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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

‘Foundation for greatness is there for Nigeria’s technology sector’

Bosun Tijani

Just recently, the Minister of Communications, Innovation & Digital Economy, Dr Bosun Tijani, unveiled a strategic blueprint for the ministry, which aims at accelerating Nigeria’s collective prosperity through technical efficiency. The document articulates a vision for Nigeria that builds on the transformative power of digital technology and innovation to diversify and deepen the country’s economy.

In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, Dr Tijani, a renowned tech entrepreneur and co-founder of CcHUB (Co-Creation Hub), spoke on the idea behind the blueprint, his agenda for the sector, as well as his mandate to reimagine the Federal Ministry of Communications, Innovation & Digital Economy as the public sector ecosystem that enables Nigeria’s economic growth through enhanced productivity facilitated by technological innovation.

Having been in the private sector for years, with all your exploits in the tech ecosystem globally, did you ever envisage taking up a role in the public sector?

I think so in the sense that if you look at my journey in the private sector, it’s also not your normal private sector career. Everything I’ve done, even while at CcHUB, which is a business, is about nation building. I think sometimes, we don’t talk about this enough, in the sense that we can’t get the nation or the society that we all desire if government, business and also civil society are not contributing to drive that, which we want to see in the society. So, the way we built CcHUB was really about helping to strengthen the society through innovation and technology; that was always the focus.

Today, CcHUB is still doing well, but we were doing extremely well while I was in the private. The trajectory that we were on, if I want to open in 10 African countries, I saw the path. I was already in four countries; Nigeria, Namibia, Kenya and Rwanda, we already do work in 17 countries. We are just about operationalising a hub in Togo; there’s no strong hub there. So, there’s opportunity for us to just keep expanding.

The expansion for us is also not based on desire for domination; it was based on our desire that we understand the power of technology for all countries and all societies in the world. And we think there’s a strong position for Nigeria, because of the pool of talents and creative entrepreneurs that we have, to not only build for Nigeria, but also build and export to the rest of Africa.

So, the way we were building CcHUB was helping to build the backbone that will allow Nigerian entrepreneurs to be accepted, to be able to do business formally in those countries. I think for me, however, staying where I am, if you look at what we’ve achieved in the last 14 to 15 years of the tech of the tech ecosystem, yes there’s always been ecosystem there, but you can’t compare the growth in the last 10 to 15 years to previous years.

Mostly here, government has been investing significantly, but you can see the sector is growing, even beyond start-ups. When you look at what the telecommunication companies have done… MTN came into Nigeria; Nigeria is their biggest market today. Globaccom is an indigenous company; you can see what they have done. Companies like IHS, is one that I’m extremely excited about. A company that started in Nigeria, today they are one of the top five telecoms infrastructure companies in the world. All those things started from Nigeria.

If you take it to the tech start-up, on the soft side of things, you see what Andela was able to build off the back of Nigeria; you see what Flutterwave has been able to build… and that’s without government being extremely aggressive about investing in it. So, imagine what’s possible if you actually get people who understand the pain from the private sector and also understand the role of government to help lift things. So, that for me is something I’ve always been excited about and I thought, one day, if there’s an opportunity to join government, I won’t hesitate.

From the way assembled his ministers, it seems president Tinubu was particular about what he wants to achieve. What exactly did he say to you, what was the mandate?

One thing that is big about the president is actually the fact that he’s extremely interested in changing the story of Nigeria in terms of economic development. I think, may be because of how Nigeria is structured, we don’t pay enough attention to it. I’ve been with him a few times, but I never met him before I was appointed; it was after my screening that I met him; I didn’t know him from anywhere. But when I met him and all the times I spent with him traveling in India, you could see that this is someone with the understanding of the potentials of the country and he’s extremely certain that, if we do all we need to do and deepen our economy, there’s no doubt that Nigeria is a country that should be a leader. And if you understand the country as well, you will understand that it’s a fact.

We are blessed with everything that you can imagine; the foundation for greatness exists within the country. We talk about talent a lot, not just the talents, it’s also things around resources that we have that people actually need all over the world. It’s also the fact that we are never late to anything; even technology, we are not late to it.

If you look at connectivity for instance, Nigeria is one of the few countries in Africa with seven submarine cables, two more are coming. Even in terms of connecting the country, initial investment has already been done; it’s just the last mile investment that will ensure there’s broadband connectivity everywhere that we need to be aggressive about. And with a president that is pro-business, you can see it.

That’s what I find extremely excited about the president and the vice president. The times that I’ve spent with these people, you can genuinely see that they want the best for the country. I know most of us, when we are outside of government, the way we see people in government is very different. We don’t understand some of the limitations, the interests…

So, are you beginning to understand now?

Well, yes, I’m beginning to see it, but I’m also excited about what’s possible when you are with the right team, which is something that excites me; I have no doubt. I’ve never had any other conversation with the president beyond ‘we need to do the right thing.’ And it’s the same with the vice president, all the meetings I’ve been with him, it’s about result for our people.

Now, how do we mainstream that thinking because, at the end of the day, the president and vice president will not come down to do the work, they will give instructions; you just hope people can deliver. That’s why for me, I’m confident about the fact that Nigeria will feel these appointments. We see at the end of the four years, but deep down, I know with the support I have… there will be pains along the line, there’s no doubt. But that’s what building is about; it’s about being able to understand that challenges will come and you can navigate it to deliver for the benefit of the people.

You juts released a strategic blueprint for the Ministry of Communications, Innovation & Digital Economy, what really inspired that document?

I think what was inspiring was talking to a lot of the people within the ministry and agencies under the ministry. When you are appointed as a minister, everyone wants to talk to you. So, all the private sector people I’ve been able to talk to, just hearing them, you could see alignment and you could see that there are certain things that needs to happen, and of course, some of them requires that you be audacious. But I think most of what I saw were things that actually require that you have a clear plan that everybody can follow.

If you don’t have a clear plan, in a country this big, with different partners, different individuals, different parastatals with different agenda are coming to the table and each one of them believes their agenda is important. So, it’s your responsibility as the leader of the sector to be able to harmonise what everybody is saying, but distil it and present it in a very simple terminology. So, that’s the first thing that inspired what you are looking at.

The second inspiration was largely based around my understanding of the sector, but also hearing people and seeing more fact, which then revealed that the foundation for greatness is there for the technology sector in this country. Nigeria has been consuming and paying for technology for a long time; government is buying technology; private companies are buying technology. Our banks are some of the most innovative in the world. Even compared to western bank, the way they use technology is a lot more advanced, because western bank is still more traditional, use your ATM. You know you have bankcards, which they now all use, but we started those things in Nigeria even before some of the most advanced countries started.

I spoke before about the submarine cables that we have, that’s significant investment. Submarine cables are cable laid under the sea, all the way from Europe. The amount of investment that went into making that happen… we already have seven, two more are coming, making it nine. So, we can see that the foundation is there and we have the talents. Our population, if you look at it, 60 per cent of those 220,000,000 people are under the age of 25; these are digital natives. So, when you have all those things, if you can build around them and give them the opportunity to thrive, if we can build on some of those investments we’ve made, you can tell that the path to greatness through technology is there for Nigeria, it’s just whether the will is going to be there. That was what inspired this.

So, it’s been built in such a way that we focus on the foundation, but we also build the backbone. And as you start to build that, you give opportunity for the creative people among us. In four years, I strongly believe that we can deliver something significant for the country.

In Nigeria, the private sector is usually not comfortable with the attitude of government towards projects. Coming from the private sector, what are you doing to get their buy-in to actualize this vision, how much conversation are you having with the private sector?

I think a lot of it actually. What is also good about bringing someone from the private sector is understanding the limitation of the private sector, especially when it comes to public projects. Traditionally, the way private sector does things is to go break things and try to make it better. But in the public sector, because you are using taxpayer’s money, and every project you do is about real people, if you don’t get it right, people are going to suffer. If you don’t get it right, you would have wasted resources that could be spent on so many other things. So, for me, I think the beauty is being able to work with the private sector, leverage that audacity that they typically would take to projects, but also being pragmatic to saying, ‘yes, we want to leverage this audacity, but we have to deliver things the way that works.’

So, how do you intend to achieve that?

We came up with something after the blueprint, and the idea of this is saying, as much as we want to do great things, we want to do them in ways that we were sure we can guarantee result. The cost of delivering quality cannot be too high. If the cost of quality is too high, then you are not going to reach the people. So, we came up with this model for how we are going to implement all our projects that we’ve called the 1-10- 100. This is a model that gives us the opportunity to approach each of our projects, thinking of them from the perspective of building in such a way that we are not throwing too much weight.

So, I will give you an example, we say we want to train 3,000,000 (Three million) technical talents in Nigeria, for some people, that’s a lot because, if Nigeria can actually train 3,000,000 people in technology talent, it will change the country, because the level of creativity will be high. A lot of these people will work for technology companies that pay really well. Some of them will even travel abroad and be able to repatriate some capital to the benefit of the nation.

So if we apply the 1-10-100 Model, it means that in the first three months, we will focus on one per cent of our target, which is 3,000,000 (Three million). If we divide the one per cent by states based on its population and level of economic activities, we realise for a state like Abia, what we need to train is about 729 people, which also becomes less daunting. So, when it comes to training technical talents in a state like Abia, we only need to train 50 software developers and that becomes so easy to deliver and also expand. So, we don’t just want to train, but be able to place people into jobs.

This model also gives us the opportunity to learn from the first phase, and with the lessons there, we start to plan for the second phase in the third month, which is 30 per cent; that is a higher number from when we started. By the time we are done in 12 months, we can now say we want to hit our three million targets.

What’s your strategy for funding this initiative?

Typically, what usually happens is that a private company comes and says, ‘give us N10 billion to train three million people for you and then government runs helter-skelter, looking for the money. By the time they are ready, 18 months is gone, and then you realise this company can actually not train three million people. By the time you know it, the four-year term is over. So, we have announced already the one per cent phase, because there’s resources to carry this out. As we deliver, the budget comes and more partners are announced. That way, we are learning and building. This is one approach we are using, which is in conjunction with the private sector, while we use government funds.

How are you going to get the agencies under your ministry to key into your plans?

The agencies are actually the strength of this ministry; we have some of the most forward-looking agencies. The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) is forward looking and have done amazing work to ensure that telecommunications is where it is today in Nigeria. NITDA, Galaxy Blackbone, NigComSat, NDPC, USPF… they are doing well; they also generate revenue for themselves.

This is why this plan is not under threat, because I have fantastic people around me. So, there’s opportunity for people to build with a strong team. A new person now heads NIPOST, so it is left to me, as the supervisor, to pull everyone together.

What is your plan for NIPOST?

The plan for NIPOST is doing it differently; reimagine it from what it used to be. NIPOST is largely focused on two things. First is getting government to fund it and the other is people have tried to buy it, because NIPOST is an asset. But then, we don’t need to sell government asset; there are ways the private sector can benefit, which is what has been done in Lagos with waste management. The trucks that you see are owned by individuals who put them up with the agency of government in charge. These trucks go out, collect waste and the individual gets paid for their truck, everyone is happy.

So, with NIPOST, what we are trying to build is a franchise whereby each NIPOST (over 500 of them) people bid for right to run one by government’s standard, which will also include access to register for government services like passport, pay tax and financial services in locations where banks are not close by. So, it becomes a hub for connecting government to the people through the private sector. It also becomes an opportunity to create economic activities and jobs for the natives.

The strategic blueprint has five pillars, can you speak on them and how you intend to operationalise it?

It is not an operation document, it is strategic blueprint and the operation will evolve. In terms of strategy, we have five pillars that we are proposing and if we focus on them in the next five years, we can help drive the Renewed Hope Agenda that the president is proposing for inclusive growth of Nigeria.

Pillar One, which forms the background of all we want to achieve, is Knowledge. There is no society that can adequately put technology into good use without know how, so we need a workforce of people who can build technology. Because of our population and language (English), which is globally used, we also see Nigeria as a net exporter of talent. So, not only do we want to trade talent for our local consumption and use, we also believe we can sell to the rest of the world and this is already being done in then country; it’s just to amplify and make it bigger.

The other thing in line with knowledge is to drive digital literacy. If we are building technology solution and a lot of our people don’t know how to use technology, it is a problem. So, we want our people to have basic understanding of tech; whether you are elderly, young or physically challenged. And then, there’s a target set for 90 per cent by 2030, and our goal is to help achieve up to 70 per cent by the time we leave office.

The third part in knowledge is research. We also want to ensure that Nigerian academic institutions participate in research that leads to the kind of technology we want to see in our society; that is the foundation. We believe that if we get that right, moving up is easy.

The Second Pillar is policy. So, changing the way we used to look at policy, as a way of siphoning opportunities, but then it should be about opening up the market for entrepreneurship and innovation to happen. We want to reimagine the role of policy in society, because when we do that, we can use it to reopen more technological opportunities.

The Third Pillar is Infrastructure. Understanding that we may have this ambition, but if we don’t have the right infrastructure, nothing will happen. So, one is broadband Internet; we currently have the submarine cable, we invested to ensure there is fibre-optic cable across the nation. But beyond that, how do we better manage our satellite company – NigComSat? How do we ensure that spectrum management becomes better, so that the telcos can enjoy a good working environment? How do we ensure that innovation spaces are in the key communities that they should be and to ensure that no one is left behind? Government already invested in a lot of them and part of my mandate is to make sure they are useful for people, but also ensure that communities that don’t have will also have innovation spaces.

Then the Fourth Pillar, which is Innovation Entrepreneurship and Capital is saying you can do all those things, but if the innovators and entrepreneurs are not building on top of it, it is useless, because they’re the ones the that come up with new things that will then make the economy thrive and employ people. So, we want to support a lot more innovators.

We also want to ensure there’s capital that is available to them so that foreign investors find Nigeria a good place to bring their capital. In that process, our companies can have access to capital. Government is also now investing in early stage companies; putting capital into local investment companies so that they can also support businesses. And the last one, which is saying if we do all these things and if we support innovators and they are able to create solid companies like Glo, flutterwave etc, if they’re not exporting, they are doing a disservice to Nigeria.

Beyond focusing on just 200 million people, if they are able to cover our market, we want them to also sell to the rest of Africa, because when you export, it comes with a lot of opportunities. So, government wants to actively support technology companies to also export as well. These are the five pillars and each one of them is linked. We hope that if we focus on delivering on all these, things will be up to something.

You spoke on funding, especially for private individuals who want to start up something, how do you intend to support them and sustain the business?

So, we are also recognising that technology is not just a sector on its own. If as a nation we do technology well, it can change what we’re doing in agriculture, education etc, because technology entrepreneurs can create solutions that can help improve all those different services.

So, we have a programme where we itemize the sectors that are critical for driving change in our economy and we’re going to work with the necessary ministries where applicable to ensure that innovators are building for those sectors. That way, we get double benefits from supporting those entrepreneurs. Not only will they create technology solution, but their technology solutions can also help make other sectors in the country a lot more productive, which means we can raise productivity level in the country and perhaps ensure that the way we’re contributing to GDP is also quite strong as well.

I also mentioned earlier that the previous government started talking to AfDB and there’s an opportunity that is now being launched under this government and that opportunity called iDICE (Investment in Digital and Creative Enterprises Programme), which is a 600 million dollar fund. It will be funding technology and creative economy start-ups in Nigeria.

In one of you interviews, you spoke about setting up industrial clusters in places like Aba, for manufacturing of indigenous hardware. What’s the idea behind that plan?

So, what we have seen is that there is pocket of excellence across Nigeria, which points to what I said earlier; that the ingredients are there, our people are industrious, creative and innovative. So, what we need to do is start layering opportunities and building ecosystem around them.

If you see what Aba has been doing, which is known as a manufacturing hub. Aba produces a lot of clothing, shoes that people all over Africa come to buy and export, but then Aba has not been supported with necessary modern technologies to improve. So, part of what we want to do is invest in things like computer-aided design; we want to put a maker lab there. The government won’t just do this, we want to talk to the local stakeholders and some experts all over the world that understand the region to help us figure out how to set up a centre there that can introduce them into modern technologies and way of doing things.

In addition, we intend to train talents; it’s not enough to introduce them to it. If they don’t have people who can help use these technologies, it will become an issue. So, that’s our plan for Aba, and we think the same plan can work in Alaba and Computer Village in Lagos, even in Kano where we have expertise around hides and skin – how do they use modern technologies to improve how they do things there.

Looking at digital economy generally, can you equate the opportunities available for Nigeria?

Technology has always been crucial for humanity; it’s not new. Whether you go back to the days when humanity discovered steam engine for railways moving people and goods from one location to the other, this was before we had vehicles, up until the point where we could mass produce things into millions of it with a machine, to the point where we started automating things, when we got introduced to computing.

The beauty of where we are at the moment is that we have digital technology that is making it possible for us to connect humanities the way we’ve never been able to do before; machines can now speak to humans and humans speak to machines. We can process data in ways that we’ve never been able to do it; machines can analyse and look for patterns that makes sense where human cannot make sense out of it.

The way in which we calculate our GDP is through the contribution of three key sectors – agriculture, industry and services. Under agriculture, there are four different activities that are meant to contribute to it, which are crop production, fishery, forestry and livestock. Over the years, if you look at the numbers, the one contributing and growing over the years is crop production; fishery, forestry and livestock have been flat. It’s technology, because we’re not introducing basic digital technology where you could track the relationship between weather condition and where the fish will be so that the fishermen know where to go, or how do you test the depth of the water to be able to gauge the depth the fishes will be. So, because these things are not being done, it has significant implication for our productivity.

That is why when we talk about the need to participate in digital economy, it’s not a separate economy; it’s still the same Nigerian economy. We’re just saying we need to layer those technologies so that productivity level can rise and we create more job opportunities. We can create more solutions and products and services locally that we can consume instead of importing everything. That is the power of digital economy and that’s what we need for Nigeria

Are you looking at ways of inculcating this thinking into our school system?

If you look at the sectors we focus on, education is actually one and even my PhD is on Innovation in Education. So, I do understand the work that needs to happen. Part of our goal is to also collaborate with the Ministry of Education, but most importantly is how can technology be introduced to help ensure that we get the learning outcomes we want to see.

Before now, some of the challenges in education include things like not having enough teachers or classrooms, but with technology, you can deform those things. With technology, remediation can be better; if a child is not doing well at school, we can link their performance at school to opportunity to learn at home. These devices are becoming cheaper; their parents have phones and so we can give them opportunities to continue to learn and their results at school is linked to what they are being exposed to learning online at home.

Those things are not currently possible – how do we empower teachers through technology to have access to modern content? So, part of our mandate is to build the technology to allow our teachers have access to it wherever they go. So, technology must also inspire change, but also innovation in education as well.

With the rate at which young people are leaving the country, how do we get them to believe in Nigeria and help in building it?

So, because I’ve worked with a lot of young people over the years, I think one thing I’m realising is that the biggest thing we can do for young people in Nigeria is actually to connect them to information and opportunities and that’s what the digital economy brings. And if we’re being factual with evidence, we can see it already. What did we do to change the music industry in Nigeria, to get people like Asake, Burna Boy and so many other young ones in that sector to believe they can be great? It’s access to information.

They learnt how to use technology to record their voices; Internet gave them the opportunity to share widely their content. The skit makers are also successful without anybody dragging or holding their hands; there’s no boundary anymore. This is why what we are doing in this sector is important, because if we empower these people with knowledge and expose them to the world, the world is their oyster.

Digital technology today doesn’t limit people anymore; it’s your mind that limits you. I think it’s the biggest thing we can do for young people in Nigeria, ensure they have access to knowledge to participate in digital economy; ensure our infrastructure is strong enough to take them there and we will be surprised at the change we will see.

Having looked at your strategic blueprint, how do you intend to make it workable?

I think our bulletproof approach to it is the 1-10-100 and we think it’s absolutely pragmatic. We are being honest about not putting all these things there – we will approach it, learn quickly, change it and scale. This is a methodology that has been used in manufacturing and software development for years and is has worked.

In some places, it is called agile methodology, where you don’t just rush things because the problem is not always the fact that people don’t have good intention, but the problem is if you have good intention, the way it’s delivered may fail, because things are likely to meet different challenges. But when you design your implementation in a way that you are learning from every stage, the implementation strategy forces you to learn and ask difficult question. You will be approaching each stage with evidence that can help you take the right decision to deliver, and this is my mandate to show that it’s possible.

So do you foresee challenges in achieving your mandate?

To be honest, in terms of research, I have no doubt. There’s no top research institution that you go in the world that you don’t find a Nigeria. So, part of my approach is to connect those people back, even if they don’t return, let them partner with local researchers. That’s one of the strategies we were using, because they are already there, they can inspire quickly. They can do publications; do things that will raise our numbers significantly.

The biggest challenge is these talents we are training, how do we ensure that we’re not just training them, but they can’t find jobs as well? That’s why for us, it’s also important that we’re telling positive stories about Nigeria, because we know big technology companies in the world are desperate for technology talents. Why can’t they set up shop here and employ these people if we train them well?

What is your message to people in this sector who have been waiting for that time when things will turn around significantly?

I think the biggest message is that we have someone from the sector now supervising the industry, which means we have a unique opportunity to help grow it for the benefit of the nation, but also self as well. If we focus on just growing it for personal benefit only, we will lose sight on the things we need to do to make sure the sector is robust.

If the IT sector in Nigeria is robust, the benefit for everybody will be significant. So, I’ve been inviting people to be audacious about how they build; I have been inviting people to build not just for themselves only, but build for the benefit of the people so that we can get to where we should be as a nation.

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