Innovating Nigeria: The Rise Of True Compatriots

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True Compatriots
Mallam Kashifu Abdullahi

Beneath the obvious national contradictions and challenges we face, there is a deep revolution brewing that is “innovation at the speed of thought”. One of the biggest perks of the office of the director-general of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) is the privilege of meeting the smartest people in Nigeria and beyond. I had looked forward to visiting the technology ecosystem in Lagos since early 2020, but COVID struck. So, we kept in touch virtually. During COVID, the tech ecosystem made huge contributions to the nation, especially through the Tech4Covid committee. I had the privilege to inaugurate the committee under the supervision of the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami. Thanks to the advice of that committee and other efforts, the digital ecosystem was able to help Nigeria out of COVID induced recession that promised to deal a death blow to our national economy.

On May 19, 2021, I had my long-sought opportunity to begin a 3-day tour of Lagos to meet with the innovation industry. After a breakfast meeting with the press, we hit the road to brave the legendary Lagos traffic to get to the governor’s office. The Lagos State government had just implemented the Nigeria Data Protection Regulation (NDPR) for the health sector. Please take a pause to note that this scale of data protection implementation has not been reported anywhere in the world. Yes, we did it in Nigeria!

My team scheduled a visit to validate the work done by the Lagos Ministry of Health, but Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu decided to host us despite his busy schedule. In the meeting, the governor and I compared notes. He reeled out the smart Lagos projects and innovative initiatives Lagos implements across the state. You could see passion, vision, and a clear strategy to take Lagos to the next level of excellence. I had the opportunity to brief the governor on the ground breaking initiates we also implemented in Lagos to support the state government. So far, NITDA has implemented more than 40 projects in the state.

Furthermore, I shared our Strategic Roadmap and Action Plan (SRAP 2021-2024) document with the governor, wherein I discussed the seven strategic pillars that would help catalyse Nigeria to greatness. The governor’s remarks, “with you, Nigeria’s information technology sector is in safe hands”, humbled me. The governor and I agreed that we would set up a team to support Lagos smart initiatives and that the state would host NITDA’s proposed NDPR Toolkits for the health sector.

Our next stop was at Rack Centre, a tier-3 data centre located at Oregun. The welcome reception from the Rack Centre managing director, Mr Ayotunde Coker, was thrilling. We had an exciting and productive engagement going around the state-of-the-art facility. We got first-hand information on the capacity of Nigeria to be the leader in data hosting and cloud service provision for Africa. I saw faith at work in this complex. While many are checking out, some Nigerians are not just digging in, they are attracting foreign investments into the country. I took notes and stressed that we as government must do more to support enterprises like this.

The next day we visited the AfriOne Factory, a licensed original equipment manufacturer in Lagos. I was pleased to see that technology hardwares are assembled from the minute components. Some phones, laptops, tablets come with indigenous Nigerian languages such as Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo. Many young Nigerians work in this place while also training people to become phone and computer technicians.

It was quite interesting, and we are working diligently to promote the indigenous content as a core pillar of SRAP. Our next stop was MainOne MDXi, another iconic data centre. We had a first-hand understanding of what we have in the country in terms of data centre as a solid infrastructure for the digital economy. With what I saw at Rack Centre and MainOne MDXi, I am proud to say that we have the massive computing power needed to process any amount of data in Nigeria. We are on track to securing our digital sovereignty as a country and Africa at large. These companies must be encouraged, promoted and patronised by all government and private entities.

On May 21, 2021, we started the day with a breakfast session with shakers and movers of the African largest innovation ecosystem. Top startups such as Innovation Support Network, Future Africa, Smile Identity, 54gene, Advocacy for Policy and Innovation, amongst others, graced the occasion. We had an insightful session and discussed some issues affecting the tech ecosystem and areas that needed urgent intervention, including talent, demand, infrastructure, regulation, and capital. We also deliberated on the need to include the tech industry representatives in the SRAP projects steering committee and structured engagement between the government and private sector to implement all the initiatives across SRAP pillars and disseminate information across the ecosystem.

We had many invitations from different innovation companies, but time would not permit us to visit all. But there was one more stop I could not resist. Vibranium Valley (Venture Garden Group) which is located within the Lagos local and international airport premises. It is a story that I love to relive repeatedly. For context, this valley is bunkered inside the factory of the former Concord Press, which signifies the symbol of what Nigeria can do. Concord newspaper was so successful that it was being sold on London and New York streets in the 1970s/80s.

So, for some intelligent young people to take over this abandoned factory and re-purpose it for a technology hub is the single most profound statement of Nigeria’s intent to reimagine and take our place in the world for good. In the Valley, we saw used cargo containers and old bus parts being turned to offices. Young people in t-shirts, shorts and dreadlocks were busy solving national and international problems in governance, healthcare, education, traffic and many more. The Valley has tens of products, lots of experienced programmers and hundreds of staff. This last stop is a fitting reminder to me that we have the talent to be the best we can. With the kind of smart digitally native guys, I met Nigerian digital economy vision, and our aspiration to be the African leader is possible; our only limitation is our imagination.

At NITDA, our belief is we cannot succeed in implementing our mandate in isolation. We are part of the innovation ecosystem. Therefore, we need to strengthen the partnership and broaden the collaboration. Together we can create and capture value in the digital economy.

NITDA pledges to be a close partner and broker between the tech ecosystem and government to ensure cohesion of purpose, direction and implementation of initiatives to make Nigeria achieve its digital economy vision. In a journey like this, some see despair and find excuses to jump ship, but we have many unsung heroes working hard to solve the Nigerian problems and make us great in the tech and innovation ecosystem. For such patriots, NITDA is here to serve.

Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi is the director-general/CEO of NITDA. He wrote in from Abuja, Nigeria.

Mallam Kashifu Abdullahi
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