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‘Digitalisation can help Nigeria achieve inclusive growth and economic development’

In a recently published white paper on “Enabling a Digital Nigeria” Microsoft outlined key steps towards the realisation of Nigeria’s plan to digitalise. In this interview with Segun Adams, Akin Banuso, country manager, Microsoft Nigeria, talks about the challenges and opportunities of going digital for Africa’s biggest economy. Excerpt:

What will a digital Nigeria look like in terms of development and opportunities?

or us to take advantage of the opportunities that would be presented in this fourth industrial revolution, there is the need to create a digital Nigeria. The creation of that digital Nigeria is what would help the country achieve the social and economic development goals that we are looking towards.

A lot of what we spoke about in the position paper on “Enabling a Digital Nigeria” are the things that allow us achieve the economic development growth by ensuring financial inclusion, increasing the number of citizens that can meaningfully participate and hold a stake in the economy. Nigeria cannot do that on a large scale if it does not go digital which would enable more people to be included and participate meaningfully in the economy and in that growth.

It is a very curious case that digital economy is about 15% of the global GDP and is expected to be a quarter of the world’s economy in less than a decade but Nigeria is missing in that economy. What would you say has been a challenge for us?

The digital economy in Nigeria has largely been in its infancy and a lot of potentials that Nigeria has relates to not so much technology by itself but the resources that Nigeria has, which is the human capital. Really what we need to do is find a way to mine that and allow people to participate in this digital economy.

If you look further in our paper you’d find that we talked about inclusion, and inclusion means we need to have the right infrastructures to allow people to be included in this economy and that is growing. While it is not where it needs to be, this has started.

In your paper, Microsoft talks about the technology drive not just in terms of infrastructure but also from a mindset perspective. What does this mean for Nigeria?

Very simply put, having a strategic mindset alongside a right technology can drive a successful transformation and you would see this in any large organization; it is not only about having the right people, the right process but also, the right mindset.

This means that you should be thinking about how you can transform the culture to drive value from technology. It is about Nigeria’s effort to prioritize the growth of the digital economy across all the levels of Government, and you can think about elections, you can think about the three-tiers of our government, think about the local government and where you live; if only you were able to report the potholes that are appearing on your street to the local government by simply deploying digital technology on your smartphone, think how quickly they can respond and that is at the third and lowest tier. You can go further up to the state.

Also, think about opportunities like the biggest costs in properties. Think about when people want to rent properties or acquire a house or register land or title, think about how long and the cost it takes and all fraught in security and fraud. You can introduce digitalization in those processes, and instead of spending months and paying lawyers to go search paper piles, we could just digitalize that and you can have the reports within few minutes by just going online on a cloud-based solution.

The mindset needs to change, it is not just technology itself, we need to be ready to just digitalize our whole process and that’s what we talked about; how the mindset alongside the right technologies will drive a successful transformation.

There’s this common saying these days that “Data is the new oil”, and we know in the Nigerian context the over-reliance on oil for export earnings has not been very helpful hence talks diversification. Do you think digital is also a way to grow considering the success of India?

I hundred percent think so, Nigeria must pursue every opportunity for economic growth. As part of that, building a healthy economy is one of the paths that the country must take.

You talked about India, that is a very good example and if you think about what we are already doing here, when you look at the paper, we talked about our global customer support service team. We have a partner of ours called Tech Expert which started here two years ago and they started off by hiring 200 people supporting Microsoft customers globally. As of now, they’re at over a thousand and still growing. So you can see the kind of impact that has, not just from the job being created but also, the ecosystem that it creates because you then have a whole bunch of young talented people with skills and experience of working with customers across the globe – and I am talking about in the US and in the UK where they’re solving big problems for big organizations and big customers of ours.

This allows them to acquire the skills and the experience which are valuable when they come back into our society. We are working with them in what we call our user group and they are helping us during this COVID-19 pandemic to create an innovative solutions in health care to help government and everyone.

In a recent report, Ernst & Young (EY) argued that new investments in infrastructures that support Infratech will be more valuable than investments in concrete and steel. Given that perspective, what should Nigeria be doing today?

So again, there are numbers of steps that we put forth in the position paper on Microsoft that includes adopting technologies with long-term benefits and ensuring these technologies are delivered inclusively and equally responsibly to as many people as possible which will aid social and economic development in Nigeria.

If you think about it, investing in the basic infrastructure of having broad activity right around the country would, first of all, help us to develop a sustainable and inclusive digital ecosystem where youths anywhere in the country will be able to access the right information, the right training and also would be able to contribute from wherever they are.

Look at what’s happening during the COVID-19, unlike their peers with access to the internet, the students who do not have access to the right infrastructure cannot continue learning. At best what they have is access to lessons over the radio which is not interactive.

So I think the way to look at what the EY global report was talking about in Infratech is that we need to get going about building those things that are foundational and making sure that we are prioritizing working with the government to build up that Infratech and we are seeing it grow. There are one or two issues which we mentioned somewhere, like the policy across the country in terms of the Right of way to lay cables for telecom companies, which is not uniform. Policy varies from state to state as they charge different amounts for laying the cables. These are things that the government can come together, look at and see how we can move that forward.

What are the challenges and opportunities we should expect in terms of the policy framework and what should be top priorities when we’re talking about cloud computing for Nigeria and AI?

The opportunities for artificial intelligence to augment human capabilities and improve society are almost limitless at this point. You can already see that there are self-driving cars on the streets in certain places, there is digital assistance that can anticipate our needs and there is digitalized health diagnosis, so AI is beginning to change the lives of people for the better.

A lot of recent projects that have been done in AI is built on advances in Machine Learning, Reasoning and Perception.   We are already applying AI solutions in Nigeria with some of the commercial customers, in terms of, imbuing and embedding AI in our technologies. For instance, when you call your bank, they could have AI help you out and resolve your problems before you even get to talk with a person, and that quickly is augmenting and enhancing the human capabilities.

When we see the role of the government in this is in creating a legal and policy framework that will enable access to data or would encourage investment in AI technologies and ensure that AI technologies are trusted because it is very important; trust is a key component of this because we see AI as augmenting human capabilities and not replacing human beings. It is about making human life better and supporting human beings in making better decisions. For example, the advent of AI and its popularity is raising some issues and questions that we need to consider very carefully and that needs to be addressed to support AI innovation and preserve timeless value such as respect for individual autonomy and privacy.

Also, we believe that the government should lead by example, so Nigerian should live by example as well. For example, government and multilateral institutions can help drive the adoption of AI by launching projects and systems that take advantage of cloud-powered AI. If you think about it, AI is built upon Machine Learning and normally, countries like Nigeria might find it difficult to participate in launching such projects because putting together a supercomputer and AI projects costs a lot, really a lot of dollars for that. With the advent of the cloud, you can rent the horse power that you need for that period you need it rather than buy these things and have them sitting there when not in use.

When the government starts to build out and run projects and encourage research, then that will also require attracting a lot of data scientist to work on government projects. That is already a way of attracting and retaining our brightest talents. So if you are a young bright data scientist rather than thinking that you want to go abroad, you have a chance to work on projects right here in Nigeria that would be exciting and be of great benefit. There are a lot of things that people are using AI for these days like human genome sequencing, et cetera, even trying to find out cures to lifelong illness that we’ve been struggling with as a human race; if you can work on such exciting things why do we need to leave the shores of Africa?

What are the things we need as a country to archive our 2024 Nigeria cloud computing policy target of a 30% increase in adoption of cloud computing by that time among federal public institutions and SMEs?

I can’t speak on where we are right now but  I would say that to reach that target there is a need to be a focused effort in terms of trying to digitalize the public sector, But at this time, the government needs to be working with the private sector because the private sector has a lot of experience in this. You mentioned the banks, for example in the banking industry, in finance we’ve already deployed technologies such as AI, so we have partners who have come up with solutions, for example, in doing fraud detection. Do you know we have a technology that locks out hackers even if they have password access to one’s online banking platform? The algorithm behind the technology can figure out by using biometric technology which means that the algorithm can figure out by how you enter the details of the password, by the keyboard presses whether or not you are the owner of the account. It can figure out such things, so AI can be used for multiple scenarios.

In terms of government adoption, I think it’s very important that the government partners with the private sectors that are already using this and are far ahead. So we need to see more public-private partnerships, we need to see more government institutions, more government prioritization and communication, and this is already happening where the government is already starting to release policies, for example, policies and regulations around the use of cloud.

Nigeria has largely focused on major urban areas and unlike our West African peers the likes of Ghana and Senegal, we do not have a national backbone network through which high Internet Connectivity can be extended to across the country. How can we improve on this?

The connectivity landscape in Nigeria right now shows that 2G is the most pervasive technology, which is about 90% of the population right now. 3G is only about 25% of our population; that is in the state capitals while 4G accounts about 2% of mobile data. For Nigeria to harness the potentials of a digital economy there is a critical need to strengthen mobile connectivity networks and internet access.

There are things we started working on at Microsoft and we have been working with the NCC for a while and are just on the verge of getting the accredited adoption of low-cost connectivity solutions like, TV white spaces. We have a TV white space solution that we donated to our partners and that is very good for rural areas. It is good for institutions, for learning and community networks. It has been deployed in large scale in rural communities and large farms if you can think about in rural areas where it is probably not financially viable for a mobile telecom company to go and set up infrastructure, broadband penetration using low-cost TV white spaces can be extended. The idea is to use the old TV white space; the spectrum that is unused is the technology we now hopefully will be able to deploy once it is fully allowed. So with government support and provision of digital applications in sectors like health care and education, this will enhance the lively hood and wellbeing of Nigerians.

You can think about what I said earlier in the interview about online education and you cannot expect that for a public school in rural areas the high cost of broadband would be what they will spend money on. In fact, they might not even be any connectivity because the mobile provider would not be able to see a return, so being able to deploy low-cost solutions like TV right spaces prioritizing that would then really help to have those online services being available.

Also, when you have such a low Doctor-to-Population ratio, then the ability to do Telemedicine solution will then close the gap because Telemedicine is not only about being able to speak to a doctor but being able to diagnosed and even the ability to upload data to somewhere else where it can be analyzed with more sophisticated equipment and then the result delivered back over the line. Having those low-cost electronic solutions in addition to traditional mobile and broadband is key.

The Microsoft paper emphasized the need for some changes in our educational institutions to encourage more local research and indigenous contribution to digitalization. Can you speak to that?

This is one thing that is very close to my heart and something that we have been discussing for a long time which is about the adaptation of Nigeria national curriculum and delivery methods so that they are more aligned with the fourth industrial revolution.

Just as having that strategic mindset is important, we want to make sure that the national curriculum is amended or adapted so that students imbibe both digital and non-digital skills. When we talk about non-digital we mean critical thinking, problem solving and emotional intelligence. By creating more practice-oriented learning that is in line with the job market requirements, Nigeria will be able to create the skills needed for jobs of the future and take part in the global online workplace.

If you think about the jobs we don’t know what jobs will be more important or that will exist tomorrow but we know that today the more important jobs are like you earlier “Data is the new oil” so instead of being an oil well engineer and training for that, why don’t you train to be a data scientist and training to be a data scientist means that you need to have a mix of skills that are both digital and non-digital.

We need to adapt our national curriculum to suit that and to be able to train our graduates that will enter the workplace and will make a difference in that so programs that make digital literacy fundamental components of education at all levels and encourage workers to strengthen this skills throughout their career are essential for any society.

Can you talk about some of the project Microsoft projects in Nigeria and Africa and how they have been improving the narrative of a digital economy in the country and the on the continent?

We have had quite a few with the most recent being the African development centres with locations here in Nigeria and Kenya, part of only seven globally.

In the area of digital transformation, we have had projects in SME acceleration we’ve had Insiders4Good Fellowship, there is a lot of works that we are doing with our For Africa Team, we are building Coalition for Responsible Innovation, we have had a government A.I summit, we have Digital Economic Series in partnership with the Lagos Business School.

In the area of the closing skills gap and enhancing employability we’ve had a lot of programs where we’ve done coding for employment in partnership with the African Development Bank we have a program we DigiGirlz where we focus young females and work with them on projects where they will learn coding. We have Accelerate Labs, there is an Imagine Cup that we run as a global challenge where people young people come up with their ideas for technology solutions. We’ve had very good participant and one of the previous Imagine Cup winners in Nigeria were two people who came up with health care tech solution I think they came from Ekiti state and very thoughtful innovation.

I spoke earlier about Tech Expert with the CSS and the thousand people they have employed and are also now training. We have Nigeria Women Techsters.

In the area of creating social impact, we do a lot of device donations and employee volunteering programs.

Africa volunteering program as well where we bring in global employees who have specific skills like we’ve had a lot of top scientist top engineers come into Africa and into Nigeria to work with our partners for a week two weeks at a time.

We also have LEAP foundation that we are working with which is a new program with our engineering team.

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