The Fight for Digital. Part 1.

Digital technology makes us ask ourselves, what is humanly possible? What can I do today? Personally, I cannot conceive what I could achieve without using some form of digital platform each and every day. I am more likely to ask what can’t I do today? Whilst I guess I am too senior in years to consider myself a digital native… adopting digital technology into my everyday work and personal life came easy. And now it has become unfathomable to even consider a day without my mobile phone. A slave to mobile? Yes. Powered by mobile? Yes. More productive with mobile? Yes. And so on. But this is not just simply about the individual; technology, digital devices and the suite of apps / products / platforms that they bring, are [for me] the only way we will be able to affect actual change, for the better, in Nigeria. Let me elaborate.

Schools, health, transportation, welfare state [or lack of it], infrastructure - they are falling behind what is commonly accepted as an international standard. Social underdevelopment is hampering our economic prosperity at all levels; unemployment stands at 33.5% and is growing. In fact, unemployment is growing faster than GDP. Nigeria currently has more people below the poverty line than that combined of India and China, who together have a population of over 3 billion people. When you add another explosive element, the fact that Nigeria’s birth rate is higher than GDP growth rate presently, you don’t need to be an economist to predict the serious issues we are faced with in our immediate future. This is not sustainable, especially for a country that is already, in so many ways, at breaking point.

But this is not a post-mortem for Nigeria; no - I want to dissect what makes the country great, and look at how we actually deploy our resources to counter the dystopian future that, for many, seems inevitable. So - let’s look at our blessings, our resources; we have a massive population, that, if educated and mobilized accordingly, can genuinely power our Nation to greatness. Another resource? Arable land - a lot of it, and a range of conditions where we can grow a diversified range of crops. We have land; a lot of it. How can we use it more to our benefit, for the many and not the few? And of course, we have a back-up; we have oil & gas. In bountiful supply. But it’s the only resource that has been present in driving our economy, that has been celebrated by successive administrations, sadly at the expense of our other “resources”.

So we need a paradigm shift. We need to slowly wean ourselves off black gold and divert our attention towards Nigeria’s other resources, and consider the support and tools we can apply to build in new areas. The oil & gas sector currently employs thousands of people in Nigeria. It’s an essential, driving power of our economy, without a doubt. But in reality, oil & gas only accounts for 10% of GDP; so the trickle down effect to the larger populace is minimum.

And yes, some of the larger conglomerates, Dangote, Honeywell Group, Transcorp... they employ thousands of people and are absolutely critical to powering our economy...but what can we do to employ millions of people? How can we power the nation and bring millions more into the formal economy? SMEs. Micro SMEs, in fact. In any developed economy, the biggest driver for employment is small business. There has been a lot of talk on diversification from oil and a focus on agriculture. Yes, efforts have been made but we haven’t moved the needle. We haven’t scaled. Using old tools just won’t cut it; hence my call for a paradigm shift.

There are 14million small businesses [approx] across the length and breadth of the country. Imagine if half of them hired just one person? That’s 20M people in active employment. That’s more than the government can ever take on. More than big business, more than oil & gas. Combined. And for those who are employed by SMEs? They earn a salary, they pay tax, they have some [small] spending power and can subsequently power their local economies and increase consumer activity. They become part of the system. They are no longer excluded. This is why small businesses are the engine of growth.

So how do we do this? At this moment in time, do we have a population, ready and waiting to be absorbed into SME employment? In all honesty, probably not; our systems are failing us, in terms of education but also in terms of the skills readiness of young people who are leaving school. Graduates are leaving University without the requisite skills. We need to make sure the curriculum and skills being taught in academic institutions are commensurate with the skills employers seek. At present, I don’t believe this is the case. Our books are old and obsolete even at time of printing, our learning practices are outdated, and there aren’t enough teachers or schools. Which is frustrating, because as a culture, as a community, Nigerians genuinely appreciate the power of education. Their issue is access, cost and scale. My concern is, society is not giving them the education they need in order to thrive.

What can be done to immediately tackle the above? We need to use the digital technology that is already available in the market and scale it rapidly, to reach millions more people. Connectivity, here, is key. It is humanly possible to deploy online solutions to scale offline activities. Digital technology is here, and whilst we have all read the statistics on Nigeria and its mobile phone usage [97.5M unique mobile subscribers, 49% mobile penetration, 151M total mobile connections and 53M smart phone connections - GSMA Spotlight on Nigeria] we are still not using the inbuilt digital infrastructure we already have, to its full potential. Just as we see roads, schools, as important infrastructure, we need to look at digital infrastructure in that light and take a holistic policy, regulatory and business approach to digital infrastructure.

In schools and education, it’s beyond just building classrooms and schools [although this is absolutely necessary too]. Using tablets and digital learning resources [that can be updated to keep up with an ever changing curriculum far faster than printed books] will provide better access to education and will allow our young people to be trained in the skills requirements of today, not five years ago. In subsistence farming, drones can be used to check soil, crop rotation, access inhospitable areas and monitor progress of crops growing, on a large, ariel scale. In health, and in our country where we don’t have enough doctors, we can provide medical consultations via mobile technology - either via SMS or video consultations, depending on what’s available. But at present? These sectors are essentially stagnant; they have not been able to leverage technology, at scale, in order to meet the demands of millions.

Scale continues to be, in my opinion, one of our country’s greatest challenges. As has already been mentioned, we do have some notable conglomerates in which we can be fiercely proud of, in terms of their ability to employ people in their thousands and who have a top-down, positive effect on the supply chains they dominate. But there is unlikely to be another Dangote Group any time soon, let alone three or four of them; so where else can we find a way to stimulate and grow the economy? In terms of technology, we have the likes of MTN, who like Dangote, provide products and services to the retail space; but this model only works for a few companies. We are seeing innovative models in solar, in fintech, for example - but they haven’t scaled like the Dangotes or MTNs. Take, even Interswitch, who will IPO this year. They have been central to the fintech and digital banking sector in Nigeria and are synonymous with innovation in the sector - but they still, if truth be told, still haven’t scratched the surface. Their scale is impressive, but by no means exhausted.

Why haven’t we seen this scale? 
Mass adoption of digital tools to make life easier, faster, more accessible - this comes from two key influential parties; the Government and private enterprise / big business. Government will never be responsible for powering or leading innovation in technology - that comes from the private sector. However, what the Government can do is provide an enabling environment for digital technology to thrive; by ensuring the opportunities are there for big businesses to use central infrastructure to scale their products and platforms. In order for scale to happen, the Government needs to invest time and intellectual resource into regulation, legislation and removing barriers to entry. What’s required of them now, is to centralise policy around connectivity, so looking at infrastructure opportunities around the likes of 5G, for example, and preparing for a digital revolution for the masses. We can’t just plan for when the population has a device, we need to plan for the very obvious scenario when tens of millions of people are operating multiple devices, for business and pleasure. We need to preempt this network effect.

As well as Government supporting this, and it being powered by big business, we also need the start-ups on board, and in collaboration with the Government and corporate entities, to continue pushing for innovative solutions, powered by digital. The better the connectivity is, the smaller the global village becomes; it gives people who will never leave Nigeria, the chance to operate outside of the geographical boundaries, especially when it comes to commerce.

Government has started the gradual shift to digital in a number of important areas; the Cash-less policy set out by the CBN has been initiated to encourage millions more people into electronic-based transactions, making cash less attractive and de-incentivising its use. By embedding such policies, Government can influence a sea change, educating millions of people on the benefits of digital banking and just the power, in general, that digital has. But it can only really be rolled out en masse, if business, big and small, as well as we, the people, adopt digital and make it work for us.

That’s how Sparkle was developed; as a means of helping people adopt digital best practice into their every day lives. We unpicked how people go about transacting offline, what services they need to start and run their businesses or their personal lives, and started building a digital product around these key areas. We wanted to add efficiency, trust, transparency and freedom to a digital platform that can scale and support millions of people as they move into the digital future.

Fighting for digital is a theme to which I will return regularly… part 2, loading.

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