Boosting Technology Innovation with 'USPF Changemaker'


The recently concluded 2017 USPF Innovation Hackathon Challenge where winners emerged is an addition to several initiatives conceived and sponsored by organisations and government agencies to deepen technology innovation among startups, writes Emma Okonji

Having realised that data and technology innovation are the next oil and gas of global economies, organisations and government agencies, especially in developing countries, are beginning to tinker around the best form of technology solutions that will create positive disruptions within their economies.

As a result, attention has been shifted to technology startups that could be further trained and mentored to develop disruptive technology solutions that will be commercially viable to attract financial growth and create job opportunities for the up-coming generation.
It is for this reason that the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF), an arm of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) that was set up to financially support rural telecommunication projects as well as technology development across the country, decided to organise the USPF Changemaker Challenge 2017.

It is designed to bring together, technology innovators to pitch among themselves. The essence is to broaden the mindsets of technology innovators, give them exposures and opportunities to grow further and at the end, select winners that will be financially rewarded. In the process, USPF set aside N1 million as first prize, N750,000 as second prize and N500,000 as third prize, with consolation prizes for seven other teams that made it to final 10 list.

The USPF Changemaker initiative

In order to contribute its quota to existing national innovation competitions that are designed to deepen skills of technology innovators and empower them to develop disruptive solutions that are commercially viable, the USPF came up with the initiative of ‘Changemaker Challenge’ geared towards the assemblage of bright technology innovators, for the purpose of mentoring them, and selecting the best that will be further exposed to greater opportunities.
Innovation, no doubt, is at the centre of the current Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and knowledge revolution and opportunities.

Convinced that the critical mass of the emerging information society resides in innovation and software know-how, the USPF decided to organise Changemaker Challenge to spur national innovation technology development and deliver appropriate solutions as dependable instruments, tools and meaningful response to the global challenges presented by Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In order to produce the team with the best disruptive solutions from among technology startups, the USPF brought together the finest group of jurists, from among industry experts, who did not only design the criteria for the selection process, but was also responsible for the rigorous selection exercise. The team of jurists was led by Prof. Olusegun Okunnu.

Addressing the audience at the final selection of winners in the USPF Changemaker Challenge 2017, the Secretary of USPF, Ayuba Shuaibu said the USPF engaged the services of Openmedia Communications Limited as consultant for the selection, mentoring, incubation, and route to market of ICT solutions that meet the set criteria for the hackathon.

According to Shuaibu, the constructive implementation of the innovative project has been on-going for the past eight months, involving 226 teams that were made up of 720 participants that applied for the hackathon, making it truly the first of its kind in Africa. The teams were made up of young men and women with great ideas.

“The idea will not only multiply the diffusion of ICT culture in our nation, but will also add immense quality to the socio-economic development of the national quest to attain the benefits of the SDGs. Our national mission will encourage innovation development models, aimed to strategically harness all knowledge attributes, potentials and ICT processes in and beyond Nigeria, as the core accelerator for creativity, innovation, wealth creation, national security and survivability,” Shuaibu said.

She added: “The mission will engage and address the numerous development challenges faced by startups, with special emphasis on e-Government, Education, Agriculture, Health and Health Care Delivery, National Security, Industrialisation, Art and Culture, Youth Empowerment, Wealth Creation and Job Creation.”

The objective

According to Shuaibu, the objective of the competition is to uphold the ongoing efforts designed to close the digital-readiness gap between Nigeria and the other countries. It is affirms the resolve of NCC to facilitate and fulfill its corporate mandate of delivering the promise and benefits of ICT to empower an important segment of the Nigerian population through the USPF, which are the underserved and unserved. She said the USPF has vested interest in the development, incubation and widespread dissemination of innovative ICT solutions and services designed to tackle and solve problems relevant to the Nigerian environment and citizenry.

With the theme: ‘Empowering Nigerian Youth Through Innovation’, Shuaibu said the focus was primarily on addressing the fundamental needs of the Nigerian youth to be self reliant as they attempt to conquer the monumental challenges of the future, as presented by globalisation and sustainable development goals. She challenged all technology innovators to always dream big as they engage the present and future challenges, opportunities, benefits and risks of disruptive technologies, and the need to retool the workforce and the critical role of e-government.

NCC’s commitment to ICT development

Speaking on NCC’s commitment to ICT development in the country, especially in the area of developing technology innovators to create solutions that will advance economic development in Nigeria, the Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, who was represented at the final selection exercise of the USPF Changemaker Hackathon, by the Head of Strategy and Corporate Performance at USPF, Mr. Kelechi Nwankwo, said NCC remained committed to the development of ICT in Nigeria, hence it created the USPF to help drive the implementation of the goals of NCC in the area of technology development in Nigeria.

According to Danbatta, “When I took the mantle of leadership of the commission on August 4, 2015, I unveiled the 8-point agenda, one of which is the promotion of ICT Innovations and Investment Opportunities. We believe there is no better way to propagate this than to proactively involve the new generation of tech innovators and entrepreneurs who, given the right platform and support, can analyse and address everyday problems and find solutions to them. The innovation is already in them.”

Danbatta assured Nigerians that NCC would continue to use the USPF platform in the promotion and application of innovative processes in ICT to help empower Nigerian youth, connect government, education and business entities for accelerated action, aimed at improving the country’s e-readiness development status and improve the collective drive to attain SDGs, especially in the unserved and underserved areas, communities and groups.

The pitch

Out of 226 teams that participated in the mentoring exercise, only 10 were shortlisted for the final pitch. The finalists include: Bright Minds, who designed solution around certificate verification; The Eagles, who designed solution that seeks to address oil and other kinds of fluid leakages; Nicademia, who created a solution that uses app to teach local languages and cultures; I Too Know, who designed a solution that will help fresh graduate start their own business, without seeking paid employment; and Team Belle, who designed a solution that assists pregnant women in getting medical care. Others were Loystar, that designed SME mobile payment solution; Geoweb that designed an emergency response solution, using Artificial Intelligence (AI); Jiggle, that designed a food vendor platform for students in tertiary institutions; Kano Majenta that created an app that will allow people have access to clean water from ‘Garuwa’, around Kano State; and The Academic that designed a solution that gives students and researches access to digital books from digital libraries. All 10 finalists were given 10 minutes to pitch, and questions were asked by the jurists. At the end of the pitching exercise, three winners emerged. The winners were Nicademia who won the first prize with a cash award of N1 million; Jiggle, who won the second prize with cash award of N750,000 and Kano Majenta who won the third prize with a cash award of N500,000. Other seven participants were, however, given cash as consolation prizes.

Criteria for selection

Commenting on the judging criteria, the leader of the jurists, Okunnu, told the audience that six criteria were set out for the selection of the top 10, which was eventually reduced to three final winners.

The participating teams were judged based on originality of ideas, which has to do with the project concept and project team building; innovation, which has to do with the thinking process, imagination, scope of logic, and applicability; and Ecosystem Disruptive, which has to do with new ideas that are capable of bringing positive disruptions to the ecosystem. Other criteria are: local content that addresses the conformity of local content needs, user requirements and the relevance of the solution to SDGs; Pitch quality that has to do with the ability of the team leader to effectively communicate and comply with presentation standards and project mission; and total documentation that addresses the projection of texts and graphic images.

Independent observers and participants’ comments

Pleased with the quality and originality of the solutions that were displayed during the pitch exercise, as well as the selection processes that brought out the best result, an independent observer, who is a former President of the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Mr. Titi Omo-Ettu, said many of the solutions presented were clearly original, community relevant and local content compliant.

“Substantial use of published figures of various public service regulators was remarkable. Almost all the teams displayed high levels of teamwork and virtually all solution projects presented derived from immediate environment of the teams,” Omo-Ettu said. He observed that mentors were very punctual at every session, blended in their focus and fair to all teams, and that the jurists were very punctual, very well coordinated and blended seamlessly in covering all issues connected with performance assessment.

The high points of his observation were that almost all teams relied on some database for their projections even though quite a number may be incorrect.

He therefore stressed the need for public institutions that publish data, to come up with authentic data, and to understand that solution developers rely significantly on such data to design solutions.
“The USPF deserves commendation for the initiative of supporting optimal exploitation of digital solutions to contemporary problems as a variant of extending access of ICT to unserved and undeserved communities,” Omo-Ettu said.

Some of the participants who expressed their feelings about the pitch exercise, said they were highly satisfied with selection processes and commended the jurists and the USPF for further exposing them to greater opportunities.