INVESTIGATION…The Nigerian dream of a ‘wholly made’ pencil and the lies within
Exactly two years ago, Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu, boasted that by the year 2018 Africa’s most populous black country will begin the production of wholly made pencils which was first mass produced in the 16th century. However, 24 months after, findings by RIPPLES NIGERIA reveal that nothing on ground shows that the country will achieve the dream of producing pencils from scratch to finish. AHMED BOULOR writes…
Dusty welcome to an industrial site
A fresh plume of red dust welcomed Ripples Nigeria reporter after alighting from a bus as he made his way to the office of Project Development Institute, PRODA, in pursuit of a story on Nigeria’s pencil production dream.
Stationed at the beginning of the road were a group of tricycle riders all masked in red dust as they beckoned on passengers going through the untarred road.
Located off the ever busy Enugu/Abakaliki expressway, the road leaves one in utter shock and disbelief considering the fact that it leads to an industrial layout where four government parastatals namely the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Federal Training Centre, the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) and PRODA all have regional offices. A portion of the road close to the PRODA office was virtually impassable.
The road condition, according to Linus Ezeocha, a business operator in the area, has been that way for years and is neither good for business nor the health condition of people who live around.
“It has been hell living in an environment like this. Despite the fact that people who reside here and in private companies, once in a while, try to fill the bad parts of the road with sand and stones, the situation does not improve. The road is simply impassable during the rainy season,” Ezeocha noted.
The lies within
In January 2016, Nigeria, Africa’s supposed biggest economy announced that it will begin to produce “wholly made” pencils by the year 2018.
The national venture which is part of a wholesale production-sector revamp by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari could be likened to Nigeria’s answer to America’s dream of sending a man to the moon in 1961.
Standing before a horde of pressmen two years ago during his tour of PRODA, a federal government-owned equipment fabrication organization in Enugu, Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu announced the supposed earth-shattering pencil project dream.
The minister said the pencil project will symbolize the commitment to local production by Buhari’s administration and it is also part of a wholesale production sector revamp.
But when asked about the importance of the pencil making project to Africa’s biggest economy, especially when other developing countries were engaged in more challenging and innovative models, the minister said; “Yes, I have heard questions on why pencils. We chose pencils to symbolize the problems that we have and our commitment to local production.
“To produce pencils, we need wood, graphite, rubber for the eraser and possibly, we will need aluminium to hold the rubber in place. Then, we may need paint to give it colour. But even if we don’t add paint or rubber, already we have a pencil and it will write.
“Now, we have all the things to produce a pencil, which is used by a large number of people from our young pupils to engineers, and it looks simple to produce, yet we have not been able to produce it. That is why we talked about producing pencils”.
Noting that PRODA has been tasked to carry out a holistic research on pencil production in Nigeria, the minister lamented that Nigeria has no single pencil-producing factory, despite the ease of required technology, manpower and easy access to raw materials.
He said; “We have asked PRODA (the Projects Development Agency) to ensure Nigeria starts producing pencils in two years. It is actually not PRODA’s mandate to produce the pencils. No. PRODA is just to do the holistic research on pencil production in Nigeria. Somebody can start producing pencils here and will still be importing the wood, the graphite, the rubber, bringing in everything. No, that is not what we want.
“We want PRODA to do research to make the production process totally local… This is PRODA’s assignment.
“When PRODA is through with its job, it is the private sector that will come in to do the production and we will see the benefits”, he boasted.
Onu also tried to soothe critics and skeptics by informing that no country in West Africa produces pencils.
“PRODA has confirmed that there is not a single pencil-producing factory in Nigeria and even in West Africa. This is why we are worried. We know this is a technology we can easily handle. Beyond that, the number of jobs we will create in starting pencil production is very encouraging. It will also be good for the image of the nation,” he said.
Pencil politics and an absentee DG
Briefing the minister during the tour on efforts so far made on pencil production, Coordinator of the PRODA Pencil Project, Godfrey Ihezie, an engineer, noted that the value-chain of pencil production would not only create jobs but also produce over 150 million pencils in a year.
Ihezie explained that the project could be replicated in all the six geopolitical zones since the raw materials are available in the country.
He, however, appealed to the Minister to intervene and hasten the release of some imported equipment and materials, including Urea Formaldehyde Resin Powder meant for the pencil production project held at the Lagos port by the Nigeria Customs Service.
Attempts to decode the web of intrigues and politics around the pencil project is a script fit for the movies.
The Corporate office of PRODA (created off the defunct East Central State Government under Edict No. II of 1971) is situated within a vast land mass which houses the administrative, engineering, science and research blocks of the institution.
On arrival at the premises of PRODA, the security personnel, apparently well groomed on how to shield unwanted visitors or nosy media men from the Director-General, told the Ripples Nigeria reporter that the helmsman was unavailable. “The DG is not around; he traveled to Abuja but you can go to the admin block just in case you have any other inquiries to make,” he said.
His position was re-echoed by the receptionist who simply gave her name as Precious. “The DG is out of town. He is in Abuja as we speak and his deputy is not around. I don’t know when he’ll be back but I’ll ensure that the letter gets to his desk through his secretary.”
“You can come tomorrow; you’ll get a response from his secretary,” she added.
With that promise, the reporter left the premises of PRODA hoping that he gets someone to talk to about the pencil project which is expected to boost industrial development with the production of 15 million units of pencils per year and save Nigeria the sum of N750 billion annually on the importation of the writing material.
The invitation to return tomorrow was obviously a ploy to sustain the DG’s absence. On our Reporter’s return, the secretary who gave her name as Eucharia bellowed; “I got your letter yesterday from the receptionist and usually when such requests are made, the letter is sent to the DG who will determine whether he’ll honour it or not.
“The DG is not in town for now but I have dropped the letter on his table for his kind consideration when he arrives. As soon as he reads through and gives his approval, we’ll call you” The call never came till several weeks after.
A month after returning from Enugu in search of answers for the current state of the dream pencil project to no avail, the Reporter got a call from a certain Mrs. Ijeaoma Eze, who said she is a senior staff of the admin department of PRODA.
She admitted seeing the letter requesting an interview with the PRODA DG and noted that he was still in Abuja but asked that the interview questions be sent to her to forward to the DG for his attention which was done almost immediately.
Among other questions which were sent to the DG to answer were; (1.) How true is it that the research by PRODA for the pencil prototype began in 2012? (2.) Is the pencil prototype ready? If not, why has it taken so long? (3.) Will Nigeria produce a wholly made pencil by 2018? (4.) Is Nigeria on the track of achieving the production of locally made pencils as projected? (5.) If no, what are the limitations? (6.) If yes, what stage are we (Nigeria) in the process of realising the dream pencil project? (7.) How much has been spent so far to carry out research on the pencil making project? (8.) How well equipped is the PRODA pencil lab? (9.) Does PRODA have the requisite manpower to pursue its pencil research activities?
After weeks of another endless wait for the reply by PROAD DG which was supposed to be sent through Mrs. Eze, a reply came, but not with the answers to the questions sent to the DG.
“Am sorry to say this but my DG/CEO said he won’t be able to grant you that interview because the issues you want to talk about have been handled/treated by the Minister of Science and Technology before. I mean to say that he has granted the press an interview on this matter before and it will be a repetition if he starts talking on the same matter again,” her reply read.
The claims made by the DG that most of the questions forwarded had been addressed by the Minister of Science and Technology prior to this investigation were not entirely correct as the queries were targeted at routine operations of PRODA which are outside the purview of the minister who deals mainly with policies.
By refusing to address these basic questions, it was clear that the DG was running an opaque system and deliberately throwing hurdles to frustrate the investigation on how close Nigeria was in its quest to produce wholly made pencils by the year 2018.
Lack of transparency within the PRODA set up had been evident in the refusal of the DG to also grant a factory tour for on the spot assessment of facilities and pencil prototypes.
‘Raw material needed for pencil project stuck at Lagos ports for 7 years’
Met by a seeming brick wall in his bid to talk to the DG concerning the current state of the pencil project, the Reporter worked undercover for a leak.
A source familiar with the project but who chose to remain anonymous for fear of being sanctioned said, “All I know is that the research for the pencil prototype began in 2012 and the prototype has been developed ever since but I am not in the know about issues like why the pencil project has failed to fly even after the pencil prototype has been developed. The management would be in the best position to address when the proposal was sent and what has been done thus far concerning the pencil project.
He also revealed that efforts were made in the past to get the pencil project up and running after PRODA signed an MOU with Innoson years back.
“PRODA is a research institution and it is not into manufacturing, that is why the minister initiated the private-public partnership arrangement which saw PRODA and INOSSON sign an MOU years back for the mass production of the pencil prototype developed by PRODA.
“When, and if the pencil project takes-off, which I think is not anytime soon, INOSSON will be at the helm of mass production while PRODA will have a say as research institution backing the mass production of the developed pencil prototype.”
The source, when asked about what he considered as reason for the delay in implementing the agreement signed between PRODA and Innoson said; “The major delay in the implementation of agreement in the MOU signed with INOSSON is the conclusion of the process of production by securing the release of the consignment of some raw materials stuck at Apapa port which are needed to complete cycle of production.
“The consignment which is important to the take-off of the pencil project has been stuck at the Apapa port for over seven years and it has accumulated huge demurrage over time. Once it is cleared, the pencil project will take-off, but as I speak, that reality may take a long time.
“However, efforts are being made by PRODA to put other logistics on ground pending the release of the consignment to form a complete cycle of production which gave birth to the PRODA Pencil project for schools. The project was tagged PRODA school pencil project beforehand and was flagged off in anticipation of the mass production of pencils after the development of the pencil prototype,” the insider added.
The cloak of secrecy surrounding the pencil project may never be removed. When probed on why the agency is keeping its details away from Nigerians, our source would rather we ignored the issue.
“Don’t bother yourself”, he said. “PRODA doesn’t have a Corporate Communications department. What we have here is more like a unit and those you will find there are clerks who are not trained enough to articulate or respond to whatever questions you may want to ask them. The department is more or less ‘moribund’ but I can broker a meeting with the head of the engineering department of PRODA in some days’ time; he may be willing to talk.”
‘Things are too stiff here’
“Why are you introducing me to a journalist?!,” Engr. Dr. Edwin C. Oriaku, Head of the Engineering Department, thundered as our Ripples Nigeria was led to him. “I am here to inquire about the state of the pencil project by PRODA,” the reporter said.
“Well, you’ll have to talk to the DG and the head of the pencil project department. I am not in charge of the project and I cannot comment on it. At the moment, most staffers of PRODA are writing promotional exams and it’ll be pretty hard for you to get anyone to talk to,” he answered as he walked away.
Our source had warned about the brick wall we could meet everywhere. It seemed worse with every appearance of the media. The head of the pencil project, Godfrey Ihezie was going to be no exception.
“Once you introduce yourself as a journalist he will withdraw and not attend to you; he’ll refer you to the DG whose reply may take time. Things are too stiff here, some people don’t even breath here until PRODA tells them to do so,” he jocularly remarked.
Nigeria’s pencil project dream, an idle tale
Embarrassingly, two years after, the expectation that the present administration would get this right, given its economic diversification agenda, has gone with the winds, because nothing is on ground to justify the euphoria that greeted the ministerial directive concerning the dream pencil project.
Our sources in PRODA and Innoson confirmed the desire for a partnership but said the enthusiasm died when the management of the agency was not forthcoming with the consummation of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Innocent Chukwuma-led Innoson group.
A source at PRODA told Ripples Nigeria, that Innoson brought foreign partners to the organisation; toured the facilities and spelt out their terms, but the DG was allegedly not willing. Inquiries at PRODA were not fruitful as the DG and his team declined to speak on the issue.
However, Innoson Group confirmed that there were moves for the company to go into partnership with PRODA to produce pencils in Nigeria.
The company’s PRO, Cornell Osuigwe, who spoke on behalf of Chief Chukwuma said “We had correspondence and meetings with them for an agreement to be signed; we told PRODA what should be done and pencil production will begin within two months. They gave us hope but since then, we’ve not heard from them”.
Ripples Nigeria further gathered that PRODA had contacted another prospective investor for the pencil project, but the claims could not be confirmed.
At the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, Ripples Nigeria was advised to approach PRODA for inquiries on the pencil project, even as they said the minister was committed to actualising it.
Elsewhere, ‘government magic‘ stalls NDE pencil project
The National Directorate of Employment (NDE) has blamed the failure of the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) to issue an end-user certificate for urea-formaldehyde resin powder as the reason its pencil factory located in Akure; Ondo State was yet to begin production.
Former Acting Director General of NDE, Mr. Kunle Obayan, had during the commissioning of a toothpick production outfit sponsored by the agency in Akure, December last year, said the pencil component of the factory was delayed because a very critical material, Urea Formaldehyde Resin Powder, needed for the production was still being held at the port.
He appealed to the ONSA, to expeditiously approve the application for waiver of End User’s Certificate (ECU) for the urea resin powder.
Obayan disclosed that the pencil production line would inject over 2,000 jobs into the economy.
“All the equipment needed for the production of pencils have been purchased and installed but the authorisation for the use of Formaldehyde Resin Powder as an input is being awaited,” the former NDE boss stated.
Ripples Nigeria findings at the NDE confirmed that the agency was yet to get the end user certificate from the ONSA more than one year after the application for the waiver was made.
It was also gathered that the NDE provided N9, 890,000.00 loan packages to the entrepreneurs for the pencil projects.
While Minister Onu and PRODA sleep…
Situated in the sleepy town of Ekom Iman in Etinam local government area of Akwa Ibom State, is the Akwa Ibom Enterprise and Employment Scheme (AKEES) which has a factory dedicated to the production of pencils and toothpick.
The factory began the production of pencils in November 2016- one year ahead of the national projection, according to Mr. Bassey Friday Moses, the Managing Director of the factory.
AKEES has not gotten any kind of support in terms of research or otherwise from PRODA, Mr. Bassey revealed, adding that, “The factory has a daily output of 30,000 – 60,000 pencils.”
One of the locally sourced materials used in the making of pencils at AKEES are old newspapers which are cut into the size of pencils by one of the five complete production lines of machines installed at the expansive facility.
After the papers are cut into pencil sizes, the led or graphite (which is also cut into shape) is manually added to the trimmed newspaper material, it is rolled into a pencil sleeve pre-slathered with urea formaldehyde with glue added to the material to make a pencil.
“The pencils produced at AKEES are wholly made locally; in terms of raw materials, the sleeve is imported from China while other materials are sourced locally as we have a complete line of production which also takes care of packaging,” Mr. Bassey noted.
He also claims that since it began production, AKEES has sold more than 2 million pieces of pencils within and outside the state.
“The only problem we have now is the issue of branding as most people who buy our pencils cannot identify our product because it is not branded. Of the 150 sleeves we imported from China, only one of them had AKEES named on it while the remaining 149 sleeves had cartoon characters like BEN 10, Hannah Montana and Dora the Explorer.
“It is hard to differentiate between our products and others but if you look keenly you will discover the difference because our pencils are made from recycled newspapers while others are made of wood. Another distinct feature is that the led of pencils made by AKEES is thicker (2.5mm) than the usual ones made by the Chinese (1.5mm)”, Bassey claimed.
The process of using old newspapers to make pencils instead of wood according to Bassey is cheaper, environmentally friendly, reduces deforestation and most importantly cuts production cost by almost half.
So, even as Onu and the PRODA team struggle to produce a wholly Nigerian made pencil by 2018, AKEES has already beat the mark.
And, just like no seriousness was invested in Nigeria’s declaration years ago to earn the status of one of the 20 most developed economies in the world by the year 2020, many see the dream pencil project as another idle political talk!
About a month after Ripples Nigeria investigation on Nigeria’s dream pencil project was published, the DG in an interview after the PRODA Dayat the 2018 Technology and Innovation Expo in Abuja confirmed our findings that products from research institutes which are rarely commercialised.
He cited the example of PRODA agro products which aren’t in the market yet because it has yet to get investors to commercialise them.
Dr. Agulanna added that there was is a still wide gap in Nigeria between the researchers and investing public, confirming fears that even if the pencil project were to be fully executed, commercialisation will be an issue.
“We need to cover that gap. You see in more advanced climes you find out that as soon as you get a patent [for your invention], the investing public will pour monies into it to produce it in commercial quantities,” he said.
The DG said the institute was hoping to get investors who can now produce the products in millions ‘’so that the economy of scale can start to bear on cost.’’
Follow-ups by Ripples Nigeria showed that not much progress had been made on the pencil project.
A source familiar with the project revealed that activities at PRODA only resumed after a 3-month workers strike in March with more attention paid to rebuilding staff morale than executing pending projects.