Olele: Digital Economy Will Enhance Growth, Innovation

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The CEO, American Business Council, Nigeria, Margaret Olele, in this interview with Emma Okonji, speaks on the importance of digital economy to national development, and how the planned digital economy conference and digital entrepreneurship competition will promote innovation and employment opportunities post COVID-19. Excerpts:

Can you give an overview of the upcoming Digital Economy Conference holding in Nigeria in December and what the conference seeks to achieve?

No doubt, technology has changed the way we do things and the global outbreak of COVID-19, further defined how we need to use technology to better our livelihood. The Digital Economy Conference scheduled to hold December 3, 2020 in Lagos, Nigeria, will help examine the ICT landscape in Nigeria in order to draw a global knowledge and to leverage conversation at the conference to address sector needs.

The conference seeks to address critical areas like skills and workforce deficit; enhancing trade to drive investments, infrastructure across and enabling effective cybersecurity to strengthen the Nigeria ecosystem.

The conference will open opportunities for partnerships that will drive digital economy. The conference is being organised in partnership with the US-Africa Business Centre (USAfBC) of the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Business Council Nigeria (ABC Nigeria), and the essence is to pursue the digital transformation series to serve as a platform to engage with government, the public sector, technology influencers and the academia in order to strengthen the technology space that is most critical to everyone. The global effect of COVID-19 pandemic has shown the we all need the digital platform and tools to accelerate development in our various countries. The digital economy conference was first held in South Africa, and later in Kenya and it is now being planned to hold in Nigeria in December. Nigeria will be the third country to host the conference, and the first country to witness virtual conference as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What must have informed the choice of Nigeria as venue for the digital economy conference?

The choice of Nigeria is clear, being the most populated country in Africa, with the biggest economy. Like I earlier said, we have held the conference in South Africa, and Kenya and there is need to hold it Nigeria, considering the technology development in Nigeria and the position of Nigeria among African countries. Again, Nigeria is growing at a rapid pace in technology development and we intend to use the digital economy conference to further grow the e-Commerce space in Nigeria. In addition to that, the Nigerian government in 2019, unveiled the Nigerian Digital Economy Policy and Strategy in order to accelerate the country’s digital transformation and in February 2020, the US-Nigeria Commercial and Investment Dialogue was held in Washington DC to promote effective dialogue between policy makers and private sector in key areas, of which digital economy is a critical part of the conversation.

It tells you the importance that nations attach to digital economy, couple with the fact that Nigeria has an incredible size of youth population with the potential that is well positioned to develop a strong digital economy, which will have transformation impact on the country. What we plan to do with the conference, is to redirect and support digital skills in the country.
We are also looking at other areas in the digital space that will enable skills development and the growth of trade investment, using the right infrastructure. We also want to strengthen the cybersecurity drive in Nigeria.

How will the conference help drive growth of Africa’s Digital Economy?

Africa as a continent, has the opportunistic base to grow its teeming population with digital skills. It is not a coincidence that this conference has been held in South Africa and Kenya, with plans to hold it in Nigeria in December. The demographics of African population is such that it has potential for growth like we have seen in South Africa, and Kenya, using technology to drive digital inclusion. Again Nigeria, whose economy has the largest GDP in Africa, is also making improvements in developing digital skills and building its financial inclusion drive. We can also see the growth potential of FinTech companies in Nigeria, how they are attracting foreign investment and we believe that holding the conference in African countries like Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, will further grow Africa’s digital economy. So it’s no mistake that we are holding the next digital economy conference in Nigeria, having held it in South Africa and Kenya.

The Federal Government of Nigeria is keen at divining digital transformation across the country. How will the upcoming digital economy conference help Nigerian government achieve her digital transformation goal?

By the time the core stakeholders who are drivers of digital economy, come together under one roof to discuss digital economy growth in Nigeria, the ripple effect in terms of digital transformation, will be massive. So we will be able to work with various stakeholders in Nigeria, including government agencies like NCC, NITDA, NOTAP, and the private sector to further drive digital transformation economy in Nigeria. So the conference will look as at policy implementation that will drive digital economy in Nigeria and how to drive Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Nigeria. Another thing is to collectively look at the opportunities that will take Nigeria to the next level in the digital space. The conference will also address key issues in cybersecurity and the need for Nigerian youths to develop their economy instead of thinking of migrating to other economies. Through the conference, we are looking at developing the right digital skills among Nigerian youths that will make them more productive and believe in themselves. The conference will also help Nigerian youths to develop their talents and resist online fraudulent virtual activities. If all these are addressed at the digital economy conference, the Nigerian government will be on its path to achieve its digital transformation goal.
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What significant roles do you think emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Internet of Things and Robotics could play in digital transformation drive?

Emerging technologies have improved the qualities of lives, having changed the ways we do things in businesses, offices, homes, schools among others, and the technologies are fast driving digital transformation across the globe. Emerging technologies improve efficiency in our daily lives and they help organisations for virtual disaster preparedness. They also address issues of transparencies in business and in the area of healthcare, emerging technologies have helped healthcare workers to carry out medical services on patients from remote locations, without physically visiting the locations. In the area of agriculture, emerging technologies have helped improve farming and farm produce and these are geared towards digital transformation.

Government policies could make or mar digital transformation agenda. How will you advise African governments, with regards to policies and regulations?

When a country is making policies about emerging technologies and digital transformation, the focus should not be to stifle or weaken the growth of digital transformation. Every nation is a sovereignty and they must be careful in copying what other countries are doing in terms of policy regulation, because what works perfectly for one country, may not work the same way for other countries. Countries should not be in a hurry to release policies and regulations, without proper engagement of stakeholders. The government should ensure that stakeholders are able and willing to buy into new regulations as it affects their businesses.

What in your views, are the roles of the private sector players in achieving specific digital economy goals?

The key ingredients of private sector participation in government policies is as important as the policies. So we need the collaboration of government and the private sector to achieve digital economy goals. There are situations where governments all over the world are trying to keep up with new technologies and it is at this point that the private sector will have to share their knowledge with government. There is a reservoir of knowledge that are deeply seated within the private sector players and governments all over the world need to tap from the reservoir of knowledge. The private sector can bring to the table, capacity building that will help governments achieve their digital economy goals. So government alone cannot drive digital transformation agenda, and so collaboration with the private sector is key to open up the space towards achieving digital economy goals. But even as important as the roles of the private sectors are, they must not dictate to government just because they have the knowledge, digital skills and infrastructure to drive digital economy.

As part of the digital economy conference, the US-Africa Business Centre (USAfBC) and the American Business Council Nigeria (ABC Nigeria), will be hosting a digital entrepreneurship competition. What is the completion all about?

The digital entrepreneurship competition is focused on young entrepreneurs and innovators that are developing solutions that are creating positive impact on the economy, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic spread. We have set out an award prize of $25,000, which will be allocated in cash and kind to the top three winners of the competition. The award is being sponsored by Zenith Bank and other companies, including the US Tech companies that are providing training and mentorship.

You have set aside $25,000 cash and kind award for the top three winners. What is the sharing formula and how do you intend to monitor the effective use of the money for business expansion and growth?

It’s a good question, but I will like to hold on to the sharing formula, without divulging that information for now. But what I can reveal is that the $25,000 covers cash and kind awards, that will be shared among the top three winners of the competition, where the kind award covers training, mentorship and capacity building. Certainly the $25,000 will not be shared equally among the three top winners, as there will be variations in the winning for first prize, second prize and third prize.
We will be monitoring the spending and usage of the $25,000 but that will not be in line with the way they choose to invest their money. We believe that as an existing independent startups, we will be involved in training and capacity building and we will sure monitor their growth and business expansion.

How will the digital entrepreneurship competition enhance technology innovation in Nigeria?

Competition of this magnitude is meant to trigger healthy growth in the space where the competition is being organised so that others will strive to get to the winning level. It is meant to trigger challenges among peers such that they will begin to be more innovative and come up with more innovative solutions that will address specific needs in the society. Again the competition is built around capacity building and training and we have organisations like Cisco, IBM, Oracle, Google, HP and Microsoft that will be helping in capacity building and training. So the competition will help technology innovators and influencers become more innovative in developing solutions that will solve specific societal challenges.

What areas of human discipline will the solutions for the competition cover and who is eligible to apply?

The competition is focused around developing solutions in the areas of healthcare, education, especially solutions that have been able to support the efforts of government in addressing COVID-19 pandemic. Those eligible to enter for the competition, are existing startups that are registered in Nigeria and are already doing business in Nigeria. The startups will not be a government agency and will not be government sponsored. They will equally not be foreign startups that have already established outside the country. It is strictly for Nigerian startups that have established their business in Nigeria that have created solutions to address the effect of COVID-19 on citizens and the Nigerian economy.

How will you help commercialise the winning solutions and make them market ready to address specific economic challenges?

We are targeting startups that are already established and have developed solutions that are addressing societal challenges. So the focus is not to prepare them for the global market where investors will buy off their solutions and commercialise the solutions. What we are doing is to further build the capacity of existing startups and help them better grow their revenue and expand their business and increase employment where possible. We hope to achieve this through capacity building and training.

What are your plans to encourage those that will not likely make it to the top three?

Of the total number of entries that we will receive, we will select and reduce the number to initial 10, before further reducing the number to the final three winners. We do not have consolation prizes for those outside the top three winners, but one the things that happen during the selection process, is that those that will not make to the top three, must make learnt more things on how to better their existing businesses.

When will the competition open for entry applications and when is it closing?

The entry is already open and it is supposed to close on November 9, but we are considering extending it by another few days to give more people the opportunity to be part of the competition. The winners of the competition will be announced on December 3, when we will be holding our digital economy conference in Lagos.