NITDA is boosting Nigeria’s digital economy through smart regulation – Inuwa
Kashifu Abdullahi Inuwa is the Director General/CEO of, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). He was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019.
He then set for himself and NITDA the overriding objective of revolutionising the nation’s ICT system in line with the Federal Government’s desire to digitalize the economy.
In this interview with BusinessDay’s Bashir Hassan, Inuwa reveals what the organisation has achieved in the last three years, particularly during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, and the challenges of regulating the digital space. He also discloses what the Agency is doing to ensure a paperless government by 2030.
Through ICT, Nigeria was able to pull through during the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession, what strategy did you deploy to achieve this?
I think we were lucky to be prepared before COVID-19 hit. If you may remember, on the 23rd of October 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari approved the renaming and expansion of the mandate of our ministry, from the Ministry of Communications to the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy.
And on the 28th of November 2019, the President launched and unveiled the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy formulated by the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Pantami. These two actions put Nigeria in the right place to harness and exploit the opportunities poised to us by the COVID-19 pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, everything was put on hold aside from the digital space which became the glue of economies.
Before the pandemic, at NITDA, there was an existing strategy so what we did as one of the agencies responsible for the implementation of that policy was our quick exploration of ways that technology can be used to keep the lights on.
In any difficulty or uncertainty, there is a silver lining and for us at NITDA, COVID-19 was it. It helped us to be more resilient and bounce back stronger. COVID-19 made us become anti-fragile, instead of us breaking, we became stronger because we used the technology to quickly move our activities online. We started meeting online the same week the federal government declared the lockdown.
We set up a committee of experts within the industry called ” Tech4covid” where we brought people from the industry to brainstorm on the best way to get the country out of the challenge we were facing using technology and to get businesses moving, to avoid the country coming to a halt due to the shutdown.
With the help of technology and with the recommendations from the committee, we were able to navigate our way out and we came out stronger.
ICT is pervasive as it cuts across every sector of the economy and it enabled businesses to keep running under lockdown.
Online transactions spiked including market women who switched to selling tomatoes and pepper online, people started meeting online which includes the highest organ of the Federal Government. Everything was achieved with the help of technology and the political will of Mr President.
In the last three years what reforms have you brought to bear on this organisation and what impact have they made on its work?
When I joined NITDA, the first thing I promised my staff was to improve their welfare and make NITDA a smart organisation. I focused on two things – mindset and skill set. I usually challenge them to come up with better ways of doing things. We came up with a new culture.
Our culture is being created through a mixed pickle approach of bringing people with diverse experiences together. Some came from the mainstream public service, banking sector, technology innovation ecosystem and so on. I set up the vision to have a NITDA culture where it translates to our becoming a high-velocity organization.
As a regulator, please take us through the regulatory function of this organisation and how far it has discharged this function in the last three years.
At NITDA, our function is to regulate IT in Nigeria. When digital transformation started about 20 years ago, people were saying that it is an ungoverned world. In 2013, John Barlow declared the independence of the Internet, saying it is a new world without a government.
In 2016, Eric Schmidt, the former chairman and CEO of Google, also said that cyberspace is an ungoverned space. We’ve been struggling not only in NITDA or Nigeria but globally. This is because the people that started it didn’t want government regulation.
This led to the widespread belief that there was no need for regulation. That’s why whenever there is an attempt to regulate IT, you’ll see the backlash, and allegations that government wants to gag the media, or government wants to stifle this or that.
However, we have come a long way as witnessed in 2018, when Mark Zuckerberg, while testifying at Congress, said his opinion is not that there shouldn’t be regulation but it’s about the right regulation. Indeed, things are changing!
Why is it difficult for governments to regulate IT globally? One of the reasons is the push from the big tech. They are powerful, they are influential, and they have money that permeates.
In 2019, we issued the Nigerian Data Protection Regulation because there wasn’t any law on data protection as our act gives us the mandate to come up with regulation or legislation. Based on the achievement so far, and in line with international best practice, the President decided to create the Nigerian Data Protection Bureau and most of the staff of the Bureau are the people who started the NDPR and were implementing it at NITDA.
We are working with the Bureau now to come up with legislation and see how we can strengthen the Bureau to champion that responsibility of data protection.
What have you achieved during your tenure and what do you set to achieve coming years?
Starting with the Agency itself, we have made NITDA one of the top 10 government agencies in Nigeria. We are collaborating with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on an initiative called Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme, which identifies gaps in our innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems and proffers strategies to close those gaps.
Today, the government and the ecosystem are working together to co-create laws, policies and regulations that will unlock opportunities within the sector.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, we organised an innovation challenge where we identified three promising ideas. We helped them develop these ideas and took them to market. The first was an app that allows you to contact or consult a physician online and get a prescription or get referred to a lab for a test.
The second was a ventilator because, during COVID-19, there were fears of a shortage of ventilators, so we encouraged our people to develop it locally. The third was a tunnel where you can decontaminate yourself from the virus. We helped them to achieve these ideas.
We also have other initiatives that we came up with during that time that strengthened the innovation ecosystem. We also have an initiative in collaboration with the Japan International Cooperation Organisation called Idea Hatch, where we identify people with ideas, and put them on specialised training to help them turn those ideas into products and services.
We also looked at how can we take this to higher institutions, and we came up with an initiative called HIVE. We are to set Centres of Excellence at universities to help final year graduates turn their final year projects into a product or a service.
We also set up the National Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (NCAIR) where we promote emerging technologies. These emerging technologies are going to displace so many jobs and are foundational and generic. They cut across every sector you can think of like artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain and many more. We have established a state-of-the-art digital fabrication lab with all of the needed equipment.
How feasible is achieving e-governance across MDAs by the year 2030 and what are the challenges you foresee or are already encountering in achieving this?
Firstly, e-governance is a process, and its evolution is determined by the existing developmental conditions as well as the government’s long-term goals. We are working on creating an effective environment for the sustainability of e-governance and by 2030 we should be able to achieve that based on the goals set by the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS).
Empowering MDAs to manage and communicate records digitally as a basic condition for future e-governance is being piloted with the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation through the Content Enterprise Management Solution.
Following the success of the piloting, all MDAs have been directed to deploy the same services. There are several other measures such as regulatory instruments designed to address identified gaps in human and institutional capacities which collectively affects the quality of public service delivery.
What vision are you using to drive your achievements in this organisation?
As the CEO of the organisation, I’m not the one doing the work; it is the team. But the team needs the right driver, a good pilot to navigate them through the journey. To achieve that, I have a playbook I use.
Firstly, before I give anybody any assignment, I make sure I create clarity, and the person understands what I want them to do by communicating it to him in plain language.
Then I need to unleash the energy in you to get the best out of you because you’re the one to do the work.