Homegrown help: Seeding a culture of innovation in Nigeria

Nigeria may not be known as a global hub for innovation, but officials there hope someday it will be. And they’ve recruited MIT Professional Education to help jump-start the process.

In September, more than 80 top federal civil service officials from across ministries, departments and government agencies in Nigeria gathered in the capital city of Abuja to attend Radical Innovation, a two-day intensive training course taught by Sanjay Sarma, the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering and vice president of open learning at MIT.

From shareholders to stakeholders

Sarma has taught tailored versions of the Radical Innovation course nearly two dozen times all over the world, but his participants are typically corporate professionals. This was one of the few times he spoke to an audience of career civil servants. 

“These are people struggling with issues such as road construction, fisheries, and environmental impact — all in the same room,” says Sarma. “It actually brought me back to my own roots. My father was a civil servant in India. So, I was already familiar with some of the unique challenges civil servants face, having grown up in a developing country.”

Participants came to learn how the government can leverage innovation to deliver services more effectively to the public and promote economic diversity. According to Sarma, there was a universal openness to new ideas and willingness to embrace change. Everyone was looking to start some type of innovation, such as how data could be used to improve fisheries.   

“I was struck by how caring and open-minded these civil servants were. They were globally-minded, well-educated, and diverse as well. In fact, more than half of the enrollees were women, which I thought was remarkable,” says Sarma. What’s more, two of those women are mothers of students who are currently attending MIT. But the MIT connections don’t end there.

Ties that bind

The seed for bringing Radical Innovation to Africa was planted in 2012 when Gideon Adogbo, a civil servant, enrolled in Sarma’s Radical Innovation course on campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This course is part of the Innovation and Technology Professional Certificate offered through MIT Professional Education, and Adogbo was among the first cohort of participants who received the certificate. Since then, he has taken numerous courses, such as Applied Cybersecurity and Additive Manufacturing: From 3D Printing to the Factory Floor, but Radical Innovation stood out for him. Adogbo became determined to bring the course to Nigeria. 

Adogbo is the special assistant (technical) to the head of the Civil Service of the Federation in Nigeria. Several years ago, government leaders there launched an ambitious initiative to boost innovation in technology and accelerate entrepreneurship. A key priority of the 2017-20 Federal Civil Service Strategy and Implementation Plan was to drive innovation in service. To help realize that goal, Adogbo recommended the federal government seek the assistance of MIT Professional Education. The Nigerian Office of the President soon reached out — and, in keeping with MIT’s mission to advance knowledge that will best serve the world in the 21st century, Sarma and Bhaskar Pant, executive director of MIT Professional Education, agreed to step in and help. 

“Nigeria, among the larger nations in Africa, is developing rapidly, and the federal government there is determined to break out of old bureaucratic ways. It wants to modernize and enable greater transparency and entrepreneurship within the country, to ultimately serve as a shining example of success for the rest of Africa. We feel honored to have been chosen to spur new innovative thinking among those in the country responsible to bring about change, via Sanjay Sarma’s globally popular MIT Professional Education course on innovation,” says Pant.

“This is indeed a time of change. Innovation is happening worldwide, and that creates both opportunities and challenges for governments and private companies alike,” says Sarma. “It makes sense that Nigeria would start with innovation training for civil servants. In my view, they are the unheralded champions of all the systems that make a country work. And I hope the knowledge we shared will help them succeed.”

A bright future ahead

It doesn’t end here. Pant says his unit hopes to engage with other governments and the private sector in Africa to help develop similar programs that promote innovative thinking and practices.

“I was born in southern Africa, so I have a particular affinity to help bring the best of MIT to Africa. With this first-ever MIT Professional Education course delivered in Africa, we have made a great beginning. Spreading knowledge for the greater good is at the heart of what MIT represents,” says Pant.