OUTSIDE THE BOX BY ALEX OTTI
“Every guinea fowl calls out in the language of its own hometown” – Old African Proverb
“When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?” – John Maynard Keynes, (1883-1946)
Today, I am going to depart slightly from my tradition of avoiding any discussion relating to my previous life in the last financial institution that I headed, namely, the erstwhile Diamond Bank PLC. I will, however, disappoint those who are expecting me to comment on some of the more recent events in the bank. My response remains that I do not have the anointing to know what is happening at, and to, a place that I left more than six years ago. A few things on record include that I was blessed and lucky to work with a team of intelligent and highly skilled people who were exceptionally motivated, and who delivered consistently on all performance indices. All the credit for the successes we recorded during my four-year tenure goes to them, individually and collectively.
All that we achieved at Diamond Bank was made possible through the utilisation of our most important asset; our people, who always strove to do more to remain on top. One of such people that I would use this column to celebrate today is a gentleman called Premier Oiwoh, the current CEO of the Nigerian Interbank Settlement System (NIBSS). He was then the General Manager and Head of Operations and Technology. He equally had an excellent and talented army of young men and women working with him. I called him up one day and challenged him to come up with a solution that would enable our customers make both local and international payments, from the comfort of their homes and offices. He quickly assembled a small but dedicated team and set to work.
In a few weeks they made me a presentation that surpassed all my expectations. What I had in mind was a system that would work on a desktop computer. They went ahead to develop one that could, in addition, work on mobile handheld devices. When all the tests and checks were completed, we implemented the solution successfully. They improved the security of the service by developing a token that could be generated automatically. I remember visiting a bank in the UK years later where they introduced a manually generated token to me with much fanfare. I literally laughed them to scorn, and proudly announced to them that we had automated tokens a while back where I came from in Nigeria. Now, the flip side of the invention by my team of technology wizards was that because many of our customers, particularly the youthful ones, jumped on the application and practically stopped coming to the bank to carry out their transactions, our manpower requirements continued to drop even when we were expanding..
Duncan Eke, an exceptionally brilliant engineer graduated on top of his class with a First Class honours degree. I believe he is from Bayelsa State. Years ago, he was a senior management staff in Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited, now ExxonMobil. He oversaw the Mobil Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) facility in Bonny, Rivers State. The multimillion-dollar NGL is basically a project aimed at reducing gas flaring as the plant converts associated gas to natural gas for the export market. I visited Mr. Eke shortly after the commissioning of the plant and was pitching for the business of the staff of the company. I was surprised to hear him explain the level of automation of the plant. He demonstrated on his laptop, how the plant was managed without human intervention. To cut the story short, he only required security men to secure the facility and could run the facility from his office in Port Harcourt without any human being. I was surprised to learn that this level of investment was only able to generate jobs for machines and not human beings who actually needed the jobs.
I brought these examples up, in one breath, to say that we have what it takes in Nigeria, when we set our minds to it, and in the other breath, to warn that in trying to be like the rest of the world in our quest for technological advancement, we can unwittingly initiate what may bring us severe social and economic consequences
In the aftermath of the Great Depression, there was massive unemployment in the United States of America. Theodore Roosevelt, who was President, sought ways of reflating the economy. He proposed the ‘New Deal’ in which he saw creation of job opportunities as one of the strategies for bringing the economy back to life. He encouraged all ways of putting money in the hands of the people. According to his radical ideas, it was important to create employment, even if it meant paying people to dig holes and fill them up again. The import of this story is that Nigeria is at the point in her economic history when there is need to take radical measures to solve our problems. In my considered opinion, the biggest challenge facing us today is how to ensure that many of our citizens have jobs. Creating employment for an economy that is in the doldrums is a very important in reviving it. In the same vein, I believe that the Nigerian situation is one that begs us to look at the challenges that we face and proffer solutions that are tailored to our peculiar needs. With that in mind, we must note that there are benefits that technology can bring to Nigeria, but it is important that we adopt technology with some circumspection and only to the extent that it helps us solve our problems, without creating worse ones.
I would posit that unemployment, especially that of the youth, is the biggest challenge that we face in Nigeria and all our efforts must be geared towards creating more jobs. While not advocating that we retreat to ancient practices, we must look at how to reduce the job queue and provide jobs to the teeming masses. If technology stands in the way of achieving this, then it is time to jettison aspects of such devices or we will all be consumed by the force of angry jobless youth that is growing every day. The statistics are not very reliable, but even at that, the general trend is worrisome. A general unemployment rate of about 30% and a youth unemployment rate of around 55% are scary numbers. Note that the correct numbers are more likely to be worse than these. We had maintained that there is a direct relationship between banditry and unemployment. The higher the rate of unemployment, the higher the crime rate and other social ills. In order to curb crime therefore, we must begin to think seriously about how to productively engage our people, particularly the youth; who are most susceptible to crime and the evils of idleness.
We are all aware of the industrial revolution trajectory. It is said that the fourth industrial revolution is now in force across the universe. After the agricultural revolution came the Industrial Revolution proper, which basically heralded the introduction of new manufacturing processes in the United States and Europe. This was also called the era of the steam engine. New processes were developed and some of the key concepts that came from this were mass production, division of labour and the assembly line. This stage was quickly succeeded by the age of science and knowledge, which eventually gave rise to the third industrial revolution, the digital technology era. With each age, came improvements in productivity and displacement of labour by machines. The fourth industrial revolution marked the introduction of cloud computing, mobile technology, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D Printing, and Big Data. This is also referred to as the Information Age.
Before the industrial revolution of the 18th century, the world was basically agrarian. The loom and the steam engine were inventions that simplified production. Steam power was used for agriculture, textile manufacturing and transportation. Steamships, steam rails and steam engines made life a lot easier. Labour was still central to production. Factories required a lot of hands and hours as most processes were still largely manual. By the 20th century, the second industrial revolution was birthed. This is the one we referred to above as the age of Science and Mass Production. Under this revolution were all sorts of inventions. Airplanes, cars and chemicals were all invented and life became a lot easier and better as more inventions were made. These inventions were applied to factories and productivity increased with the assembly line, division of labour and specialisation being major drivers. Urban dwelling increased and more people were productively engaged. To provide for the increasing level of urbanization, more scientific inventions were made. Radios, electricity, telephones, and mass-produced items were added to the inventions
The third industrial revolution that started in the 1950s ushered in computing in its rudimentary stage all the way to the Personal Computers and laptops, semi-conductors and then the internet. This was the disruptive technological stage. Those who are old enough will remember the mainframes of those days and how people used to go to the computer rooms to process data and conduct tasks which today are done with hand-held devices, including telephones. Comparing those days to these days is like comparing day and night.
The fourth industrial revolution is already here with us. This revolution in some way seems to derive from the third revolution. We now have electric cars, artificial Intelligence, miniature sensors, genetic sequencing and editing, cryptographic technology, 3D printing and of course cloud computing. One major invention of this era that is redefining life is robotics. Robotics simply means creating artificial human beings to do what man can and cannot do. Because they are machines, they are precise, hardly make mistakes and can execute assigned tasks flawlessly. When armed to go to war or attack, they cannot be successfully easily repelled. Though created by man, humans cannot do what robots can do!.
Each revolution or era brings with it both positive and negative outcomes. While the positive ones are very easily discernible and get celebrated, we seem to ignore or wish away the negative repercussions. Job losses and displacements go with technology. In a world where population growth is trailing economic growth, this should hardly be a problem. In Nigeria where the reverse is the case, I believe we should worry. One of the ways to worry is to deliberately factor it into our planning. We must acknowledge the fact that different parts of the world experience different stages of the Industrial Revolution even as the world is not waiting for anyone. So, while the developed world is massively investing in the fourth industrial revolution, some other parts of the world should be honest to themselves and decide where they are in the industrial revolution trajectory and channel their resources where they belong. By the way, we are not arguing that every country should follow a defined trajectory as that is not historically tenable. The point we are raising is that countries must understand the needs of their people and based on the resources available to them, act in such a manner that would give them maximum benefits.
It is along these lines that one quarrels with the “leapfrogging” theory. This theory simply encourages underdeveloped countries to jump from their positions to where developed countries are in the development continuum. What happens is that people end up becoming so consumerist that they position themselves as early adopters of modern technology while poverty, hunger and decay are the order of the day in their countries. I believe it was for this reason that the United Nations noted a few years ago that more people in the world have more access to a mobile phone than basic sanitation. It has been documented that all the industrial revolutions came into being as a result of choices made by individuals. We also acknowledge the fact that sometimes researchers develop and design technologies that change the way people live, work and relate with each other, but the truth is that if those technologies receive little or no adoption, they will die a natural death.
Our submission therefore is that we should make choices that solve our local problems rather than following the Jones’s. We should understand that based on our realities, we should be focusing on the second industrial revolution that demands skilled and unskilled labour to ensure we create jobs for our people. The only leapfrogging that would help us here is that given that someone else had made the required inventions several decades ago, we should not reinvent the wheel but copy what had already been invented and implement. In this wise, instead of channeling our investment to the area of big data and sophisticated technology, we should invest in areas of high labour intensity and rudimentary technology. This is one of the ways we can suck up the large reserve army of the unemployed and ensure a low crime environment and better standard of living for our burgeoning population. Bearing the foregoing in mind, the idea of going back to revive agriculture makes a compelling sense. Agriculture will help soak up the huge population of unemployed youth and will also provide basic nutrition to a population that is growing at an alarming rate with little or no opportunities to provide them useful jobs.