A Gift From The Gods

A Gift From The Gods
Photo By Nicole N, Belgium

Thursday, May 14, 2009

'Egypt and Nigeria Have Much to Learn From Each Other '

Hamisu Muhammad and Aisha Umar
14 May 2009

Professor Maged M. Al-Sherbiny, Assistant Minister for Scientific Research, Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education, in Nigeria for a conference organised by Commission for Science and Technology (COMSAT), of which Nigeria is a member, tells Daily Trust's Hamisu Muhammad and Aisha Umar how Egypt became the country producing the highest seeds of rice per acre, among other issues.

What is the purpose of your visit to Nigeria?
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I came for the conference by the Commission for Science and Technology (COMSAT). Members of this commission include Nigeria, Egypt, Brazil, Iran, Pakistan, Uganda, Kenya, Jamaica, China and many others. The Commission was established 40 years ago to coordinate centres of excellence among the member countries. For instance, in Nigeria there is Mathematical Centre, while in Egypt we have Centre of Biotechnology. These centres usually meet every year to review how far they have gone in exchanging scientists and expertise.

What does the consultative meeting of COMSAT entail?
We use it to plan for the future, to strategies the commission. This is a forum that collects all the south countries working in science and technology to benefit from each other in various experiences and knowledge. The COMSAT headquarters is in the Islamabad, Pakistan. Importantly, Egypt and Nigeria relate well. We are working together on low to harness medium technology for alleviating poverty and improving agriculture and high-tech technology; because Nigeria has a lot of satellites in the earth orbit and Egypt has too. There is an African forum for dealing between different countries called AMCOST, meaning African Ministers Conference on Science and Technology. Nigeria and Egypt play a crucial role in it.

Is there any MOU to sign between the two countries now that you are here?
There is a general MOU between Egypt and Nigeria which allows the platform to operate. Recently there is an MOU signed between Nigerian Institute of Standard and Egyptian Institute of Standard. In Egypt we have a well of experience in that sector. So with that MOU we can work together and harmonise on the methodology of standardisation and measures, and Egypt has very good experience, in that we have well reorganised international centre for that and we are giving our expertise for Nigeria to benefit from. That is how we go for every specific project we are working on.

You talked about the Biotechnology Centre in Egypt. In Nigeria there are efforts to develop the sector but there are fears of the likely effects of applying Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) in some products.
How do you treat that in Egypt?
You don't need that. Biotechnology is not only about Genetically Modified Organism. As a product it can enhance your productivity, to make tissue culture, it is very good for pharmaceutical products, agriculture, domestic product, vaccines, better seeds, and better quality products without genetic modification.
In Egypt we have excelled without genetically modified organism in the field of agriculture. Now, we are able to produce crops through bio natural selection and tissue culture. In Egypt we are able to reach crop like rice that can give 12 tonnes per acre. Usually the average is four tonnes per acre. As we speak, Egypt has the highest seeds of crop in Rice per acre more than any country in the world.
We are collaborating with Nigeria on achieving such level. Also, we have maize and we are focusing on the economic crops and wheat so that we can stop importing them from outside. Biotechnology can help you produce more, repel diseases and reduce degree of loss of water.

Do you have any plan to assist Nigeria in biotechnology development?
We are in contact all the time. We are, for instance, developing science parks and Nigeria is developing science parks and we are with UNESCO and Nigeria working in developing these science parks. In Biotechnology, Egypt has held two conferences on the COMSAT and Nigerian scientists and delegates visited our Biotechnology Centre and added more to their experiences.
Nigeria is trying to develop capacity in space technology. Egypt has already gained some experiences in it.

Nigeria lost its satellite in the orbit recently. How do you view that development?
You are at a learning process. To implement technology you have to suffer some failures and achieve some successes. Anyhow, good planning and investment in human capacity are important. I know that Nigeria is building capacity of about 70 to 80 experts in space technology and it is a good step. Also, you need to encourage education that will create more of these experts in the future. And you will need to host such experts in a place that can make them more innovative. It is good to continue doing that to be able to implement the technology by yourselves. This is the approach we took in Egypt: we built two satellites, one put into orbit, the other replicated on the ground, so that we know exactly what is going on.
We intend to be able to build the next satellite ourselves, with major components coming from our local companies. The main purpose is not just to send the satellite into orbit and leave it, because if you want it that way, it is easy. You can send it and continue to get the data you want, but the idea is, we want to implement the technology ourselves.
The West has good industries for two reasons: one, because they conquered the space; two, because they have advanced military technology. Most of the technologies we are using today are coming either from space or military technology.

What is the purpose of your satellite?
It's for remote sensing. We have cameras that can be loaded on aeroplanes and some on the ground. The idea is to look at the demographic changes of your country, to look at agriculture, lakes, population expansion, areas that could be developed, and productivity of your crops, because there are cameras that can tell you that this crop will yield this amount in so, so areas, and whether a lake is good for fishing or not. All these are tools that can be used to improve the life of a people.

How much progress have you made in information technology?
Before information technology you need to talk about infrastructure. Electricity is crucial. You need sustainable source of energy. On IT, we have gone a long way. We have several satellites of communication, we have huge past internet and internet grading, Our number of mobile phone is rising rapidly. We are approaching 47 million mobile phones out of the 77 million people. Internet users are expanding too. These are key tools in IT. You utilise them in various fields: in medicine, agriculture, and the rest.

In your view, what should Nigeria learn from Egypt?
Lots. We will learn as well. Nigeria has a great deal of good indigenous knowledge inherited from culture. We can exchange things like indigenous medicine remedies but not exploited in the level of pharmaceutical industries. We can work on aquatic culture, in agriculture, to increase our productivity. You have unique land with good resources of water and we have good experience in that and you have exploited a lot of plants that we don't in Egypt. So, there is room for exchange, I believe, in areas like agriculture, water resources, medicine, and space technology.

Is there any collaboration between Nigerian universities and the ones in Egypt?
Yes, we have a very active embassy here, and the Ambassador in Nigeria, His Excellency Sharif Nagib, and a lot of people in the embassy are working to promote corporation between universities. They are planning an event now to bring together all the universities in Egypt to show to Nigerians what we have in Egypt because everybody is working now towards internationalisation of education. Every year, Egypt offers 400 scholarships to African countries, paid for by the Egyptian Government, to learn in Egypt. Al Azhar is one of the universities where a lot of Nigerians are learning. We maintain this relationship because we believe the people that benefit from the system are going to be the leaders in future.

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