Several pieces of evidence attribute 70% of the high standard of living of the developed world to its successes in technological innovation. Other important factors such as minimal levels of antimarket policies, elevated levels of the rule of law, as well as the effective provision of public goods, explain the rest of the 30%. The details of Nigeria’s performance at the 2019 global innovation index (GII) may reasonably clarify the sources of our backwardness as a country. The GII has an acceptable reputation strengthened by the institutions that publish it. These institutions comprise Cornell University, INSEAD, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and many other reputable organisations. Although Nigeria’s position in the GII index improved four steps from 118th in 2018 to 114th in 2019, the upturn lacked cheers. Firstly, Nigeria did not score up to 50% pass mark in any of the innovation input and output factor aggregates. As a fact, most of our performance scores are between 11 and 25. One that particularly caught my attention is the innovation input factor of human capital and research where we scored 11.3. A subcategory of this input factor is research and development (R&D). In this indicator, our score was a brutally heartrending 0%. Expectedly, our global ranking on that indicator was 120. How did we get to such a low point that after 60 years as a country that our research and development score will be an abysmal 0%?

Human history is replete with the efforts to find better ways of improving the quality of lives. Man has always explored more ways of growing his output with as much a little increase in costs as possible. That constant search for efficient increases in production was what gave birth to farming implements, the use of animals for transportation and haulage as well as today’s computers, aeroplanes and rockets. It is, therefore, at the very heart of production and productivity. It is, without any doubt, the engine of employment generation, economic growth and development. That is why it is worrisome that a country such as ours would record an indefensible score of zero after more than 60 years in existence. If our policymakers ever believed that scientific and entrepreneurial innovation could genuinely deal with our unemployment challenges, why have they not mainstreamed it in distinct ways? Why have we appallingly failed in productively implementing the country’s science, technology and innovation policy? The early stages of the recent outbreak of coronavirus from China; a country, which appears to be the raw materials mainstay of our manufacturing sector opened our dependency and apparent vulnerability to them in an area where we should have a definite production advantage. Africa and indeed, Nigeria have a rich endowment of raw materials. Yet for several decades the combined efforts (or the lack of it) of our Raw Materials Research Institute and our universities have not yielded much to be desired results in its exploitation.

At least three crucial factors are critical for us to rev up the engines of our innovation and join the rest of the developed world to enjoy a high standard of living. The first is the enhancement of our market power which is extremely necessary for recurring innovation. Programs and policies which promote authentic entrepreneurial rivalry will always lead to product and service innovations. The second factor is the enrichment of our knowledge economy. Knowledge is the manure for any kind of improvement and invention. Therefore, the right levels of investments in education and overall capacity development at the national and firm levels are fundamental desideratum for climbing up the innovation ladder. Thirdly is the need to create the right kind of environment that fosters innovation. These will include things like the policy of the government on research and development as well as the government’s willingness to take risks on ideas. We also need to be more open to immigration, particularly foreigners coming in with fresh ideas and ready to invest in those ideas within the country.

More than any other consideration, the lure of profits is the most critical driver of innovation. The market competition which is the battle for a more significant share of the market, therefore regularly feeds the search for better and more acceptable products and services. Enhancing the capacity of the market, and by extension, the attendant entrepreneurial rivalry will inevitably result in increased innovation. Secondary to this capacity enhancement will be the resultant capacity for export. Without doubt, the promotion of our country’s export capacity will no doubt challenge the exporters to come up with improvements in their product quality that will enable them to sell foreign markets. It is like extending the market competition beyond the domestic shores. To effectively promote firm and marketplace competition in Nigeria, there are at least three vital considerations. These include a set of policies that guarantees a level playing ground for all competing firms as well as excellent infrastructure that effectively supports distribution and logistics optimisation. Others include the provision of adequate security for the protection of lives and property, which is inclusive of the protection of private property rights and finally, the considerable reduction in the fiscal burden that businesses must bear. The practical implementation of these three drivers of market competition will also substantially lead to revved capacities for the export of our locally made goods and services. In the case of the promotion of exports, implementing these drivers is however very necessary but not satisfying. The complementarily satisfactory condition is enough resolution of the numerous before the border as well as within the border challenges that have considerably frustrated our capacity for enhanced export.

Unarguably, successful technological and entrepreneurial innovation strongly and positively correlate with knowledge. Effectively imagining big-picture changes that enhance productivity as well as the standards of living in virtually all instances, leverage previously gained experience and information. Formal education, as well as learning-by-doing approaches, are the two most common ways of acquiring this capacity. Technological innovations issuing from the learning by doing method are substantially evident in many of the inventions and home-grown industrial bases in Aba and Nnewi in south-east Nigeria. The apprenticeship model that was predominant in Aba and Nnewi considerably facilitated the capacity development of many of those who passed through that system. Unfortunately, we scarcely find near similar levels of successful technological innovation cases from those who passed through the formal learning channels in Nigeria. Without any doubt, we know that the study of science, engineering and technology are critical steppingstones for great scientific and technological inventions. There is a statistically validated strong positive relationship between the economic prosperity attained by any country and the average research output of its science and technology institutions. Countries with high per capita income such as Luxembourg, Sweden and Norway, Switzerland, Singapore all have an annual per university share of published scientific papers exceeding 200. In the same vein, many of the countries with low per capita GDP have scientific research outputs per University of less than 20. For instance, the combination of all the science faculties and departments in Nigeria’s 249 universities published a total number of 3822 scientific papers in 2016. If we rely on these numbers, we may conclude that the average per university publication of scientific articles in Nigeria is a paltry 16 academic papers per year. Yet, almost all the universities in Nigeria offer an average of 100 science courses for which we hire several teachers and supposed researchers. In some sense, this explains the constant failure of the much-advocated town and gown relationship. The abysmal research output performance of our institutions is somewhat an indication that our universities have very little if at all to offer to the industry.

There are close to 30 research institutes in the country that are practically barren and historically of limited relevance. Like most other agencies of the government, they seem to be more of political structures set up for the settlement of cronies rather than as serious-minded institutions for the promotion of scientific research and innovation. The recurring decades of terrible underperformance attest to this fact. While there could be concerns of underfunding, there are equally unresolved puzzles around the value-for-money for the funds already deployed and utilised over the years. The only publicly available data on Nigeria’s spending on research and development is more than 12 years old signalling inadequate tracking and reporting of the fiscal expenditures on these institutions. The government, therefore, has historically demonstrated both the unwillingness and the lack of the required level of seriousness for driving robust scientific and technological innovation in the country. It is not too late to change the status quo by demanding high levels of accountability and performance from these institutions. Our political class also appears to be populated more by persons with less than the average speed of response in the acceptance and adoption of new ideas. That is more potent than other factors in slowing down the country’s tendency to innovations. A significant consequence is that it affects their likelihood of initiating or wholeheartedly supporting pro-innovation policies and the retraction of the ones that do not foster the growth of new ideas.

Finally, some of the bureaucrats in these institutions often please their principals by showing off pieces of machinery that they claim as their inventions. Many times, these supposed inventions remain in their showroom for more than a decade without the industry experiencing them. The usual refrain from them is that they are finding it difficult to commercialise it. Nothing can be farther away from the truth. Of course, one needs not advanced training to know that in today’s world, inventions that cannot be price-competitively mass-produced are to naturally rotten at their places of creation. Price competitiveness, as well as the capacity of the invented artefact to outperform previously existing ones, are the two most important underlying drivers of the commercialisation of any innovated piece of technology. The truth is that most of these prototypes do not meet these conditions and therefore fail to attract the expected private investments for their commercialisation.