Abdullahi: We Have Turned COVID-19 Challenges into Opportunities

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Director General, National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi

The Director General, National Information Technology Development Agency, Kashifu Abdullahi, in this interview, speaks on how the agency provided adequate support to insulate the technology that turned around COVID-19 challenges into opportunities for all Nigerians, among other burning issues. Emma Okonji brings the excerpts:

In the last 10 months you have been at the helm of affairs at the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), can you share your experience?

I must say it has been an amazing journey in the last 10 months. This isn’t something that I expected or even envisaged. My appointment was indeed a pleasant surprise. It, however, shows the confidence my boss and mentor, Dr. Isa Pantami, who is the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, has in my ability to the extent of recommending me to President Muhammadu Buhari, to take a giant leap step into his shoes. It is a great honour, and I am putting in my best not to disappoint the expectation of my boss and mentor, Mr. President, Nigerian youths as well as the country as a whole. As you may be aware, I am not new in the Nigeria’s IT industry. I am at home being at the helm of affairs in NITDA. As a person that is open to new approaches and strategies, with the experiences I have gained for the last 15 years in the IT sector spanning between the private and the public sector and through unceasing study, my team and I have worked diligently to ensure the continuous development of the IT sector in Nigeria over the past 10 months. Remember, I picked it up from a good place to consolidate upon, considering the foundation laid by my boss and mentor, the minister.

What has been your biggest challenge as DG of NITDA?
The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating effects on countries globally. While looking at the management of the pandemic as challenging, it has been a turning point for revolutionising digital technologies to deliver products and services across the world, which is what we refer to as the new normal. Therefore, we did not miss the opportunity to prepare for the impact of the pandemic and also provide adequate support to insulate the technology and innovation ecosystem.

NITDA’s mandates are diverse, what are the key mandates that you want to focus on during your administration?
You may be aware that NITDA is implementing a strategic roadmap for the development of Nigeria’s IT sector. It consists of seven pillars that are in alignment with the eight pillars of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy. The seven key pillars of our roadmap are: IT Regulation; Capacity Building; Digital Inclusion; Digital Job Creation; Government Digital Service Promotion; Local Content Development, and Cybersecurity. We have rolled out several policies, regulations, and programmes, focusing on those areas. However, the roadmap is set to expire this year as is the Nigeria Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) which it draws from. NITDA has already commenced reviewing it as well as developing the next plan, which will soon be launched. It is in alignment with and takes cognizance of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS), the Nigeria Economic Sustainability Plan (NESP) and other important plans and policies of this administration.

Recently, local original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) decried poor implementation of the local content policy on PC procurement by MDAs. Being the agency that regulates them, how has NITDA waded in to help them get better patronage from the MDAs?

Certainly, NITDA has demonstrated great support and has ensured improved patronage of indigenous OEMs in the last three years. It is a fact that the purchase of local devices by MDAs is unprecedented within these years compared to previous years before 2018. For instance, in 2015-2016 less than 250,000 devices were sold by indigenous OEMs. However, due to the intervention of NITDA, records shows that in 2018/2019 alone OEMs sold three times the numbers sold prior to 2017 with about 778,886 of locally assembled devices sold in 2018 and 2019. However, there are some challenges with the implementation of the Presidential Executive Order 003 for promotion of local content in the procurement for Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), as well as the NITDA’s issued guidelines for Nigerian Content Development in ICT, which mandates MDAs also to purchase Nigerian hardware products. NITDA is implementing the Executive Order and Guidelines vigorously through active surveillance and IT Projects assessment and clearance process of the Agency. Nevertheless, procurement law requires OEMs to either bid directly or work with other contractors to bid to ensure transparency and value for money. If MDAs violate the process NITDA can then be notified for action. There is also a challenge with the quality of some of the indigenous brands. In an effort to address this challenge, in 2018, we mandated these OEMs to go through a rigorous certification process requiring them to have ISO 9001:2015 for quality management systems. This, we believe, will ensure they are able to provide products that meet quality and regulatory requirements always. Currently, only three out of 10 previously registered OEMs have been fully certified.

The Nigeria IT Policy is due for review in the light of the changes in the IT world. What is your view on this?

It may interest you to know that our supervising Ministry, the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy handles policy-related issues. You may be aware that there were several attempts at reviewing the policy in 2012, 2013 and 2017. Currently, with my boss and mentor, Dr Pantami as the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, the efforts have resulted in the development of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS), unveiled by President Muhammadu Buhari, during the 2019 e-Nigeria International Conference, Exhibition and Awards, held on November 28th, 2019. The NDEPS effectively replaces the National IT Policy.

How is NITDA supporting the federal government’s digital economy vision?

You may wish to know that even prior to the re-designation of the Federal Ministry of Communications, to include Digital Economy, NITDA has achieved a lot in that regard, through the implementation of a roadmap for the development of the Nigerian IT sector which consists of seven pillars that are in alignment with the eight pillars of the Digital Economy Policy and Strategy and the Nigeria IT Policy. For instance, in promoting a digital Nigeria, NITDA from August 2019 to date has launched and is implementing the following regulatory instruments: Nigeria e-Government Interoperability Framework (Ne-GIF); Nigeria Cloud Computing Policy (NCCP); Nigeria ICT Innovation and Entrepreneurship Vision (NIIEV); Framework and Guidelines for ICT adoption in Tertiary Institutions; Guidelines for Nigeria Content Development ICT as amended; and Data Protection Implementation Framework. Furthermore, we have different IT project interventions that we have carried out across the country in the last one year, of which 80 Digital Capacity Training Centres (DCTCs) with E-Learning facilities, six IT Hubs, six IT Community Centres, four IT Innovation and Incubation Parks, and three IT Capacity Training Centres – all with the aim of bridging the digital divide and providing access to the unserved and underserved population.

What is NITDA putting in place to create a conducive environment and support for the startup ecosystem?

Nigeria is indeed among the top three countries in Africa, attracting the largest investment from venture capitalists for its flourishing technology start-ups and hubs. Interestingly, Nigeria occupied the first position with a total investment of $747 million, followed by Kenya with a total investment of $564 million and Egypt that attracted a total investment of $211 million. In an effort to consolidate these efforts, we have a series of initiatives aimed at providing a conducive environment and support for the start-up ecosystem. These include: The NITDA Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Support Scheme, targeting startups hub owners and youth with talent and building their skills in high-demand skills; Policies such as tax incentives for startups, incentives for investors and access to market for innovation adoption; Establishment of innovation and Research fund to further catalyse the growth of startups; Development of an Innovation Portal to monitor the activities of the ecosystem; FinTech software, which is already exported; The innovation fund established by government will reduce risk and attract foreign direct investment (FDI); and establishment of the Tech4COVID19 Initiative to measure the impact of COVID-19 on the tech ecosystem and proffer solutions especially for startups. The committee has come up with a strategic plan to ensure we retain about 100,000 ICT jobs and create an additional 30,000 in the post COVID-19 era. We have since initiated the implementation of these recommendations.

What are your expectations in terms of Nigeria exporting software and attracting foreign exchange on the long term?

Nigeria has come a long way from being a net importer of software into a significant hub for the development of talent for software development in Africa. This is evident from the value of investments that come into Nigeria’s startup ecosystem due to the successes of mostly software-powered applications developed by incredibly smart Nigerians. This can be seen in the growth and capacities harnessed in the country’s technology hubs, mostly around Lagos and Abuja. Also, there are numerous software houses churning out software to support banking, commerce and government processes in Nigeria. This is a testament to the ingenuity of Nigerians developing software to almost sufficiently meet local needs. However, we must strive to become net exporters of software by developing our model to produce more software engineers and find suitable markets for these talents. One way is to prepare to take advantage of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which provides the opportunities for Africa to improve inter-Africa trade generally and trade in services particularly. Nigerian software will benefit immensely from an improved atmosphere in trade-in services. This is important, considering that we already have all the ingredients needed to succeed.

There is also the need to continue to incentivise software developers through lower taxes, subsidised development of talent and to create a pipeline of jobs that can be offered locally. This will lead to the development of proprietary solutions that can be standardised and sold as services to other countries in Africa or the rest of the world for significant foreign exchange. Our initiative – the Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Support Scheme is one of the initiatives we have towards talent development. Furthermore, we are in discussion with Microsoft Corporation on the Global Skilling Initiative (GSI). It is an initiative aimed at helping 25 million people worldwide who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic to re-skill in today’s digital economy.