Kashifu Inuwa is the current Director General/CEO of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). He is a transformational expert with key competencies across policy formulation, administration, growth management, talent development, solutions architecture, resource mobilisation, and strategy implementation. Inuwa has been steering the affairs of the Agency since his appointment to the position in 2019. In this exclusive interview with Bashir Ibrahim Hassan, GM, Northern Operations at BusinessDay, he shares his experience on Nigeria can position itself to lead Africa’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) drive and the potential benefits of the technology to the country. Excerpts:
Where is Nigeria generally at, in terms of Artificial Intelligence?
Nigeria is still in the early stages of its AI journey, but it is making progress. We started our journey in 2020 by establishing the National Center for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (NCAIR). The Center seeks to promote the development and use of AI and robotics in Nigeria by supporting and encouraging research in AI and robotics; providing training and education in AI and robotics; promoting the adoption of AI and robotics in industry and government; and creating a knowledge hub for AI and robotics. The Center has a state-of-the-art facility with a digital fabrication laboratory, a machine learning lab, and a robotics lab. NCAIR also has a team of experienced researchers and engineers who are working on a variety of AI and robotics projects.
‘As a rapidly developing technology, AI has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of our lives’
Currently, we have developed a draft National Artificial Intelligence Policy (NAIP) to promote the adoption and use of AI in Nigeria. The process of developing the Policy began on 11th August 2022, when NITDA issued a press release inviting experts to volunteer and participate in the development. The call is also aimed at gathering insights and contributions from subject matter experts and interested parties. We received a total of 351 applications of expression of interest to participate in the development process from experts and interest groups and 209 contributions from the public before the one-month deadline expired. Similarly, we wrote to over 60 Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) requesting their input and contributions to the development of the policy to ensure a comprehensive and inclusive approach is adopted in both the development and implementation of the policy.
The NITDA team reviewed all the applications and shortlisted 60 subject matter experts, forming the Volunteer Expert Group (VEG) for NAIP. These experts were provided with a Terms of Reference (ToR) outlining their roles and responsibilities in the development process to fully kickstart the project. The entire process of the development was conducted virtually in the span of 8 meetings of the VEG from 19th October 2022 to 7th March 2023.
What is the focus of the policy?
The National Artificial Intelligence Policy (NAIP) is aimed at protecting the interests of Nigeria and Nigerians in the increasingly digitalized global world and economy. The policy is guided by an unwavering prioritisation of the rights, especially privacy rights, of Nigerians. It also makes the ethical adoption of AI in different industries the guiding principle of its recommendations.
What are the benefits and risks of Artificial Intelligence?
As a rapidly developing technology, AI has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of our lives. AI can help improve efficiency and productivity, ensure better decision-making, and improve service delivery. However, there are also some potential risks associated with AI such as job loss, privacy concerns, bias, and weaponization. Hence, it is important to be aware of the potential risks associated with AI and to take steps to mitigate them. By carefully considering the benefits and risks of AI, we can ensure that this technology is used for good and not for harm.
The President of the United States of America said that the risks of AI are higher than the benefits, prompting him to call on the world to do something about it before things get out of hand. Do you share the same concern or what are your concerns?
Personally, I believe the benefits outweigh the risks. However, it is important to develop and advocate for responsible practices in the adoption and application of AI. Because if it is developed responsibly, it will serve humanity optimally and efficiently.
But how can that be possible when experts are saying that it is almost nearly impossible to regulate AI?
I don’t think it is impossible, because if you look at when we started the journey of digital transformation in the early 2000s/ 2001, people were saying the internet is an ungoverned space, and maybe you could remember John Barlow’s declaration where he was talking about a space without government, but that has changed today. In other words, it is not something you can learn from previous legal documents and political documents as the generation before us never encountered these challenges, so it is something that we need to make more democratic.
What is your vision for Nigeria in AI?
There is a global race for leadership in AI. In Nigeria, we have a competitive advantage when it comes to talent. We have a vision of making Nigeria the global talent factory, and talent is the human component of any technology. You need the talent before you get the technology; that’s why we embarked on massive training to build talent in the country. Furthermore, we are going to ensure that the application of AI is inclusive, ethical, and beneficial to all Nigerians by creating an enabling environment, investing in research, and collaboratively developing ethical guidelines for the application of AI in Nigeria.
President Bola Tinubu, during his inaugural address, promised that his government will create one million jobs in the digital space. How do you key into this? What do we need to create one million jobs? Does the training provided by your Agency necessarily translate to jobs?
A report from PwC called “Brain Exports: The Optimal Path to Growing the Nigerian Economy” validated what we started on 1 million developers. It says Nigeria’s best resources are not mineral resources. We have seen the proof for instance in sports. Similarly, Nigerians are doing well in music and art. In the same vein, we want to position Nigeria to be a global talent factory for Digital Skills. According to the report, there is a deficit of over 4 million developers globally. Nigeria can benefit from this deficit by training and connecting its youths to the global value chain. Hence, we have been providing training and capacity-building programmes to equip Nigerian youths with the requisite skills to compete at the international level. For instance, we recently launched the NITDA Coursera scholarship cohort two to train about 8000 Nigerians on high-end skills demand. Additionally, we are developing a talent strategy that seeks to address the demand and supply side of talent.
Furthermore, we want to build technology development zones and innovation clusters around the 36 states of the federation as part of the implementation of the Nigeria Startup Act (NSA). We have successfully carried out a pilot here in Abuja where we trained and mentored about 219 start-ups from 2020 to date. We would also provide funding to startups in accordance with the provisions of the NSA, which established startup investment seed funds to support startups financially. These initiatives will promote and accelerate the creation of more jobs for Nigerians in alignment with the manifesto of the current administration of creating 1 million jobs in the digital economy.
What are the key reforms initiated by NITDA, and how far-reaching are the impacts on the Nigerian digital space?
We have so many reforms going on. One of them is the Nigerian Start-up Act which has been signed into law and implementation has started. We have also launched the Nigeria Data Strategy aimed at harnessing the power of data and creating industries. We also developed the National Blockchain Policy to leverage the potential of blockchain so that Nigeria can also benefit from the 1.76 trillion US dollars that blockchain is meant to add to the global GDP by 2030 as reported by PwC. We are also working on the National Outsourcing Strategy aimed at promoting “Live in Nigeria and Work Abroad” to address the culture of “Japa” and provide work opportunities for Nigerians without the need to relocate to another country.
We are also working on Smart Agriculture, we have the National Adopted Village for Smart Agriculture (NAVSA), where we are experimenting with emerging technologies and methodologies to improve farm yield, which includes the use of artificial intelligence to enhance the identification of plant disease and related issues and use of vertical farming. We are aligned with the Abuja technology village where we are building the farm. We will challenge our start-ups to come up with ideas on Smart Agriculture as well as do proof of concept on our farms.