In this interview at the end of the 2020 Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (GITEX), Kashifu Abdullahi, the Director-General of National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) speaks with ABDULAZIZ ABDULAZIZ on the Agency’s effort to make the IT industry a money-spinner for Nigeria.
PT: Nigeria participated in the just concluded Gulf Information Technology Exhibition 2020. What are the major learning points for Nigeria as a country from this event?
Kashifu Abdullahi: We come here to see, to have the look and feel of how emerging technologies are changing economy, creating jobs and helping countries to make their services, especially government services, more efficient and more productive. We have been working on different policies and strategies since last year when President Muhammadu Buhari renamed our ministry from Ministry of Communications to Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy. So when you talk about digital economy, it is about how you can use digital technology to derive economic value from it. The minister has been working day and night to see how we can harness our potentials and create values from these technologies.
So these technologies are technologies that need people to think, and mostly they are general purpose technology. What I mean by general purpose technologies is they are technologies that anybody can take and use. No country has the ownership of the technology and anybody can take it and come up with his own ideas and develop based on that technology. They are like the Internet, nobody can take ownership of the Internet. All countries are using internet to derive value from it, likewise these emerging technologies. So Dubai has been in the forefront when it comes to implementation of smart technologies or digital technologies in general.
GITEX is the largest IT conference in Africa, Europe and Middle East. And also it’s the only in-person ICT event that held this year. You know we’re just coming out of this COVID-19 pandemic, our coming here has given us hope that we can use this emerging technologies to re-emerge from this pandemic, and also we can use it to add more value to our economy.
PT: Have you seen anything that is already developed here that you want to replicate in Nigeria?
KA: Yes we have seen so many but it’s not like we want to take what they have here and replicate it in Nigeria, we always like to challenge our start-ups, to look at our own peculiarities and come up with solutions based on these technologies. Like what Dubai is doing; they are creating an ecosystem. You know, no two countries are unique. Each country has its own peculiarities and that is what will determine what are the issues or challenges that need urgent attention. So what we’re trying to do is to come up with our startups, let them network with startups from other countries and see what is happening here. This is the idea for innovation. Innovation means bringing something new to the world or new to your own country or new to your own industry or new to your own organization. So things are working here using these emerging technologies.
When our startups see them, they will go and think and see how they can come up with indigenous solutions that will address our own challenges in Nigeria. This, therefore, is to open their minds, let them see how it works somewhere and also let them learn, let them understand the power of networking. You cannot be innovative in isolation. You need to be open, you need to network, and you need to learn from others. You can see something that is working in Dubai in one sector, but maybe it would work better in a different sector in Nigeria. So coming here is an opportunity for us to see how they get it done, what are the challenges learnt from their own experience and go back home to develop our own solutions.
PT: You came with 10 of these startups. Can you talk in brief about what solutions they are providing to everyday problems in Nigeria?
KA: They have different solutions like we have a process of selecting them. When you’re coming up with startups for this kind of event, you will select those with best ideas and that can easily scale up globally. Because they meet with potential investors, they network with other startups and learn from them. So they have different solutions. They have solutions in Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Blockchain and Robotics. So, they have different solutions cutting across all the emerging technologies and solving different challenges. Like we have one solving energy problem, which is using local materials, to do something like a stove that you can cook food and convert the exhaust into an energy that can give you light, charge your mobile phone and so on.
There is another one that has a solution that can be used in many industries to protect vandalisation like in oil and gas. In fact, the delegation from NNPC has met them and has shown interest that they will engage some of them to see how they can apply those solutions into oil and gas to reduce vandalisation. Then we have another one that is using Blockchain to solve education problems. Some of them have product that is marketable. Some are still at the idea stage, so this will give us a chance to help them with some training and mentorship so that they can move to the next stage.
PT: How was the interest in the startups from participants in this exhibition?
KA: The Nigerian startup pavilion is one of the busiest pavilions this year. Many investors from across the world visited the pavilion, interacted with the startups. I don’t have the complete report but based on what I heard, a lot of them have shown interest, they want to invest in some of the start-ups or they want to find a way to work together with them to develop the solution. But at the end, we would get a report and the details about all of the potential investments proposals. But even from the local, like I said, NNPC is willing to take some of them.
PT: Nigeria has a huge problem with jobs, unemployment. How are these smart technologies going to help in addressing our jobs or employment crisis as a country?
KA: You know this is a paradigm shift. Always fast movers capture most of the values. This is not the first time humanity is witnessing this kind of paradigm shift. It has happened during the agricultural revolution, when people were foraging around searching for food, but later on they domesticated animals and started using the animals to improve food production. In the process, there were jobs lost and there were jobs gained.
The same thing during the first industrial revolution, when humans started using machine to improve productions. Those using animals lost jobs but new jobs were created. The same thing happened with the third industrial revolution when internet came, a lot of things changed. When we were growing, there were things that were not even in the market anymore because I remember when I was in primary school, there were typewriters that if you know how to operate, you’re a big man. But today you can’t even find it anywhere. Computers have replaced them. So those that were using it, it’s either they lost their jobs or maybe they re-skilled themselves and catch up with the new reality. It’s the same thing that is what is going to happen now.
Technology is going to change a lot of things, there are going to be jobs lost and jobs gained. So it depends on how we react to it. Are we going to go with the technology, develop new skills, so that we will be part of the new jobs or we can change our occupations? There are so many research about it. Like McKenzie did a research and predicted that about 800 million jobs are going to be displaced by automation by the year 2030, in the next 10 years.
But what do we need to do? We need to re-skill ourselves so that we will not lose out. And another research just recently by McKenzie again, predicted that by the year 2022, Artificial Intelligence will create 133 million jobs. And it will, okay it will replace 70 million jobs and create 60 million jobs. If you look at the net difference is 60 and in total it will create 133 million jobs. So for those with the skills now, some of us what we just need to do is to learn new skills so that we can change occupation, then new people are coming. Some will lose out if we don’t embrace the technologies or learn new skills, so people will lose out. The best thing is we need to understand these technologies and we need to see how we can get value from it. And from different research given by PWC they said by the year 2030, Blockchain will add $1.76 trillion to the global GDP. They also predicted that fast movers in the developing countries like Nigeria can get 5-15 per cent value added of their own GDP by 2030 if they embrace these technologies.
So looking at it, the potential is there. What we need is to create the environment to harness that potential. And it has been proven that most of these technologies, if you really want to benefit from it, you need to have an ecosystem. An innovation ecosystem. And that’s what we have been trying to build in Nigeria. Leveraging on the digital economy policy, and the new policy we are working on digital innovation and entrepreneurship policy. This will help us create the ecosystem, experiment create prototypes, test these technologies and start deploying them because it’s not something you can just go and deploy in a production environment. You need these startups to test whatever idea you have because as a big organisation, they are more careful about the risks and their concern is more about their own production, so they don’t experiment. That is why we need to create that ecosystem, it will allow the big corporations to work with the start-ups to develop prototypes and test it.
PT: As the chief promoter and regulator of the IT industry, what is NITDA doing to prepare and strengthen this ecosystem?
KA: NITDA was created in 2001 to help National IT Policy and that policy has been replaced by the Digital Economy Policy. Therefore, our core mandate is to implement National Digital Economy Policy to create the ecosystem to help position Nigeria. Some of the ways are the implementation of the eight pillars of the policy. The first pillar is developmental regulation. This about coming up with frameworks and policies to regulate the sector. We’ve been coming up with new regulatory frameworks. We call it developmental regulation because the regulation is to unlock opportunities. Recently, we did the Nigerian Data Protection Regulation (NDPR), and we are working on Blockchain adoption strategy. We worked on digital first strategy under the developmental regulation.
The second pillar is about digital literacy and skills. We have so many initiatives on training Nigerians because when you talk about digital economy, it is about people and people need to understand how to use it. So we have different trainings for women, artisans, public servants, startups and CEOs. This year alone, in 2020, we trained more than 100,000 Nigerians. We have online virtual platform were we do training. We are managing the e-government and training centres which means we train more than 2,000 public servants this year. We build artisans across the country in so many trades so if you put them all together, you would see that we have trained more than 100,000 people in Nigeria.
The third pillar is about solid infrastructure. We do a lot in that in terms of the broadband plan implementation. One of our strategic pillars is digital inclusion and how we can help underserved communities with the digital infrastructure so that they can benefit from the digital economy we are creating. Between 2019 and 2020, we deployed 160 digital job creation centres. We established 12 IT centres for capacity building, 6 IT hubs and 4 innovation and incubation parks around the country. We recently launched our national centre for artificial intelligence and robotics. All these are under the solid infrastructure.
Under the soft infrastructure, we do a lot in terms of training, creating the ecosystem for startups and software development. There is also the government digital servicing and we have accessed 100 public institutions on their IT assets and we are building a repository that will help the government to have a 360 view on IT investment.
There is also the service infrastructure which is basically looking at cybersecurity and other things. We also upgraded our CERRC; which is the Computer Emergency Response and Readiness Center in helping MDAs especially during the EndSARS to protect their websites and those that were compromised, we helped them restore the site. We also constantly reissued advisory notice. We do trainings and even a roadshow for cybersecurity awareness. The sixth is on emerging technology and digital society. This revolves majorly around Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Blockchain etc. So in all the eight pillars, we are doing a lot to implement it. We are recently working under the directive of the minister with the ecosystem to develop the digital innovation and entrepreneurship policy that will also help to strengthen the ecosystem.
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