At the conclusion of the two-week long inaugural Remita Summer Coding Camp Abuja edition, former Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Communications Commission and current Non-Executive Director of the SystemSpec, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe paid a visit to the Abuja office of SystemSpecs, camp venue, where he chatted with MARK ITSIBOR on the scheme and the indigenous technology scene.
In your opinion, what can the government specifically do to foster greater private sector participation in the technological advancement of Nigeria?
The Remita Summer Coding Camp kindles a feeling of excitement in me that only such an innovative programme is capable of. The main responsibility of the government, as you rightly asked, is to provide private players with a stable enabling environment for business to thrive. By so doing, positive long-term impacts will invariably be made by private stakeholders to the country. Nigeria needs to assume a more forward-looking viewpoint in order to keep up with its counterparts across the globe. SystemSpecs, for instance, embarked on this programme with the mindset of making an impact, which made the running cost inconsequential to them. Investing in the future, therefore, is akin to a social responsibility they are undertaking. On that account, I urge state governments to emulate their peers in other climes by striking a partnership with SystemSpecs to organise coding workshops in their states where they will match every amount spent by the company. Accordingly, if SystemSpecs plans on training 15 individuals, the number is automatically doubled due to the commitment by the government to fortify the scheme. Although such an agreement might appear onerous at the moment, it is fully achievable as it is within the capacity of both states and federal governments.
Would you say privatisation has aided the development of the ICT sector, given the achievements recorded thus far?
When the government operated telecoms services, there were about 400,000 fixed telephone lines and 20,000 mobile lines. Privatisation of the sector has engendered a rapid transformation such that it now has over 160 million mobile lines. This feat would have remained unachievable if the sector was exclusively managed by the government owing to the cost of making such enormous investments. Government subsidised NITEL in the past but today it rakes in billions and trillions of naira in investments.
The 10 per cent contribution of ICT to the GDP of the country would have stagnated at 1 per cent but for the involvement of stakeholders in the private sector. This number can be doubled in a few years if governments at both federal and state levels collaborate further with private companies such as SystemSpecs to enlarge the scope of this programme to remote parts of the country and harness the potential inherent in youngsters of today for the greater good of the society. Just like we all know, when you train the mind of a person, the person is trained for life.
One can flashback on the reported leadership methods during the distasteful apartheid era. The oppressors deprived the oppressed of education due to the curiosity that it would have engendered in their minds and the increased capacity to question orders. The oppressors then decided to engage them under harsh conditions to suppress their desire for learning and skill acquisition. It is therefore our duty to ensure that no correlation whatsoever can be drawn with our youngsters of today; it is our responsibility to ensure that adequate training facilities are provided for them that will equip them with technology skills to compete efficiently with their peers around the world.
Having inspected the maiden coding workshop for the students, what is your assessment of the whole process and activities herein?
Like I previously stated, I am profoundly enthusiastic about the programme on account of the pressing need for Nigeria to develop talent from the foundational level. This need instigated my visit to the camp to inspect and interact with the participants and to gauge their comprehension of the scheme. On interacting with the participants, I came across a seven-year-old who could clearly articulate her learning during her two-week venture at the camp. The exercise, above anything, instils hope in me about the future of the country. So, I would like to commend SystemSpecs for this initiative in developing future manpower for the advancement of the country. It is a known secret that the country is replete with talented youngsters who only need adequate training and proper mentoring to enable them to compete favourably with their counterparts across the globe. Economically advanced countries bestow their young ones with coding skills from an early age for competitive advantage. It is undeniable that there exists a positive correlation between early technology exposure and innovation; Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook at 19 after being exposed to software writing in middle school, Bill Gates also launched Microsoft at 20 alongside Paul Allen. Furthermore, Evan Spiegel co-founded Snapchat at 21. Last year, we learnt about Silas Adekunle, a 26-year-old Nigerian, who became the highest paid robotics engineer in the world. Likewise, there are a great number of Nigerians doing similarly admirable works that can hold their own anywhere in the world, and the thought of that makes me excited about the future prospects of the nation.
Talking about the hope you have for the future, would you encourage other private sector organisations to key into this kind of initiatives for national development?
Private companies are undoubtedly needed to stimulate national development. With that said, I must acknowledge the efforts of a number of private stakeholders who are fervently aiding the growth of the country with cutting-edge initiatives such as coding camps for young Nigerians, which is why the public generally clamour for private sector driven societies. The Government must also ensure that these organisations do not relent in their drive for a better future by providing them with an enabling business environment. Sustainability-minded organisations, such as SystemSpecs, are aware of the importance of talents to their longevity and as such are investing in them. Remita, for example, is a worldwide acclaimed product that was 100 per cent developed in Nigeria by Nigerians. Investing in the youth is imperative to replicating the success of a product like Remita, while bequeathing them with the necessary tools to innovate for the future and problem-solving skills. As you know, the problems that will confront humanity in the next 10 years will be peculiar to that period but with programmes such as these, the next generation will be well-equipped to face them squarely. However, the issue of encouraging young Nigerians to take up technological skills is as much a challenge for the government as it is private stakeholders. Organisations should take a cue from the actions of SystemSpecs by supporting and training the next generation.
How would you rate the growth potential of the Nigerian technological scene today?
Nigeria is performing admirably in this regard as against other African states. We are leaders in the West African sub-region and excel above most countries in the Central and Eastern Africa. There is a myriad of wonderful stories about the works of Nigerians in foreign countries. In 2015, I read about the acquisition of a Nigerian founded establishment by Apple for a billion dollars. This is in addition to the other great stories we are all aware of, which serve as testament of the capability of the average Nigerian when placed in the right environment. Nigerians are generally some of the smartest people in the world thus the government only needs to provide an enabling environment and cede control to the private sector.
The ICT sector, just like I previously mentioned, has witnessed unprecedented growth since the private sector made inroads into it; the rapid uptake of 3G and 4G technology, coupled with the pending 5G advancement, buttress the point that Nigeria is capable of competing on a global level if the right policies are enacted. Although the pace of our technological growth might not be as swift in comparison with other countries, but you will be amazed at the sheer number of Nigerians involved in technological development in advanced countries such as Australia, Germany, US & Canada.
Training is critical to the success of any technology-inclined individual as technology speaks the same language worldwide. A software developer trained in Nigeria is just as good as his counterpart in the United Kingdom and they can easily adapt to any environment in the world, which further aids their employability. The issue of brain drain will also be resolved through the creation of an enabling environment and investments in the country. Nigerians will in turn find foreign countries less attractive with the creation of an environment where everyone can succeed upon training.
If we can do these things, where do you see us in the next 10 years, and can you give us figures?
Competing favourably across the globe is where I see us. As regards the figures, I am not privy to such, but I will like to reinforce my previous point that the creation of an enabling environment by the government will catalyse our ascension to the summit of the global technology space. Nigerians are smart, forward-looking and capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their global peers, with the missing piece in the puzzle being a good operating environment which the government must stop at nothing to provide.
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