Yesterday’s Skills Not Enough for Today’s Digital Transformation Age – CITAD Boss

TECH DIGEST – Dr. Yunusa Z. Yau is the Executive Director /Founder of Centre for Technology and Development (CITAD) an ICT-focused NGO, and a former lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering, Bayero University Kano, shares his thoughts regarding the impact of ICT innovation on the economy.

The Vice President, Information Technology (Industry) Association of Nigeria (ITAN), also talks on the need for collaboration between industry and institutions of higher learning, local content in ICT sector, and other sundry issues in this exclusive interview with Inyene Ibanga and Abbas Badamasi of TechDigest.ng.

Can you tell us the objectives of CITAD as an ICT-focused NGO and, how they impact the digital economy drive in Nigeria?

As an ICT4D organization, CITAD’s overall goal is to see Nigeria leverage the transformative potentials of ICT and change our development trajectory from that of poor underdeveloped country to a developed one. This is consistent with our vision which is building a knowledge-based democratic and self-reliant society.
Specifically, our objectives include: Raising awareness about the use of ICTs in development; Using ICTs as tools for the promotion of democracy and good governance; Propagating best practices in ICTs applications for the development; Campaigning for appropriate national policies on ICTs, Conducting research on ICTs in development; Providing training to disadvantaged groups such as women, children and other marginalized groups on ICTs; Running community computer resource centers for people to have access to computing facilities and Monitoring the application of ICTs in the society.
These all have direct impact to the digital economy drive. For instance, you cannot implement the digital economy without appropriate policies. Similarly, you cannot drive the digital economy without people with digital skills. You cannot get digital skills unless you address issues which make some people not to want to use it. Gender violence and hate speech are examples, which drive away women. This is why we have invested a lot of resources and time in monitoring and combating both gender violence and hate speech online. We have been training thousands of people yearly, contributing to the national stock of digital skill that is needed for the digital economy. We have set up community centres in rural areas so that these digitally marginalized communities could have access to opportunity to learn and use digital technology. We use this to demonstrate the benefits of digital inclusion.

We have continued to work with different partners to showcase various digital technologies and applications with the hope of adaptation. We have encouraged young people and civil society organizations to embrace civic tech which is needed to improve governance and close the gap between citizens and government. All these are contributing to the national ecosystem for the digital economy in the country.

CITAD has come a long way providing ICT training and digital skills to meet the demands of the digital economy especially in the area of entrepreneurship. What is the organization doing to empower our people with skills in digital innovation and entrepreneurship?

Empowerment has become an abused word in Nigeria, so one has to use it carefully. We see politicians bringing environment polluting motorcycles which soon become junk in the name of youth empowerment, we see them training people on skills that are no longer relevant in the digital economy. For us, we see empowerment as transformational process that turns young people from being job seekers to job creators. In addition to digital skills, we give them entrepreneurship training focused on how to set up, run and manage their businesses, how to find and access business support programmes. We provide them with top class mentors to guide them as they navigate their way to founding and running their business. We organize regular business clinics to assess the health of these young enterprises, we interface beneficiaries with business development support, service providers, including accessing loans and grants and we provide to some of them the space to flourish.
We recognize that rent and municipal services rates do inhibit the survival of young enterprises. Therefore, our Hub provides spaces for youth entrepreneurs so that they don’t have to pay for rent, do not pay for electricity and connectivity as well as match them with the market so that they could drive their goods and services to the market place. In the last couple of years, we have trained and mentored over 1000 young women and youth. Many of them are running their businesses now. Many of them have obtained grants and loans and a number have won awards. Some of our products are running successful digital hubs across the countries that are providing support for start-ups.

Recently, CITAD collaborated with NITDA to organize a webinar on Local Content Policy in ICT Sector. Why do we need the local content policy in the ICT sector?

The local content policy in the ICT sector is one of those pieces of policies that we consider appropriate. It is aimed at promoting the use and consumption of locally produced ICT goods and services without compromising standards. It requires that public procurement of ICT goods and services should ensure that at least 30% is locally produced or by local producers. This can be in the form of hardware, software and services such as training. Such a policy has an important role to play in driving the digital economy in the country. In particular, it provides an opportunity for local producers to be patronized which will make them grow and expand. Once they grow and expand, they will absorb many people into their employment, thus contributing to reducing unemployment in the country.
Patronizing local players will enable creativity and innovation that will spur many young people to task their brain. This development is what will cumulate into a massive uptake of digital technology to transform not only the economy but also the society. The policy will also reduce foreign exchange flight out of the country which in turn will help in stabilizing the national currency. The volatility of the national currency has been a major disabling factor for the growth of our economy. Such stability as aided by the local content policy will impact positively on the economy. The creativity and innovation activities that will arise as a result of the policy will increase both the availability and affordability of digital technology in the country.

Developed locally ICT goods and services will be more context specific, cutting off the stage of customization in the use chain, thus speeding up uptake and use. But it also means that accessibility will be enhanced. Improving availability, affordability and accessibility will lead to greater experimentation and the update of civic tech by both governments and non-state actors such as civil society organizations, mainstreaming ICTs in governance and in monitoring and tracking governance, thus improving transparency and accountability. This will ultimately lead to increase in effectiveness and efficiency of governance as well as bridging the gap between government and citizens, thus serving to consolidate democracy.
Finally, the growth in ICT production that the policy will stimulate will transform the country from a consuming nation to a producer with potential to export and once industries have the right support, they will make the country globally competitive in the ICT sector. And any country that is today globally competitive in the ICT sector will by the same token be economically competitive.

What does Nigeria need to do in order to effectively utilise local content to enable the country attain high level of technology development like India, China, Japan and other emerging tech countries.

I think from our observation, there is low awareness about the Local Content Policy especially at state level, and consequently, in spite of the good work that NITDA is doing to enforce compliance, there is also low level compliance with the policy. This means that there is need for government as represented by NITDA to step up awareness and sensitization programmes around the policy.

Secondly, the government has to lead in the use and consumption of locally produced ICT goods and services. It cannot tell citizens to patronize made in Nigeria ICTs while locked on made in China goods. This action of government will give citizens the confidence to embrace made in Nigeria ICT goods and services. But mere implementation of the policy without addressing other constraints that ICT firms face will not do the magic. Government has to address these challenges.
Number one is the question of power. You cannot grow the digital economy using generators. Government has to quickly fix the power sector to provide for cheap, affordable and clean energy to run the ICT industry and use.
Thirdly, We note that the National Broadband Plan is a good document. But a good document that is not backed by diligent implementation is as good as nothing.Government should implement the plan and help to spread the penetration of high speed internet access across the county. The digital economy can only be possible when there is high speed internet.
Thirdly, government has to protect industry from dumping that takes place via the importation of second-hand digital equipment and devices. On a monthly basis, thousands of used ICTs equipment and devices are imported into the country. Many of these are near end of their life cycle and they quickly become eWaste, turning into an environmental problem for the country. But they also make it difficult for people to patronize new goods produced in the country.

Fourthly, government has to come up with a national digital inclusion agenda which will address the various shades of digital divide in the country. It manifests in gender, digital marginalization (exclusion) of people living with disabilities, rural people, etc.

You cannot make success of the digital economy and transform Nigeria to be like India, China, with large swaps of the population digitally left behind.

Finally, we need to address the education sector to infuse digital learning into the system. This has to start from basic education. It should not be the type we see now where teaching computer skills is like teaching history or watching a football match with hundreds of students gathered around one system and the teacher telling them about it rather than helping them to learn how to use it.

Nigerian universities churn out thousands of graduates annually without jobs. In what ways do you think these graduates can be gainfully engaged to create employment opportunities?

It seems to me that we do not pay enough attention to the job market. We see unemployment but often we fail to see also skills shortage. The paradox is that we have graduate unemployment in the context of high skill gaps. This paradox should make us to avert our minds to the problem of our institutions of learning. What is happening is that there is disconnect between industry and the institutions. Universities are producing skills but not the type that industries require.

Research institutes are producing research outputs but not the type of outputs that industry needs. Policy think tanks are producing policies which never get to policy users and policy makers. They remain in shelves. What digitization has done is to bring this disconnect into sharp focus.

What is needed is to institute a regular interface and dialogue between industry and training institutions so that institutions can understand better what the industry needs and therefore tailor their training outcomes toward meeting that. When people talk about gaps between what is produced and what is needed, it is not just about content. It is also about orientation.

Take engineering as whole for example, the problem is not just that the content is outdated but that we need to realise what industry need is not a graduate engineer with knowledge and the skills ready-made to work in an industry but about the ability and disposition to learn, relearn and adapt to changing work environments. This is the era in which critical thinking is what we need more than just knowing the content of the subject. But it is also true that our content is lagging behind.

Today many of the Software Engineering curricula currently in our universities are far behind what industry is using and so graduates come out, and are not able to fit into the real industry.

Digitalization is the new normal today. What is the relationship between CITAD, other NGOs, government, and the academia towards promoting digitalization in Nigeria?

We understand that digitalization is new and many are yet to understand what actually it means for society. We realise that of course we cannot be outside it and to be left behind is a huge disadvantage.

This means that we need to get the message across to all that we must prepare adequately for the digital transition.

Preparation for this transition is not the work of NGOs alone. It is a collective national responsibility, with different actors having different roles to play. While government can provide policies and address critical infrastructure needs, NGOs can help in raising awareness by sensitizing the population, complementing training which is the primary responsibility of the academic institutions while the private sector needs to produce the ICT goods and services needed by the citizens as well as governments and other organizations.

In this, working across purposes cannot serve our interest. We need to have a shared goal and strategy to collectively move the country digitally forward. For this reason, CITAD has cultivated the partnership of governments at both state and federal levels, the private sector as well as with academic institutions.

It goes without saying that we also work together with other NGOs to mount common advocacy and campaign and implement joint programmes to address areas of felt needs. We have in the past two years instituted what we call the Critical Knowledge Dialogue working with academics, students and administrators of universities to support the re-launch of critical debates and dialogues in our university system as a means of transforming teaching and learning in the 21st century. It may interest you that even though we are an ICT focused organization, we run an annual Institute of Philosophy for young academics which is aimed at encouraging critical thinking among the participants.

The webinar on the local content is an example of the sort of partnerships we deployed, but it was not the first. In January we had a similar one with Linkserve, NIRA and Skyline University, on Business Opportunities for young entrepreneurs on domain name trading. Before it, we had one on 5G Technology in collaboration with NITDA and the Association for Progressive Communication, a global ICT-focused NGO.

We are also planning one with NCC on Community Networks as complimentary means of driving connectivity in rural and underserved communities.

How would you assess the current level of digital skills among tech enthusiasts and what caliber of digitally skilled personnel are required for attainment of digitalization in Nigeria?

By and large, there is incredible development of what one may call learning outside the formal classroom in which students of History, Linguistics, Philosophy etc use their spare time to learn about programming and apps development. This class of tech enthusiasts is a major asset to the country that needs to be cultivated and allowed to flourish.

Unfortunately, we put too much premium on certificate such that this class of tech enthusiasts who learn through doing are not accorded a place of recognition and given the incentive to grow and grow the tech sector for Nigeria.

I think we need to realise that creativity and innovation are not classroom subjects. They are products of critical thinking and we need a system of recognition and reward that positively value creativity and innovation and not just paper certification with no skills for innovation. I can say that we have a highly talented and skilful youth population but they need to be encouraged, supported and given the space to give the best to the country in terms of leading the processes of the digital economy.

Of course, we also need to expand our capacity for the local production of digital skills to meet the demands of the digital economy. Due to infrastructure shortage, many of the ICT related departments in our institutions of higher learning are not able to expand, end up producing just a few ICT professionals as if they are on test run.

Can the establishment of ICT Hubs across the six geo-political zones by NITDA bail out the country from the current economic challenges?

ICT Hubs are important element of the ICT ecosystem. However, in themselves, they are no solution to the problems the ICT sector faces in the country. I had earlier itemised a number of challenges that need to be addressed to help the sector grow. So yes, ICT Hubs provide spaces for young digital entrepreneurs, including, mentoring and co-working to unburden start-ups and we have seen a number of exciting products coming out from the NITDA initiative and supported hubs but they would perform better if the challenges of the general ICT ecosystem in the country are addressed.

Six centres can make contribution but they are not enough for a country with a population of over 200 million people. We need several of these hubs in each state of the federation.

How can the recently established NITDA National Centre for Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship be a viable solution to the large scale unemployment among the youth of Nigeria?

As proof of concept, the NITDA National Centre for Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship is a welcome and very important development. It can help many young entrepreneurs to find their feet in the slippery terrain of business survival. However, we need several of these centres across the country for them to make significant contribution in addressing unemployment.

We need many of the Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship centres in our universities to transform into similar concept. I will say, therefore, the role of NITDA here is to demonstrate to Nigerians what can be done with such a concept as the National Centre for Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship and is left to Nigerians, both in government and private sector as well as in the development sector to learn from the experience and replicate and upscale it across the country.

As a key stakeholder in the tech sector, what are the specific challenges facing ICT-focused NGOs in Nigeria, and how can they be addressed.

ICT-focused NGOs face three peculiar challenges. One is that donors tend to focus their attention more on governance and elections as well as healthcare and hardly provide support for ICT programming. Funding is generally difficult to come by.

Secondly, many people including donors find it difficult to understand the work of ICT-focused NGOs. They support one or two-day training on advocacy skills but in the case of ICT you want develop the skills of the beneficiaries and this takes comparatively longer period. Government and donors want to quickly tick the boxes and report whereas ICT-focused NGOs need time to ensure that the beneficiaries are properly groomed. This takes time and donors do not have the patience for such.

Thirdly, ICT-focused NGOs need to invest in equipment and facilities, including stable internet connectivity and constant power supply.

These are tall order problems in the context of Nigeria.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here