By Sonny Aragba-Akpore
Cerebral as Bosun Tijani, Nigeria’s Communications, Innovation and Digital Economy Minister, may be, his 31-page Roadmap for Telecommunications sector looks ambitious and a dream taken too far.
Nigeria is a very interesting country where there are constant strange policy somersaults. The Abami Eda ( the strange one) Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was direct in his admonition. ”Dem go turn green to red and white to blue” in one of hit songs which he deployed to lampoon the establishment.
But I admire the Minister’s courage and his ambitious good intentions fueled by his deep beliefs. We can only wish him success within the space of time that he has because even if he stays on for eight years, let us assume that there are no hiccups at all, and Nigeria does not happen to him, it will still end up as a wild goose chase without sounding pessimistic. So, I write with cautious optimism.
Let us refresh a little about a few things in the telecommunications industry and what happened before Tijani came.
A Minister before him initiated Rural Telephony Project (RTP) for which millions of dollars were budgeted/invested but shortly after, nobody heard anything about the project.
The project ended before it began and nobody has been rebuked for that and nobody is telling us what happened.
Years later, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) came out with a very beautiful initiative tagged Open Access Model through Infrastructure Companies (Infracos) to improve on the rural telephone programme .
This model was properly defined and expected to take telecommunications services to unserved and under-served communities in Nigeria.
Ordinarily, the NCC sold the idea to the government which accepted the template and was prepared to run with it .Licencees were to deploy services to the areas/zones they were licensed.
The NCC voted huge funds to actualise the programme based on timelines to be fulfilled by licencees before the commission could disburse money to the companies to enable them take the services to the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria including Lagos and Abuja.
Beautiful as the idea was, after huge expenditure, not one single company has shown any significant moves in taking the services to those for whom they should.
Because of the attraction of the funds from NCC, the programme became a political tool as some of the beneficiaries of the licences began to jostle for the money even when they were not sure of any tangible timelines.
The Open Access Model for Next Generation Optic Fibre Broadband Network Initiative of 2014 was very robust in template but no company showed any meaningful progress in its implementation. The idea was for the Infracos to provide last-mile services in the six geopolitical zones with Lagos standing alone for its peculiarity being the commercial hub of the country.
Main One Cable Company Limited and IHS Limited got the first two licenses to cover Lagos and the North Central zone including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) respectively. But for reasons not too far from alleged bottlenecks for commercial roll-out of its services, IHS declined the license a few years later .
The NCC named five companies to cover North East Zone (Brinks Integrated Solutions Limited); North West (Fleek Network Limited); South-South (Raenna Nigeria Limited); South West (Odua Infraco Resources Limited); and South-East (Zinox Technology Limited). The Infracos were expected to cover access gaps especially in under-served and unserved areas of the country and provide a wholesale layer to transmission services on a non-discriminatory open access price regulated basis. They were also expected to provide Layer 1 Metro Dark fiber services on a commercial basis, and deployment of metropolitan fibre to provide transmission services of point of access to seekers.
Nine years after, the programme remains unimplemented and nobody is telling us what happened to the funds that were voted for the project.
If he so wishes, the Minister may open up inquiries into this with NCC officials to make an honest presentation on the status of the Infracos, if indeed they still have it in their books and are ready to review and implement it according to the plans put in place for that purpose. The Minister may be alarmed at what he will be told.
Tijani should also ask questions too about the fate of the Fifth Generation networks (5G) so he could be adequately guided on the progress recorded so far by the beneficiaries of the licenses, including the Federal Government and the NCC as operators are tongue in cheek about their challenges.
He may be shocked to note that the network operators and the citizens have very little to show for this. He will note too that the government is the biggest beneficiary of 5G licensing because the licensing fees of $820.8 million went to the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) and while the network providers and the regulator think of what to make out of this, the citizens are like, “Waiting for Godot“ as Samuel Beckett wrote.
So, when Tijani released his very interesting road-map the other day, he probably forgot that he was not going to have a solo race, especially in a country where there is a strange relationship between policy and implementation.
“Mister Minister, sir, you mean very well, especially having been very successful as an entrepreneur, but you are in Nigeria and you are not running alone so even if you believe in your capacity to achieve the milestones you have listed, can you also vouch for your team members?”
The Minister’s beautiful document states very clearly what could take Nigeria out of the woods and move away from the outskirts of globalisation and despite all the pretensions that we have achieved so much in ICT, by bandying unverifiable statistics to back claims of success, we are still far away compared to other nations who play by the rules of engagement.
The Minister spoke glowingly the other day that his ministry and the template he and his team have created will generate over three million jobs in four years. Specifically, he said, he is committed to attracting over $5billion that will empower startups to grow the industry to support a large number of startups that are expected to power the economy.
Shortly after that, the Minister in a live appearance on Channels Television’s Sunrise Daily highlighted the government’s commitment to achieving the goal of digital literacy.
His words: “We have plans to train three million Nigerians in technical skills within the coming years, with a collaborative effort between my ministry and state governments to ensure the success of this initiative.
“The plan is that by 2030, 95%of Nigerians should be digitally literate. Digital literacy doesn’t mean that you become a technical talent, but it gives you the foundation to be able to choose that you also want to participate in the digital economy.”
He explained plans to establish hardware training centres in prominent tech hubs like Aba in Abia State and Computer Village in Lagos State.
These centres aim to promote manpower development and create job opportunities for all Nigerians.
According to him “We are looking at partnering with the NDDC to bring on some of the best minds in the hardware sector to craft a path on how we invest in what is happening in Aba. Our ambition is that in the next couple of months into next year, we can set up a centre in Aba that is focused on hardware production”.
“The centre will not just duplicate what is done, the centre is going to focus on building new technology, exposing the business people in that region on how they can leverage new technology to do what they already do better and train new talents”
Still on his roadmap presentation, the minister said funds will be generated through patent capital that is expected to create a building block for startups to run their shows.
Simple as the pronouncements were, he didn’t give details on how this ambitious pursuit will make a difference in the Nigerian economy which is comatose as a result of dwindling fortunes and self-inflicted pains and poor policies.
But he explained that in today’s global technology landscape, innovation, entrepreneurship, and access to capital were critical components of a strong digital economy.
He stated that the primary objective of the ministry on this would be to stimulate the growth and sustainability of startups, with a specific focus on those developing innovative solutions for critical sectors of the economy.
The Minister said, “recognising the critical role of patent capital in the growth of startups, we are committed to increasing the local availability of patent capital. Our intent is to create an environment for startups to raise the funding they require to thrive locally and promote the domiciliation of startups within our nation.”
Amid a funding drought, Nigerian startups raised $1.2bn in 2022, according to Africa The Big Deal (an African funding data insight firm). African startups raised $5.4bn according to Briter Bridges in 2022.
According to the minister, equipping talents with knowledge that can influence the generation of innovations and technologies that drive economic growth, expand the talent pool to drive competitiveness, improve productivity, and inform evidence-based policymaking is crucial.
He said, “Our commitment to talent development is unwavering. We have set an ambitious goal to train three million early to mid-career technical talents over the next four years. These trainings will cover tech-enabled and tech-adjacent skills, core tech competencies, and advanced proficiencies. This holistic approach is designed to empower our workforce to thrive in a constantly evolving technological landscape.”
Tijani noted that, of the three million startups, the government’s aim is to retain at least 1.5 million of the trained talents within its local talent pool and facilitate opportunities for the other 1.5 million to excel in the global talent marketplace, preferably through remote opportunities.
The government wants to achieve a number of things including but not limited to: Broadband Penetration
“with the aim of providing widespread access to ensure that citizens are connected, we will focus on executing our broadband strategy to lay 95,000 kilometres of fibre optic cable across the country.”
On efficient spectrum management, the Minister said government “will ensure that our commercial and non-commercial spectrum resources are efficiently deployed to enable innovation and new technologies to thrive.”
He adds that there will be Digital Public Infrastructure to serve as the foundation for digital transformation across Nigeria. “This will be supported by the introduction of OneGOV, a one stop shop for access
to all government services.”
1The Postal Service, he says, will be revitalised to improve operations of the Nigerian Postal Service .
In recognition of the critical role of patient capital in the growth of startups, the minister discloses that government is “committed to increasing the local availability of patient capital. Our intent is to create an environment for startups to raise the funding they require to thrive locally and promote the domiciliation of startups within our nation.
“With the goal of supporting the diversification of the Nigerian economy, we will collaborate with other ministries and parastatals including private sector stakeholders to drive opportunities for startups to facilitate the application of technology for enhanced productivity in critical sectors across the country. We will back programmes focused on AgriTech, HealthTech, EdTech, MediaTech, CleanTech, CreTech, among others.”
The Minister’s startup agenda is predicated on the Nigeria Startup Act (NSA) that was signed into law in 2022 to support the growth of Nigeria’s startup ecosystem and drive the development of startups and tech-related talents, adding that government will prioritise the implementation of the Act in collaboration with the relevant agencies of government and the organised private sector operations.
On digital literacy, the Minister explained: “As an important component of our blueprint, we are committed to making substantial strides toward this goal over the next four years. Our plan is to achieve 70% of this target by 2027, thus representing a major milestone in our path towards an inclusive and digitally empowered nation. This agenda will adopt a multifaceted approach, including a robust educational programme, improved digital infrastructure and universal access to digital resources. This goal will not only foster the growth of our citizens, but create the bedrock for a thriving economy.”
He said that the National Policy on Telecommunications, which was revised in 2000, is to account for changes in technology, standards and markets, and define the trajectory of the next phase of one of Nigeria’s fastest growing sectors. “And as telecommunications continues to evolve in line with new technology and associated opportunities, it is critical to revamp our national approach to account for changing imperatives and to situate broadband development at the core of our national policy for the next 20 years,” he explained.
Core issues such as spectrum management, convergence, universal access, broadband penetration, net neutrality and Quality of Service (QoS) have morphed significantly from when the last policy was issued. Similarly, the drive towards a digital economy requires deepening of access to telephony and broadband services for the underserved and unserved. The Ministry will drive the review of the Telecoms Policy to account for these core issues.
On the yearly net revenue by 2027 he projects a 22% rise in contributions of
telecommunications sector to the GDP.
The Minister anticipates a reduction in the gap of unconnected Nigerians in rural areas by less than 20% by the end of 2024.
On the Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Minister said it will usher in a new era of technological and economic transformation over the next two decades saying as an emerging economy, “it is imperative that we formulate a far-reaching national strategy to harness the potential of AI in an inclusive and responsible manner. “
“To that effect we are taking a unique approach to provide the expertise and perspectives needed to craft a forward-looking strategy. The implementation of the strategy amongst other things is expected to elevate Nigeria as a top 10 location for AI model training and talents globally. In addition, we will position Nigeria as a global leader in accelerating inclusivity in AI dataset”.
The Minister means well, but we can only hope he sustains these laudable initiatives for the greater good of all.
● Aragba-Akpore, an analyst on tech trends, lives in Abuja.