How I pioneered ‘pure Water’ business in Nigeria – Unilorin VC

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Prof.  Abdulkareem,  Unilorin VC


Profesor Sulyman Agenjolola Abdulkareem is the 10th Vice Chancellor of the University of Ilorin. He assumed office of the Vice Chancellorship in October 2018. He is a Professor of Chemical Engineering. He had earlier piloted the affairs of Al-Hikmah University as the Vice Chancellor between 2012 and 2017. He is a great researcher of international repute with several patents to his credit. He is the first Nigerian scholar to hold the position of Vice Chancellorship in two different Universities in the same state. Abdulkareem is one of the very few University dons to have an executive handshake with the Nigerian President with a cash donation in recognition of his groundbreaking researches that have now become tools for the country’s growth and development.

Growing up years and educational pursuit

The young Sulyman Agenjolola Abdulkareem was an orphan. He lost his father at a very tender age. He was raised by his mother. His affinity with the mother was very amazing. He followed her around but the pleasure of being raised by loving and caring mother was short-lived. At a point in life during his primary education, he painfully lost his mother to the cold hand of death. This ugly incident occurred at a period he needed marternal.
With the glory of God, he was able to finish his primary education.
Hear him “My early life was good because I must thank God for what happened, but I lost my parents very early but is not something I like to talk about but I thank God I was able to get through primary education. I lost my parents both then”. He got admission into Government Secondary School, (GSS), Ilorin in 1968.
He performed excellently in his first year but could not continue with his colleagues after first year in GSS Ilorin due to financial incapacitation. He stayed out of school for about nine months. As fate would have it, Sulyman’s exceptional performance motivated the school principal who was moved by his academic performance and ordered for his whereabouts.

He explained, “ I thank God that based on my performance in the first year, the Principal asked that they should go and locate me and bring me back. You can say in a way that God Almighty used the Principal to rescue me, my life and my career because I came back, I was able to catch up with my colleagues and subsequently enjoyed scholarship from that form two until I got PhD”.

The young Abdulkareem’s brilliant performances earned him scholarship awards right from the then Form II up to the University level. He had ‘A’s in most of his subjects. After his secondary education in 1972, he got scholarship to read Chemical Engineering in United States of America.

He impressively maintained academic success even in the midst of white students in the foreign land. He attributed his academic excellence to the painstaking efforts of his teachers from primary up to university education. Said he,“I must thank God for my teachers. I had very good teachers all along in my life from primary school up to my PhD. Personally, I don’t know how to play or have divided attention when I have a teacher or lecturer in front of me. That has really helped me tremendously. I will say more than any other thing that I got the very best out of my teachers”.

Professor Abdulkareem is the type who strongly believes that it is an honour to have something given to you. If you want to appreciate being given knowledge, being taught well, what you can do is to utilize what you have gained, to the advantage of yourself and to the advantage of humanity” he added.
This explains why he has been reputed as one of the leading and celebrated university teachers in the world. His cademic achievements in the USA, in Saudi Arabia, and in Nigeria remain indelible.

He likes solving problems and tries not to ignore problems he can solve. That is what eventually precipitated his groundbreaking achievements in having so many patents and being able to be useful to a lot of people.
According to him, “I cannot solve all problems, but those I believe God has given me the ability to solve; what I try to do is to make it my concern and don’t let go until I have a solution”.
How he got some patents
When he was doing his PhD in US, the biggest problem that the petroleum refining industries in US were having was the high content crude that they had to deal with. His work centered on the process to remove high content sulphur from crude. Luckily, he was able to use a novel method of removal, and the University got a patent out of it.
Incidentally, he came from Nigeria, a country that had low sulphur content crude. But that dissertation work opened so many doors for him. The second day after his graduation in US, Abdulkareem started working for the best company in the US at that time. He worked for four years and thought of coming back home.
He said “My Company didn’t like my decision to return to Nigeria. They were trying to do all kind of arrangement but I said I must go. You will not believe it, just two weeks to leaving US, I got an offer to come and work for Saudi government on liquefaction of gases, related to the work I had done for my PhD. The offer was so good because the salary was about twice what I was getting in US and it was a challenge or further utilization of my experience in my PhD programme”. Even though most of his luggage had arrived in Lagos, at that time, but he was strongly persuaded internally to go and take the offer in Saudi. He accepted the offer and worked in Saudi for additional two years
“Within the two years, I was able to achieve the problem they wanted me to solve. They had flared gases and what I was hired to do was to convert the gases into liquid using catalyst. The catalyst that I invented in US could do that. And within the 2 years, we were able to come up with a laboratory and pilot unit that could convert the gas that is being flared into liquid” he revealed.

After two years, the Saudi government did not want him to leave, but by that time he had long wanted to reunite with his three other siblings in Nigeria after about 20 years of departure from the country. So he came home.

First Experience with Nigeria Factor

On his arrival to Nigeria, the first thing he did was to try to locate somebody that could connect him with anybody that had crude oil or access to refining, because he wanted Nigeria to benefit from what he had done for the Saudi people. It was during the Abacha regime in 1994. Unfortunately, that turned out to be very discouraging, they said he had to know people before he could be allowed to render such huge assistance to his dear country. His efforts to help the country stop wasting the gas she was flaring just like what he did in Saudi proved abortive. He gave up the idea after about two months of moving around yielded no positive result.

Soap Making Effort

He jettisoned the idea of gas flaring stoppage and ventured into soap making business. “after asking if somebody could use the liquefaction experience I gained in Saudi to benefit the whole nation with no positive response, so I started making soap” he said.
Due to the fact that he was able to come up with a formula that was good for soap making, he was selling very well. He had enough money to jumpstart the business but when it appeared to him that customers were only ordering for soap without paying for what had sold out, this bad attitude discouraged him, hence, he halted the idea of selling his product in kwara state.
“I started taking my soap to farther North. I started from Jebba, got a few customers and had customers all the way to Kano and Abuja. I had a Range Rover then. I will fill the back with soap, by the time I got to Kano, it would have finished. I will have to come back home and produce more, to take to customers in that area. That was fruitful; I was making good profit, but was labourious, because I had to be on the road always”.
The day he stopped going to the north was the day he ran into a group of Immigration in Jebba. They stopped him and asked him to show them the certificate of permission for to be making soap. “I was wearing my ring, I told them, I had PhD in chemical engineering. I said soap was the least of things I could make. But it became an argument and I was delayed for almost three and a half hours. At the end of the day, they wanted soap, I refused to give, they eventually let me go”.After that trip, he decided to do other things, because I didn’t want to jeopardize my life. “I knew it was getting even worrisome for my family because by the time you go to Kano and return, a whole week sometimes” he lamented.

How he pioneered ‘Pure Water’ business in Nigeria

He taught he could be bottling water, because one of the best subjects he took in school that was actionable or practicable was cleaning of water, no matter how dirty.” We have so many ways of removing impurities of water and I said well I could bottle water and that time, there were just two water bottling companies; Ragolis and Swan, Swan was coming from Jos, and Ragolis from Lagos”.
The second year he arrived Nigeria, that was 1995 Dr. Abdulkareem thought he could also join the group. By that time, he understood that their production had gone down and that would have given him a good chance to break in, but when he went to Lagos to get empty bottles for packaging the water, the money he was asked to pay for the bottles was too outrageous and unreasonable to him. “I started going around with that problem ‘what else can I do to package water if I am able to clean it’?
Eventually, he saw an old man putting chin-chin in a very thin nylon material and occurred to him that, ‘if solid can be packaged in nylon and I read chemical engineering and I know about polymers, how come I cannot package water.’ he was very happy that seeing the man gave him an inspiration. “So I went back home and I went to Lagos and I bought polyethylene rhesine. I came back and I went to somebody from Omupo in Kwara state who was doing plastic blowing and I told him what I wanted to do. He asked me to put down the design, I told him the size it was going to be”. Essentially, he arrived at size that will package half a litre of water. It was open on both ends so he had to be looking for a machine that will seal both ends, “I went to a local wielder, I was able to put a configuration together that looked like sewing machine and that allowed me using a food pad to seal both ends of the water” he said. The last part of the work he must do as an entrepreneur then was to sell his product because the local women will put water inside nylon, tie the end and sell for N1 naira. He was making his own close to N1 naira. He knew he could get more, so, he wanted to sell it for 5 naira but that will be individual sales. He decided to contract those who are selling provisions on campus at the University of Ilorin and Kwara State Polytechnic. He said “I did that for many years and I made a lot of money, because it was a monopoly”.

The kwara state college of education, Ilorun and Kwara poly students were ready to buy this water for five naira so what I would do is to asupply it for N3 naira and they will end up putting it in the fridge and sell it for N5 naira. We had a very good trade going on. It was good for the buyers and good for me and the few people that worked for me”.

How he joined the services of the University of Ilorin

He engaged in water business for a long time, until a day when there was a fracas in one filling station in Ilorin during the regime of Abacha. Everybody was running away from this soldier man. Dr Abdulkareem had gotten very angry because the Soldier was taking bribe. Dr Abdulkareem challenged him. He told him he could not do that, saying that some of them were older than him, and older than even all those people bribing him, just because they wanted to jump cue. He wanted to fight, he scared a lot of people, but at the end of the day, the matter was resolved. When the issue was eventually resolved, a Professor from the University of Ilorin, Professor Musbau Akanji, saw me where we were lining up to buy fuel and came to me. Dr Sulyman said he, ‘they are calling you doctor, what are you doing here?”

“And I told him that I had a business of my own, he asked me what did I read, I said chemical Engineering, Ah! He said we’ve been looking for somebody at the University of Ilorin to teach Industrial Chemistry, do you think you can teach that?’ I said I consider that to be elementary Chemical Engineering. Well I thank God, because the following day, I became a lecturer in this University” (University of Ilorin).

His groundbreaking record as pioneer Director of Unilorin LABTOP

Shortly after he returned from the Al-Hikmah University where he was the Vice Chanellor for five years, Professor Abdulkareem was appointed by the authority of the University of Ilorin to head the Laboratory to Product (LABTOP) Unit.
Though the idea of LABTOP was mooted before he left the Al-Hikmah, on his return, the University of Ilorin gave him the chance to head the Unit as pioneer Director “The first thing I can say is that, as of that time, our zone in the six geopolitical zone had seven patents out of that I had 5 of them, but I thank God that I headed the unit, at least for the two and half years I spent there before I became VC of this institution. We were able to go round the University campus to interest scholars, researchers in having more interest, having more desire to pursue patent because patent is one way of improving social life, economic life and general wellbeing in the society” he said
He made significant achievements to the extent that as at the time he left the unit in 2017, University of Ilorin alone had additional 12 patents, and of those, two new ones belong to him, other ones were for other people who felt spirited in wanting to do things in a different way to make life better.
Most of his patents have been commercialized. “God has a way of letting you just stay in a place and shining light on you if He wants, that is the way I want to put it, because by the time I joined the university, I stopped making pure water, of course I couldn’t combine both”,

His plans for Unilorin

It has not been easy, even though I had five years of what I will call very good time at Al-Hikmah University. I was given free hand and I was able to elevate the position, the status, and even the conditions I met on ground when I got there, my dream is to contribute the same thing to this university that made me what I am today.

His schooling abroad and research ability?

Yes! But I believe we can achieve the same over here and my prayer is that our lecturers will use more of what is given to them by God to pass on the knowledge they have gained.

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