Tuesday 27 May 2014

Skill Versus Innovation

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

The Nigerian system requires that a person be 'skillful' in whatever field they choose so that they can excel in the job market. Everyone seems to be talking about garnering skills that will make the average Nigerian stand out. Job seekers are told to write skills they have to give themselves an edge over thousands of competitors. Everywhere you go, someone seems to be pushing the 'skill' agenda into the minds of Nigerians.
When young graduates report to the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) camp, one of the first things they are introduced to is skill acquisition. Lecture after lecture on skill acquisition is done. Skills like bead making, cake making, make-up artistry, and other things like these are taught to graduates, who in turn feel empowered to go into the world and conquer it. This skill acquisition is presented as a way to become a young entrepreneur.

In most cases where these graduates are not interested in learning such skills, they are constantly reminded that there are no jobs available, implying that additional skills would help one fare better in an already trying economy. At this grim reminder, even doctors gradually get cajoled into learning a skill. It then becomes no surprise when doctors and lawyers are seen learning to make beads.

Now, being skillful is not bad in itself. Every nation needs skillful individuals to improve it and Nigeria is not an exception. Also, learning new skills is good. Where there is a problem is when skills are the only things that Nigerians are urged to learn, especially as these ‘skills’ are as rudimentary as making a cake, giving someone a makeover over, or making Ankara-based accessories and shoes. What then begs to be asked is, 'What happened to innovation?'

While skill (chiefly) requires the use of hands, innovation requires the use of one's brains. Innovation requires focusing on a problem and looking at how that problem can be solved. The word in context here is ‘how’. When an innovative person latches on to an idea, creating a solution is all he can think of. And in most cases, it is never about making money, but about solving a problem that plagues society. Does this mean that learning and applying skills don’t require brains? Of course not! Skills require brains, but not as much as the innovative process.

Man is in existence to solve problems. Imagine the man who invented the modern-day oven, making baking easier than it must have been in the past. Imagine him watching the hair of bakers getting singed while trying to get the dough into a makeshift oven and bread out of it. With careful research, he was able to invent something easier to handle, with outputs that were much more efficient and effective. With aptly applied timers, baked goods could come out as close to perfect as possible.

Someone saw that the one-horse carriages were too cumbersome and thought of how they could make traveling less stressful...on man and on his beast. Whether it was Pierre Lallement, Marius Olivier, Kirkpatrick Macmillan, or Pierre Michaux, the main thing was that bicycles were created and they were far more effective than the horse-drawn carriages. Horses are definitely thankful that they do not have to pull a man and his carriage across vast swathes of land.

Even though the bicycles were widely accepted, yet another person wanted something better. From bicycles, society moved to motorcycles, cars, and finally, the big one! The Wright brothers broke all sorts of rules by inventing the first plane and today, plane after planes are seen, and heard, flying overhead. Imagine the amount of thought that had to go into putting all the parts of the plan before they finally flew their plane. The plane the Wright brothers invented is not the plane flown today. Great improvements have been made on their invention and one can fly in the utmost comfort whilst traveling.

This has not stopped more innovators from thinking of how to make planes (or even cars and bicycles) better and more efficient. Today, there are Boeing planes, superjets, and even drones. Just when you think cars couldn't get any flashier, something out of this world is designed by someone and you just wonder how they do it! From Ferraris to Bentleys, the design of cars tells us just how innovative people can be.

Do you want to talk about medicine? The leaps and bounds doctors were (and are continually) able to achieve in curbing diseases, vaccinating against illnesses, and in some cases, totally eradicating them from the face of the earth, are due to the innovative ideas of people. Research in biotechnology, biology, microbiology, pathology, and other related fields, has helped in creating drugs that can cure many diseases. Even when they cannot create drugs that can cure diseases, they try to create ones that can manage disease. One of the greatest achievements of research in medicine is the scientific leap called cloning. All of this is a result of building on innovative ideas and not on building skills.

Unlike most other people, Nigerians are urged to develop skills like cake making, make-up application, tailoring, shoe making, and whatnot. They are urged to let their most important asset - their brains - go to waste. The skills they learn are never new. They never think up something fresh and unseen before. All they are taught is how to effectively replicate something that they have seen. Even the best of cake makers go online to see what someone else has done. What is the innovation in that? Another big question follows. Where did this problem start from?

It couldn't have been before the advent of colonialism, because our forefathers had beautifully designed clothes. So someone must have thought about covering people. The elaborate machines our forefathers used to even make these clothes, tell a lot about their wisdom and innovative skills.

Their farming tools were rudimentary but showed that they even used their grey matter. What would you say about them making clay jars as a means of cooling their water? And when you go to art, you will be marveled at how well they could think up images and put them into almost life-like reality. So, the problem couldn't have come from them. 

With the advent of colonialism, Nigerians gradually took on the dictates of their bosses cum masters. They told us to go to school and we did. They said work for the government and everyone’s dream was to do just that. The aspirations of Nigerians were dictated by their colonial masters. 

With independence, one would have thought that we would regain our lost sense of direction and our innovative capacity. But alas, that is not the case. People, after independence, were more willing to let their brains fallow than miss out on government jobs. This persisted for decades until some individuals became business-oriented. 

Right now, people are learning things that are in effect, making their brains redundant. Why are we, as a nation, not creating things that the world can use? Why are we not making advancements in any field and setting the strides for other countries to follow? Why are we importing everything and anything when we have a people one hundred and seventy million strong, who can bring up ideas and innovations that can thrust us into the eye of the world? 

We are good copycats but we do not even copy more advanced things. We make clothes and attach ‘Made in China’ to them. China is also a nation that copies a lot, but they are very good at creating replicas that are in some instances, more preferable. Take the Tecno Company for instance. The applications on their products are obviously a rip-off from Samsung and other Android phones. The Asians make video games, software, and online sites that are equally as good as Mortal Combat, Windows 8, and Facebook. We, on the other hand, copy redundant skills such as make-up application and cake-making.

If everyone is to be a baker, a bead maker, or an Ankara accessory maker, who gets to buy all the stuff we make? Especially as they are all copied? Can one actually make millions off doing that? And if yes, is it a lifetime money generator? Will it live beyond your generation? Will people remember you for being the great Ankara accessory copier maker?

Bill Gates created the Microsoft software and he is the richest man in the world today. In essence, his nation is also one of the richest in the world. His innovation will live beyond him and will keep sending royalties to him. Even at that, new additions and improvements are added to his invention every day.

Until Nigeria becomes an innovative nation, where people think up grand ideas that can change the face of humanity, it will remain a 'slave' nation, waiting at the mercy of more advanced societies for all it needs. 

We need to create our own cars, washing machines, robots, and something no one else has thought of. Then, and only then, will we be able to forge ahead and compete with other nations. 

The US is not great because it has skillful small-scale businessmen who have been able to fend for themselves. They are great because they always want to be the first to create a thing and have the world suck up to them to get that thing. The world is now run by those who create a need and supply the solution to that need.

So...create the need. Put it in the minds of people. Then make the supply!

Nigeria, we have been sleeping for too long!

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