Former National President, Association of Telecommunication Companies of Nigeria, Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, believes there is more to the economic recession than diversification of the Nigerian economy. In this interview with OLA AKINOLA, the former President of the Nigeria Internet Group states that the three tiers of government and Nigerians at large must patronise ‘Made-in-Nigeria’ goods in order to boost the value of the naira and ease the country out of the recession. Excerpts:
Recently, the International Monetary Fund said that the economic recession Nigeria found herself might last till 2017. What are the implications of this on the economy, especially the Information and Communication Technology sector?
Honestly, it is not only the ICT sector that will suffer, but all other sectors will also suffer, because the economy is in recession and that means inflation, low purchasing power of the local currency and devaluation or the value of the local currency remaining low in comparison with the United States dollars or the United Kingdom’s pounds sterling.
And when you have an economy that is based on a mono-product like ours, the economy of such nation is dependent on the fluctuations in the international market price of its mono product.
All ICT firms import their equipment. Assuming an ICT firm used to buy a certain hardware at about $1,000, when a dollar was at N150, it would spend N150,000 to buy such hardware. But as it is now, it will need almost N500,000 to get a $1,000 dollar worth of equipment and there will be no increase in wages; our minimum wage is no longer a living wage, so, what do you expect?
That is why a mono-product economy suffers the fortunes or the misfortunes, as the case may be, of the price of the solo product in international market. And when that happens, when the value of the local currency is so low in comparison with the foreign exchange, then all sectors suffer.
Is it not possible to build some of the software locally?
In the ICT sub-sector, a lot of the things we use are imported. Our capacity to develop a software component of our Nigerian content in ICT is not low, but we are not making good use of it. The Nigerian software industry is very sophisticated and I want to put it to you that there is no piece of software that is used in all sectors in this country to do one thing or the other that is imported that cannot be produced by Nigerians. On the hardware subsector, apart from Zinox and Omatek among others, who are trying to assemble as much as they can, we have done badly; our performance is poor. So, I will always say if you want to strengthen the naira, you import less and export more.
How can we tackle recession using ICT?
When there is recession, there should be mass roll-out of infrastructure projects and those who have competences and expertise should produce to have products they can export, so, they can earn foreign exchange and in so doing, we can boost the naira. One of the ways to address recession in the ICT industry that will impact positively on the other sectors of the economy is the development of the Nigerian content. It comprises of hardware; software; physical infrastructure, like towers and masts and potter cabin; expertise and integrated technology, that is, the personal computer; phone or the adaptor of computer and routers. We need to integrate them to provide a stable solution like Teledom’s Smart Classroom. Teledom’s Smart Classroom has about 16 components of hardware, but our engineers integrated all those pieces of hardware with our own software to drive all those pieces of hardware to provide the customers in a classroom a solution called a Smart Classroom. We didn’t manufacture any of those component parts; we pick them and integrate them with our software to drive all those interconnected pieces of hardware to provide a particular solution.
Low patronage had been a bane to the growth of local content in Nigeria… (cuts in)
Having developed this Nigerian content, there must be patronage; nobody will want to produce a product that will not be bought from him. If you sell the remote control and there is no market for you, you will not continue to produce the remote control. So, the Nigerian governments – federal, state and local – must begin to aggressively patronise made in Nigeria content. The Nigerian Content Development, Patronage, Protection and Projection must be encouraged. Also, the Nigerian Content Projection must be protected because if that does not happen, those who are into importing will want to sabotage it, they may even import cheaper products in large quantities and destroy the market. They may even import and sell at a loss in order to knock out the Nigerian enterprise. That can be done because they know that they will kill the Nigerian enterprise within one year and when that is done, they keep on importing, so they run at a loss for a while in order to kill the Nigeria content. Therefore, it must be protected by government’s policies and enabling laws.
Are you saying that aggressive local content development is the panacea to this economic recession?
Sure, the day we do that, we do not only create jobs but those companies that produce, keep existing jobs and if there is high demand, they will expand and when you increase the supply to meet demand, you are increasing the number of staff and with that large number demanded, there is reduction in import.
All of us importing Dell, HP, Sony products are buying them, using dollar and we sell our naira to buy the dollars, we keep the local currency and spend it in the process, so, we import less with great jobs and strengthen the naira and foreign reserve.
What inform the idea of Smart Classroom Solution?
Our young men and women were getting less excited about going to school or when they are in school, they are suffering from insufficient excitement in the classroom, like we say in Nigeria, “to catch a thief we send a thief.” My two year old daughter operates tablet PC and smartphone, taking selfies and that is her world. So, to catch children young, excite them in the classroom, inspire, motivate them, let them thirst for knowledge, let them want to acquire knowledge and that is one of the reasons that led us to the development of a Smart Classroom where the classroom is really exciting to both students and teachers.
What is the feedback you get from government on the Smart Class Solution?
I must tell you that I was very impressed. So far, about 24 universities have started pilot testing of Smart Class Solution and it is very encouraging. The former Minister of Communication Technology, Dr. (Mrs.) Mobola Johnson, and the then Executive Vice Chairman of Nigerian Communications Commission, were very impressed. The new EVC of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, was also impressed by the significance of Smart Class Solution.
On broadband penetration, recently the EVC said that Nigeria has achieved 20 percent, how visible is the projected 30 percent broadband penetration by 2018?
It can even be higher than that; visibility is dependent on policy and patronage. Like I said earlier, broadband is a service, it needs infrastructure to rely on, it is like water and there is water in every home. Water works is our MainOne at shore level. How will I get water without plumbing network, it connects to people’s homes and offices, so, with the NCC’s dynamism, headed by Prof. Danbatta, at licensing new InfraCos, more smaller operators, meeting the target by 2018 is realistic. Broadband is a service and it needs a pipe network like water or petrol and because the NCC is committed to rolling out more broadband infrastructure, the 30 percent penetration is very much within our reach. Given the way the NCC is driving the infrastructure role out, we will meet that target. It is very feasible.