Admin l Sunday, November 28, 2021
PROFESSOR ABDULLAHI MUSTAPHA was appointed DG National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) by President Muhammadu Buhari in December 2020. Before his appointment, Mustapha, a professor of Chemistry lectured at the Federal University, Dutse, where he was HOD Chemistry and Director of Consultancy Services at different times. He was at several times Head of Chemistry Department and Dean, Faculty of Science and Science Education at Kano University of Science and Technology (KUST).
Prof. Mustapha is a Fellow Chemistry Society of Nigeria (FCSN), Member Royal Society of Chemistry, United Kingdom (MRSC) and Member Nigerian Institute of Chartered Chemist (MICCON). Since he assumed office as NABDA boss, he is seen to have become one of those actively championing the advancement of biotechnology in the country. In this interview, Professor Mustapha spoke on the need for application of biotechnology to boost the growth of Nigeria’s economy and the various steps he has taken in the last one year to transform NABDA and create a conducive environment for staff. Excerpts:
About one year ago, you were appointed as the Director General/Chief Executive Officer of National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA). How did you feel about your appointment then and how has the journey been so far?
Well, all praise be to Allah for making it possible. It is something that I would like to say it’s a call to national assignment. And if you are called to national assignment, you have to try as much as possible to do your best. And if you have to try to do your possible best, you have to go extra miles to see that you have done that. And that is what I have been doing. I cannot assess myself for now until maybe after a tenure people will assess me. But having said that, I’m sure the people of NABDA have seen development since I came into office for good one year. That is what I’m happy about. I have brought changes.
What is the mandate of the National Biotechnology Development Agency?
The National Biotechnology Development Agency is a research institution – a research institution that focuses on biotechnology. Biotechnology is a scientific technique that when deployed can change the whole country cutting across health, environment, agriculture, industry, drug discovery and many more. We are a research institute saddled with the responsibility of research and deploying that research to see to the development of our nation. That is the mandate of the National Biotechnology Development Agency.
In the last one year, what specific steps have you taken to reposition NABDA for greater efficiency and better performance?
That is a good question. If you are in a research institute, there are basic things that are supposed to be available. There has to be the laboratory. When you have the laboratory, you have to have equipment. And when you have the equipment you have to have basic amenities such as water and light which are very, very essential. When I came in, the source of light was diesel. We changed it to a priority line with the help of the electricity distribution company. And now we are having at least 22 hours per day of light. And this is a big achievement.
Without light you cannot achieve anything. The researchers know that. Water supply is now constant. And then I made sure that there is internet. These are the basic things. And we moved a step forward to acquire equipments. This is also a very important aspect. Another thing is training. People must have training. I have granted approval to many people that have gone for PhD and Masters to improve their knowledge so we can have more researchers to be able to deliver on our mandate. These are the basic things that we’ve done. And one fundamental thing to be honest with you when I came in to NABDA I found out that they don’t have an Act enabling the agency.
This is a big challenge, for an agency to exist for 20 years without an Act enabling it. I felt it was high time for us to have one. And so, I took up the challenge and made moves to see that the Act comes into being. And as it is now we have an Act that has been passed by the Lower House (House of Representatives) and it has been sent to the Upper House (Senate) for concurrence. By extension we are waiting for assent by Mr. President immediately after the concurrence by the Upper House. So, this is a big achievement. And these are the bedrocks of achievements in the research institute. You have to have law, you have to have basic amenities and you have to have training. And this is what I have put in place for this one year that I have been in office. And we have many more that are following.
What difference would the enabling Act bring in the operations and activities of the agency when it comes into force after the assent of Mr. President?
You see, whatever you are doing as a research institute, there are some boundaries. There are some limitations and there are some pros and cons. When you have an Act in place, it means you have a direction. You know where you are going. You have a focus. You are working to achieve certain goals based on the Act. But without the Act, you are just floating. And now when we have this Act signed then we have a straight direction where we can focus our energy and move forward. Although we have already started working with the anticipation that an Act will be signed very soon. But having an Act will be a great morale booster for the staff. It will encourage them to have confidence that they are working and have something that is legally backing them.
How have you taken the issue of staff welfare since you came on board?
Since I assumed office we are trying to see that staff welfare is a priority. When I came in I have tried to see what I could do to provide transport for the staff. But there is shortage of funds. I’m still struggling to see that I get transport for the staff that are coming from town. There are some people that are living far away. To alleviate their suffering and to make them more comfortable and happy we need to have buses that are carrying staff from different destinations to the agency.
Also, staff welfare includes training. I have just told you that I have signed quite a lot of approvals for the masters and Phd programmes for the staff. I cannot give you a specific number but I know it is quite enormous. Staff welfare also involved having a conducive work environment. Light is there. The Internet is basic but it’s staff welfare as well. There are so many other things that we’re working on. We are struggling to have funding so that we can have in-house training for more of our staff. And even take them outside to get more skills and be exposed to what is being done elsewhere, so that they can bring the experience here to uplift the level of the institution. I’m working hard to get funding for that. And hopefully by 2022 we may be lucky to get something for that purpose.
Research institutes like you have rightly noted require huge funding. How have you been handling the funding challenge of the agency?
Well, it’s something that is being given by the government. But I’m trying to make a case and I’m pushing for it. Hopefully the funding will improve.
Was sufficient funds allocated to your agency in the 2022 proposed budget?
Around N1.6 billion is what is being proposed for the agency in the 2022 budget for capital expenditure. That is what is budgeted for activities. And the remaining is just for salary. Honestly, N1.6 billion is not enough for a research institute which will drive the economy of the country in the area of industry, medicine, health, agriculture, environment and so on. We have a lot to do. A lot! So, we need more funding.
To what extent has your agency added value to the growth of the Nigerian economy?
To a very large extent! So many ways. I just signed an MoU with the Rural Electrification Agency. And it is as a result of a research output that is from NABDA. We fabricated the biodigester and we invented a technology that is going to be used in the biodigester. What will it do? It is transforming waste to wealth. That waste when it is added into the biodigester and the technology added then it will generate a gas. That gas is going to generate energy and it is going to be used in the rural communities.
It will give employment to quite a lot of people, bring about a cleaner environment and then bring energy to the rural communities. This is a very big tremendous achievement. The Rural Electrification Agency saw the opportunity and came to encourage us in what we are doing. Also, we have in partnership released BT Cowpea which is beans given to Nigerian people. Recently, I think about six months ago we launched it in Kano. That is something that we have given to Nigerians. There is something that is called Maruca (an insect pest) that is devastating the cowpea and this always results in low yield for the farmers. That is why the farmers are running away from farming the cowpea because of the huge loss. You cannot continue to produce something that will not give you profit.
But the BT Cowpea is resistant to Maruca. You know we are the largest producer of cowpea in the whole world. We also are the largest consumers. So, with the BT Cowpea you are helping to boost food and nutrition security, boost the economy and boost the skills of the farmers. And that is something that we should be proud of. Also recently we have in collaboration with some agencies produced something that is of great importance towards uplifting the economy of the country.
That is the TELA Maize project. This maize that is brought to the Nigerian people is the maize that is resistant to drought and resistant to insects. And you know even this year we have experienced drought in some parts of the north. And that hampered agricultural productivity. But this maize (Tela Maise) will go a long way to stand against the drought and you can have a bumper harvest.
All these insects that are devastating the crop are no longer going to affect the crop. Not less than 17% bumper harvest is recorded when you try this in the field trial. With this maize you are now bringing a huge economic value chain to the country – because maize is being used in so many aspects of the economy. Be it feeds for animals, food that you eat and a lot of commodities. So, you can see these are the few things that we have done and we are still doing quite a lot and we are bringing it to the people of Nigeria.
Does your agency have a direct relationship with the Nigerian farmers?
Oh yes, we do have direct relationships with them. You know we are a research institute. They come and tell us the problem they are facing. And we take it upon ourselves that yes this problem is for us to solve. We collaborate with our partners both nationally and internationally and we come together to see that we solve the problem. Just like what I have told you with the Tela maize, that is the maize project. And we are now also working on rice. We are also working on Soyabean. We are trying to see that we bring Soyabean to the table of Nigerians where farmers will have quality seeds that they can plant in their farms for them to get a bumper harvest.
How involved is NABDA in global biotech?
Well, we have relationships with so many countries that are into biotechnology. We have relationship with Cuba. You know recently they have produced the vaccine that is being given to their people. Cuba is one of the countries that was ravaged by COVID-19. But they have produced about three vaccines and they are now collaborating with us so that we can have the technology and produce it here. We have relationship with the World health Organisation (WHO). We are working on so many things on the medical line including the vaccine itself.
We have collaboration with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. We have collaboration with some universities. We have collaboration with Morocco. We just signed an MoU with the government of Morocco and we are deploying technologies that are going to be domesticated and then made available to Nigerians. We are collaborating with so many institutions like the ICGEB. We are working with so many universities here in Nigeria and outside the country. We are collaborating with Michigan State University. We are collaborating in order to deploy biotechnology to the Nigerian people for their benefit.
On the domestic front, what level of partnership are you having with sister agencies and organisations?
We do have sister agencies that we are working with. We have IAR (Institute for Agricultural Research) Zaria. We have the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria, the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Environment. We have the National Biosafety Management Agency. We have the Seed Council of Nigeria. We have quite a lot of institutions that we are working with. We have six centres of excellence in the universities that we are collaborating with directly. This is just to see that we work hand in hand with university professors that have experience in biotechnology to bring up commodity that is very helpful to the Nigerian people. We are even working with the Biotechnology Society of Nigeria. We are working with so many associations.
Do you get funding support from donor agencies?
Well, we have few donor agencies that are supporting us like the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. They are supporting us. We have the International Centre for Genetic Engineering Biotechnology, ICGEB, in Italy and they are supporting us.
Are you getting the needed support from your supervisory ministry – the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology?
Definitely, we are getting maximum support. The minister is very, very supportive and I appreciate and I like working with him. He is a gentleman to the core. He has vision. He is always talking about how do we accomplish the mission and vision of NABDA. And that is giving me a lot of courage. The minister of state is very helpful, likewise the permanent secretary. We have a good working relationship with all the people in the ministry.
In the next ten years where do you think NABDA would be as far as biotechnology is concerned?
In the next ten years, and this is what is going to happen, I tell you that the National Biotechnology Development Agency through research and development will contribute not less than 30% to the GDP of this country because of what we are producing in agriculture. What we are going to produce in medicine. What we will be producing in environment is going to be huge, huge, huge development to the country. And by doing this research and by bringing it to the table, I am envisaging that not less than 30% of the GDP as a result of our research will come out of these biotechnology products.
What would be your words of encouragement to the staff who have been working with you assiduously for the success of the agency?
I would like to thank all the staff that are doing the work in this agency, because without them we cannot achieve this goal. I would encourage them to do more. Definitely the staff are the ones making NABDA proud and I am proud of them. Let them continue to engage in researches that are going to contribute to the development of the agency and Nigeria at large.