By Morenike Taire
In 2008, Professor Ebenezar Meshida clinched the Nigeria LNG Prize for Science, also known as the Nigerian Prize, for his life work: his invention called Lateralite, a stabilisation flux for fine-grained lateritic soils to make Nigerian roads durable through the elimination of potholes and gullies. More than 10 years on, while Professor Meshida has moved to Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti from his erstwhile University of Lagos base, Nigerian roads continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate despite this homegrown solution. He chats with Vanguard on sundry issues, including the seeming inability of national policies to take advantage of homegrown research.
You studied for two different undergraduate disciplines. Why?
In those days nobody guided us about studying. I had a teacher who had 8 A-levels and didn’t know what to do with them; then someone told him he could have gone to university with just three. After my Geography, I thought I wanted to be a Geologist and I had the support of my senior brother who was a civil engineer.
As a scientist, how important is it for other people to build on your work and for you to build on other people’s?
That is science. Science is knowledge and to find a useful field that will benefit humanity. The world is your laboratory as a scientist; even the Bible is part of the tools in your lab because you can know what has happened long time ago. Just as you are reading science books, you are reading literature books- English literature, French literature… something to teach you what the earth is.
So when you heard about the Nigerian Prize which you won in 2008, were you excited and hopeful that it would be a game-changer? What made you enter for it?
I was not excited at all. I didn’t even bother but my son-in-law said: ‘Daddy, you can put in for this thing, I’m sure you will win;’ I said no, in Nigeria they would have already decided who would win. And my grandson too. In fact, it was only in the last week that I took it seriously and submitted my entry on the day it would close just to try.
And then it turned out that it had not been ‘fixed?’
Contrary to my opinion; one morning, Professor Kale called me and said: ‘Are you Dr. Meshida?’ I said yes. He said: ‘Did you put in for NLNG Prize?’ I said yes. He said: ‘Well, the good news is that you won!’ It was terrible. The phone was shaking in my hands.
Can we talk more about your invention, Lateralite. Was it something you were still working on or you had already worked on?
It was incidental but after some time, it was deliberate. As an engineering geologist, I was assigned to carry out the site investigation on the Calabar-Ikot-Ekpene proposed highway so I was there for about six months and I saw what the engineers were doing, working laboriously but water was always spoiling whatever they compacted; so I thought a Geologist should be able to provide this solution. How can we prevent water from disaggregation of soils? Cement, okay, but cement would not do it for a long time but from the fields of geology, mineralogy and geochemistry, there were things to look at – minerals that could attract water and disallow water from getting to the fabric of the soil.
So I started working – no guidance. In fact, people were jesting, and it took a long time: 1975-2002.
I have met with this year’s winner, Prof. Peter Ngene, who works in a Dutch university. He spoke extensively about how access to very expensive equipment where he worked helped him to do the winning research. Is access to equipment overrated or does he have a point?
Yes. In fact, that is the crux of the issue. I was very fortunate; my head of department, Professor Sylvester Adegoke got our department at Ife well equipped. The Geochemistry was fantastic; the mineralogy was fantastic. There were Germans who came to teach us and I got inspiration from these people. A young professor at that time, very agile and extremely intelligent and the equipment at Ife was suitable.
A lot has changed in Science and Technology over the years since you got your Doctorate. How did you ensure that you are part of this change?
Well, a scientist should not see himself as irrelevant at any stage. A scientist should keep working, keep obtaining new results and keep training other people. Never mind the attitude of the young people now; there will always be one, two, three that want to cling to you. Even at my old age, I still encourage people to do their master’s, their doctorals and go on with research on their own. There are many of them in the US, UK and we keep in contact. I don’t recognise young age or old age. After my Geology at Ife, my elder brother pulled me into Civil Engineering at Unilag. At that time, I wasn’t interested in a degree course but he wanted me to know specific areas in Civil Engineering to assist him in the practice of Soil Engineering.
He did a lot of soil mechanics and foundation engineering and he pulled me into these areas. Terrible things, but after three years, I was able to obtain what was needed to practise engineering geology.
You have played both in private practice and academia. Nobody is in a better position than you to advise on how to create a nexus between the two.
This is the noise I have been making since 2008 in particular. The academia and private industry should go hand-in-hand but unfortunately, developed countries go on with such ideas but we in Africa, do not. Get your PhD, DSc put on your academic gown, people congratulate you; only a few, especially in engineering and geology, work with industry.
Many geologists and geophysicists are working with the oil companies so that is a unification of industry and academics and no country can develop without such.
What would be your advice to create this nexus?
My own private practice is going on. I read my books; I carry on with my practicals and assist civil engineers in foundation engineering failures all over Nigeria. All these wrong designs of roads, houses and structural foundations are alarming. I will continue to make the noise.
As a world-class inventor, how easy has it been to continue to operate in a third world environment?
The third world environment is complete darkness, because those who should be promoting research don’t. They convert public money to theirs and are not interested in building any schools as such, not interested in research and knowledge. This question is very interesting because where I am now at Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti, the proprietor believes in knowledge, research and industry which are the key points of the anthem of the university. I have never seen such a human being before – his own private money invested in building a fantastic university. We’ve got visitors from Harvard, MIT, from every distinguished university in the world. A single person. I wish the rich in this country will try to imitate him.
Your invention was a welcome development in a country whose roads are ridden with potholes. I remember everybody agreed when you won the prize that this was an invention that was needed. In fact, the road on which the Nigerian Academy of Science is situated in Unilag is ridden with potholes. How do you explain this discrepancy?
It is a very strange phenomenon because Nigeria has a lot of scientists, professionals, a lot of us. Unfortunately, our leaders are not interested in making any form of development from this myriads of academic people. Our roads are nothing to talk about. Fortunately now, some of the state ministries and the Federal Ministry of Works have got interested in supporting the use of the material. It’s a welcome development.
In what ways can the educational curricula be brought up to date?
We are not doing well. One minister came on board and said History is storytelling and abolished it. It is an abomination. You abandon history, English literature… how will you communicate with the world? English is our language of expression. When teachers in a section of the country say one plus one is 11, and there are thousands of them, earning money, disseminating wrong knowledge to millions of students. You can mention people like Wole Soyinka; the man is just watching. What can he do?
What did the Nigeria Prize enable you to do that you might not have been able to do otherwise?
The Prize encouraged me to go on with the research, and even use my own funds to assist PhD students procure materials, register for journals and encourage them because these students are not interested in what one wants them to come round to see. They want to ride exotic cars and have fantastic homes.
I notice that you, like many accomplished scientists, are also musicians. Is there a link?
I am an amateur violinist (laughs). Music is science, it is Mathematics and Physics. If you go into the study of sound, these are studies of proportion. Music is science altogether and I think every scientist should endeavour to go into music because it energizes the brain. That is my personal opinion.