made by the institutes, I was really happy that something like this is in this country. I am also excited that people like Prof. Haruna have the courage and political will to go all out to push for a course that they believe in. He started this during President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. After the progress made and he left, everything seemed to hit the brick wall, but he continued until he had the ears of President Muhammadu Buhari.

What new innovations do you intend to bring on board to move the institute forward?

Each institute has its own mandate, so among us, led by the renowned professor of Mechanical Engineering, Olufemi Bamiro, as chairman and Dr. Kola Olunlade, as managing director of PEDI, will be steered in the right direction for results in line with our mandate. We will also collaborate with the industries to ensure the commercialisation of our prototypes and the production of those designs. Presently, we are collaborating with Kwara State Chambers of Commerce to re-fabricate some of their members’ machines so that they can stop the capital flight of going to China to buy or repair their spare parts, and this will reduce dependence on foreign currency for trade transactions. Discussions are ongoing, and it’s yielding results as one of us is the Vice President of Kwara State chamber of Commerce, Abu Salami.

What is the importance of STEM education in industrialisation?

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics ( STEM) is an economic driver. Without STEM, the economy cannot be anywhere. Scientists, technologists and engineers are all products of STEM. Mathematicians and data analysts are all products of STEM. So what do we need to be an industrialised nation? We need scientists, engineers and data analysts. That is why there is so much advocacy for getting the young ones to STEM because that is what drives the economy and industrialisation. We cannot overemphasise the importance of STEM in any nation.

How do you ensure a paradigm shift in the girls’ quality of education, especially for those in the North and Southern, towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals( SDGs)?

We cannot leave the quality of education to the government alone. That is why we are appealing to non-governmental organisations and individuals to become players in education. We are not saying it has to be the girl-child alone because the boy child is also endangered. If we keep talking about girl-child, a time will come when the boys that will marry the girls will be left out, so we need to carry them along. That is why the ‘Invent it, Build it’, initiative that we executed has the science and technology laboratory component that we recently commissioned in Misau, Bauchi, was for a primary school so that both genders will use it. More importantly, we need to make a conscious effort to ensure that the education system is restored to its former glory. We need to have adequate and well-qualified teachers and amenities for the children in classes. Government cannot do it alone. Individuals who have left public schools should be able to give back to society. That is why the Nigeria Society of Engineers (NSE) is doing a programme on ‘STEMGive Back’. I commend the leadership of the NSE for the initiative. As role models, we must go back and give back to the society and community. We don’t have to wait for the government. You can go back to your alma mater and find out what they are lacking. Is it books, school bags or desk and chairs? People did not believe that the laboratory launched at Misau, Bauchi State, recently is a primary school. It was the first of its kind in Africa. So if every one of us goes back to our primary schools, the country will be better. We can support the government in whatever way we can to restore the lost glory of education.

There is an under-representation of girls in the field of engineering. How were you able to galvanise support to ensure an improvement in the lives of rural girls?

If you look at our flagship programme, Invent it, built It’, when I was the president of APWEN, it was designed for the rural community to ignite the passion of the girl-child towards STEM that will lead them to a career in engineering, and it paid off because we were able to use the concept of role model who speaks their language and from their locality, to tell the story to them. We made them keynote speakers and honoured them in their communities. That was how we were able to develop plans for the scholarship and laboratories. It is paying off now because the awareness has been created as some of these girls are in SS I and are enjoying scholarships and are already in science classes. In the next three years, they will be finishing school and would be entering university. I believe that they will continue in the field of engineering, and in the next seven years, we are going to have engineering graduates. For the women, we have been able to have a diversity and inclusion policy, the first of its kind, that gave birth to the election of the first female deputy president of the Nigerian Society of Engineers ( NSE). Aside from that under NASENI, for each of the board, there is a female. It is a departure from what they used to have in the past.

Do you see the females competing in the next five years with their males in engineering?

What they need is collaboration, not competition. They all started together in their various schools as males and females. The exams are the same, and the qualifications and benchmark for acceptable performance are also the same. There is nothing like a male or female engineer. We are all the same. Exam for employment is the same: performance and appraisal are the same. There is no discrimination. What we are saying is that women should not see themselves as lesser mortals. We are not saying that we should be called to the table, but we want to walk up to the table based on our competence and skills. Let our competence define us. Going forward, we need to de-emphasize gender bias in our conversations; we must necessarily begin to focus on cooperation and collaboration across the gender and professional divides as the preferred attitude. Gender conversations bring about unproductive competition and hypersensitivity that shift our attention from the real issues of the moment. I will always vote for developing and bringing onboard more skills across the gender and professional divides.