Nigerian should not lag behind as the world rushes to grab the opportunities presented by new technologies in this period of a devastating pandemic. NITDA should ride on and keep the torch alight in helping Nigeria match the rest of the world.
The year 2020 came almost like apocalypse. Just as the world settled into a new year, news filtered in that an unknown virus was afflicting residents in China’s Wuhan province. Many dismissed the initial news as China’s own problem, with former U.S. president, Donald Trump, mockingly calling what was discovered to be a virus of the corona family as the ‘China virus’. No one expected that the coronavirus would travel beyond Wuhan and cause one of the widest disruptions to human activities, in centuries.
With the COVID-19 spread and forced suppression of human contacts, the whole world went into frenzy. What becomes of human activities? What happens to all the plans and businesses lined up for the year? These were the posers on most lips. Survival itself became improbable in the face of the ravaging spread of the killer virus. As it was all over the world, so was it in Nigeria. The federal and state governments had to step in by declaring lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus. This sad development affected government business and dealt a serious blow on many.
However, blessings, as the saying goes, can come in disguise. While the world lamented the impact of the lockdown induced by the corona virus, one industry, that is the information technology sector, saw a boom. Within a few months, IT firms had raked in billions of dollars in revenue. A rather obscure virtual conferencing app, Zoom, suddenly shot into prominence, making the company worth more than the petrol giant, Exxon Mobil.
Nigeria was not too different from the world. The lockdown brought to a halt a number of activities for a year that was just starting. The Federal Government announced various measures to reduce human interactions and asked civil servants to stay at home. However, while government offices came under lock and key, one agency gave a new meaning to the lockdown order by creatively evolving and helping many other government organisations and business to come along with it.
While majority of the populace and leaders in different sectors saw the COVID-19 pandemic as a helpless doomsday, the leadership at the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) saw opportunities. Run by Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi, the smart IT professional director general, NITDA turned the gloomy situation into a productive period and went on almost unhindered in going about its activities and encouraging the Nigerian IT architecture to tag along.
In accordance with the mandate of NITDA, and in line with the vision and leadership of the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami), Mallam Kashifu Abdullahi did not drop the ball in carrying on with the vision of the Agency, as encapsulated in the four-year strategy plan (2017 – 2020) developed under Dr. Pantami.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Kashifu and his management team worked in 2020 to broaden the frontiers in all aspects of the designed pillars for the agency; from strengthening regulatory obligations to deepening IT skills and jobs creation.
NITDA under Kashifu Abdullahi has, in the last one year, given teeth to the Federal Government’s digital economy mantra by expanding the frontiers of Nigeria’s IT space, both in government and private spheres.
Over 300,000 jobs were created by supporting IT start-ups across the wide spectrum of the sector, establishing Digital Capacity Centres, ICT Hubs and supporting schools and learning institutions. For a broader integration of the economy into the ICT-compliant market of today, NITDA panders away from making ICT an affair of the geeky engineers and developers, by introducing practical sides to it. This is exemplified in the training and engagement of artisans in every day skills such as mobile phone repairs, and introduction of smart agriculture through the training of farmers under the National Adopt Village for Smart Agriculture (NAVSA) programme.
For its IT coordination and regulatory duties, NITDA, in the past year, consolidated on its duty of vetting the IT procurements of ministries and agencies of government, saving the country billions of naira through that process. NITDA’s vision is to increasingly improve on interoperability among government agencies. Added to this, NITDA under Kashifu Abdullahi is ramping up compliance to the many regulations and frameworks issued by the agency in the past few years. This has led to Nigeria topping the rank in data protection reporting in Africa, due to the creation of 27 data protection firms and the turning in of over 500 compliance reports.
Impressively, while many public and private institutions saw the coronavirus outbreak as a hindrance, even as doomsday, NITDA under Kashifu Abdullahi saw it as a challenge to innovate and evolve. The Agency has used the pandemic to further rev up Nigeria’s journey to a digital economy, through various initiatives. A high-powered committee was set up by the Agency to fashion out ways to spur innovation and support creative start-ups. Geeks were challenged, in an innovation competition, to come up with solutions unique to this period. It was the Agency’s way of gingering up Nigeria’s IT ecosystem, especially the young start-ups that are trying to find their footings in the industry.
The evidence of maturing Nigeria’s IT sector was showcased in December at the 2020 edition of the annual Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (GITEX), where Nigeria presented 10 start-ups at the global stage. The innovators, who were sponsored to the event by NITDA, as part of its IT development role, presented impressive technologies aimed at resolving everyday problems. The delegation, as reported in the media, were well received, with investors and developers indicating interest in a number of them.
To deepen this burgeoning subsector of the IT world, the minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Pantami led key government officials to commission NITDA’s National Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics in Abuja in November 2020. The import of the Centre, as stated by the minister at the time, was to productively engage the youths, create more jobs and inspire digital entrepreneurship. It is envisioned that the Centre will serve as a robust platform for achieving a digital economy for Nigeria through digital literacyskills d, evelopment and innovation.
The conception was intended to tally and key into the job creation agenda of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration and the Ministry’s National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS) 2020 -2030. Under the NDEPS, the focus, like in all serious economies around the world, is on skills and innovation.
The new centre is projected to serve as a leading hub of innovation, research and development, knowledge transfer and training in the areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics and other emerging technologies. “In addition, the Centre will also create a vision for AI, develop an AI ecosystem, support data stewardship, while providing access to specialised technical skills in the country,” Dr Pantami said during the inauguration in November.
To bridge the knowledge gap during the pandemic, NITDA, through the guidance of the honourable minister of Communications and Digital Economy established a virtual academy, in collaboration with key global leaders in IT. To date, over 120,000 Nigerians have studied and obtained certificates in various fields from this all-purpose virtual school.
Year 2021 seems to be carrying over a lot of the features that defined 2020 in terms of the restriction of human interactions. The opportunities for the IT sector are still there, and expanding, so also the urgency for the diversification of economies and re-invention of skills. Nigerian should not lag behind as the world rushes to grab the opportunities presented by new technologies in this period of a devastating pandemic. NITDA should ride on and keep the torch alight in helping Nigeria match the rest of the world.
George Abah writes from Maitama, Abuja.
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