Prof. Ayodele Olorunda, 75, is the first Professor of Food Technology in Nigeria. He shares his life experiences in this interview with Fisayo Falodi
Where did you train?
I was trained abroad, precisely in Britain and I have been a visiting professor in several countries, including Canada. I have been all over the place. I have also been a consultant in harvest technology, post-harvest handling, storage, preservation and packaging of food system. I am a consultant to several United Nations agencies, as well as the Nigerian food industry where I am very much involved in technology transfer.
How was growing up as a young boy in Ikare-Akoko?
I didn’t grow up in Ikare-Akoko though I hail from the town. Just like any young chap, I went to primary and secondary schools based on providence in many cases. You can become something and get to anywhere if you are determined, but professorship in Nigeria does not make you rich.
I am happy that I was able to solve some problems, especially in my field like problems of wastage, post-harvest food handling, drying, processing and protective packaging in the food supply chain. We used to have problems of growing crops, harvesting them and losing them due to poor storage. These were the problems we faced in Nigeria when we just started working in those days and which we are still facing today.
Food technology was not popular during your school age. What informed your decision to study the course?
Food technology is just an offshoot of agriculture. Food technology was popular, but it was just that only few universities in Nigeria offered it in the past. The course was introduced after Nigeria’s independence. Most of our foods in Nigeria are derived from the fresh market, which is farm. Eight out of every 10 Nigerians are farmers; in other words, they grow what they want to eat. They cannot cope with the surplus, which is a problem. Though Nigerians had been going to agriculture to develop high-yielding crops, we discovered that at the end of the day, preservation became a major problem.
So, this became a fertile area for research. Besides, when the University of Ibadan started, particularly after the civil war, we realised that we needed an institute of science and technology. The agriculture we were doing earlier was just to grow cocoa and export it. We were not thinking about how to extend the shelf life of some of our food crops. So, when the Federal Government realised this, it worked through the University of Ibadan to start something especially in the area of post-harvest loss that would help in the storage of a number of our food products.
So, I was among the first set of recruits to go into storage to extend the shelf lives of our food crops. We also had Western Nigeria Development Corporation which had interest in exporting food abroad and then people started looking into this.
Nigerians too were taking yam abroad, but they discovered that the yam got rotten quickly because of the weather. This made us to begin a research in this area and we took it abroad and worked on it up to our Ph.D degree. We also worked on many other commodities, especially perishable items, but I regret to say that some of the problems we decided to solve then are still with us today because of lack of infrastructure.
Electricity is very important in storage; hardly can you guarantee 20 per cent of electricity supply in a day to store foods. This is a major reason why I am still concerned because lack of electricity rubbishes the efforts of scientists in preserving foods. Infrastructure like road is also important. You may want to do many things, like packaging of food items but the infrastructural constraint will limit you. The same thing applies to packaging of animal products.
Looking back at your academic achievements and contributions to the food processing industry in Nigeria, how satisfied are you?
I have laid some good foundations. I have trained many people who are doing well in the food industries today in the country and around the world. I am an external examiner to Ghana; I have been going there since 1984. I have also been to Kenya where I also helped in establishing food industries. I have been to South Africa where I spent eight years. I helped start a Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of Venda for Science and Technology, South Africa. Many of my products are all over the place and I am happy that they are doing well. Food storage is our major problem; we grow the food only to see them wasted due to lack of infrastructure.
What do you then advise the government and corporate organisations to do in the area of food storage?
They are already addressing the problem. There is the Federal Institute of Industrial Research and others and they are interested in solving the problem.
Are the institutes making impact?
At least, I will say they are making impact in terms of awareness because they make people more aware that food can be packaged, but we still have to do more.
As a former Director of Owena River Basin Development Authority, were the objectives or the goals of setting up the agency achieved?
The goals were to control flooding and construct irrigation for farming. At that time, there was a lot of drought in the North which necessitated the setting up of irrigation in that region and the government then decided to spread the agency to other parts of the country. I must say that irrigation was more important in places like Kano and other towns in the North. Most of our crops are rain-fed in the South, whereas in the North, they depend on local irrigation.
But since the Owena River Basin Authority was also established in the South, we did a lot of enlightenment programmes, especially on how to control flood for agricultural development. We thought of using the flood to irrigate some of the crops.
At that time, erosion was not as serious as it is now. We also thought of using the raw water to supply potable water to towns in the then old Ondo State and we were able to establish a technical feasibility for the actualisation of the project, but you need funding to achieve it. For example, a lot of funding is needed to control gully erosion because most of the agencies responsible for this are funded by the Federal Government.
The dream of many university lecturers is to become the vice-chancellor of their institutions. Did you ever nurse such an ambition while in active service?
I don’t think so because what was more important to us was to be famous in our individual area of expertise. We were more interested in knowledge transfer than dreaming to become a vice-chancellor whose functions are more of administration. We were also interested in working in partnership with research institutes. Most of our products are now the people calling the shots in many universities across the world.
They often invite us as external examiners to examine doctorate degree students in their various schools and we are happy with that. In our time, vice-chancellorship was not celebrated as it is being done now. It is not like that in Ghana where people go to classroom to teach after they leave the vice-chancellorship office. In fact, while in office as the vice-chancellor, they still teach. It is not like the big ceremony attached to the vice-chancellorship office in Nigeria these days.
Why did you pick up another teaching job in South Africa after your retirement?
What happened then was that South Africa just got black independence and there were universities for the whites and blacks. So, the Federal Government of Nigeria appealed to some of us to go and assist the South African government.
Already, we were established at the University of Ibadan, but when the appeal came, we agreed to go there to help because we valued the development of the black race. Most of us who went there were interested in helping our black brothers. That was the main reason why we left Nigeria then for South Africa. I spent eight years in South Africa and came back to the University of Ibadan.
How was your experience like while moving from one country to the other?
I was on sabbatical when I went to Kenya to assist in the development of post-graduate study in Food Technology and Post-harvest Handling which I did for a while before I came back to the University of Ibadan. I also went to Ghana for three years as an external examiner for Ph.D students. I learnt a lot from travelling to these places and the students there also learnt a lot from me.
Were you taking your wife along with you while moving from one country to the other?
She and the children used to spend holidays with me. They were always with me wherever I was when they had holidays.
Did she not express the fear that you might take another wife when she was not around?
I didn’t stay too much before I came home; I used to come home often especially during long vacations. Long vacations used to be very pronounced here because of lecturers’ strike and others, but in those countries, you have a stable academic system and you go on long vacation when you are supposed to go.
Salaries of university lecturers were said to be poor in the past. How were you able to cope?
Well, it depends on what you want. During our time at the University of Ibadan, we were not after ostentatious living; we were just contented with the little we were earning.
As a young couple, how did you cope when your wife had to go for night duty as a nurse?
She did not do too much of nursing even though she started as a nurse. She later went for post-graduate studies up to doctorate degree. She is basically in the educational wing of nursing.
How long did it take you to convince her to accept your marriage proposal?
I couldn’t remember. We married over 30 years ago. So, I couldn’t remember.
So, you didn’t play any trick before she accepted to marry you?
I didn’t play any trick, but I used to buy gifts for her which I considered one of the normal things to do; it is a standard practice and there is nothing spectacular in it.
Will you marry her again if there is reincarnation?
Why not? We have come a long way together and the bonding is still there.
What is the future of food technology in Nigeria regarding the wastefulness accompanying harvest seasons in the country?
It is very bright. The future of food technology is bright in Nigeria. One thing we must also understand is that electricity is important in food processing because you need it to power your refrigerator.
Then, there should be good roads because farmers should be able to drive from their farms to Lagos or the airport. All these infrastructural challenges are needed to be sorted out and the commodities that have export potential should be developed for people to accept what we are producing. It is just like in those days when Nigeria was good in cocoa production. We grew the varieties of cocoa that people wanted then. Most of the things we are growing and exporting these days are being rejected because they are not the type that people want. The future of food technology is great, but I think everything depends on us.
Do you have any of your children towing your path?
Yes. One of them is in medical line in the United Kingdom.
How do you keep fit?
At over 70, I do a lot of walking.
Many of your active years were spent at the University of Ibadan. How did you handle harassment by your female students?
It wasn’t a problem to me; in fact, it was not common at the University of Ibadan at that time. We used to hear a lot of things like that from abroad. We were only interested in building young chaps in our time.
Because of age, have you finally retired?
I am still offering services; I have some masters’ and doctoral students that I still supervise at the University of Ibadan. I still do visitation to some other universities at home and abroad from time to time. Anyway, I will continue to work as long as I am a live and I am able to stand on my feet.