"If You Want Different Results, Then You Have to Do Things Differently", Nusirat Sadiku on Taking the Path Less Walked

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Article by: Damaris Agweyu

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For me, being called a professor isn't just about the title. You're not professing anything if your research is not bettering the life of someone.


Nusirat Sadiku's journey is characterised by a passion for innovation and the relentless pursuit of value addition. From breaking gender norms to pioneering research in wood science, she challenges the status quo as a leader, educator and researcher. 

She is a Lecturer and Researcher at the University of Ilorin's Department of Forest Resources Management in Nigeria. Her research explores alternative biomass materials, notably bamboo, to address Nigeria's dwindling wood resources.

Beyond the classroom and lab, Nusi actively advocates for women in agricultural research, holding an executive position at Nigerian Women in Agricultural Research for Development (NiWARD).

Emphasising the importance of impactful contributions over mere achievements, Nusi proves that true success lies in making a difference. 

The 2023 Women for Environment fellow shares her journey with Damaris Agweyu.

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Nusirat Sadiku taking inventory of medicinal plants in a herbarium (provided)

Nusi, what is your why?

It comes from seeing how forests are disappearing in my country. When I first moved to our family apartment, we had lots of greenery, and I'd hear birds singing. I even mastered their signals. Gradually, more and more people started building more apartments. The greenery started disappearing, and those bird sounds faded away.

What did this tell me? As forests were being degraded, wildlife was being destroyed or forced away. So, to me, preserving forests means keeping wildlife safe.

Then there's the issue of waste. We generate a lot of it in Nigeria. But how we handle it, burning it all is causing severe environmental problems. So, as my contribution to preventing global warming, I thought, why don't I take it upon myself to extract valuable materials from this waste instead of allowing them to destroy our environment?

Is there a clear link between how people are doing economically and their ability to care about nature?

Yes. Living in Nigeria has become increasingly challenging. It's tough for people to make ends meet because the economy is not cooperating. Forget buying clothes, cars or houses; people are more concerned about putting food on the table. So, they are pushing boundaries to survive, including going after forests. They're not bothered about what happens afterwards. I don't blame them, but at the same time, I blame them.

What's the solution?

Pleading with people or raising awareness alone won't work. We need laws that lay down the consequences—punishments for doing the wrong thing and rewards for doing the right thing. And the government has to step in and enforce these rules. Without that enforcement, we're stuck in a loop, and things will only get worse until there's nothing left.

Did your career path choose you, or did you choose it?

Looking back at what I'm involved in today, this path was predetermined and guided by a divine plan.

Even though my parents worked for the government, we lived a rural semi-urban kind of life when I was growing up. So, after finishing secondary school, I wanted to go to University, which would give me a taste of city life. I was thinking of studying something related to agriculture, like agricultural economics. But somehow, I ended up in forestry. I planned to switch in my second year but when I tried, they said they couldn't let go of one of their top students in the department. So, I just focused on forestry.

Fast forward to the third year, I thought, "If I'm going to do this, I might as well do it well." And this has always been my motto in life: "Anything worth doing is worth doing well". So, I got serious about the forestry course. I graduated and got married, and then my husband, who has been really supportive of my journey, insisted I go for my master's. I went for wood technology and landed a job as a graduate assistant at the University, teaching wood science courses. 

Back in 2019 or 2018, this nationwide assessment of teachers in Nigerian universities was done. It turned out I was the only female teaching and researching wood science. I thought, "How can that be? In a country this big, with so many universities?" But instead of feeling discouraged, I decided to be that standout teacher, and I've been putting my all into it. I would be so happy if more women joined my field.

One thing that always bothered me was the large amounts of waste generated in wood mills. They burn it all every day. I started hearing that the usable timber volume from Nigerian forests was dropping drastically and thought, "What can I do to save these trees from being wiped out completely?"

I came up with the idea of creating wood plastics from wood waste. This would not only help prevent emissions from burning the wood waste but also allow us to produce something valuable that enhances the properties of wood. So, the primary motivation behind my research on wood was to contribute to finding sustainable and innovative ways to make the most of available resources.

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Nusirat Sadiku during her students' Forest Product Exhibition (provided)

Immediately after my master's, my husband again encouraged me to pursue a PhD. I now thought, what can we use to help supplement or complement wood? That's when bamboo popped into my mind. If it could be used in place of wood, then people would not need to go into the forests and cut down trees. And within two years, you can harvest bamboo; once it's cut, it will grow back within six months. That is a tiny fraction of the time trees take to grow back. It seemed like a perfect answer.

I looked into the properties of bamboo and found it had multi-functional value; it could be used for pulp and paper production and even had qualities that made it superior to wood in specific applications. I focused on Bambusa vulgaris, the dominant species in Nigeria. Despite its abundance and its outstanding properties, Nigerians don't use it much except for scaffolding and other temporary uses. My study was funded by the Federal Government of Nigeria under the Tertiary Education Trust Fund. It was the first ever in-depth study on Nigerian bamboo.

Even though my research provided a lot of information, there hasn't been much progress in promoting its use. Still, I'm working on it, and I pray that all my stress and sleepless nights spent on making bamboo acceptable as a raw material to serve in place of wood will one day pay off.

You've said you believe that anything worth doing is worth doing well. 

It's funny because even though many students might not select me to supervise their projects, my office is always buzzing with them, seeking advice or help with other issues. Some will send me messages in the middle of the night.

At the end of the day, they know I'm a hard worker. I push them to give their best, and not everyone enjoys that. But when they need guidance, they come to me. They call me mummy.

When it comes to projects, some will choose me as their supervisor. So, I ask them why. Why pick me? Their answers range from wanting to learn well to knowing that they'll get there through hard work with me. 

I always tell them I'm not here to impress anyone. I value those who recognise my worth and are willing to work. Many kids these days often look for shortcuts, but success doesn't come that way. 

One thing I'm big on is making my publications count. Some people publish just for promotion, but that's not me. I may not have a lot of publications out there, but the ones I have should make a difference in the world.

This mindset has always been with me, even as a kid. Anything I set out to do, I gave it my all. It's not about receiving thanks or rewards; I actually don't like it when people thank me. I feel like, "This is my job; just allow me to do it." I like to let my work speak for itself.

So I pray to God for two things daily: long life and good health to continue contributing meaningfully to humanity.

What's been your experience being the only woman in these spaces?

I thought it was something straightforward and enjoyable until I got to the position where I discovered that to lead, and, most importantly, to lead a group of men as a woman, is not easy. Sometimes, it feels like my male counterparts treat me as if I'm their wife.

I've been trying to make everything transparent—decisions, plans, everything. I bring them to the table and say, "This is what we've got. What can we do?" But they don't like it. Some have called me weak to my face. But the lessons I got from WE Africa emphasised relational and cooperative leadership, not dictatorship. I won't be a dictator just because they're used to it. 

There are moments when I've felt like giving up. Yet, this inner voice always tells me that giving up would mean surrendering to the challenges. And I believe that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. So, I keep pushing forward. Because taking on the role of leading the department feels like God is preparing me for a bigger challenge; something greater.

What matters to you in terms of values?

Integrity, truthfulness, sacrifice…I must say that sacrificing for others matters to me.

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Nusirat Sadiku during a forest picnic tagged ‘A Day Out in the Woods’ (provided)

Why?

It's just something I love doing.

My coach picked up on it and pointed out that I'm the type who struggles with setting boundaries and saying no. And it's true: if I see someone in need, this automatic response kicks in, and I can't help but jump in. 

My coach asked me to consider stopping it, and I've tried, but it's more complicated than it sounds. Then she asked me a really important question: "How do you feel each time you help someone?" I said I always feel great. I love making people happy. But I do need to continue setting boundaries. Too much sacrifice can cost you more than you think.

What impact would you want to have in this world?

I believe that if you want different results, then you have to do things differently. And that is why I decided to tailor my research to areas others have not considered.

Looking ahead, I envision myself making meaningful contributions to my nation and the continent. For me, being called a professor isn't just about the title. You're not professing anything if your research is not bettering the life of someone. It's not just about publications for promotion; it's about answering pressing issues in our communities. And that is my main goal as a teacher and researcher. I pray that God grants me the ability to realise this vision.

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This interview is part of a series profiling the stories of the 2023 WE Africa leadership programme fellows, African women in the environmental conservation sector who are showing up with a strong back, soft front, and wild heart. 

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