Steering Innovation

And he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze (Exodus 35:31-32)

Modern civilization is the product of man’s continuous striving to meet dire needs and solve problems. Primitive men forged bows and arrows, tamed oxen and horses, and invented hoes and cutlasses to solve the problems of security, transportation and food. Even languages were invented in a bid to solve challenges in communication and commerce. Inventions in medicine are responses to the problem of disease and the quest for survival. As it is commonly said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

It is the creative ingenuity of man in response to life problems that usually paves way for innovation. Unlike invention, innovation is about changing a common or long-standing process by improving it; it is applying existing ideas in uncommon ways. And few things spur innovation like sink or swim situations that force us to reexamine the status quo more critically.

In the early 18th century, the economies in the deep South of America, which depended heavily on cotton, were facing a crisis. A boll weevil infestation swept through the South destroying cotton crops and leaving farmers devastated, which forced a diversification led by one man – George Washington Carver. Carver conducted several researches that brought alternative crops like peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes to the fore. He showed farmers across the south new and different methods of farming, and created countless products from peanuts. George Washington Carver’s innovations saved the entire economy of the South.


Karnaphuli Paper Mills in then Eastern Pakistan. After over a million dollars in investment, the operators of the mill suddenly realized the bamboo they needed to produce paper had flowered and died. Their entire investment was threatened, and so they were forced to find alternative sources – they were forced to innovate.

They initiated a research program and found faster-growing species of bamboo to replace the dead forests. They found other kinds of lumber that worked just as well. The result was that the industrial plant was blessed with a far more diversified base of raw materials than had ever been imagined.

With oil prices now below $30 and the reality of our depleted external reserves, it is clear the Nigerian people and leadership are faced with a tough challenge. But what we are also faced with, in reality, is an opportunity for new thinking. Imagine how radical a departure we will be taking from oil dependency to building a more robust economy, if we poured resources and genuine effort into modernizing the agricultural sector, empowering the information communication technology and service sectors, and developing an effective means of collecting and deploying taxes.

Indonesia, our OPEC colleague, did something interesting. They looked inwards. Following the 1985 oil glut when their oil export earnings dropped from 75 percent to 20 percent, they diversified. Today Indonesia has become a big exporter of labor-intensive manufactures such as textiles and footwear as well as of primary-resource-based items like palm oil and wood products.

I see Nigeria going in the same direction in the next couple of years. This moment calls for all hands to be on deck. If it took a hitherto ordinary citizen like George Washington Carver to revolutionize the economy of the South, then no contribution is too small and no one is too obscure to make a difference. We encourage the government to encourage programs that will motivate all and enable anyone with innovative ideas to contribute their quota.  There is no better time to wean ourselves off oil than now. We have the talent and capacity to invent new ways of forging ahead. Let us make this moment count.


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