Tech Girls: Of Over-celebrated Villains and Underrated Heroes, By Zainab Suleiman Okino

You will expect a nation with a barrage of negative news and reputational baggage to revel in a few things that put us ahead of others and project the country in a good light. Not so with Nigeria.

Amidst the battle for supremacy among politicians in the race for the 2019 elections, came the exhilarating news of five Nigerian girls who wrote the country’s name (and theirs too) in the golden map of tech-innovation in the United States of America (USA).

For these girls — Promise Nnalue, Jessica Osita, Nwabuaku Ossai, Adaeze Onuigbo and Vivian Okoye, all from Regina Pacis Secondary School, Onitsha, Anambra State, they spent five months in researching and developing an app and defeated the representatives of other technologically giant countries, including the U.S.A, Spain, Turkey, Uzbekistan and China, to clinch the gold medal in a Technovation Challenge that featured 2000 competing applications in San Francisco, USA. Although 115 countries participated in the qualifiers, only 12 teams from all over the world made it to the finals.

Under the mentorship of Uchenna Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu, the founder of Edufun Technik STEM Centre and within the context of their local community and a problem that ails it, the girls developed the mobile app to tackle the challenge of fake drugs. Code-named, “FD Detector”, the girls pitched their app story creatively, that it could help in fighting the menace of fake drugs in Nigeria, its largest market. Being the first time that Nigeria would get to the finals the challenge and having the opportunity to visit Silicon Valley, California, the world’s IT capital, the girls and their mentoring platform sought to also use the occasion to get investors to buy into the app idea.

According to available information, “Technovation is a programme that offers girls around the world the opportunity to learn the programming skill they need to emerge as tech-entrepreneurs and leaders. Every year, girls are invited to identify a problem in their communities and then are challenged to solve them by developing applications that would address those problems”. Apart from winning the competition, it came as a breath of fresh air from Nigeria to the world, whose only recollections about Nigerian girls in the last few years have been the unfortunate abduction of Chibok girls by Boko Haram in 2014 and Dapchi girls last year, the rape of women and girls in IDP camps and daily abuse of minors, the vulnerable and poor, without many of the perpetrators facing prosecution and being brought to book.

But for the vice president, Yemi Osinbajo’s tweet congratulating the girls and Anambra State governor, Willy Obiano’s brief send-forth ceremony, where he charged the girls to put Nigeria and Africa on the global map with their talent, there would not have been any official recognition of their effort by the Nigerian government. In a tweet, showing the pictures of the girls, the VP said: “these young ladies in a junior secondary school, developed a mobile application called FD Detector to tackle the problems of fake pharmaceutical products in Nigeria. Yesterday, they won the 2018 Technovation World Pitch in California, Congratulations! We are very proud of you”, the VP wrote.

Notwithstanding the VP’s tweet, I can almost bet without equivocation that, that is where it will end. In any case, the VP tweeted in his personal capacity, without any policy statement on what the Nigerian government will do to encourage the girls and patent the app for commercial purpose and use by relevant government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs). The Ministry of Science and Technology and the Nigeria Information and Technology Agency (NITDA), the possible regulators of the new concept, and equally the Ministry of Health and National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), perhaps the end users, have also kept mute.

In a country so polarised, a few points of convergence such as in football, and the feat achieved by these youngsters is a symbolic rallying point. They may hold the key to our technological break-through; who knows. The country is divided along so many fault-lines; and it is only in a few cases like football, as earlier mentioned, that we get together without questions of where did this or that person come from? What’s his religion? Is he protestant or Catholic, Sunni or Shiite? Latching on successes like this also have the capacity to unite us; that is, for a government that places premium on human capital development and technological innovation anyway.

Nigeria is not technologically advanced, not because we do not have clear-headed, talented and innovative creators, but because there has never been deliberate encouragement from the government, with a proper policy framework that practically supports innovation. Even the media mention of the girls’ exploits has been scanty. Yet, we pay lip service to girl-child education and technology. I have no doubt that a lot of media blitz would have taken place, if government officials had been involved with the full compliment of television crews from different stations; all of who will collect estacodes and come back home to show their faces on television, while government spokespersons would make a big capital out of it as one of the achievements of the Buhari government, and then the chapter will be closed. That’s how we roll in Nigeria. That is why we import everything, including tooth picks, and it is the reason why the production of pencil is celebrated as a big achievement by the government.

The frustration arising from unrecognised innovations and research works gathering dust in our universities and research institutes is responsible for the brain drain disrupting all facets of our growth and development. Right now, the only thing that matters to those elected to provide leadership and policies towards the development of the country is the battle for re-election, Senate President Bukola Saraki’s impeachment (to be or not to be) and defections to PDP or APC.

The fight for power and supremacy goes on; but in the mix, Nigerians are pitching their tents and choosing who to hero-worship or disparage. And in doing that, we celebrate the wrong people, who do not add any value to the country or our lives as a people. Therefore, it won’t be a surprise if the success story of the tech-girls in the U.S. fizzles out like all such impactful efforts of the past, while stories of villains doting our political space continue to dominate headlines.

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Categories: Column, Opinion

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