Have you heard the one about the abandoned containers?
About 800 or so containers of electricity equipment abandoned at the Ports by the Nigerian government for years (between three and eight years, said the then Minister of Power in 2016). We paid for equipment, had them shipped to the country, and then left them at the Ports. “Contractors, who took loans to import the equipment abandoned the containers when they could not get them cleared.”
According to BRF, the Minister, President Buhari approved the release of funds to pay the demurrage that had accrued over the years.
The recovery was done progressively, 218 containers cited in the 2016 story above, by this 2018 story it had grown to 690. Eventually I believe all were cleared and dispatched to various sites nationwide.
Even with the “hard work” required for negotiating clearance, and clearing demurrage arrears, in the scheme of things, this intervention was low-hanging fruit. The equipment were already at the Ports, and the work that lay ahead (sourcing funding, clearing and dispatching) was arguably relatively small compared to all the work that had already been completed: the manufacturing of the equipment, a (no doubt) lengthy procurement process, the shipping, the offloading at the Ports, etc.
That story of the stranded containers has stayed with me, as an emblem for every situation in which relatively small obstacles can make all the difference between success and failure, between abandonment and completion.
It came back to me recently when the DG of the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) was speaking about one of their biggest challenges as an agency: equipment maintenance:
“The maintenance of medical equipment is one of the biggest challenges we have. We are focusing on the laboratory side but anybody working in the health space will tell you the challenges that we have with very expensive pieces of medical equipment are that they often break down for one small problem and that is a challenge that we are trying to solve.
“When we came into the NCDC four years ago, we realised that there were several pieces of laboratory equipment lying across the country that were not functioning. “This may be because of one small problem. Therefore, equipment worth millions of Naira, sometimes Dollars, are being wasted. So we started looking for how to train our biomedical engineers.
“We found a partner in a Japanese international cooperation agency and they started supporting us specifically in this regard. We have now trained two biomedical engineers over 6 months in Japan. Japan is well known worldwide for their capacity for things like this. These two colleagues are leading a lot of the efforts on the equipment side of activating labs.”
Equipment worth millions of dollars, wasting away because of “small problems”.
So where does the title of this piece — Task Force on Small Things — come in?
I have often thought about the idea of a Task Force on Small Things, established by a State or Federal Government, and whose singular mandate is to scout for significant bottlenecks and challenges that can be resolved by relatively minor / minimal ‘interventions’.
Someone told a story once, of a Nigerian University that had experienced the theft of vital water supply equipment in its water works. It had gone ahead to purchase a replacement, which it had then left un-installed for a long time.
When a new VC took over, and investigated, he found that the reason for the non-installation was a fairly simple one. It had been decided that a steel contraption was required to serve as a protective cover for the replacement equipment, to forestall future theft.
The problem was that all the technician whose job it would have been to weld this contraption considered the task beneath him, since they had been promoted to what one would consider a senior role — maybe ‘Chief’ Welder or ‘Assistant Chief’ Welder or something of the sort. And there were no junior-level technicians, since the Department hadn’t done any new hirings in a while.
You know how Nigerians can be with their titles, God forbid that a Chief Technician be doing the work of an entry-level Technician.
And so they decided that it was best to contract out the task. But the Department didn’t have the funding for this. And so they waited. And so the protective contraption waited. And so the equipment installation waited. And so the University wallowed in the ensuing discomfort.
Until this new VC dug deep and found out what the real issue was — ego, simply put — and got the matter resolved.
This might sound extreme but it’s the story of Nigeria. There are several instances of this all around us, especially in the public sector.
Desperately-needed Multimillion dollar equipment, already purchased, yet still lying in its packaging, forgotten, for one reason or the other. This is not hypothetical. See this 2017 story: “Health ministry installs cancer equipment abandoned since 2013.”
“It was gathered that in late 2016, the Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, paid a working visit to the hospital to assess the state of infrastructure, during which he discovered that a brand new radiotherapy machine was actually purchased and supplied in 2013, but it was left uninstalled.”
In a country that desperately needs functioning cancer centers, sophisticated equipment were imported in 2013 and left uninstalled for years, for a simple reason: It appeared to be too much work for the recipient hospital to build the radiotherapy “bunkers” in which the machines would be installed.
I have heard of comatose (government-owned) fertilizer factories that were revived by fixing a spare part(s) worth a few hundred thousand Naira.
Small, simple steps, that made a huge difference.
That’s where the idea of a Task Force on Small Things comes in.
With a mandate, as I said earlier, to scout for bottlenecks and challenges that can be resolved by a relatively minor / minimal ‘intervention’.
The hardest part of the work, in my opinion, is first unearthing these instances. Finding them everywhere they exist. The abandoned containers, the forgotten equipment, the broken-down machine that needs a minor fix.
Once that’s done everything else can follow fairly effortlessly. Finding the money to clear the goods, or install or repair the equipment.
It’s a no-brainer getting Presidential approval for funding to clear abandoned containers of critical power equipment, in a power-starved country. The real work is even discovering in the first place that anything was abandoned.
That’s the duty of my Task Force on Small Things.
And think of all the ensuing long-term opportunities from the work of such a Task Force: the realisation that we need to train technicians and engineers, like NCDC has done.
The realisation that maintenance is key, and that maintenance protocols have to be mandatorily built into government procurement processes. Perhaps every contract awarded must include a component for training and re-training Nigerian maintenance personnel — a form of local content capacity building.
Let me stop there. One caveat though, the ideal Task Force on Small Things must be a modest and lean operation. Not something that will become another parastatal years down the line, with a retinue of Directors and Deputy Directors and Assistant Directors and vast budgets for Overseas Training and Headquarters Construction. That starts to become its own bureaucracy, competing with government agencies for resources and attention, and lapsing into gatekeeping duties.
That’s always the big danger with these things, no?