Skills, infrastructure, local investment: Nigeria’s tech challenges [#SMWLagos]

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ICT Minister Omobola Johnson

“The internet revolution is similar to the industrial revolution,” said Nigeria’s ICT Minister Omobola Johnson at Social Media Week in Lagos. “President Goodluck Jonathan said that we missed out on the industrial revolution, we shouldn’t miss out on the internet revolution. Our lives revolve around technology today.”

The tech minister, who has been travelling the globe collecting thoughts on how to improve Nigeria’s tech industry, says that based on government assessment, Nigeria’s tech sector showed growth in all sub-sectors even though some grew faster than others.

Nigeria currently has an estimated population of just over 170-million and an internet audience of more than 55-million, its 33% internet penetration means 67% of opportunity. Currently the only African country listed as the next economic powerhouse with the MINT alliance, Nigeria’s growth is remarkable. It seems the minister recognises that opportunity.

“We’ve chosen to focus on connectivity and software development because the market is very large,” she says, and there is also a focus on skill development. She argues that one of the bigger challenges that faces the tech industry is lack of skills, and that needs to be addressed.

“There are vacancies in the ICT sector that we cannot fill because of lack of skills, so we’re working on skill development.”

Training and getting the right skills for the tight tech jobs is a good start. However Nigeria’s growing tech startup ecosystem needs investment if it is to compete on the world stage. For Johnson, this is also something that needs to be reconciled. Nigeria’s investment landscape sees foreign investors coming in, but very few local ones.

“There are a lot of VC funds coming from outside Nigeria but not much local investment. We’re trying to encourage them,” she says.

Technology by its very nature is a high risk sector to invest in, and for a continent like Africa where broadband is an issue it might make very little sense to invest in an expensive sector that only a few have access to. To combat that, the minister reckons funds need to be raised in order for the industry to succeed.

“We’re trying to raise $15-million dollars, but we must raise $1 billion in a few years if this industry must succeed,” she says. “The amounts needed at the stage of this industry are not much, but they will make a huge difference.”

There are some local players hoping to make a difference in the tech community, players like the Lagos Angel Network. Also speaking on this panel, Tomi Davies, CEO of Techno Vision, says that the group actively invests the equivalent of US$30 000 in startups.

“The Lagos Angel Network meets every month and invests up to ₦5-million [Naira] in individual businesses/entrepreneurs,” he says.

For the minister the idea of “government innovation is a bit of an oxymoron” — she argues that the role of the government is to provide the “enabling environment” for innovation to thrive.

“That explains our investments in hubs — the power and the broadband infrastructure — but we hand over to private sector,” once done.

Infrastructure is a big deal in the Nigeria context, though Africa’s most populous country and thriving with a growing GDP with a rising middle class, the building blocks of a thriving tech ecosystem are still missing.

“There is no dichotomy between infrastructure and technology investment,” says Andrew Alli, CEO of Africa Finance Corporation.

The key to getting Nigeria where it needs to be comes back to the minister’s thoughts of encouraging more investment in the tech industry.

Though these challenges remain, and in some ways persist, Nigeria’s onslaught of innovation cannot be denied an industry that has thrived in spite of itself.

Image by World Economic Forum via Flickr

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