The MTN Foundation board members during a courtesy visit to the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) on Friday, June 24, 2022.

With the N100 milliondonation by the MTN Foundation to the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Nigeria has become home to West Africa’s only functioning Oligosynthesis Laboratory. In this interview conducted on TVC’s Your View, the Executive Secretary, MTN Foundation, Odunayo Sanya and the Director General, Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, Professor Babatunde Salako, speak on the MTN Foundation-NIMR partnership and its benefits to Nigeria and the continent as a whole. 

Talk to us about MTN Foundation, its relationship with NIMR and what this relationship entails. 

Sanya: The MTN Foundation is MTN’s structure for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The Foundation was founded in 2004, we commenced operations in 2005 and it’s been about 16 years since then. 

MTN funds the Foundation with a dedicated commitment of 1% of its annual profit after tax. The Foundation invests in areas of national priority and youth development and under our national priority portfolio, we have causes we support – health causes and community development causes. 

This is where the link with NIMR comes in. Sometime in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we got a request from NIMR to support the research of vaccines and production of test kits through the procurement of the machine called the Oligosynthesis machine and that is how the journey started. 

Sometime last year in August, we were able to commission the laboratory. It is at the NIMR facility in Yaba. I must say that since then a lot has happened. I am sure Professor Babatunde Salako will tell us more about that.

Prof Salako: The Oligosynthesis machine produces small fragments of artificial DNA or RNA polymers. DNA is the genetic makeup of an individual and it is made up of nucleotides and the nucleotides are arranged in a specific way for different people. 

The same goes for plants, animals and co. For science to be able to get into the DNA, you need to then synthesize it artificially in a small portion because DNA could be very long, so you need an area of interest. Then, you synthesize or design that area of interest artificially from foreknowledge and then ask the Oligosynthesizer to produce that small one for you. With that small one, you can go to PCR and amplify that and then you can use it for a particular purpose. 

For example, in producing diagnostic kits for COVID-19, there is a part of the DNA of the COVID virus, the spike protein. That protein is studied and then the nucleotides that make up that area are produced as a primer and it is that primer that you use to diagnose the disease in samples. It is also very useful when you are trying to produce vaccines, especially protein subunit vaccines and then you can also use it in sequencing. If you find an unknown organism, and you are trying to determine the sequencing, you can put that sample in a known organism that you already have the primer for, and then you put it and sequence it so that the sequencer can then sequence both the known and unknown. And you can determine the DNA of that unknown. That is how important the production of primers is with the machine.

This is great news for Nigeria. But do you have success stories?

Prof Salako: Oh yes, we got this over a year ago and MTN has been supporting us in terms of ensuring the training of necessary personnel. We had some teething issues but eventually, we sorted those out and we have started producing the primers. I can say that apart from the ones we use in our institute, we have produced for other institutions and they can also attest to the fact that these are good products. Now, we can produce primers for Monkeypox for example. We can now create a kit for Monkeypox to diagnose the disease. Also, we have recently created primers for Ebola because we already know the sequence for Ebola. If we have an outbreak, we have primers for that. The beauty of this is that we should be able to make diagnoses of outbreaks in our environment without having to rely on other countries or sending it outside.

MTN has done a fantastic job of helping us not rely on other countries. I hear that we are the only country in West Africa to have this, can you clarify?

Prof Salako: Let me say it is the only functioning one that we are aware of in West Africa — Sub-Saharan Africa. During the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers designed their primers and then sent them outside the country for testing. You will recall that during the period of lockdown in the country, there were no flights, so we had to wait. At that time, when we were trying to design the kit, I remember three or four times when we had to produce one, it went to the US, then to South Africa before coming to Nigeria. I mean, there are temperature issues with some of these things and by the time it comes back, we are not getting what they produced for us. But the beauty of it now is that we can go next door and produce it. If we use it and we are not getting the optimum result, we can always go back, redesign and reproduce it. 

So how expensive is this machine? For the kind of benefit that it has, one might wonder how much it cost.  

Prof Salako: Well MTN has put in about N100 million to purchase the machine and train the necessary personnel. On our part, we can fund the lab and other laboratory accessories that would be used in conjunction with the machine.

Back to Odunayo, what is the Foundation’s plan to sustain this development?

Sanya: You would agree that the MTN Foundation-NIMR partnership is a testament to how successful public-private sector partnership can be. We plan to continue to keep NIMR as a partner because we believe that we can create new value chains. Through this, we can contribute to the economy where new value chains evolve. For instance, NIMR is planning to come up with a website where they can take orders from across West Africa. We believe that this partnership is the beginning of much more interesting things to come.

This would also create more jobs for young people and can also be a new career path for a lot of people.

Prof Salako: What is even more important is that many young scientists need to design some of these things for their experiments to enable them to create innovations and new knowledge but the fact that they have to pay in foreign currency and the fact that they have to send it out before it comes – sometimes it takes weeks or months – is slowing down the progress of research especially in the area of science around the country and around the West African region. 

This question is for the DG. Many times, we hear of how we get expensive equipment and over a period, we lose them, because they are not properly maintained. Could you please tell us what your plan is to ensure that this is maintained and sustained, and we can build up on this?

Prof Salako Apart from the fact that the main purpose of the equipment is to support research, we also have a business plan that we have discussed with MTN Foundation and we believe that with that business plan and the support from MTN, we should be able to maintain it. We have a service agreement and we can get across to the product designers and any problems we have can be resolved. 

Back to Odunayo, are there plans to further this commendable cause based on what the DG has just said?

SANYA: We found that with NIMR, they pretty much operate like the private sector, so we have clear Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).  Initially, we used to meet almost every day, but now, we have staggered it a bit. We are also in the process of putting together certain indices that will help us to measure the impact of this donation. We are doing a lot of monitoring and evaluation on both sides and using the output to improve the process. 

Back to your question, of course, yes, it is a question of how we are able to move it forward. Prof has said it, yes we have seen the business model and earlier, I spoke about how this will help in the creation of new value chains.  We are looking to make an impact and even create jobs for youths in the country. We believe that by the time NIMR’s commercial plan kicks in, there will be an inflow of revenue that enables the lab to keep running so it becomes a gift that keeps giving.

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