Nigerian government officials are always quick to say ‘youths are the leaders of tomorrow;’ although this saying has been going on from generation to generation since Independence in 1960, with the youths yet to become leaders (outside of military interventions). In the Information and Communications Technology sector however, the youths have come together under an umbrella body, the Young Innovators of Nigeria, to strive to push through their ideas, potentials, expertise and innovations as the government propagates the idea of replacing oil with ICT as the country’s main revenue earner. The YIN President, MR. ANDREW ABU, took time to respond to some questions posed to him by MKPE ABANG, in this interview. Excerpts:
Question: How did the Young Innovators Nigeria come about; that is how was YIN founded? And, how did you emerge as the President of YIN?
Answer: Thank you for this opportunity given us on your esteemed platform, IT & Telecom Digests, to tell the world about us. Young Innovators of Nigeria came to light in 2013; it’s a product of passionate leadership and vibrant youths who crave to impact our society despite our many challenges; and we believe the only way to make a meaningful impact is to collaborate with like minds to share innovative ideas and implement them together, through collaboration. While serving as the National Assistant Secretary General of the Nigerian Association of Computer Science Students (NACOSS) I had an opportunity to attend the 2013 edition of eNigeria Conference and exhibition, organised by the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), at the time led by then Acting Director-General, Dr. Ashiru Daura. I was privileged to work with the Corporate Strategy and Research Department, now Corporate Planning and Strategy, then headed by Mr. Emeka Ezekwesili; the department had a clear plan to activate the innovation ecosystem as part of its mandate. NITDA had sponsored me and some undergraduates to attend the software competition in Calabar organised by the Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPON). The competition focuses on churning out young NACOSS members with innovative ideas annually; and that particular event was a game changer, we have had interesting ideas which needed to be further worked on. At my local level at the University of Jos, we had formed the Unijos programming club to enable students collaborate in learning programming skills and develop their innovative ideas. In a few months we had recorded a huge success and we wanted Plateau State to be the nest point of developers’ haven in Nigeria, we felt we needed to develop our ecosystem in Jos to enable our students win the next ISPON Competition. Soon after I graduated and I was posted to NITD for my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), where I met a lot of exciting young talented people and a vibrant leadership that was willing to impact the youths. I quickly settled down and it was time to work. NITDA had just come back from the Gulf Information Technology Exhibitions (GITEX) in Dubai, and had started planning for the next edition; they intended taking Nigerian start-ups to exhibit at GITEX so as a Youth Corps member serving in the department and very passionate about innovations I volunteered to work with the team. This led to the “NITDA Knowledge Hub for Young Innovators” under the then CSR department headed by Dr. Vincent Olatunji, a very passionate and visionary public servant who was very instrumental to the development of the Nigerian innovation ecosystem, and YIN as well. He was always ready to listen to start-ups and advised us regularly. I was privileged to work with the NITDA team to identify start-ups and NACOSS members who had solutions worthy of showcasing to the world at that platform. That was how the Young Innovators of Nigeria gradually started, with a team of five: myself, Mr. Folagbade David Olatunji, (ED Business development), Engr. Grace Achenyo (ED/Software), Ajiboye Mayowa (Executive Director Programs), Jemima Tapa. We started reaching out to young developers across the country and with my experiences from the university having held several positions in our local and National body of NACOSS I leveraged on the NACOSS platform to identify and connect with many of the talented young people to form Young Innovators of Nigeria with support from NITDA, which at that material time headed by Mr. Peter Jack. I became the president of YIN in a unanimous meeting held at the NITDA Information Resource Centre in September 2014, and the team has grown bigger and stronger since then.
Do you think that Nigeria’s young people have enough passion in technology compared to their peers in other countries of the world?
Nigerian youths are some of the most passionate and exciting minds in the world as regards to technology and its applications despite our many challenges. A number of Nigerian youths have participated in several projects on technology applications across several universities and even at the global society; we have the likes of Jelani Aliyu MFR the designer of the volt electric car, we have Dr. Uyi Stewards in IBM, Ebele Okobi in Facebook, as a matter of fact every global brand that uses technology to change lives today has high ranking Nigerian youths under the age of 40 playing important roles for the companies. I think what we lack compare to others across the globe are opportunities and favourable environment to maximise our potentials. The average Nigerian youth is very passionate from the mangrove of the south to the Sahara of the north; we are talented and passionate about technology.
As a young person, what are the problems you think fellow young people like you are facing in bringing their innovation in technology to bear fruits?
I will rather call what we face as challenges, which vary across the length and breadth of Nigeria. We face infrastructural problems like inadequate laboratories to develop our products, expensive bandwidths subscriptions; power is huge challenge, serious skill gaps in the technology sector; sometimes you find it difficult to find skilful partners to complete a project. Funding is also a critical issue because most of our elite and businessmen, women and companies don’t believe in the capacity of young Nigerians to fund their ideas and mentor them; the few who have done it have been able to see the potentials but a lot more still needs to be done. In this part of the world we don’t have cushions to fall back on when we fail; as regards to innovations and technology entrepreneurship we know it is not a straight path, you have to try and fail many times to get a good innovation to the public. Sadly Nigerian innovators are the least motivated because of the phobia to fail and the environment we find ourselves; so as a result many innovations fail to make it to the public stage, many start-ups die at the first year because of many challenges we face. A lot of start-ups cannot pay for incubation and mentoring sessions, even if we have a lot of incubation hubs springing up across the country, the big question is how are they managed? Do they have the skills required to train and mentor these innovators? do they have the necessary tools and equipment? do Nigerian innovators have affordable and reliable internet? How many technology companies are supporting Nigerian innovators and start-ups? Just a very few, even the government agencies are talking more about start-ups and innovation development, but not so much has been done to impact this critical group of people who will shape the future of the Nigerian economy
Nigeria has a number of universities offering Computing and Computer Science as courses. Why does the country still have a dearth of computer experts, not enough to compete with, say, US, in numbers?
Our current IT sector is a direct reflection of our ICT education largely; we have a lot of universities and polytechnics offering computer science and churning out mostly half-baked graduates who cannot compete favourably with their compatriots across the globe, because most lecturers in our tertiary institutions lack the required practical skills to teach computer science courses; most of them still lecture with old lecture notes of the early 90’s, universities lack the funding to send lecturers on upgrade courses, computer labs in the schools are shut down, no adequate facilities and even where there are facilities there are no completely skilled instructors or semi-skilled instructors teaching the students who will graduate and become like their teacher. A lot of things are wrong with our educational system especially ICT, the curriculum has expired, we don’t encourage innovations and we continue to import expatriates because we lack the required human capacity to fill our local content because we got the foundation wrong, which is our educational system. We at YIN have had cause to identify some of the problems with the competencies of our IT personnel in Nigeria and during one of our courtesy visits to NITDA in 2016 we proposed a set of inter-related and sustainable solutions to solve the problem gradually, which we grouped into five important phases and we called it connect to change initiative, which is principally targeted at bridging the gaps between the academia and the IT industry. It is a step by step five-approach starting from carrying out a skills-gap research whose objectives will enable the country identify the extent of the unemployment rate in the IT sector, identify which IT skills are and will be most important to businesses, identify which skills the IT workforce currently possess, identify the employers of IT skills in Nigeria, determine how well IT workforce skills align with current and future needs of employers, identify and examine current professional development practices being used, determine the annual graduate turnout in the IT sector, and determine the demographics in the IT sector; that is age and gender.
The next phase is to conduct a high level stakeholders’ meeting of the industry players and the academia with the following objectives: to open up communication lines between IT educators and employers of IT skills, identify which IT skills are and will be most important to employers, determine the most significant IT skill shortage in the job market, build curriculums new for IT training programs tailored specifically to address the identified IT skills gap, allow employers to take an active role in curriculum development of the programs to ensure graduate employability, and build occupational standards and guidelines for the Nigerian IT sector.
Also, discussing the findings of the skill gaps and finding sustainable solutions to be implemented involving the academia and the industry players, which will pave room for the last phases which are the development of new curriculum and vocational training programs for those out of schools, job match-making and mentorship to create alternatives to the traditional educational system in the IT sector; provide accessible and sustainable vocational trainings that are modelled after employers’ requirements. We believe these suggestions will go a long way towards pushing Nigeria to achieve our local content policy in the ICT industry. We are currently working on the skills gaps and we hope when we call on the industry to answer our survey questions they will be willing to do so, because it is a serious problem that requires collaborative efforts to solve.
Do you think that the Federal Government is encouraging young people enough? What encouragement did you receive that boosted your interest in computing and technology?
The Federal Government has said a lot but not measurable in practical actions. I think it has not dawn on them (Federal Government) that they need to set their priorities right and start aggressive investment in young people who are practising computing and other technology related ventures; there are lots of potentials and a lot of investment needs to be made in developing the capacity of our youths. Having said that the private sector has a lot of contribution to make, it’s so bad that even to get a proper place for the Students Industrial Work Experience Scheme (SIWES) and the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) is difficult to find for young people studying ICT related courses. Organisations always complain of no funds especially government agencies, so we hope the authorities look into this. I ventured into ICT innovations and technology entrepreneurship because I was born in the technology age, and I saw technology evolve over the years, I naively opted to study computer science and ended up happy with myself, I have a lot to offer the IT industry, I totally love to see Nigerians lead in the ICT industry globally and it can only be done through vigorous capacity building and collaborations. Government needs to do more than talking and start funding incubation hubs and young innovators.
Nigeria speaks a lot about diversifying from oil to ICT as main revenue earner. Do you think the youth are receiving enough encouragement today for Nigeria to be able to attain this goal in say, two to five years?
Absolutely no! I think a lot has been said about diversification of our economy but little has been done; we have a lot of policy summersaults and all the ICT agencies have not been collaborating effectively, our e-Government services are poor, we have to revisit the ICT4D policy document, local content policy, standards and frameworks for ICT products and services, to strengthen the revenue aspect and build capacity and as I have always said we will continue to be consumers of technologies and spend our hard earned foreign exchange buying technologies if we don’t develop our indigenous technologies by way of investing in our ICT education, ICT start-ups, local software and focus on training and retraining of ICT practitioners across all boards. I think if we have a coordinated approach which is focused on specific sectors to use ICT to boost revenue we can achieve something tangible in five years,
You seem to personally be focusing on the agriculture sector applying ICT. What informed this choice? Do you think there are enough tech innovators like you out there to help Nigeria’s agriculture sector?
My own start-up (Imperium Industry), founded in 2015 with mechanical and electrical engineers as co-founders, focuses on developing solutions for smart agriculture primarily because of my root; I hail from Benue State, which is largely blessed with agricultural potentials but sadly it has been faced with wastages, mostly crude practices of cultivation, high youth restiveness and unemployment despite the potentials. So, I decided to set up the first technology hub for agricultural technology incubation in collaboration with the state Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, to train our youths in modern agriculture extension services across the state, to support the local farmers boost productivity, increase their earnings, and also connect them to buyers. We also specialise in fabrication of machines for large farms, like dryers, harvesters, planters, electronic silos, online farm management systems, using drones to monitor farms, and other tech services. It may interest you to know that most of the funding of our Young Innovators comes from this start up. We want to be known for the revolution of smart agriculture in Nigeria as an agricultural technology company.
What do you think the ministry of communications can do to motivate young innovators?
I think the Ministry of Communications should create a funding system for the incubation hubs and seeds grants for young innovators. For us at the YIN secretariat annually we carry out projects that impact the society mostly, which are building of censors, hardware and special trainings. We need the Ministry of Communications to collaborate with us in terms of funding and grants for some parts of the projects and trainings in specialised fields to develop our capacity.
What can the ministry of agriculture do to apply ICT to assist farmers across the country, especially in the rural areas?
The ministry should increase public awareness to farmers on the existence of the National e-Agric Portal. Data form a very important aspect in modern agriculture, so government should have a structured method of data collection and dissemination for the farmers across the country. The Ministry of Agriculture should collaborate with local equipment manufacturing start-ups and companies to produce more smart equipment for mechanised agriculture boost local content. They should also explore setting up of argic incubation hubs across the states, especially those areas known for agricultural potentials, to enable the youth participate in agricultural technology
What do you think state governments can do to support the youth to discover their talents especially in technology?
State government should actively concentrate on restructuring education in their states from primary schools levels, by providing functional and accessible laboratories, to expose children to technology early in life, and also pay closer attention to technical education and skills acquisition.
What challenges have you faced personally while leading the YIN?
Funding is our major challenges; as I speak now, we have a strategic here-year plan which comprises of a lot of capacity building, trainings in specialised areas of technical areas, but there we have funding constraints, we are currently looking for partners who will partner with us to enable us meet our targets, we are also in need of more technical volunteers, to assist us in our training. This year in May young innovators were given five slots to attend an agricultural technology training in Silicon Valley, but we weren’t able to make it because we couldn’t get support from anywhere after writing to almost 20 government institutions and private sector companies. It is sad that we are not getting the support we need but we are committed and resolute to push ourselves gradually to the top; we are also doing web services to generate funds for us to pay salaries and fund small projects. It’s not easy but we are committed to overcome our challenges.
As a group, what is YIN’s biggest goal? And what is the biggest obstacle currently facing the YIN that could prevent it from achieving its goal if not removed?
Young Innovators of Nigeria is an indigenous recognised social enterprise with the mandate to bridge the skill and entrepreneurial gap among Nigerian youths in the area of Information and communication Technology (ICT) and relevant craftsmanship towards enterprise development. Our objectives are principally targeted towards fostering the entrenchment of technical skills and technology entrepreneurship in various areas of endeavours and their attendant human capacity development among youths in Nigeria through training to leverage opportunities in the following areas: Mobile application development, technology entrepreneurship, ICT4Environment, ICT4Agriculture and other selected areas of craftsmanship. Although we face a lot of challenges ranging from funding to equipping of our labs; we need to expose more of our start-ups to international exhibitions and also pay for them to attend international trainings to develop their capacity.