Aderonke Okoya is a Professor of Environmental Chemistry and first female Director of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University. In this interview, she tells that Nigeria prefers using imported ideas to solve local problems, which leads to confusion

Environmental challenges in Nigeria stem from a combination of factors including rapid urbanisation, industrialisation, poor waste management, climate change, deforestation, and land degradation, we also have air and water pollution, oil pollution, desertification, and a host of others that we cannot exhaust from this discussion for now.

The issue of whether Nigeria is utilising the existence of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Studies for its environmental benefits is just a minute part of a bigger problem in Nigeria.

Why did I say is a minute one? The issue on the ground in Nigeria is that we don’t even utilise the results of any research in solving our local problems or results from most researchers in Nigeria in solving our local problems. We prefer using imported ideas in solving our local problems and this kind of thing brings confusion because we need to be able to identify our methods of solving problems and utilise it accordingly. We want to import perfect solutions to an imperfect environment.

To whether Nigeria is utilising the existence of an Institute of Ecology or not, on a larger scale, the government, and industry have not been utilising the results of research carried out in Nigeria on Nigerian soils to propose policies and implement policies.

Until we start doing that, we will not even be able to do the kind of research that will affect our economy, affect our environment. For example, if an industry has a challenge in managing its waste or managing any of the waste generated in their industry, there is no law or policy that will make that industry to look for a solution within the local institutions in Nigeria. Also, a greater percentage of their research and development should be carried out in our institutions in Nigeria. Industries are not thinking that there is a need to do anything or bring anything to the institutions and universities in Nigeria, to help them propose solutions. And it is only when they bring their challenges and sponsor it that the researchers and their students can carry out research on the challenges and propose solution(s) to those problems since the research was been sponsored.

 On the other hand, if we (researchers) pick the problem maybe a researcher just identify a problem and you now try to give it to postgraduate students to work on it, they may not be able to do it to the extent that it will be useful to the industry because it will now be self-sponsored and a student that is sponsoring a project cannot be mandated to do it to solve real-life problems.

He may be able to use it to the extent of getting the certificate but when it is for solving a real-life problem, it has to be a sponsored research by the government, industry or a philanthropist. They need to get to that level of saying this is our problem, can you work on it for us? The government and industry need to do this before they can be able to effectively utilise the existence of any institute and this is also applicable to all other departments in any institution.

The very good example on the relevance of chemistry to environmental control and management is the issue of Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane pesticide that was banned many years ago. DDT was a chemical that was used to control pest in the house or on the farm and this DDT was known to be persistent in the environment, it was meant to solve a problem but eventually people realised that it was also creating another problem.  Chemists produced DDT, they went back to the lab to see what could be done to solve the problem further and they went ahead to produce Methoxychlor. Methoxychlor is also another pesticide that the chemists manipulated the structure of DDT to produce and this Methoxychlor can also solve the problem that originally, they were targeting DDT to solve and at the same time not creating the problem that DDT was creating when it was been used. As a result, it was banned. Chemists created DDT to solve a problem, the DDT solved the problem, but also created another problem, so chemists went further to produce an alternative to DDT to achieve their goal and this they did. So, chemistry has the solutions to end environmental problems or challenges.

The recent ban of Styrofoam in Lagos and Oyo States in my opinion is in the right direction.

Scientifically, it has been proven that Styrofoam is slow to degrade and it frequently leaches chemical into the environment. During the production of Styrofoam, hydrocarbons, which are released into the air produce hazardous pollutants and this can impair the lung and lead to respiratory illnesses among other things.

As an environmentalist, we don’t stop at identifying environmental challenges. It’s also of interest to us to propose solutions to this challenge. These environmental challenges are diverse, each one has different ways of tackling it. For example, we need to practice sustainable land use practice, reforestation and stricter enforcement of anti-reforestation loss in order to mitigate the problems or challenges of deforestation and land degradation.

Like I said, there are diverse solutions. In Nigeria, we have severe air and water pollution and this is not farfetch, it is due to the industrial activities, poor waste management and use of dirty fuel for cooking and transportation. Air pollution from industrial emissions and vehicles’ exhaust which affect public health.

As for water pollution, some of the fertilisers, pesticide, herbicide that we apply on our soils affect our water bodies and the implications of this is that, air and water pollution are link to health issues such as respiratory disease and contamination of food and water bodies, thereby, endangering the lives of millions.

Implementation and enforcement of pollution control laws is key. Some of these laws are there but we need to enforce the laws. We need to enforce the laws of pollution; we need to enforce the investment in cleaner technology in our industries. We need to also promote renewable energy sources in other to combat air and water pollution. I want to expatiate on investment in cleaner technologies because this is one of the things we do in our home research, there have been different conventional ways of treating water for water supply. Research has brought out new technologies that can make us do it better than the conventional method and even we use solid waste in the environment and develop it into absolvent to treat our water and make the water supply better, some of these methods are now seen as a multi-achievement approach, solving the problems of solid waste management and simultaneously as a self-water pollution problems. We need to review our methods of handling some of these things, we don’t have to stay on the same time even after centuries of research has gone into it.

As the first female director of the Institute of Environmental Studies of Obafemi Awolowo University and also the first professor as well as alumnus, which is seconded to the first director, I have never had any challenge working with males and that might be attributed to my background because I was not brought up to be intimidated by any gender. I attended a mixed primary school; an Anglican Primary School and I proceeded to Olivet Baptist High School, Oyo, for my secondary school, which is also a mixed school. I have no challenge interacting with my male counterpart and while growing up, intimidation was never a case as I was born in a family with many males, and it didn’t affect me educationally or otherwise. I don’t have challenge coping with them, I believe I can do whatever thing they can do if I desire to do it. I have been able to cope among them and as a director have been able to manage them there is no challenge, I am up to the task.

Having a female director is a function of having a female academic staff.  From the onset, it took them so long to have female academic staff in their midst and the moment they got a female academic staff, the female academic staff grew in the career. I, as a female director did not stay for long before I became a female director.

My advice for female academic and career women hoping to reach the height of their profession is one, they need to be hard working and refuse to be intimidated. If they are yet to be married and they need to, they should marry right because as a scientist it is not easy if you marry wrong.

As the current director of the institute, one major stride I’ll like to achieve is to ensure that the image of the institute is improved. I will like to ensure that everything that needs to be done to make me achieve our mandate has the centre of excellence is the focus, as long as it is within my capacity. I will also encourage as many alumni of the institute to work towards having an endowment for the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Studies, to sustain the image of the institute.