‘SMEs Need Technology Support for Growth’

General Manager, Cisco Nigeria and West African Countries, Mr. Olakunle Oloruntimehin and Small Business Manager, Cisco West Africa, Lela Omo-Ikirodah

The General Manager, Cisco Nigeria and West African Countries, Mr. Olakunle Oloruntimehin and Small Business Manager, Cisco West Africa, Lela Omo-Ikirodah, in this interview spoke about the readiness of Cisco to drive small businesses to profitability and sustainability, using the right technology solutions. Emma Okonji presents the excerpts:

What is your view about the change in nomenclature from Ministry of Communications to Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy?

Having the digital economy as part of the Ministry of Communications is a welcome development and Cisco will continue to walk with the ministry, including agencies like the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), to provide skills development and job creation. NITDA is also a networking academy for us and we will continue to work with NITDA and the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy to provide the right skills, going forward.

As a technology solution company, what kind of policies do you expect from government that will drive digital transformation and sustain technology growth in the country?

In terms of policies, we are working with the likes of the United States (US)government agency to ensure that we have technical workshops, reverse trade missions, whereby people in government go and exchange ideas with their counterparts in the US government. For example, staff of the Nigerian telecoms regulatory body, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), can work with their counterparts and peers in the US and share policies. It is true that not all policies in the US, for example, will be relevant in Nigeria, but there will be enough context that could be localised in Nigeria. These are some of the things that we do to accelerate policy making and policy development. We need policies that will drive and sustain business development in today’s digital era.

What are your views about small business growth and competition in Nigeria?

We are in the digital era and every business around the world is in a position where they have to strategise in order to stay ahead of the competition. At Cisco, we are dedicated to helping these small businesses leverage emerging technologies to accelerate their growth, thereby providing a fair ground where every business no matter their sizes, can access the opportunity to realise the full potential of digitisation in their operations. About 90 per cent of businesses worldwide could be considered small or medium sized businesses. We at Cisco carried out some intense research to see what we can do globally to cater to this market, and I must say that Cisco is increasing the focus on small businesses globally. The Cisco Designed for Business portfolio delivers the right products at the right price for small businesses. It also provides increased investment in partner programs to incentivize partners who are focused in the small business space.

Cisco recently organised a business summit for small businesses in Nigeria. Could that be regarded as a shift from providing technology solutions to enterprise businesses, which Cisco is known for?

The Cisco’s Small Business Summit is not a shift from providing technology solutions to enterprise businesses. We see small businesses as key to national growth of any economy and we are willing to play in that space of providing technology solutions to small and medium size businesses, while we still provide technology solutions to enterprise businesses. The survival and growth of small businesses are very important for us at Cisco. Traditionally, we have been seen as an enterprise business to business focused company. However, we have been relevant to the small business, even since we have been a company, way over 35 years ago. We are increasing the focus on the small business globally, and the summit we had recently in Lagos, was one of the several events that we have had over the last year, focusing on on this important segment. Cisco’s focus on small and medium businesses is to correct the general perception that Cisco is just targeted at enterprise customers and not focused on small businesses. This is because we did a couple of research and realised that we have a lot of startups coming up. We have a lot of businesses starting, and we have a lot of entrepreneurs, and about 90 per cent of businesses worldwide can be considered small and midsize businesses. So we looked internally at Cisco, but from a global perspective, we are looking at what we can do to make sure that we are providing the right solutions to cater to this type of customers. So the summit was focused on our partners who we considered as the extended workforce for Cisco. The idea was to start first with the partners because we need to first of all educate them, since they need to be able to go to the market to present the right solutions from Cisco that can help these small and midsized customers to scale in their businesses. So the event was focused on our new solutions as well as previous solutions that we have had, which the market is not very aware of so to speak. It also focused on educating our partners on how to properly position solutions to small and midsize customers. There were demos and practical hands-on solutions that can cater to small and midsize customers.

In specific terms, how will Cisco support small business growth in Nigeria?
Cisco is passionate about small business growth and sustainability in Nigeria and other African countries where we operate, and we were interested in organising the small business summit in Lagos, which held recently. Current data shows that about 90 per cent of businesses worldwide, are actually categorised as small and midsize, and 65 per cent of businesses in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) are actually categorised as small and midsize . So in Africa, I think that over 85 per cent of our businesses are actually categorised as small and midsize businesses. So, what we have seen is that there is a growth in small businesses and from 2018 to 2019, there has been a 4.2 per cent growth in small size businesses. So even if you look at Nigeria, for example and if you look at the social media, you see a lot of small businesses, with lots of tech startups springing up on a daily basis. So I know a lot of people who are out there with brilliant minds and we have a lot of startups and small enterprises that are coming up with less than 100 employees or less than 100 or 50 users. So Cisco is passionate about supporting these groups of small businesses with the right solutions that can help them scale. We know that information technology (IT) is no longer a cost centre, but a department that drives businesses.

It is good we make it clear that Cisco is not shifting from serving its enterprise customers, even as we are also passionate at growing and supporting small businesses in Nigeria and Africa. We want to make sure that we are here to support small businesses as they grow and scale, even to become large enterprises. We discovered there is a gap in the market and Cisco needs to position itself to also support small and midsize businesses. We are increasing the focus on small and medium business because we know they are relevant for economic growth of a nation. While we focus on small businesses, we will also maintain existing relationship with our enterprise businesses, because today’s small businesses are tomorrow’s enterprise businesses.

Emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Internet of Things (IoTs), 5G and Big Data among others, are fast evolving. How is Cisco leveraging these new technologies to enhance customer experience in business?

Cisco has always proven to help companies drive their digitisation plan. I will boldly say that we are in a post-digital era, so companies can’t leverage on digital alone as a differentiator, emerging technologies can only provide the foundation of digital transformation. So you did mention AI, 5G, IoT, among others and these are emerging technologies that Cisco is leveraging to enhance small and enterprise businesses. Cisco as a company has the products and the solutions and the technologies we push into the market are part of the fabric of artificial intelligence. These emerging technologies help us and our customers to be much more operationally efficient, and they allow us to use data insights that are based on data analytics from artificial intelligence to make better decisions and proper planning. So we need that foundation of digital and again, emerging technologies can only drive investment protection on what is already digital, which Cisco has already helped its customers over time to put in place. So we are very relevant in helping and supporting businesses in those areas of emerging technologies. We are very relevant in 5G and we are helping customers across the world to build 5G networks out there.

In terms of data as the new digital oil that is driving global economies, how will you advise organisations that are yet to fully adopt the use of data and data analytics?

There are different levels of digitalisation among organisations based on their different levels of maturity. Some companies are faster than some but what is inevitable is that organisations that are fast will push the ladder of the slower ones into action, otherwise the slower ones will be serious trouble that can affect economic growth. So, the slower organisations that I am talking about, also involves public sector customers, and also private sector customers that are slow to adoption of new technologies. Like I said earlier, digital is basic and it is foundational for every organisation, even though it was not so some few years back. Most organisations take it for granted that businesses need to be digital, and Cisco is helping to push the agenda of digitalisation, especially with government, through interventions across governments around the world. We are doing that as a way of preparing governments to focus on skills development, focus on jobs creation, but not just any kind of skill or any kind of jobs. We are talking about future jobs that are focused on digital, because more will be relevant in the future with digital skills. There’s no way any organisation can do augmented reality or virtual reality or artificial intelligence if the organisation does not have the digital skill as the foundation. So, Cisco is helping to build that digital skills as a foundation, while working with governments at various levels to achieve it. Some of the things we are doing around the Cisco Networking Academy, allow us to be able to provide that skill foundation for the public and private sectors.

Downtime in business results in major setback for organisations. How is Cisco addressing this kind of challenge that often befalls small and enterprise businesses?

Cisco had always focused on three key things: Technology, Digital and Processes. On our technology, we are very big and we are leaders in the technology space. The second thing is the people’s side of things, which shows how well Cisco is ensuring that people can consume and leverage emerging technologies in a responsible and ethical way, to maintain business continuity. The third focus, which is about the processes, is where Cisco helps with the people side of things, the technology side of things, and the process side of things to ensure that if a company has a business continuity plan, that plan must capture all three key focus that I have mentioned in a very sustainable way. So, we also face downtime threats, but the way and manner with which we address it, matters a lot for businesses. We teach companies on the enterprise side, and even on the small business side, on how to counter downtime threats. Our solutions prevent downtime from happening and our solutions can also help minimize the loss of revenue for companies or organisations that have suffered downtime.

The federal government sees startups as key drivers to the Nigerian economy. What are the specific solutions from Cisco that will help upscale and sustain small businesses?

We have talked about digitisation and key foundation for growth success and sustainability, but in adding to that, we have seen that data analytics is key, especially when it comes to small businesses. If you look at processes, as one of our key focus for business, in trying to look at how to make business operations more efficient and how to help small businesses scale, then data analytics becomes very key. So with our solutions, we are making sure that data analytics is key in terms of efficiently helping the processes for small businesses.

We have solutions that we call the Small Business Technology Groups (SBTG), which is our own kind of solutions that we provide. We also have the cloud solutions as well. The idea for both of solutions is that both look at that exact features that the customers need, based on the scale of business they’re operating on, in order to help businesses function properly and efficiently. So in our SBTG, we have things such as small business units, switches, routers, cameras and the likes of them, and then even our core solutions as well. Our solutions are growing businesses very fast and last year, our solutions grew businesses by over 200 per cent. So, what it means is that our solution is changing the way businesses are beginning to operate. Again, we have analytics that are in-built in all of these solutions. If it comes to security, we have solutions such as firepower, and the idea for all of the solutions is to have security solution built on the network of businesses. So what Cisco is doing is to make sure that it provides the best solution, using our four major architectures, which are the enterprise network, security, data centre, and collaboration. Our solutions are somehow interwoven, such that every small business can partake in it. So the customer network must be fundamental, which is the foundation. Statistics show that 65 per cent of customers that are attacked by phishing and other security attacks, are actually targeted at small businesses and 64 per cent of these business don’t recover when attacked. So, for us, it’s very important that we have solutions that address the challenges of businesses, both the small and enterprise businesses.

How affordable are your solutions for small businesses?
Our prices are very affordable, especially for small businesses. We won’t talk about small business if we are not considering their limited financial capacities to do business. We are really in the business of making sure that small businesses can function efficiently, while leveraging our technologies.

How demystified are your solutions, considering the fact that most small business owners are not tech savvy, they only have the business idea?

Our solutions are easy and simple to use. For example, our cloud solution called Meraki, is very intent based and very heavily leveraged on data and analytics. The idea with Meraki is that with the phone or other device like laptop, I can actually access something we call the dashboard. That is actually the selling point and the cameras are high definition (HD) camera, but the dashboard is actually what we’re using to sell the Meraki solution and the configuration is easy. It is a plug and play solution. You don’t have to know commands to be able to set up Meraki. We have a very solid ecosystem and there is no other Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) that has the kind of partner ecosystem that we have. We have a very solid ecosystem, and we build our partner ecosystems such that they are extended workforce of Cisco. So what it means is that they support these small businesses. We have extended workforce, we have over 300 authorised partners in Nigeria, and West Africa. Our extended workforce is able to support our customers across the transition processes. So our solutions are easy enough for a non techie person to use. However, we also have that support in terms of our ecosystem for the customers to rely on.

How secured are your solutions in this era of cyberattacks?
Our solutions are very secured, however, one solution doesn’t solve all the security challenges of an organisation. Cisco is literally one of the few OEMs that have solutions that cut across all the different architectures when you look at technology. So, Cisco is a company that is very solid in terms of network or security or collaboration. We understand what the security challenges are and that is also built into our solution that we put out in the market. So in terms of security, we have an architecture that is just focused on security and we have different solutions that address different security challenges.

I will like to make it clear that we are not pushing out boxes to the customers. Our solutions are focused and customer-driven. So what that means is that in our engagement with customers, including partners’ engagement with our customers, we always try to ensure that we are selling a specific solution to the customer. So we offer solutions that can help businesses scale and not just boxes. In terms of security solutions, we have them, be it email security, web security, network security, among others, but the key thing for as a technology solution company, is to first of all try to engage the customer, understanding their environments and then proposing the right solution that can be effective for them. Again we have the secure intelligent platform which is just the concept of showing that every solution we have out there, has security as an inherent part of the solution. So what we try to do from a Cisco point of view is also to pull all the people or companies in our ecosystem to be at the same level of security awareness and readiness, just like we are at Cisco.

Most small businesses come up with good ideas, but along the line, they go into extinction for several reasons. How can Cisco help in addressing such situation?

Startup business is about being very focused on the customer and focusing on the customer in my opinion, is to do what will provide data insights. You don’t want to go to a customer with the wrong perspective or the wrong solution, because it damages your credibility. If you don’t have customers that trust you, then you don’t have a business to rely on into the future. And it is only a matter of time for such organisation to fail as a business. So achievements in Cisco solutions are around data and data analytics, which give useful data insights that someone can use to engage customers in a much better way. Over and beyond listening to the customer through conversation techniques, technology also does the listening for you. This is because customers build digital identities or technology identities that companies like Cisco leverage upon and customers can use the data to improve on the existing practices and ensure that what is put in front of the customer, is an offering that meets the customers’ immediate and future needs.