Facing the Brave New Future

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Guest Columnist BY UGOCHUKWU OKOROAFOR

The first time I visited this University was about 42 years ago. On that occasion, I was part of a delegation of student leaders from across the country. We had come in search of a process to build a united platform to counter the adverse effects of the crisis that had gripped the nation, triggered by a three-fold increase in the cost of meals at Nigeria’s tertiary institutions. As you can figure out, it was in the wake of the ‘Ali Must Go’ movement, following the Federal Government’s proscription of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS). That Decree turned us student leaders, into fugitives somewhat, condemned to meeting surreptitiously from one university campus to another with the security agents always on our trail.

We were of course a youthful and idealistic bunch; no doubt a little less restrained in our ways than what we have turned into today. Those were the unforgettable days of Academic Freedom and the Anti-Apartheid movement. The name of the President of your Students Union then was Napoleon, I believe; a gentleman I would love to meet again. He was an excellent and engaging host who did all in his power to make our otherwise futile trip a memorable one. One of the highlights of his copious arrangements was a visit to Kaiama on wooden canoes, where we went to pay homage to the great student leader, Ekpein Appah, who had been rusticated, just like Segun Okeowo, for being a vocal and uncompromising student leader.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to be back here today and to be given the privilege of presenting to you, a speech which I wish I had heard myself, when I was like you some 40 years ago. Deep inside you, today marks one of those moments in your life when there is a justifiable sense of accomplishment and pride. Your presence here today is testimony to perseverance, excellence and hard work; the great hallmarks that have served humanity. With your family members and loved ones surrounding you, it must have dawned on you that you mean a lot to more people in this world than just yourself. Congratulations on attaining this very important milestone in your life.

Your certificates declare that you have a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy; but that is merely what is written on the scroll. The reality is that given your several years of academic endeavour and socialisation in this University, you are now armed with the critical tools with which you can face your future. I believe that many of you passed through this institution and that it also passed through you. It is therefore not just the academic training that you will find invaluable in the world about to unfold; it is the combination of the orientation and more, packaged in the Brand Uniport that you now are.

Today, I shall be talking on, ‘Facing The Brave New Future’. You better believe me that the future you are going to face will be ‘brave’ and curiously, ‘new’. There is a hackneyed but true expression that, ‘The future has changed’. In relative terms, when we were graduating, we had a set of expectations about what life ahead had in store for us. Today, the parameters have changed radically. The only thing one can say is certain about the future is that it is primed for even more change and dynamism. All the projections that probably informed your decisions about the time you chose to study pharmacy, have since altered, not just for you but for everybody. The changes have occurred, not just within the local Nigerian environment, but across the wider global one as well.

We can pretend to be noble and altruistic in our quest for education, the stark reality is that for many of us in ‘developing’ societies, good quality education, such as you have received, is still a major form of insurance and a meal ticket. We live in a society that has poor economic and social safety nets, where poverty is still endemic with high prospects of quick descent into penury and squalor. Given the collection of Fellows, academicians, graduate pharmacists and students here today, this is an elite gathering. In the field of pharmacy anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, I must not fail to observe that this is a sign of how times have changed. Two hundred years ago, this gathering would have been taking place in a shrine and would have been the collection of all the great native doctors in our community. Did it occur to you that the pharmacist of a few centuries ago was also the doctor and the nurse of today, all rolled into one. If you can take time to observe the typical native doctor at work, you will see why they remain your competitors and you must bear in mind that they were the group you replaced at the dinner table. Even more change is certain to take place.

In describing the ‘mega-trends’ now dominating our space, Robert Tucker, a futurist, pointed out that we now live in a ‘VUCA’ (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) World. There is increased Global Uncertainty across the world, and that ‘Future Shock’, predicted half a century ago by Alvin Toffler, is now present reality. The individual is traumatised by changes that occur within a relatively short time as our society moves from an industrial to a super-industrial state. Advancements in technology are bringing some unimaginable innovations also. There are such things as ‘floating farms, brain wave passwords, coffee-powered cars, living (self-repairing} concrete building materials’ are now all technological realities.

The end of fossil fuel is in sight and renewable energy will grow exponentially. Demographic changes and great population changes are on the increase. With the ramping up of space exploration by private companies, we may soon begin to have intergalactic tours and even a colony on the moon. Globalisation is another major factor and now there is the health component of this phenomenon that we can no longer ignore. The ongoing Coronavirus contagion started in Wuhan in China. Today, it is devastating markets and disrupting societies across the world. Just this morning, we were given the chilling news that the Virus has finally come to Nigeria, even though we were given the cold comfort that the victim is an Italian.

In Tucker’s VUCA world, one of the key elements which will shape events, is the ongoing 4th Industrial Revolution, which is the entry of information technology. There is now superiority of ‘knowledge-production’ and ‘information-processing’, over and above monetary wealth and manufacturing. This Revolution is exacerbating Digital Disruption and significant decline in ‘social trust’. Friendships are now virtual, and you can ‘unfriend’ someone with just a click. There is also the demographic change that is around the corner, which will see the maturing of the millennials and their social media ways. There are paradoxes that will face the Nigerian resident in the sense that while the rest of the world will be witnessing major advancement in various areas, the Nigerian environment will face inexplicable decline or stunted growth. Poverty is being tackled over the world and many nations are taking millions of people each year out of it. Meanwhile, Nigeria is fast turning into the poverty capital of the world. The Youth bulge and its adverse effects are already ravaging our society.

While we live in a world of change, I must not fail to use this opportunity to make a critical observation. It is a historical fact that our medical practices in Africa were more advanced than those of the West, which we now seem to have now accepted as the standard. I weep when we simply jettison, without even making any effort to query, validate and accept or reject them. I call this the ‘Illicit Gin’ mentality. I am sorry if I ruffle conventional feathers but then, I have taken refuge in the fact that I am not a pharmacist and therefore cannot be punished for not keeping to the didactic dictates of your profession. Those familiar with history will recall handily that one way the colonialists protected their export market, like Nigeria, for their infamous ‘fire water’ – gins, whisky and schnapps, was to slam their local equivalent, with the demeaning name of ‘illicit gin’. For good measure, the subliminally powerful word, ‘Imported’ was put on such foreign tipple. Somehow, the sobriquet and the mentality of ‘illicit gin’, has remained with us long after colonisation. We have been made to perceive most of our indigenous practices and products as ‘illicit’. In your field, as in many others, the ‘illicit gin’ mentality’ is a problem that needs to be tackled and rooted out.

In the brave new world that you are about to face, the paradigms will continue to change, oftentimes very rapidly. In 1970, a futurist by the name Irvin Toffler, invented the phrase, ‘Future Shock’. He defined this as a personal perception of ‘too much change in too short a period’. In the book, he made some amazingly accurate predictions about certain developments in technology and society. Four of the most significant ones were the emergence of the internet, a sharing economy, telecommuting and business without a formal structure. In the course of his dissertations, Toffler invented other expressions like, ‘information overload’, which is prevalent in today’s computerised world, and adhocracy, which defines the lack of hierarchy in the forms of business entities that are mushrooming in today’s ‘dot com’ world.

This was many years before the advent of Amazon.com; Facebook, Google, Uber, AirB&B and other corporate giants that have their foundation literally in the cloud. That is the exciting paradox of life! Metal sinks, yet it takes metal to float the largest vessels on water. This should be food for thought for each one. We must always think outside the box and not just reason in a ‘commonsensical’ way all the time. If Isaac Newton had not reasoned otherwise when the apple fell on him, we probably would not have discovered the phenomenon of gravity until much later in the history of mankind. When everyone is saying, ‘Why Not’? listen to your inner thoughts, if they are telling you, ‘Why’?. As Ralph Waldo Emerson would say, ‘Speak your latent conviction, and it shall become the universal sense’. When Mbonu Ojike was the advocate of ‘Buy Nigeria’ in the 1950s, he was perceived as a noisy self-seeking outlier and a maverick. His mantra was, ‘Boycott All Boycottables’, and he challenged Nigerians to consume only what they produced. More than half a century later, we have come to realise that we cannot develop until we are able to produce much of what we consume. Nigeria is still heavily import-dependent, and it is only now that the mindset is gradually changing.

In the heydays of the oil boom, everything was imported and the ‘illicit gin; mentality was entrenched with the cheap money that oil brought. The narrative that fuelled our import dependency was that our local products and even raw materials were inferior to international ones. I remember with sadness a conversation I once had with one of our famous consultants, whom I challenged on the need to at least recommend the use of our starch in making tablets. His response was that it was not of ‘pharmaceutical grade’! I believe that up till now, many of us still have the belief that even our raw materials are of inferior quality. When you travel abroad and taste their bananas, peanuts and cashew nuts; and drink their stout, beer, and other drinks, you will be left in no doubt that we have an underappreciated system.

Technology will bring fundamental changes to the world we live in today. The cycle of transformation will continue to shorten, and it is only the ones that have great ability to adapt that can survive and thrive. I am told that pharmacy is the major professions that will be under pressure from the growth of robots and artificial intelligence. It is estimated that within the next few years, some of the core activities of the pharmacist will be taken over completely by robots and artificial intelligence. Barcodes and algorithms will be increasingly used to ensure correct medication and dispensing of drug dosages. Wearable devices could be a major threat to the pharmacist as they will be able to monitor the body real time and prescribe preventive and even curative solutions encroaching on the preserve of the certified pharmacist. This scary scenario is a reality that is already unfolding before our eyes and the progression looks like being geometric in that brave new future.

While these changes are taking place, the pharmacist remains one of the most equipped to meet the challenges of this brave future. The training you have received here all these years, gives you necessary tools you require to think outside the box, analyse critically, and take charge of your affairs and your environment. One of these tools that you are taking away from this Institution, is the capacity for Critical Thinking. Regardless of the advancement of technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI), critical and creative thinking places you above machine and algorithms. Furthermore, there is the unmatched ability to develop interpersonal relations and trust in a way that only humans can. As robots and technology take over, humanity will continue to hold that edge and is bound to continue to do so. They are basic human features that you must tap into and use to help you navigate the uncharted and uncertain brave future.

You can decide to remain in the classical pharmaceutical profession, or you can branch out to become whoever or whatever your dreams take you. There is enough scope to challenge you and provide the means of livelihood for every diligent person. With the rising incidence of new strains of viruses and diseases, your profession could not be more important to the world. Wonder drugs that were discovered helped transform the world. In eight years’ time, it will be the centenary of the discovery of penicillin, a drug that has had a major impact on the world. There are other drugs that have equally made significant impact on the world. Quinine, vaccines of all sorts, insulin, ether, aspirin, morphine and Viagra, are all major drugs, whose discovery have helped change the world. Our forests are holding their secrets and probably waiting for you to follow the footsteps of our traditional herbalists to discover the active ingredient that will transform the world.

I daresay that in your midst today, there are several great minds who have what it takes to bring in the next wonder drug into the world. We are facing debilitating diseases that defy current medical practices and therapy. You have your work cut out for you in that regard. I would like some of you to commit their future to the rediscovery and promotion of our local healing methods and drugs. They need to be mainstreamed and I can assure you that they will bring immense rewards, far beyond pecuniary ones, to those who dare.

My challenge to all of you today comes from first asking you to engage in deep introspection over certain issues that trouble me, and certainly many others. First, it is obvious that your training as pharmacists has adopted a certain Eurocentric approach and orientation. Be that as it may, you must agree that there are local approaches that deserve closer study and analysis. We used to have herbalists, precursors of present-day pharmacists, whose prescriptions and herbs helped to keep the society healthy. There may be poor precepts and principles in the way they plied their trade but there is no doubt that there are many secrets and recipes that need to be rediscovered because of their efficacy and efficiency. They are more needed now since there are still various illnesses that still ravage society and need cure. As a child, the forests presented us numerous mysteries that I believe deserve further investigation. Who knows, there could be one breakthrough from such research efforts that can transform health care and the economy. As you can see, it is taking the Western world to jolt us to the reality that there are numerous secrets that are hidden in our common bitter kola, bitter leaf, soursop, and so on. Another ‘Mungo Park discovering River Niger’ phenomenon, is happening before all of us! We can do more on our own by looking at many other things that are yet to be discovered or rediscovered. I challenge you to lead the charge, and may I nudge you to the fact that there is a unique fruit that gave us pleasure when we were in the primary school. It goes with the native name, ‘uningini’, which is almost extinct, but which, once eaten one of it, would make everything consumed afterwards to taste like sugar.

There are many more things out there to discover, not just new drugs, but new methods and processes. There are no longer clear boundaries for markets and professions. Don’t think as just a pharmacist; think as an entrepreneur. Look for problems to solve and think of how to do so at a decent return. I do not know how many of us know that the most recognisable brand in the world, Coca Cola, was, in fact, invented by a pharmacist and that it was at first peddled as a drug. We hear of the ‘Town and Gown’ initiatives that link the academia with the real-world industry. I propose another paradigm for you today, the ‘Herb and Lab’ initiative. We should discover the potency and active ingredients in the numerous plants and roots of the rainforest through the analytical methods of our laboratories. John Donne would advise that you take up the task yourself and not, ‘Ask for whom the bell tolls, because it tolls for thee’.

Now, it is not likely that all of you will end up practising your profession. In fact, in the brave new future, it will be the other way around. Convergence and the impact of technology suggest that many of you will veer off shortly into other areas of endeavour. I have friends in your profession, who simply used their training to veer into other areas of life. I know several of your senior colleagues who not only distinguished themselves in the field of pharmacy but also grew to become titans in the boardrooms, in administration and in public service. I know of another pharmacist who is into shipping, power generation and other businesses. It is your turn to go out there and make it in that Brave New Future that opens before you. Bear in mind that from now on, you will be responsible for the consequences of your actions and you will be thrown into the small pool of potential leaders. It is a tough call, but it could be fun too.

If decades ago, trained pharmacists veered into other professions, it will be even more so during your own time. Yours could be business, management, policy, data analytics or public service. In every field that you wish to explore and make your mark, there will always be the principle of seeking to understand trends and dynamics, discovering and unlocking value, and working towards engendering better lives for yourselves, your immediate community and the larger society. You must seek what your purpose on earth is and then go ahead to pursue and attain it. For the bulk of you who will remain in your chosen field of pharmacy, please bear in mind that you must work to clean up the industry. There are so many unsavoury practices that dog the sector and they will continue to give a bad name to your noble profession if not confronted and addressed.

You must bear in mind that regardless of what choices you make for your future, there are key considerations that you must put in perspective. One of the benefits of the training and orientation that you have received is that it has given you the opportunity to take decisions for yourselves and to be responsible for their consequences. You must strive to achieve financial independence as quickly as you can. It is a very difficult state to achieve and it requires diligence and careful attention to attain. As one grows, some of the biggest sources of financial challenge you will face are first, getting a roof of your own over your head, and at some point, school fees. Barring any major catastrophe, as one nears retirement, medical expenses will begin to balloon. It is never too early to begin to plan for these realities. The society is becoming more individualistic and you must strive to cater for these as they affect you.

I cannot resist the urge to challenge you to look back at our traditional healing methods and practices in order to see what dying cultures the world can benefit from. I have a strong feeling that there are numerous local herbs, formulations and practices that can help solve some of the world’s health challenges. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that there is the resurgence of ‘natural’ medicines and remedies. You will agree with me that the numerous herbs and concoctions of the rainforest are yet to take their place on the table of global pharmaceutical practice. Our herbs have continued to beckon for further research and for the discovery and adoption of their therapeutic effects.

You must ask yourself, as a pharmacist, when last did I try to explore my forests and bushes? Have you ever tried to find out what are the active ingredients in some of the plants and trees that abound in our hometowns? When last did we enter the forest or even our backyards to take an academic look at the bounties of the rainforest herbs and plants. Yours may be the burden of mainstreaming some of our local roots and leaves.

May I also use this opportunity to point out that the pharmacist has a great opportunity in discovering new curatives and in registering patents. The local methods need to be formalised and there is the great prospect that those who devote a little more time to pursue these will meet fame and fortune. I know there is the common expression, ‘Active Ingredient’ in your trade. This is the core utility that is found in any drug that you administer. The researcher finds it and makes a lot of money. When either imitators or humanitarian agencies want to produce cheaper versions, they simply take the active ingredient and add it to their own fabrication. From a philosophical point of view, life’s secret lies in finding that ‘Active Ingredient’; sifting the wheat from the chaff and applying that to move your life forward.
As the world gets more and more dynamic, there is always the active ingredient, which holds to key to progress and growth. My simple advice is that you always search for that active ingredient. Keep your eye on the ball and avoid getting distracted.

My sincere feeling is that Nigeria has come to a point where there must be a revolution; not a violent one, but a revolution of the mind. A few indicators tell us that Nigeria has all it takes to be a strong global player. The world-famous Nollywood as we know it today, was kicked off less than three decades ago. Don’t get me wrong; we had a local film industry but it was the release of the blockbuster movie, ‘Living In Bondage’ in 1992 that unleashed a movie revolution that today has placed Nigeria firmly on the world movie map as it is second only to the Indian Bollywood industry in terms of number of movies produced annually. As at 2018, Nollywood is known to be producing about 2,500 films annually and is valued at about US$5 billion. Similarly, the country’s fashion industry based on the estimates of Euromonitor, a global market and data analysis firm, was worth nearly US$5 billion by the end of 2019.
One striking feature of these two growing industries is that there is relatively very little government participation in their activities.

In conclusion, I need to give you a few tips that should be your guide. Remember that there are key qualities that are fundamental to success. You must strive to develop your own discriminating features that make you unique and invaluable to society. One must be known for something, in order to succeed and no one survives on one off patronage. The word ‘Customer’ hints at the fact that there is the ‘custom’ of repeat business. One must be known for something so that customers will always seek one out for the service one renders. Take delight in your chosen trade and do it to the best of your ability. Bear in mind that you are already old enough to be a major player in the industry. Remember that the Nigeria of the 60s that everyone is idolising today was built and governed by people in their 20s and 30s.

You must strive for financial independence and today is the best time to focus on it. Financial literacy is a key tool in achieving financial independence. Avoid digital illiteracy and make Google your partner! We live in the Information Age and you will be pleasantly shocked at the amount of information you can access through Google and the internet. With access to the internet through your Android device or iPhone, you have in your hands, the world’s largest library. Take full advantage of it. Don’t spend all your time chatting and sharing junk posts with virtual friends that will not help your life. Nigeria is a major internet user in the world, but it is sad that we have not used that traffic to boost our Gross Domestic Product. The internet and the growth of the media have spawned the occurrence of Fake New and Alternative Facts. Nevertheless, bear in mind that social media tools have helped to flatten hierarchies and cut through red tape in our society. Some markets are now easier to access, and you can sell your products and ideas to anyone anywhere in the world through the internet. You can have access to a vast audience and market, if you are savvy and you are digitally literate. Your success could be just a click away.

On a final note, we must bear in mind that there is nothing more indomitable than the human spirit, but this can only be realised when we place Hope above Fear. Using the street parlance, it is that spirit of ‘God Dey’, which must continue to guide and motivate us. Regardless of what challenges we may face, remember that world history is full of tales of catastrophe and near extinction. It has always been the case since recorded history. Somehow, the world and civilisation have continued to march on inexorably. The world always gets to a point of inflexion all the time and paradigms arise to redefine human existence.

From the Greek legends, we were told that Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. The incensed gods in vengeance surreptitiously sent Pandora down to earth with a box full of things that were largely trouble. These were let loose on us, but one item was left intact in Pandora’s Box. This was ‘Hope’, and it has continued to save the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, Hope is the last ammunition in our arsenal as human beings. Thank you for your attention.

•Ugochukwu A. Okoroafor, mni, fcs, delivered this Keynote Speech at The 9th Induction/Oath Taking Ceremony of Graduating Students of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Port Harcourt on 28th February 2020.