From 2016, 2017 and 2018, foreigners have accounted for about 80, 60, and 80 percent of the total patents granted in Nigeria. Nigeria’s low investment in scientific research has seen foreigners continue to dominate the country’s patent activities since 2011. The trend is unlikely to change given that the country’s entire budget of N157 billion for the Ministry of Science and Technology is still below the average spend on research by countries in Africa.

It also means Nigerians with aspirations for scientific research and innovations that are patentable will not get the support they need any time soon. In the past, this lack of support has contributed to Nigerians moving to countries with robust support for scientific research activities leaving the home field for foreigners who can fund their own research.

The foreigners – referred to as ‘non-residents,’ in a World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) data, received 686, 300, and 642 patent grants in 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively, compared to residents that got 200, 252 and 200 in the same period. Diaspora contribution to patent activities is not significant compared to peers like South Africa and Kenya. For instance, patent grants to diaspora Nigerians within the period were at 2, 11 and 5, whereas South Africa recorded 835, 992 and 862.

Although Nigeria has an enviable digital footprint with teledensity hitting 207 million in November 2020, it has often come at a very huge cost to the country’s economy, as almost all the technologies driving the digital boom are imported from countries with strong research industries. Nigeria’s lag is not for want of human capital in science, some experts who spoke with BusinessDay said. There are hundreds of Nigerians working in well-recognised research facilities across the world and within the country in facilities sponsored by foreign institutions. In 2020, scientists at the Redeemer’s University were the first in Africa to determine the DNA of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) and through their research found seven lineages unique to Nigeria of the virus.

The problem, according to the experts, has been that the Nigerian government has not paid particularly serious attention to scientific research. The country spent N2.5 billion on research in 2018, an expense a scientist in the US incurs in fixing his or her lab. South Africa spent about $20 billion on research in the same year.

Poor financial support is largely why scientists in the country are not motivated enough to make new discoveries or apply their minds to innovations that are patentable. “Patent means nothing when you don’t have enough science activities. We are not scientific. We have a very good patent system, but foreigners are the ones benefiting from our patent policy. Most of the research in Nigeria is led by foreigners and many of them are initiated outside the country. Nigeria’s innovation space is governed by a Patent and Designs Act that was formulated in 1971 and has never been reviewed since then.

“What is happening with startups is not technology. It is the application of science, writing code on somebody’s platform is not tech. People need to understand this. We are not building software or the value chain, but we are doing it on the cloud so we can build an enterprise. Tech is the application of science. What have we been doing with science? The country is not doing enough,” Okoye said.

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