I am generally called “Dr Olu”. My full name is Olusola Sayeed Ayoola.
If at all there was anything in my childhood that pointed to what I am doing today, it would be my interest in learning new things.
I grew up with a philosophy that, coming from a family of lawyers, I would study law, and like my parents, be a great lawyer or a judge. My dad, Hon Justice Olu Ayoola, a native of Ilesa, used to be a judge of the High Court in Western Region/Nigeria, until 1976 when he was forcefully retired by the then ruling Federal Military Government which said it was doing some cleansing of the system.
Apparently, there was some petition written against the judges but none of them was given a chance to know about it, let alone defend themselves against it. This created a sort of psychological trauma for many of them, but my dad was able to pull through by starting a legal consultancy and did a bit of teaching in some universities. He died in 2003. My mum, Justice Ruqayat Ayoola, who was a lot younger, was a lawyer, who later joined his consultancy, and, in 2010, became a judge in Kogi State, where she hails from. My uncle, Emmanuel Olayinka Ayoola, is a retired Supreme Court Justice and former chairman of the ICPC (Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission).
In 2001, when I was thirteen years old, and about to get into senior secondary school, at All Saints’ College, Jericho, I was faced with the challenge of doing arts or science. This happened because, even as I wanted to follow the family tradition to become a lawyer, the Islamic Religious teacher who used to come to the house – my mum is Muslim while dad was a Christian – told my parents that after some consultation, he had a revelation that I would become a medical doctor while my twin sister, Dolapo, would be a nurse.
In our Junior WAEC, I had done well in physics and mathematics.
However, not long after I found myself science, I realised that I did not like biology at all. I was not cut out for all the scientific names, the drawings we had to memorise, and the labelling of the various parts, So, I told my mum that I was not enjoying the subject at all and that I would either switch back to the arts or choose something else in science.
Before we would resume for the second term of SS1, I decided to read some literature books, with a view to cross over to the arts. I found the Shakespeare books boring. My sister, Dolapo, who had stuck with the arts – she did not pass mathematics even as the Alfa had prophesied that she would be a nurse – was not forthcoming when I tried to get her to help me understand the literature books. She said I should figure things out by myself.
After some time, I decided that I should remain in sciences because I love mathematics.
I then asked a family friend who happens to share the same surname with us, but he is from Oyo State, what other great science course one could pursue apart from medicine. He said engineering and talked about mechanical, civil, chemical, electronics/electrical, etc. I then asked him which was the toughest? He said electronics/electrical. I said that would be my choice. The only reason I wanted the toughest one was because I did not want people to say I ran away from law and medicine because I could not do them and went for a cheap course in engineering..
Now, gaining admission to read electronics/electrical engineering at the University of Ibadan (UI) was an interesting situation.
In my first attempt at JAMB (Universal Tertiary Matriculation Examination), I scored 237 which was below UI’s cut-off mark for the course. In 2005, UI said I could change my course to physics. I asked if I would be allowed to switch after the first year to electrical engineering. I was told that if I was in physics and excelling, I might not be allowed to switch.
I decided then that I should go for A Level at the Education Advancement Centre (EAC) at Bodija, and prepare better for the JAMB. At A Level, I got A in physics, B in mathematics and C in chemistry. But I was not going to use the A Level result for the university admission because that would have meant waiting for the following year’s admission. So, I had to do JAMB again; this time, I scaled through. Now, it was in 2006 that the post-UTME was introduced, and it was a one-on-one interview, not an examination. I saw my name in The Guardian newspaper as one of those shortlisted for the interview.
I had prayed to God for admission because many times, my mum and I would go to see the Dean and the Faculty officer and got told that the remaining slots were for those from educationally disadvantaged states.
So, being on the shortlist was like a miracle and God answering my prayer. I had pledged to God that I would give a beggar one thousand Naira which then was some good money. After seeing my name on the list, I did exactly that.
At the post-UTME interview, I and another guy from Osun State were the first to be called to meet the then Dean of Faculty of Technology. When we were before him, he asked: ‘The two of you, why are you here?’ I was, like, ‘wow, were we so qualified that we should not have even attended the interview?’ Anyway, we told him that our names were on the shortlist that was published in The Guardian newspaper. He said, ‘really, the list we sent from the Faculty, there is no way your names will be there.’ He then instructed his secretary to take us to the Admissions Officer to complain. It was so embarrassing. What kind of thing was this? And I had given the beggar the money. Hahahaha. I was so sad.
There was no mobile phone to call my mum or any other person. I went with the secretary to the Admissions Officer Undergraduate. On the way, she said: ‘This is UI. Whoever you bribed to get to this stage, go and get your money back.’ Bribed? What was she talking about? At the Admissions Officer’s office, when we explained to her why we were there, she said, ‘so you must be among the people that we made mistakes on. So sorry.’ Sorry? Remedy the situation, then. She said we should go home, and the problem would be sorted. When I got home and told my mum what had happened, she too was shocked. Later that day, we went back to the department, and they were just rounding off the interviews. The Dean was with the Head of Department. We were told that most of the people who came for the interview did not perform well, so we should have hope. We returned home.
My mum, who was then a lawyer, wrote a letter to the Admissions Officer, who, by the way, is UI’s current Registrar (Mrs Olubunmi Faluyi) stating everything from the shortlist to the refusal at the interview and all that. For the breach, my mum asked for the payment of five-million-naira compensation and an apology. When she read the letter, she called my mum in, and told her that it had not got to that level and that she had the assurance of the Dean and the HOD that there would be another list and we should have hope that my name would be there. Well, the second list came out, my name was not there. The third list came out, my name was still not there. Eventually, a supplementary list had my name.
When we went for the interview, the HOD asked me why I was coming through UTME and not Direct Entry since I had a good A Level result. I told him that I would start with 100-Level rather than hope for a Direct Entry admission which may not come. I added that I wanted to learn from the beginning and not miss out on anything.
I then decided that since I was rejected several times by the university, I would make sure that I do so well that they would come to realise that the rejected stone has become the cornerstone.
I finished in 2011 with a First Class.
I am happy that it all went well.
I also realised that sometimes when you get rejected, it does not mean that you are worthless, it just means that those who rejected you do not yet know your worth and you must prove your worth.
I proved my worth. I was in the middle of everything, and did not miss out on anything.
I was the Class Rep, and it is interesting how that happened. It was a coup. In the first year, lecturers would ask class representatives of every department to come and submit the attendance list. In our first year and the first class we had, when that kind of announcement was made, one boy from my department stood up as the Class Rep and I was wondering who appointed him, when, how and where?
The same sequence happened another time. I figured then that anyone could present himself as the Class Rep.
So, one day, I was taking a walk with some friends around the Faculty of Technology and the President of the Students’ association in the faculty was passing by and we went to him to complain that we had not received our students’ package for the session. He then said that one person from the department should come and meet him to collect it. I told him I was from the department. He gave me his room number, I went there and collected the package, and the list of everyone in the class, those who had paid and those who had not, and said that I should distribute the package accordingly.
That was like collecting a tool of office.
The next time we were in the lecture hall, I went to the podium and announced that all students in electronics/electrical should queue up to collect their package. So, they all formed a straight line and from then on I became the leader of the class.
As I was the Class Rep, I noticed that engineering students were not that social, so I decided to bring some life into the place by doing two things.
One, in our 200 Level, I created awards which recognised the best dressed, the most hardworking and some other categories. The certificates were signed by me as the Class Rep and the lecturer who oversaw student affairs. On the day of the presentation, we gathered in the Ashamu Building (the faculty auditorium), some forty-four of us, had food and drinks and generally had fun. The event stood us out in the Faculty as an organised lot. It was during my A Level study at EDC that I developed that soft skill. In secondary school I was quite shy. But at EDC, I decided to get involved in the Muslim Students’ Society (MSS) that I even became the group’s president. So, I learned quickly how to bring people together for lectures and various other events.
The second extraordinary thing I did was at my 300 level. I knew how to use the mobile phone to shoot a video and transfer it to the laptop for editing. So, I organised an excursion for the class which took us to such places as the Oba Dam, Zoological Gardens, and the ends of UI that many people hardly went to. I shot videos and took still pictures. I interviewed everyone in the class. I put everything together to produce a documentary. Now this, when the documentary was ready, I rented the Junior Common Room (JCR) of the Independence Hall and that was where I showed the documentary to the Class. There were things that others had said about some other people that they did not know until they watched the documentary. It was fun and interesting.
At 400 Level, I felt that I had been a bully who imposed himself as Class Rep. There were people who said that I was too harsh. Some others wondered how I even became their Class Rep in the first place. So, I went before the class and asked if there was anyone who would want to replace me as I wanted to step down. Nobody volunteered, then I appointed someone to take over from me.
By the way, I was also active in the politics of my hall of residence, Independence Hall. I contested to become the Floor Rep, like one of the lawmakers. I was then the Chief Whip. I contested to be the Deputy Hall Chairman. I won both. I did not win the contest for the Hall Chairman because the students complained that the two previous chairmen were Muslims, and a third one would be one too many.
I also used to organise weekend free tutorials for my colleagues. I used to learn by teaching others. So, even if I did not have enough time, if I could just read enough to teach others, when they start asking me questions, about what they did not understand, they helped me to quickly learn more. That was what I was doing to keep myself updated with my studies.
I was also appointed the chairman of the MSS Charity Foundation, and the mandate was to support the indigent ones who could not feed themselves or who could not pay their school fees. I was able to get support from the campus, from home and other places for our charity. We recorded a lot of successes. My mum then used to have a policy based on a vow with God that any money she made, she would give ten per cent to the needy. That is how she contributed to our Foundation.
After my first degree, and with a clean academic record, I began to think of what next.
I went on Facebook and sent a message to Prof Isaac Adewole, who was then the vice chancellor, and later became Nigeria’s health minister. I introduced myself and asked if there was anything UI would give me in appreciation of my hard work. I did not expect that he would reply but he did, saying, ‘well done, we will give you a scholarship for your master’s degree.’ On the day of our convocation, it was announced that all first class graduates had been given automatic employment in the university and scholarships for their master’s.
I reasoned that many of our lecturers went abroad for their post-graduate degrees, so I decided that I would do the same. So, I applied to universities abroad for admission and scholarships. I got a scholarship, I believe, by Divine Grace. The head of the Abuja Graduate School, Abuja, where I had my National Youth Service, Dr Enukora Joe Okoli, used to give me newspapers to read, to check if there were opportunities for the organisation. One morning, around 10 O’clock, he breezed into the office and called me to come and brief him on what I had read in the newspapers.
I quickly scanned the newspapers, and my eyes caught the NITDA (National Information Technology Development Agency) Post-Graduate Scholarship in the United Kingdom. Deadline was in two weeks’ time. I took the page out while I reviewed the rest. There was not much that was relevant to the organisation. I went and reported to Dr Okoli that there was nothing that was of interest to the School. I returned to my space, submitted my application online. Two persons were to be taken from each State. It turned out that I was the highest scorer from Osun State. A couple others had the same score, and the decision was made to chose the second winner alphabetically. The person they chose was one Abolurinwa – one walking with God, in English.
So, that was how in 2013, I got a full scholarship (covering visa, flight tickets, tuition fees and living expenses) for a Masters in Controlled Systems at the University of Manchester. I finished with a distinction.
The bond we had with NITDA was to return to Nigeria and work for five years before going back abroad for study or work.
Meanwhile, there was a vacancy for a sponsored PhD in Robotics for Extreme Environment at the same University of Manchester. I saw it as an opportunity to get into a field that was not common, just as l chose the engineering course that I was told was the toughest. I applied and was given.
So, I returned to Nigeria and applied to NITDA for a waiver. In my application, I explained to them that it was because of my performance that the university was giving me a scholarship and that as a bonafide NITDA scholar, it would be great if I could come back with a PhD. I also requested that I should be granted support for living expenses because the scholarship was only for tuition. The waiver was approved. Much later, I was offered five hundred thousand naira to support myself.
I returned to Manchester and towards the end of my PhD, the university offered me a three-year post-doctoral position to work with them as a Knowledge Transfer Partner. I was there working with some robotics company. After realising that I was the one providing most of the skills in the company, like wiring, control and programming, I thought that I would rather have these people send jobs to Nigeria instead of to China or any other country. I felt that if only we had more people in Nigeria with the skills, then that would be possible. So, I felt that the next step would be to set up something like a technical college in Nigeria.
I had two motivations.
The first was, because of my master’s and PhD academic experience, I was versed in MATLAB, a tool we used in research in engineering for many kinds of simulations, and so many other things in the field of science. Then, a student in the UK had a university assignment and needed someone to teach her the solution.
I was so busy with many things, so I asked on my Facebook Timeline if there was anyone with a working knowledge of MATLAB. I remembered that in my 400 Level at UI, we did MATLAB. There was no response. I probably messaged most of my classmates back in UI and got no favourable response. I was shocked. That was when I realised that it seems that people have forgotten their technical skills. You graduate and you are no longer an engineer, you veer into banking. Many of my classmates did not practise engineering afterwards. Those who went into the field were those whose parents were engineers before they came to the university. So, I felt that if we carried on like that, there would be a problem. Things were different in the University of Manchester where the department of electrical looked like a factory.
There is no way you would leave that place and not fit into a factory environment or, and understand the rudiments of engineering. So, I knew that the void needed to be filled. I said to myself then, in 2015, that if/when I went back to Nigeria, I must set up something like a technical college to train artisans to be outstanding professionals..
The second reason was that many of the messages I was getting from Nigeria indicated that there were no jobs. But my experience while in Nigeria was different. Where I did my NYSC, for instance, I was to be retained. Nile University of Nigeria also offered me a job as a graduate assistant. An official had seen me where I was teaching someone free of charge at the National Mosque and invited me to come for an interview which I did not apply for. I had also got an offer from PZ Cussons but I had to go for my master’s. So, I felt that there were jobs in Nigeria, but people were not applying enough. In the UK, if you want a good job, you would have to send so many applications. You would get so many rejections as well before landing the job you want.
At some point, I said, perhaps the people saying there are no jobs were right. I then decided that what I should do is come back to Nigeria and create jobs. When I do that, I can confirm whether or not there are jobs in Nigeria. I also told myself that I would only consider myself successful if I came back to create jobs than sending handouts to people back home every month. If I continued to send money, then I would not be helping them.to establish a career but when you create a job, give people things to do, God can help your business and you can also help more people. Then you are also contributing to the growth of your country.
Rather than staying in another country, and no matter how successful you are, you will be told that you are not one of them. I remember an instance where I worked in the UK that I was trying to explain something to a lady about a connector shaped like a circle. The way I pronounced the ‘circular’ got her saying ‘what’s that?” I was shocked. I had to use my hand to draw a circle. I felt embarrassed. I knew that she knew what I was telling her but she was deliberately trying to tell me I had to talk like a British. That was not the kind of country I wanted to remain in, where you get to the peak of your career and people would keep showing you that you are not one of them.
People say it is not easy but I know that, one day, if we all contribute, it will grow.
As soon as I got my mind made up, I planned what I was coming to do in Nigeria: set up a robotics laboratory like where I was in the UK, make it stand out, do not get sucked into the so-called Nigerian system, no short-cuts or whatever. So, when I set up the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Nigeria (RAIN)in 2019, we deliberately designed it to be different.
What has been the reaction?
I can say that Nigerians are so embracing of it. They loved it. One day, we were having issues with the petrol generator we used to have. We would turn on an air-conditioner, the generator would go off, and one student said, ‘Dr Olu, this is Nigeria, you don’t need to worry yourself, I don’t know how much you are spending on buying petrol or and fixing your generator, why don’t you just open the windows? We are here to study. It is the content that we came here for, not the comfort.’ I said, ‘well I want it to be different because back in the UK, I appreciated that the learning experience was conducive, not a place where people would suffer to learn. I want a place where people can learn and feel comfortable and even feel like doing extra hours or work overnight. So, that was the system we created for ourselves here and we are maintaining the standards.
With hope we will get some external funding, grants, not loans which I personally do not like. We really need to move faster because people are finding out about RAIN, but the pricing may be affecting their interests. And, if there is funding, we do not need to charge so much to maintain our standards and give the knowledge.
We cannot continue to complain; we must grow the country technologically With hope, there will be funding. But, as far as government direct funding is concerned, there has not been any of such, and I am happy because I want to be able to build a model that can run without government backing. Let government create an enabling environment if they cannot give the funds.
Interestingly, even though the fees are high, some people are saving to fund themselves through RAIN because they realise that we are giving them the practical skills they cannot get elsewhere.
I lecture at the University of Ibadan because it is my alma mater and I felt like giving back. I felt that it is also good to be affiliated with a federal university so that, at least, the little you can impact, you do, and you are informed about what is going on in the academic space. There are other universities who are seeking to collaborate with RAIN and they are welcome.
Let me end with one religious learning. This message was brought into focus during the COVID-19 lockdowns. In Islam, there is a saying in the Hadiths of the prophet that when “a plague breaks out in a place while you are in it,” as a Muslim, “do not leave that place”; everyone should stay and solve the problem until the epidemic goes down. That is the whole essence of lockdown, is that not? I think that the whole problem of Nigeria, corruption, poverty, etc, is an epidemic or plague. If we all run away, the country will go down. We need to stay here and fix it.
As for me, I was sponsored to go out with the country’s money, for Master’s, That, for me was a factor that I cannot run away. Many people were asking me why I returned to Nigeria. I answered the question on my Facebook Timeline to the effect that I will not be in another man’s country, reaping the fruits of the labour of those who stayed to fix it. I added that “Rome was not built in a day” is what we hear but what we do not hear is that the Romans actually stayed behind to build it. So, nobody is going to build the country for us. We must do it by ourselves.
It is great when God gives one reasons not to regret one’s decisions. For me, I cannot say I regret it at all. I am happy. People from the UK who knew me when I was there and see what we are doing at RAIN, offer me hearty congratulations. And, that we are beginning to get international recognition is great. Back in December 2021, we had the privilege of hosting the Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Ms Amina J Mohammed, and she was impressed with what she saw.
My mum did not think it was a good idea for me to return to Nigeria, but she is happy to see positive progress. That is great.