The Chief Executive of Co-Creation Hub, Mr. Bosun Tijani, spoke with information and communications technology journalists on the importance of broadband in attracting foreign direct investment and the need for government to intensify efforts in that direction, among other issues. Emma Okonji brings the excerpts:
You are part of the STEM Online Labs, Off-grid energy and you have also joined University of Leicester’s Enterprise Strategy Policy and Performance Committee (ESPPC). How exactly do you feel about these big steps?
For me it is a privilege and an opportunity to serve. With the work we do we hope to present opportunities that make life better for people. So, it is a privilege that we are busy, we do not take it for granted. Being busy can be demanding but more importantly, it is also an opportunity to contribute and add value.
I am super excited about all these opportunities. I see Co-Creation Hub (CcHUB) doing really exciting things for prosperity in Nigeria, not just myself as the CEO, my partners and the entire team are also quite excited about where we are headed as an organisation and the possibilities as well.
ccHUB has continued to remain the gold standard in incubation hubs in Africa. As a committed stakeholder, what would you say are the biggest challenges of start-ups?
I think the major challenge is about broadband and this is not peculiar to Nigeria alone, but with other countries on the African continent.
I think for us in Nigeria, the level of broadband penetration is still low and this has to be addressed because the more people have access to internet, the better opportunities would be out there for startups to build businesses that people are able to consume. So, broadband is still a major challenge.
I also think that another challenge is knowledge; mainly technical knowledge. The truth is that there is still a huge disconnect between higher institutions of learning/research and the technology industry. In the technology ecosystem, our reality is that, as we continue to build, talent is needed to build compelling technology solutions, but the availability of well-trained software engineers who can help add value to the startup business is not readily available. We also exist in a time where even the foreign market is interested in the huge talent that we have. So, there is opportunity for us, not to only train people for local market but also for foreign demand. We are at the same point that India was some years ago, where India was literarily supplying technical talent to the whole world.
We have that opportunity to create value in that kind of scope right now in Africa, not just Nigeria leading, but Africa as well. So, we need to invest in training more software development and technical experts that will make technology side of the ecosystem thrive.
The Nigerian ecosystem is an important ecosystem because we can build new businesses that can add value and build businesses and solutions that can enable other parts of the economy to grow. So, development of the right talent is also very important. The third challenge is about strategic investment. Probably on the side of the private sector as the private sector will also grow more opportunities. Also from government, there is need to see the technology start-up space as an incredible opportunity for Africa to create new wealth opportunities to lift people out of poverty. But unfortunately, this is a sector that requires patient capital. Patient capital in the sense of how we see new opportunities, how we invest in infrastructure, creating conducive environment for investment. Strategic investment is a very important factor, but with all that, there is a place for policy. We need strong policies that will not only support us to be innovative today but also policies that will support us to be competitive in three, four, five years to come. Competition will make companies from other regions easily come into our economies to create value and take that value out. So, if we want to retain that value, we also need to be thinking and implementing forward thinking policies.
Will you consider broadband as a crucial tool for national development, especially in developing economies?
Absolutely, I certainly would. Broadband networks are vital for our economic growth. Ability to communicate is crucial to how wealth is being created. It is not an option but an essential tool for improvement of businesses because communication is needed for economic and country growth.
In this digitized era, broadband is an essential infrastructure for any and all economies. It is an enabler to accessing business and job opportunities, improving healthcare, education and government services, and facilitating social interactions, and its importance cannot be overemphasised. Another way to look at it is to recognise that an efficient and effective broadband infrastructure is one solid way Nigerians in the diaspora can significantly contribute to nation building through fast and efficient communications across countries and continents, driving success in the economy. Beyond the Nigerians in the diaspora, we have a large pool of men and women with ideas, products and services for the development of the economy but who are restrained because the persons who needs their products and services are unable to access them. There is no better time than now for the Nigerian government across all levels to embrace the urgency in intensifying awareness and full penetration of broadband as this would positively enhance the nation’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
How much foreign direct investments (FDI) have start-ups been able to attract into Nigeria and how has broadband enabled that?
Broadband is a major enabler. Without broadband, tech start-up is almost impossible. It is the backbone upon which businesses are built. Penetration is on the rise which means local market is also beginning to be exciting as well. This excitement is what foreign investors see before they invest in the market. They don’t just invest in start-ups or entrepreneurs, they also invest in the market. A start-up ecosystem valuation that was done early this year, valued Nigeria at over $2 billion, and that is the value of start-up ecosystem in Nigeria, which makes us the top in Africa. So, clearly, that has its own implication. The GSMA also did a review for 2016 and it was estimated that African startups raised a record-breaking total of $366.8 million in investment, with the top 12 destinations being Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Egypt, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia and Uganda. This shows just how much money was raised by start-ups in the different markets in Africa. Nigeria is top in Africa taking in $109 million, then South Africa at $96.8 million, with Kenya and Rwanda following at $92.7 million and $16 million respectively.
So, it is an exciting time that we are rated among the best and definitely broadband is contributing to that but demand is always a major part of the innovation within the technology startup space. You can either create things that you push as technology push innovation to disrupt the market or you can also build products that are based on what the people want to see. Knowing the need of the market because people now have access to better quality internet and that is a part that we need to begin to look at. Financial technology is also instigating the development of a lot of exciting startups. We have seen start-ups like Flutterwave, Piggybank, Riby, PayStack, that have built-in response to demand from market for better payment systems. So, the more investment, the better opportunity for local tech startups.
How does broadband enable investment in human capital?
I will take that from a couple of angles. It is common knowledge how broadband and generally just the internet gives us the opportunity to connect better. Like never before in history, information is more readily available both to people and to businesses as well. This means that people can learn better, people can then make better-informed decisions because they have access to information. Businesses also have more competitive edge because not only can they gather data, they can now analyse it to make informed decisions.
I think the true barriers to innovation, barriers to entering businesses are now low, and we all have access to some level of common knowledge, which can be incorporated. For a country like Nigeria, with a lot of young creative people, it allows for them to continue to strengthen their ability to showcase their creativity. We have seen examples of how this has been used to promote our entertainment industry across Africa where Nollywood and its diverse contents are now available on IrokoTV and IbakaTV. On YouTube for the music side of entertainment as well, a lot of people can now show their creativity. We see same display of ingenuity in e-commerce industry, people can now shop online. Which means you don’t need to leave where you stay, when you need to buy something that used to be available only in Lagos or in a particular location. You don’t need to physically travel to source those things. I remember when I was in the University in Jos, as young students, we would have to travel all the way to Lagos to get some of the things that we needed. Gone are those days, when such things happen. Now with the availability of e-commerce, thanks to the internet, people can sit in one location and shop for something of interest in another location and get the item without leaving their location.
You can also see the progress and impact in education as well. So many young people are now learning software development off the internet from platforms like Udemy or Khan Academy and the likes – clearly, you really don’t need to go into a school to learn. The empowerment is beyond what we can imagine and you can see that in all spheres of life, where people literally leverage their access to information, their ability to communicate and share using the internet. What is interesting about all of this is that we are still at a level where diffusion rate in Nigeria is still low. We can only imagine what would happen if more investment is put into connectivity and making sure broadband is available in the right places.
Why do you think government is delaying the full implementation of the National Broadband Plan and the licensing of additional Infrastructure Companies (InfraCos)?
I can’t say this from an informed standpoint. My work within the ecosystem is largely around the entrepreneurship based content. I have not been heavily involved even though it is an important issue for the work I do. So, I can’t give any informed opinion on why it is being delayed because I don’t know that. But clearly, it’s something that requires huge investment from not only the government, but also the private sector. I know organisations like MainOne have always been very creative and willing to actually invest alongside the government. You can look at the examples of what we did with MainOne in Yaba, where government didn’t really spend a dime but put the right policies that provided support for MainOne to collaborate with the technology ecosystem in Yaba to lay the fibre. In less than one year, the fibre was laid and now we have probably over 60 technology led businesses in Yaba and it is still growing. Yaba is now attracting attention from every corner of the world, which is a perfect example of how government can smartly collaborate with private organisations to actually increase penetration. It is an expensive project to undertake and in some cases where the private organisations can’t go, government would need to invest in it. I think, if we are thinking of investing in the future of the country, it is not a question of how expensive it is, it is more a question of our willingness. We must do it. The sort of enablement that will happen from better penetration would only fly better opportunities for the Nigerian market. As you can see, last year, the technology startup ecosystem in Nigeria was declared the number one in Africa. It was estimated at over $2 billion, which can actually be worth much more if we increase the investment. So, it is an opportunity for us to diversify. We are at a time where we are clinging on diversifying our economy but if we don’t invest heavily, it is going to be tough for us to diversify. So, I think government needs to take that approach. We can’t afford to delay it any longer. We need to put resources into ensuring that the whole investment into broadband penetration across the country is actually real. We also need to encourage private organisations as well as invest through creating public-private partnerships.
Can you compare Nigeria’s broadband penetration with other African countries like Kenya and South Africa?
We would probably need researched data to do that, but clearly, I don’t think we are on the same level as South Africa. That is a place I visit often. Kenya as well, probably, I need to be careful with my answers here because the numbers are out there. These things are reported by the Telecom Association. So, everyone can reach it, but clearly, we are not on the same level with South Africa. But I don’t think it is an access problem. You know we have MainOne and other companies that invested in undersea cables into Nigeria, so I think that our challenge is ensuring that the broadband capacities from the undersea cables reach the last mile, ensuring that they reach where they need to reach, which requires strategic investment from all of us. I think our market is quite strong as well. We are currently being rated as number one, despite the type of infrastructure that we have. One can only imagine the successful ventures we will generate as a country, if we come closer to the ideal structures required. Imagine if we have better broadband penetration, which brings more market for local technology businesses to reach; which means more opportunity, more demand and ability to build businesses off the back of the internet, which can add value to the economy. Not just value to the economy based on local market but also take advantage of the regional market within Africa and beyond as well. So the comparison can be in terms of what we currently have but I think our comparison should always be based on what is possible, what we can create off the investment. So, probably benchmarking with Kenya may be good but may not in its entirety; we are a bigger market, and we need to be thinking even bigger.