• Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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Stable naira to attract fresh dollars into tech ecosystem — US Consul General

Stable naira to attract fresh dollars into tech ecosystem — US Consul General

The United States Consul General, Will Stevens, speaks on Nigeria’s approach to Artificial Intelligence adoption and the opportunities and challenges of Nigeria’s digital economy in this interview with Temitayo Jaiyeola.

A lot of the conversation in tech today is AI-focused. What do you think about Nigeria’s current approach to AI, especially from a policy point of view? Also, one of the takeaways from the recently concluded U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission in Abuja was the announcement about an AI conference in Lagos later this year. What will that entail?

I want to take a step back and explain the Binational Commission. We have been doing it for 15 years. It brings together big countries with whom we have a deep and broad partnership. People from all over are engaging with people from Nigeria’s government.

So, we get together every year or a couple of years and talk. About 15 to 18 US government agencies flew into Abuja for this conference at very high levels to engage with different parts of Nigeria’s government.

This is the most populous country on the continent, and it is a leader in its relations with the United States. It is our number-one trading partner on the continent, and we are often the top foreign direct investors here.

Now to AI. About a year ago, Sam Altman was doing his international tour and went to 17 cities worldwide. Lagos was the only city he went to in all of Africa, indicating the role you correctly identified. Lagos and Nigeria are playing a leading role in the development of AI and recognising its importance.

We have done the same, so from the very beginning, as we were looking at setting up the voluntary commitments that the White House announced right about a year ago, as well from significant tech leaders from the US and putting in guard rails and protections in AI development, we were consulting with Nigerians, inviting them behind the scenes first and then together, co-sponsoring resolutions at the United Nations and seeing Nigeria sign on to and play its role as a leader on the continent and bringing with it other nations.

The Nigerian government is a leader in global affairs. We want to work with them, and we are natural allies and partners, so that is one of the things that came out of the BNC. That topic came up several times, and we have committed to hosting a conference on AI here in Lagos sometime this summer and working on the details.

How can we do joint research and development? How can we ensure that Nigerian and African data are included in these Large Language Models so there aren’t inherent biases? Something that Sam talked about when he was here is ensuring that there is some protection in data privacy but, at the same time, access. How do we look at ensuring that some of the barriers to cloud access in Nigeria are taken down or, at least, opened up because that prevents trading investment? There are some really interesting examples of that.

How can we ensure that the American companies leading this drive towards AI consider how it can be utilised here to unleash the potential? There is tremendous potential in AI, and I think you will see that the Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit can be applied to it and create things that we can’t even dream of.

At the BNC, we are committed to this AI conference in July. We also committed to a tech follow-up in October, where we will host the Nigerian government for a tech-specific BNC in Washington, DC. It will involve all the players who care about the tech ecosystem in Nigeria, from the US and Nigerian governments to private players and some American companies. Some of them are here already. We care about Africa’s digital transformation, including infrastructure, workforce, enabling environment and the important regulatory frameworks, data access, predictability, regulations, and open data.

Nigeria recently drafted its AI strategy, and many Nigerians are asking why AI when there are so many other things authorities can focus on. What are your thoughts on this?

AI is the 5th industrial revolution. It will revolutionise how we work and how we solve problems in front of us because we will be able to do so with the assistance of these supercomputers that can address and answer questions before we even ask them. It is going to change the way we approach things. If the government does not have a strategy, it will still happen. So, you want to get ahead of it and put in the right regulatory frameworks to ensure you understand what is happening. You also want to incentivise participation and investment, and that is what it aims at. It is essential globally. It is going to change the way we work and address and solve problems, and Nigeria is perfectly situated to take advantage of this.

The US recently signed an agreement with Nigeria, also at the Binational Commission, on cybersecurity and an advisor. What will it entail?

There are a couple of different aspects to that. There is critical infrastructure, ensuring that we work together to protect critical infrastructure from cybercriminals. It is also about working together to curtail things like money laundering and other types of cybercrimes. We are working together, sharing our expertise, and learning from Nigerians on their expertise because there are transnational criminals now.

Transnational criminals can move their money around quite easily, so much work happens behind the scenes. So, there were 17 or 18 agencies in town, some of which included the Department of Treasury, people from the FBI, senior officials from the State Department of Narcotics, a law enforcement bureau in town, and a drug enforcement agency talking about how we can work together to stop transnational criminals and how we can stop them from using some of the cyber platforms that are here in Nigeria or exploiting those.

So, we have created a new position in Abuja that will coordinate the work of the US government. Our government is big, your government is big, and having someone on the ground in Abuja who can reach back into Washington and tap into that expertise and bring it to be bear here in Nigeria is what this is about and ensuring that it remains a focus.

Last year, the US Deputy Secretary of Treasury, Wally Adeyemo, revealed that digital infrastructure deficit will limit Nigeria’s economic growth. A cable cut and the almost shutdown of connectivity emphasised this recently. How can Nigeria build resilience in its digital infrastructure space?

You have some of the fastest and largest undersea cables coming into Nigeria, which is why you experienced that cut that happened north of here. You have quite a fast internet connection here in Lagos. It is interesting, and this is where the resilience problem lies. What Wally was saying was really about extending this high-speed internet to the rest of Nigeria.

We have these undersea cables landing in Eket Akwa Ibom and here in Lagos, and we have this high-speed internet. What you don’t have is that it doesn’t always extend into the rest of the country, so I have heard people tell me that it is faster to send a data packet from Lagos to Singapore than from Lagos to Kano. This is about right-of-way access, about making it easy for infrastructure builders to build.

There is a tremendous desire among companies involved in the infrastructure game, many of which are American companies; now Equinox has purchased Main One, and we have American Tower, IHS, and US companies representing something like 80 percent of cell towers in Nigeria. So there is incredible interest in diversifying, and it is all about redundancy in diversification, and the more you have, the less likely the impact of one cable being cut would have the kind of massive impact that it had, so you utilise the data there and show there is more demand for it. It is how you get more investment, especially with a more predictable and transparent regulatory partner.

Nigeria has a vast digital divide. How can we bridge this gap, and what do you think are some of the opportunities and challenges for Nigeria’s digital economy from your perspective?

Infrastructure plays a key role. You build infrastructure, and it makes it possible to create digital jobs. So, you are talking about business process outsourcing, for instance. If you have slow and unreliable internet, you cannot provide business outsourcing services to companies in Europe or the United States. You can do that in Lagos quite easily. It is reliable and relatively quick.

Some have tried, and they are doing it in Abuja and Kano. We have seen some companies, and I believe there is some potential and growing interest in places like Enugu, Benin City, Anambra, and Abeokuta, where there is increasing interest. Trust me, if you do not have the basic infrastructure, you cannot have some of this job creation and this will leave potential untapped. It is about infrastructure and a predictable, transparent regulatory environment.

About 70 percent of funding comes from the US, but recently, it has been slowing down. Is this connected to Nigeria’s macroeconomic challenges? Are there other influencing factors?

I have spent a lot of time looking at this, and the data shows a global slowdown in venture capital spending, which has impacted the continent.

Meanwhile, we are in global competition, and the capital pull has shrunk slightly. While it has stabilised since 2023/2024, you are seeing countries like Kenya rise. We have more investment flowing to Kenya. Nigeria used to attract 40-50 percent of venture capital, now closer to 25 percent.

That is partly a tightening and people accessing the market globally and it is not Nigeria, it is not Africa, it is just a global thing. Secondly, some of the forex instability has an impact because you are investing in forex and seeing these fluctuations. Some of the moves the central bank has made in the last year have stabilized the currency, which is reassuring to investors. They will see it because of the potential of the people, the talent pool, and the successes we have seen in Nigeria.

When I talk to investors, I hear that they are just watching, wondering how it will go and how it is looking, and they are ready when they feel like it is stabilising.

According to a 2023 World Economic Forum report, women make up 22 percent of the tech workforce in Nigeria, a larger gender gap than the global average of 28 percent. Women own only about 30 percent of technology companies in Nigeria, and most funded startups are primarily male-led. What initiatives or policies are essential to promoting women’s inclusive participation in the digital economy?

The US has been doing something about this for a while. We have an exchange program called Tech Women, where we focus on emerging leaders in the tech space sent to the US and connect them with mentors. I am leading a delegation in late June called SelectTech, focused on female founders who will go to think about how they can bring their Nigerian startups into the US market.

The Vice President’s office will launch a program called “Tech Women in Africa,” and USAID will also support it. SMEs run by women tend to be more profitable and impactful. Investors have noticed this, and it is key to follow up on. We in the US government are deeply committed to it.