Gifts for innovation, from France to Nigeria – Punch Newspapers

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Greg Odogwu
A fortnight ago, the French Government awarded €150,000 research grants to indigenous researchers from five Nigerian universities. Each of them got €30,000 to support innovative projects under “Research in Health, Innovation, Information and Artificial Intelligence.”
The Ambassador of France to Nigeria, Mrs Emmanuelle Blatmann, handed over the prize remittance to the principal investigators of the projects who are: Dr Patrick Okonji, principal investigator for the University of Lagos project entitled, “A telemedicine approach for equitable access to quality eye care in remote rural areas of Lagos, Nigeria”; Prof Oluyemisi Folasire, representing the principal investigator for the University of Ibadan project entitled, “Gestational Blood Sugar Tracker: An innovative method for the detection, prevention and treatment of Gestational Diabetes Mellitus ”; Prof Omolola Irinoye, principal investigator for the Obafemi Awolowo University project entitled, “E-health systems for strengthening health literacy, promotion, screening and health care access for population groups in Osun State”; Prof Amir Bature, principle investigator for the Bayero University Kano project entitled, “Detection of Malaria parasite in Blood Smear Microscopy using Artificial Intelligence”; and Prof Hayward Mafuyaih, principal investigator for the University of Jos project entitled, “Web-based Malaria Information System.”
The implementation phase which will last up to December 2023, is expected to have final outcomes that must be sustainable and replicable to the larger scale of the nation. It is worthy of note that the themes of innovative ICTs and artificial intelligence are timely. To be specific, with the country still reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, a national adaptation of these projects would certainly help Nigeria tap from the manifest gains of the virtual space, which has become an alternative to the real-time working space.
Let us take a look at two of the projects above. Dr Okonji of UNILAG heads the telemedicine innovation which would utilise the grant to provide access to eye-care services in the remote rural villages of Lagos. The grant would help to develop and install a portable, user-friendly telemedicine application and video conferencing system for remote consultation, diagnosis, and treatment of eye diseases in identified rural locations in Lagos (Badagry, Epe, and Ikorodu), and serve difficult-to-reach groups that are experiencing barriers to accessing eye-care. The project is expected to serve as a model for the configuration of telemedicine services in other rural areas of Nigeria.

Now, when we consider the fact that Nigeria has a very abysmal ratio of patients to eye-care professionals, we can then appreciate what it would mean to drastically reduce the heavy financial burden, physical stress, and inconvenience often incurred by patients travelling from rural areas to city metropolis for eye-care services. Indeed, a lot of citizens with eye problems that could have been salvaged have lost their sight because of lack of Ophthalmologists in their vicinity.

Sadly, Nigeria has a ratio of one ophthalmologist to fifty thousand citizens compared to the global standard of one ophthalmologist to five hundred citizens. Hence, Dr Okonji explained that the project would also nurture and facilitate the development of a network of eye-care professionals for efficient and effective partnerships in the delivery of quality eye-care.
The second project is at the University of Jos, web-based malaria information system, which seeks to mainstream artificial intelligence in health care management. According to the principal investigator, Prof Mafuyaih, it is a machine-learning algorithm that will take the data on ground, calculate it and use it to predict the trend of Malaria. In this way, data fidelity is assured for health commissioners, health workers and programme managers in their task of prediction, utilisation, implementation and monitoring of structural health care interventions.

Interestingly, this is not the first time the French Government is doing this. Between 2019 and 2020, the French Embassy in Nigeria had leveraged opportunities for collaboration on climate change, under the Research and Innovation in Adapting to Climate Change in Nigeria Project, which strengthened the research systems of some select tertiary institutions in Nigeria. The project also promoted Nigerian intra-university cooperation and the formation of local groupings in the area of climate change research.
Seven Nigerian universities were involved in the AIRACC project, namely: University of Lagos, Alex Ekwueme Federal University, University of Ibadan, Bayero University, Kano University of Science and Technology, University of Jos and Ebonyi State University. In June 2019, researchers from these institutions submitted 7 multidisciplinary group research proposals on the topic of climate change. Three of those proposals (one of which must benefit women in Nigeria) were selected in November 2019, and funded by the French Embassy in Nigeria in 2020.
In my view, the most fundamental of that intervention was the “Fablab workshop”, when the embassy trained 17 engineers and lecturers from five Nigerian universities. The Fablabs were particularly conceived for designing solutions to adapt to climate change. By definition, a fabrication laboratory, “fab lab” for short, is a small-scale workshop offering personal digital fabrication. It is typically equipped with an array of flexible computer-controlled tools that cover several different length scales and various materials, with the aim to make “almost anything.”

This includes technology-enabled products generally perceived as limited to mass production. While fablab has yet to compete with mass production and its associated economies of scale in fabricating widely distributed products, they have already shown the potential to empower individuals to create smart devices for themselves. These devices can be tailored to local or personal needs in ways that are not practical or economical using mass production.
Dr Amir Bature of Bayero University Kano gave an incisive testimonial, saying, “We have achieved three things with the French intervention in 2020. The first is the awareness campaign of the importance of trees in rural villages; after which we planted more than 200 trees with the villagers and they gave us commitment they would be watering the trees and would not be using trees as firewood anymore. The second is using the fab lab equipment in the Faculty of Engineering. We designed a solar cooker using foil paper, which is a solar concentrator, and we demonstrated after the fabrication. The third is intervention in health. We went to the village where they did not have access to real doctors. We set up an ill-health platform, whereby from there in the rural areas, using the software we developed, they talk to a real doctor who can be in the city or anywhere in the world. Before then, it was only untrained local health practitioners they depended on. But because of our project, developed through the French intervention, the lives of the rural dwellers were totally transformed.
“In addition, there are a lot of other things we were able to achieve with the fab lab. Even the French Embassy came to see where my students and I built a weather station. The equipment was able to read temperature.”

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