Akin Jimoh: 00:10
Hello, welcome to Science in Africa, a Nature Careers podcast series. I am Akin Jimoh, chief editor of Nature Africa. I work and live in Lagos, and I'm passionate about promoting science and public health journalism in my native Nigeria and across Africa.
In this series, we explore the practice of science in this wonderful continent, the progress, the issues, the needs, and in the words of the the African scientists who are based here.
In this second episode we meet Professor Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian virologist with decades of experience.
He previously worked for the World Health Organization, and now acts as a government adviser on disease outbreaks and epidemics.
I want to know how has science changed in the postcolonial era. First, I asked him about the general state of science in Africa today.
Oyewale Tomori 01:18
I see signs in Africa, like islands of excellence, in a few different countries. You take the whole of Africa - like a desert - and you have areas of excellence. In South Africa, maybe Kenya, perhaps Senegal, and up in the northern parts of Africa, Tunisia, Algeria. But basically, the rest is blank.
And incidentally, a lot of these centres I'm talking about, have a lot of foreign input. Not coming in from, you know, within the African governments itself.
And so we look at the centre in Kenya, you find a lot of Wellcome Trust from UK. You look at the one in Senegal, it’s more like Institut Pasteur, from Paris.
Maybe South Africa is doing better than others, altthough they do get some foreign support. Not much input from the African governments. But generally that is the situation of science in Africa.
Akin Jimoh: 02:22
Let's talk a little bit about you. When and how did you become a scientist?
Oyewale Tomori 02:28
Unfortunately, when we were growing up, there was no, no counsellor. There was no kind of counseling, you know, anything that came from our people. You kind of became your own counsellor yourself.
Or you look at people around you, and you decide, “Oh, I like that lawyer.” So I must be a lawyer. Or “I like the journalist, that's the kind of thing I want to do.”
My elder brother, who was like, a role model for me, did engineering. And I actually thought I was going to end up doing engineering.
Akin Jimoh: 03:07
At around what time was this?
Oyewale Tomori 03:09
I was looking at the years in the late ‘50s, after I finished at the primary school.
Akin Jimoh: 03:11
I wasn't born then.
Oyewale Tomori 03:13
So it was like, you know, it's soon after independence, OK, put it that way, you know, between 59-60. After about ‘66 or so.Those six years, where you're in secondary school, and you're trying to find out where you go from there. Most of that were influenced by what we see around us, maybe your brother, your relation, or somebody you admire, who is into something, and then you said, “That's the kind of thing I want to be.” Because I was good in chemistry, physics and other sort of things.
And all those are combined to go and do medicine. So I thought, “Maybe I'll go ahead and go for medicine, human medicine.” But for political reasons, and other situations in the in the secondary school I went to, it didn't work out that well.
And so my final result was not as good as it should be. Therefore, I couldn't get admission into human medicine. So that was good enough to go to other courses. And then not too many people were going in there. So I ended up reading veterinary medicine, up in Zarya.
And in a way, I ended up actually back into human medicine because of an accident of nature. Let me put it that way. When we had the epidemic, outbreak of Lassa fever, in 1969.
Akin Jimoh: 04:30
Years later now, will you say you made the right decision or turning point?
Oyewale Tomori 04:37
I couldn't have made a better decision. Because (if you call it a decision), because I think things were happening, and I was just following, without really thinking whether I was participating in it.
I always say that I had divine guidance, being led along the line. I couldn't have a more exciting life than I've had working with viruses. And in Nigeria and other other parts of the world.I can be glad. And I thank all those guys.
Akin Jimoh: 05:05
You know, the years you mentioned close to independence. I mean, I know that those days, everybody was virtually a farmer.
And I'm guessing you are the son of a farmer, maybe a cocoa farmer, and then you went to school.
You know, we were told you have to go to the farm to help fathers, and so on and so forth. Are there stories behind the story that pushes you from being a farm boy, to even going to school in the first instance?
Oyewale Tomori 05:36
In fact, you said it. In those days, farming was the major thing. And the big people were the farmers. And they wanted big families, like they had farmhands, instead of hiring people.
So you take all your children, hopefully you go work on your farm, and then, you know, they found the company and they can continue the work. Then a good government came in, that was the government of Obafemi Awolowo, who introduced free primary education, and compulsory, which meant if you didn't send your child to school, the alternative was prison.
So my father actually preferred to send me to school, than go to prison. So that's how I entered in my town, into primary school.
And that was what we had at that time. So I think it was that good governance, that made a difference, which I always say, I'm very proud of my country.
I never studied outside this country. All my education was here. Of course, when you want to do a postdoc, you go out to another country. But basically all of my study was done in this country.
And the country provided the enabling environment for all that to happen. And that's why I said, you know, sometimes I keep saying that, I owe this country more than I can ever pay back. But the generation now can’t say that because the country has abandoned them.
Akin Jimoh: 06:55
So how will you say the business of science has changed in Africa since you were a student?
Oyewale Tomori 07:01
During the period, I mean, foundations were laid during the colonial era, MRC in Fujairah, in Gambia, the Kemri (what became Kemri in Kenya) The Uganda virus Research Institute, the Institut Pasteur set up in Senegal, and other places. So they were fortunately relics, good relics, and of the colonial past.
And you find that many of us are the ones that stayed at home, very few are going outside into the diaspora, because you had a good environment, you grew up in that environment. And it was easy to stay there.
In fact, in those days, very few Nigerians would take up an international job, because the currency was as strong as the dollar, even more strong than the dollar. So for you to give me a job outside, I need double the amount of salary you pay me, and then allowed to do that away from my family away from all the resources.
So many of us never really took up international jobs. We just stayed on because things were good. And we must admit that. But somewhere along the line we lost track with all the changes of government, military coups, and all those kinds of things.
But like I said, we lost that somewhere down the line when, quote, politics came in. And therefore science lost its position, and got relegated to nothingness.
And we now got economists and people who are more interested in (is it) general revenue generation, bringing dollars to the country. It is not oil that was bringing goods, then forget it. So you don't put anything into it. But then health was not, according to them, generating revenue for the country.
But then the greatest error many people made was that all you require, all of the revenue generated by oil, all you require is one disease to wipe everything out. And if you don't, it's like if you didn't take care of health, all of the revenue regeneration over the years from other sources will be wiped out.
See what COVID has done to the world. And that's the situation. So I think we didn't learn enough that you needed a healthy population. You need the health of the people to be able to maintain and sustain your economic growth.
Akin Jimoh: 09:23
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the continent hard. I will talk about Africa's response in a later episode.
The lack of investment in science, and in this case health, exposed the fragile foundations that Nigerian society was built on.
So I wanted to know where do we go from here? How do we advance science in Africa?
In a number of countries we have academies of sciences. We have at the national level, We have at the continental level. We have a lot of professional associations in science. We have a lot of groups, we have foundations, and so on and so forth.
What role do you think these multi-various organizations can play in advancing science in Africa?
Oyewale Tomori 10:16
The ideal role for those groups is to be able to translate science to the ordinary requirements of the society.
Science was to be relevant to the needs of the people. If your science doesn't affect the life of your people, nobody cares about you. We scientists have not been able to impress upon the people our relevance to the day-to-day life of the people.
How does my research affect the clothes I'm wearing? How does it affect the house I'm living in? How does it affect the water I'm drinking? How does it affect the transportation, the road that I'm working on?
We've not done that. And that's why people have not seen us as relevant to their needs.
So the role of those academies and other societies will be to get on. They're doing fantastic research. But if you don't know your use, your relevance, then of course, you don't exist as far as they are concerned. So we need to go a step further.
Apart from doing the research, to be able to translate and inform the people about the research we're doing, how is it going to affect your life, and why you need the scientists.
Until we do that all the academies will just become academies of people who are wanting to get in there for personal aggrandizement, the honour of being a Fellow of the new days, you know, becomes, takes priority over the relevance to the needs of society.
Akin Jimoh: 11:50
So, are young scientists in the mix? I mean, are they in the mix of advancing science, you know, in Africa?
Oyewale Tomori 11:57
Yeah, (I think that) my generation is pegging out now. So it is the younger generation that is actually doing all the science. And like I always say, their generation has more knowledge. The way information flies now.
It’s not like it was in my time. If I needed to get a paper published somewhere I may have to write to the author who would then send it by post me. Now they can sit down in their room, you know, type it up and get all information there. So they have a lot of information at their disposal.
But are they using it? Again, the question back here, to make sure that all this work is translated for the good of society, to the relevance. To make them relevant to society becomes a major thing.
Now we are setting up what we call the Nigerian Young Academy, the global Young Academy. Every country is starting that to serve as a link between the older generation of scientists and the younger ones, in the hope that these people will take whatever it is that we had, modernize it with the current situation, and bring the best out of science for the people.
And that's the way it has to go. But they must realize that, you know, their relevance is not to the degree they're getting. It’s not to the promotion to get into university, but how to use their science to improve the socioeconomic situation in their country, to improve the life of the people, make life easier and better for the people. And that's the only way you can be relevant. And then people will appreciate you for what you do with your science
Akin Jimoh: 13:30
In terms of women scientists, in your days, it’s still your days. Now there are quite a number of issues in terms of career mobility, you know, juggling family, with research, and so on and so forth.
I can say that, in the way you look at Academies of Sciences, there are probably few women in the academies. Nigeria has, I think, presently, has the first president of an Academy, you know (since 1977).
So, what can you say about women in science, women in research? And how can we improve, you know, or increase the number of women who are into science, in terms of research and other areas?
Oyewale Tomori 14:16
I think we need to go back to the beginning. Why are women not in science? It started from way back. Women are not supposed to go to school. They're supposed to have babies and become family members. And that was what we grew up with.
I mean, I was mentioning to you that my father tried to have the ratio of four boys to one girl in his family, because as far as he was concerned, women were meant to be, when they grew up, marry somebody, produce babies, and and that's their job. So that was going on.
And that's why we didn't have many women, even in primary schools. So if you don't have women in primary schools, you can't get them in secondary school. You can't get them in university, and you can't get them to do science. But that has changed.
Things are changing now. Opportunities open for everybody, gender. I mean it could be better. But things are really moving, you know, quite well. But what was happening was that we had the backlog from the past. So they are just catching up. And they're catching up fast.
Take the Nigerian Academy of Sciences. It was started in 1977. There were very few women. But move from that time to now when a woman is a President Academic. It’s a step forward. And many, many more. In fact, in the last election, I think, out of almost the first four or five people who got elected were women. And so, progress has been made. But then we cannot catch up on the errors of the past. All countries that he's seen what is on is maintained, what is going on, and show that school is open to everybody.
And one interesting thing that you find. I spent 10 years, seven years at the university, and found out that virtually the best of the graduates, you know, the best graduate students, the ones with the first class, they are the women.
With me it is give everybody the same opportunity, they will excel as much as you see. Of course, there's also the idea that they have to take the extra duty of being wife, mother, which to me proves that they actually are much smarter than we are as men. We focus on “You go to work and sit down at home.”, but she does the same thing, goes back to take on the children.
And you don't you have all the opportunity to excel in your area. Because we don;t have that distraction.We must give kudos to the women. Now this is where I think the system should begin to look at how can the taking care of the children or the household chores be shared in such a way that everybody gets involved. Rather than giving it all to the women.
And look at the Nigerian banking sector today. I think six or seven of those banks are headed by women. I mean, they must be doing something to reach that level. So Nigeria should take advantage of that and make use of that. And Africa should take advantage of the women so that we can do much better than we are doing.
Akin Jimoh: 17:12
There was a time that everybody was worried about brain drain. And then at a point there was what was called Brain Gain.
How can scientists in the diaspora, how can they contribute to advancing science, or research, you know, in Africa?
Oyewale Tomori 17:31
Let me then say one day to this. I don't think we have reached the level of Brain Gain yet.
Brain Drain is what is still going on? I mean, let's not deceive ourselves.
The brain will drain to where it can be nurtured. If your environment does not mature the brain, the brain is not going to come back.
The people you're talking about in the diaspora are just parachuting in to see what can be done. It doesn’t work. They go back. So we're not really getting brain gain now I mean, that's my own opinion.
But we're still getting the brain drain. Why? Because it is not the human resource. It’s the environment where it functions that makes him decide to leave Nigeria to go to Europe, because they're the environment allows him to develop his type of capability.
I mean, I started by saying I could go anywhere in Nigeria, do my research without anything, although with backing from outside the environment was there to do the research, Nowadays, I mean, we just going through a period of new firmware assays on site. So add all that together, how are you going to do research in such a place. Which brain wants to come back to this kind of place?
So these are the problems. Until we room in create the enabling environment, and sustained in every environment, for the human capacity to function, we will get the capability that we're all familiar with them.
And I think that's the message I think we need to look at. We have not reached the level of Brain Gain yet. And I don't see any of them coming back into the environment where we are, when we cannot provide the simplest basic needs for science to thrive.
The ones that stay I thank them. I'm really quite happy that they are in spite of all the pressure. What they go through to get even done what they're done. If they are outside, they will do four or five times more. You order something in Europe, you order what you want, and you get it immediately.
Try it here. Six months, you're still waiting. Not because of other things, but because even the customs, getting foreign exchange. All those are things that make it difficult for you to get anything.
And so we certainly reach agreement with somebody outside the country. And we say okay, within the next two months or one year, we will finish this proposal.
I can't do my own side because there's no electricity there’s a strike, there is no function, then we disrupt the whole thing so nobody’s going to come back here.
We must improve the environment for science to thrive, we're not doing that, and we need to do that. Otherwise, you know, the brain will continue to drain, and we'll never get the brain back.
Akin Jimoh: 20:14
So we need to improve, you know, certain situation at the local, nationaland regional level across Africas..
Oyewale Tomori 20:21
Exactly. That's what I call the enabling environment. Yeah.
Akin Jimoh 20:26
Thank you so much. And we're very glad that were able to speak with you. Thank you.
I was surprised by Professor Tomori’s view, that in some ways, the colonial era was actually good for science.
We lost that because, he says, funding for science fell away. It was not generating revenue.
We need to pump those funding levels back to create an environment and infrastructure that is attractive to world class African scientists to focus on solutions to African problems, and to build a healthy neighbourly network of African nations.
So that's all for this episode of Science in Africa, a Nature Careers podcast. I am Akin Jimoh, chief editor of Nature Africa. Thanks again to Professor Oyewale Tomori. And thank you for listening,