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nigeria-tech

Still stuck in school — NITDA’s awkward romance with Nigerian startups [opinion]

When many Nigerian founders of startups are asked to list their major challenges, they often mention the lack of support from the Nigerian government.

While this is a widely accepted position in the country’s startup ecosystem, government officials and politicians at all levels believe the industry is getting more than enough support from the government — which set up the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). The agency has been tasked with developing the country’s ICT industry.

How it perhaps started

So how did it come about? The theory is that some years ago some international tech experts visited Nigeria’s then president Olusegun Obasanjo at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa to discuss an opportunity that would benefit many Nigerians, especially the youth, in the ICT sector.

Not wanting the country to miss the opportunity, Obasanjo looked through the list of his cabinet members to decide who should be in charge.

‘Everything is happening outside the government. NITDA is just trying to come in as far as I’m concerned’

Then, still a theory, a foreign tech giant said an agency ought to be in charge of such. So, a bill was quickly drafted and sent to the National Assembly and an interim committee was set up to act until the bill establishing NITDA was passed into law. This could be similar to what happened in 2001, six years before the bill was eventually passed into law.

The agency’s main objective is to provide ICT as a tool in tertiary institutions, which is why the agency’s description of its growth from supplying 30 computer units at the outset to providing about 5700 computers to 187 educational institutions in the country within three years of its existence is quite understandable – if only it had stuck to supplying PCs and really driving ICT education in the country’s academic institutions.

All over the place

Performing a simple Google News search for NITDA Nigeria would reveal the vast talking points of the agency’s director general Isa Ali Ibrahim.

In one news story he is alerting Nigerians on ransomware, in another he is advocating for local content promotion and development, in a third he is hyping the proposed ICT University.

Search still more and he is talking to the inland revenue service on tech fund collection or warning tech companies on service quality or urging the country’s anti-corruption agency to ensure immediate compliance to IT guidelines, or commending government agencies on transparency and several others within a period of two weeks.

With so much going on for NITDA, it would be expected that the agency’s officials would be stuck in its head office in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja working on policies and guidelines to develop the IT industry. This, however, is not the case as the agency is also busy outside the capital city – locally and internationally.

It reportedly set up a multimillion naira training centre, has promoted innovation and entrepreneurship at events for SMEs in various parts of the country such as this one, spoken out against stakeholders’ reluctance to use Nigeria’s internet service point, and has attended a diaspora direct investment summit in London. These all took place within one week.

NITDA’s awkward romance with startups

With Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai, and other global tech leaders and startup role models visiting Nigeria, it is not surprising that NITDA is also attempting to add the country’s highly active startup landscape to its scope but it has not been a serious active relationship.

When asked for their thoughts about NITDA, several startups that Ventureburn spoke to went on the defensive, saying they wouldn’t want to take issue with the government agency and several others.

On the opinion that NITDA could be the bridge that would link startups to the Nigerian government, helping the industry players to achieve hastened growth in the ecosystem, Edmund Diddles — CEO and founder at G-Pay, an instant payment solutions company — was pessimistic on the potential impact of NITDA on the startup ecosystem.

“There is little they can contribute to the ecosystem. They are restrictive more than anything else. They see themselves as profit making centres as opposed to catalysts,” he told Ventureburn.

Instead of expecting much from NITDA for the startup ecosystem in Nigeria, he argued that what the country needs most is for the technology ministry to come up with a comprehensive policy such as is the case with the country’s petroleum industry bill.

‘Do we know what they’re doing?’

Diddles’ position is understandable when the agency’s startups-linked efforts are critically reviewed, the conclusion of several startup founders was that what the agency is doing may not be what Nigerian startups need. But Adewale Yusuf, CEO of Techpoint.ng has a contrary opinion.

“I think they have a vital role to play, but I’m not convinced on how important they see that,” he said.

When asked whether he is absolutely sure that the agency knows what they are doing, he replied with a question that summed up the NITDA-Nigerian startups dilemma.

“Let’s flip it, do we know what they’re doing? We need some questioning. I moderated a panel recently with the (agency’s) acting director (of the Office for ICT Innovation and Entrepreneurship) on it and she sounded like they have everything under control, I know it’s far from the truth,” he told Ventureburn.

He says NITDA’s apparent disconnection with the startup ecosystem has a lot more to do with the fact that technology in Nigeria is largely exclusive of the government.

“I don’t know how to explain this. Everything is happening outside the government. NITDA is (just) trying to come in as far as I’m concerned. They want to come into the tech and startup scene,” he said.

*The writer was unable to get comment from NITDA by time of publication despite numerous attempts.

Featured image: Carlagmo via Flickr (CC 2.0 BY-SA, resized)

Author Bio

Paul Adepoju
Paul Adepoju is a media entrepreneur, published author and award-winning Nigeria-based freelance journalist. He speaks regularly at major African technology events including NigeriaCom and Nigeria eHealth Forum. More