Ironically, when we contact Ibukun for this article, her internet is down. The generator at the faculty had switched off and the lack of power meant that the university’s broadband had stopped working. As a result, she had to use her own data bundle on our call.
Ibukun is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Technology of Akure, the capital of Ondo State, 300km north-east of Lagos.
Her research in the fields of engineering, she explains, will lead to the establishment of efficient communication networks and the development of reliable power supplies – which the continent desperately needs to enable both the first and fourth industrial revolutions.
Ibukun says she grew up in a family where academia was important. Her father, who had majored in chemistry and biology, was a school principal and her mother a med-lab scientist. Her parents, she explains, were therefore always encouraging her and provided her with advice and guidance.
She chose engineering, in some ways, because she wanted to be different. “Everyone at school wanted to study medicine; even my uncle told me I should study medicine. But it was my father who said, you’re very adept with computers. But rather than study computer systems, I wanted to study something that was broader and hence I chose electrical engineering.”
At first, she felt discouraged because the course content was very dense and she wasn’t sure whether she could cope. She suffered at first, she recounts, and was actually sick from overexerting herself.
In a class of 100, Ibukun recalls, there were only about six women students. But she persevered and decided that if she was to succeed, she needed to be more assertive and play more of an active role in class.
By the end of her course, it was she who was leading the group assignments and handling the practical work. “We need to give girls from a young age confidence,” she exclaims, “confidence to go on and study, to take part and to know that they are just as good.”
One person to whom she credits her success is her supervisor in her final year, Professor Michael, who gave her the conviction in her ability. Another person, a mentor and a role model, is Dr (Mrs) Komolulu, a leading light in biochemistry in Nigeria.
Africa has some of the highest internet and voice data costs in the world, both in real terms and as a percentage of per/capita income. It is also concentrated in large urban areas.
Optical communication is one of the solutions that is being developed to democratise data, by offering it cheaper and as part of solutions to deliver last-mile connectivity.
One of the limiting factors of such a solution in Nigeria, explains Ibukun, is the weather: tropical conditions make this solution more challenging and this is what she is trying to overcome, as well as using predictive algorithms to optimise the use of the technology.
Like many of her peers, accessing finance remains very difficult and a real constraint. As a L’Oreal–Unesco Women in Science laureate, she received a €10,000 grant but it’s a challenge to raise funding for research.
She hopes that this research will help showcase proof-of-concept and the value of research and she will be able to reach out to potential funders, from industry and elsewhere, to fund a lab, which she has set herself as a medium-term goal.