Monday comment2

Soji Ehinlanwo canvasses new policy initiatives for democratisation of ICT

On the side-lines of an International conference in the UK, I got drawn into a debate hovering around the global state of Information and Communications Technology. A robust discussion that started with a review of ICT development or performance across a number of leading European and Asian Countries inevitably dovetailed into a review and analysis of ICT performance in specific African countries of which Nigeria became a major focus partly because of my involvement in the debate but mainly on account of the high expectations and hopes many have held and still nurture about Nigeria. Without mincing words, the specific discussion around Nigeria’s ICT development revealed quite depressing statistics and information, especially when viewed in relation to developments in several other countries including quite a number of African countries and made me undoubtedly very uncomfortable

My discomfort arose from a number of factors  which included the following:  one,  Nigeria’s poor ranking on the latest ICT development index reflected in a 2018 report published by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) which puts the country in a disappointing but not surprising 143rdposition out of 176 countries whose ICT developmental levels were measured. Even more confounding is the sobering reality that in the African index of the same report, Nigeria is rated 15th behind countries such as Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius, Kenya, Gabon, Zimbabwe and even Cote d’Ivoire. Two, Nigeria has an excellent pool of highly experienced and talented ICT professionals dispersed across many parts of the world including Europe and North America – some of whom I have come across in my own ICT career -whose skills are being harnessed to further develop the ICT potential of major countries in Europe and North America, yet paradoxically Nigeria still struggles both in perception and reality in terms of the development of the ICT capabilities of the country. In my mind, that really doesn’t square up. Three, successive governments have made modest financial investments presumably aimed at positively changing the ICT landscape, yet it does appear that these investments have not yielded as much as have been anticipated in terms of outcomes or indeed in relation to changing existing disappointing rankings. Four, there certainly has not been a shortage of policy documents – possibly arising out of numerous workshops/conferences ostensibly aimed at enhancing ICT capabilities and usage – but yet we are still very far from where we should be and achieving well below available possibilities

 Notwithstanding what is certainly an un-cheering background, I venture to affirm that there need not be despair and of course this leads me inexorably to pose the pertinent question – How can we change the reality now and its narrative as it stares us in the face?

First and foremost, there needs to be an urgent policy shift in respect of the drive to make ICT pervasive in our country – in a way that puts the country on the highway of digitization and enables us to harness the full potential of ICT in our transformation efforts across all critical areas including agriculture, manufacturing, health, finance, education, etc. As Mr Akinwunmi Adesina – the African Development Bank President posited in the 2019 Mo Ibrahim Governance week, new policy initiatives are required which should be aimed specifically at the democratization of ICT adoption – a key plank of which he argued must be a legislation or policy to make code learning compulsory across all levels of our institutions. This position is certainly in tandem with my own thoughts and I believe this will require an important update in our school curriculum in a way that exposes our youngsters to coding techniques across many of the modern areas of ICT such as database programming, machine learning, artificial intelligence, Web technology including web analytics, big data analytics, 3D Printing as well as other ICT tools with the potential to engender a new wave of innovation that could possibly help in the resolution of our youth unemployment challenges and boost income potential and GDP.

 Financial investments in ICT need to be shaped by new thinking. While admittedly, investments outlay so far by successive governments do not match aspiration to make ICT a key driver of economic growth and social inclusion, it is pertinent to aver that in many respects, there are reasons to doubt that we have gotten optimal value from even the little capital provisions and investments that have been allocated to ICT. There needs to be not only targeted financial investment in ICT infrastructure build – but clear and verifiable cost and benefit analysis of such investments – particularly in relation to how they contribute to economic growth, their potential for stimulating employment both in the short term and long term and to what extent they help to extend government agenda of social inclusion. These are by no means the only criteria that should be used for evaluating and determining financial investment in ICT; a raft of other cost / benefit factors must also be added to shape how allocations to ICT are deployed – so as to ensure optimal outcomes are achieved in respect of all ICT related capital outlays. The value of such carefully “programmed” thinking in relation to ICT capital investments is that it could help to significantly raise rankings as well as, more importantly, enhance transformation efforts in other areas of economic, political and social development

One of the sad ironies of our poor ranking in ICT performance and development is the fact that while our ICT development growth appears to be slow and unimpressive, we can rightly boast of a vast pool of excellent ICT resources dispersed around the world. We urgently need to find a way to harness these pools of expertise in order to radically re-define our internal ICT potential and capabilities. They can be a veritable tool for stimulating training and investments in the local ICT market. India  has  over the years become a major ICT outsourcing and ICT capabilities country for major European and North American Countries through a tenacious pursuit of partnership between Indian ICT professional in Europe/North America and local talents as well as a vigorous and positive development of local capabilities and skills – all supported by government which has helped to engender confidence by European and North American companies in skills resident in India – of course quite apart from the cost advantage for these companies. We urgently need a new template that gradually brings us to compete with India in this sphere .Undoubtedly, it will take a great deal of planning, effort and determined focus but yet it is clearly achievable

While the idea of workshops and seminars which aim to evaluate the possible means to enhance ICT performance are certainly a welcome one and could of course stimulate discussion and lead to important policy documents, we need to start to prioritise workshops/ policy documents and initiatives that focuses more on the inherent issues and factors particularly peculiar to us which limit ICT usage and confidence building – consequently hampering growth. For example, we urgently need to tackle the negative narrative promoted by an extremely tiny minority of our youths- who interestingly possess some IT skills – but who unfortunately deploy these for nefarious activities which undermine the hard work of many enterprising young people and end up creating a very bad narrative for the country – affecting confidence and investments from outside the country in our potential ICT capabilities. I am talking about what has come to be known as the “Yahoo boys/girls” problem.  We urgently need to deal with this

In all , for Nigeria to achieve his true potential in ICT development and performance, a new and fresh raft of thinking, policy initiatives and investment push needs to be unveiled that consolidates not only on whatever modest achievements have been made but importantly maps out a new trajectory for ICT growth that inevitably lead to better ranking on the global ICT index as well as actively supports our ambitious political, economic and social development aspirations. As the new APC government under President Muhammadu Buhari prepares to commence its second four years term, there is no better time to initiate this new journey in promoting a new digitization agenda

Prince Ehinlanwo, an ICT consultant, wrote from the UK