DG NITDA: “We Can Become The Global IT Talent Factory”

DG NITDA interview with Sueddeutsche.de during the conference with Ludwig von Bayern Startup Lions, Germany,

The excerpts:

The countries of Africa want to participate in the digital revolution, but not according to the model of the corporations from the USA and China. Two visions for a new path.

Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi has young people on his side. “The average age in Nigeria is 19,” he says, “we have a demographic advantage. He wants to use that: “We can become the global IT talent factory.” The 42-year-old is rather lanky, he speaks softly, carefully, and in a structured manner. In his home country Nigeria, he is a well-known man. Since 2019, he has headed the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). Its mission is to advance Nigeria’s digital transformation.

Abdullahi has big plans for Africa’s most populous country. By 2030, he calculates, there will be a global shortage of 85 million IT professionals. Nigeria’s young population could fill the gap with digital products and services. Today, the country already has almost 220 million inhabitants; by 2030, this figure is expected to rise to more than 260 million.

Africa is a digital continent, a continent of the mobile web that has more or less skipped the age of the stationary computer. Mentors and creatives on the continent dream that Africa can give something of its fascination with technology back to the world.

That might be necessary. Silicon Valley, which has shaped the digital world, is in crisis. Mass layoffs and deep mistrust of Facebook, Apple & Co., whose business models many see as exploitative and manipulative, are taking their toll on the US industry. That there are other visions for the digital future in other parts of the world was shown last week at the DLD digital conference in Munich.

Abdullahi envisions his country becoming a kind of digital workbench for the world. “You can live in Nigeria but work for Western countries,” he says, “the first start-ups offering this are already there. So far, India has been leading, he says, and he wants to change that. The world has almost ignored Africa “because people think that nothing happens here economically anyway”. Abdullahi counters with an example: When the British-Sudanese entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim founded a mobile phone company in Sudan, he was advised against it. It would not work, the people were too poor. The opposite happened, “after a few years, Ibrahim sold his company Celtel, which was now active in 13 countries, for 3.4 billion dollars”.

Of the seven African unicorns – start-ups worth more than a billion dollars – five are from Nigeria, says Abdullahi. The government is supporting the IT industry, for example with money for start-ups. It is also working on a law to support the IT industry. The head of the digital agency is never tired of praising the advantages of his country, the talented young people, and the comparatively good economic development.

However, he does not talk about Nigeria’s many problems on his own; you have to ask him about them. Corruption, he says, exists because people lack the right means to apply for state benefits. “If everything is digital and transparent, how can someone demand a bribe?

Corruption is only one of many problems in the country. This year is the presidential election, and observers like the UN fear outbreaks of violence. In the fragile state index, a ranking of 179 states compiled by the international non-profit organisation Fund for Peace, Nigeria is in 16th place – from the bottom. In a country with many population groups, languages, and religions, the situation is too unstable.

Abdullahi counters that Nigeria has had a stable democracy for 24 years and that economic recovery will improve the situation. “Come and discover the silver lining,” he urges Western companies. But what he doesn’t want is a second colonization – through data: “The technology companies have more data than any country,” says Abdullahi. That endangers democracy, he says. He plans to make Nigeria a model state in Africa, following the EU’s strict data protection rules. A law to this effect is in the works.

The third way leads through Africa
For researchers like Ramesh Srinivasan from the University of California Los Angeles, Africa is also the digital hope. In the West, there are only two ways of thinking, explains the professor of digital culture on the sidelines of the DLD: cheering on digital “innovation” from Silicon Valley, or demonizing technology as the downfall of culture. “Catastrophising” is what he calls this constant rolling of dystopias.

“These are two brands that sell well,” says Srinivasan. He has come to Munich to promote a new approach to digital technology in a combative speech. He says: Both narratives, the uncritical as well as the gloomy one, have nothing to do with people’s daily interaction with technology: “We talk about technology as innovation, as artificial intelligence, as a cyborg. Or we describe it as the death of democracy.” He is looking for a third way, without sales slogans and uncritical celebration of products: “My optimism is fed by the creativity we humans have. We can achieve more with less.” He has found this creativity above all in Africa, where it is born out of necessity. In the spirit of the continent’s technology tinkerers, who create functioning technology from old mobile phones, photocopiers, and rubbish, he has discovered something like a new operating system for the world.

In his book “Beyond the Valley”, he summarised his impressions of the tech scenes beyond the West in 2019. Srinivasan has just spent seven months traveling in Africa and South Asia. He knows the open-air electronics markets, a kind of counter-model to the well-designed Apple Store: “Innovation doesn’t just mean building the latest iPhone. It also means making more out of less, recycling, reviving dead things, and breathing life into scrap, that’s what the people in Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa showed me.”

Srinivasan tells of homemade 3D printers that are filled with melted discarded plastic bottles. From these, the machines then print all sorts of things, including more 3D printers. In the East African climate, the machines outdo Chinese as well as American models. Or the Brick, the router that Africans build for Africans, in whose language there is not even a word for IT engineer, but which can withstand savannah climates and one antelope kick or another.

For Ramesh Srinivasan, such projects are the counter-model to the system that corporations have built in California. “Cortisone, dopamine, and adrenaline are three of the most important raw materials of digital capitalism,” he says on stage in Munich. For him, however, the most sustainable raw material is the ingenuity of the tinkerers. “In Africa, the average age is 20. These people do all kinds of creative things with technology. They trade ringtones like currencies, for example. Even Apple could dock onto such local ecosystems.”

Listening to the world instead of building it
Srinivasan knows the Valley. “I studied at Stanford in the late nineties, which means many of my friends are now filthy rich.” But his fascination is not with the billionaire culture in California, but with Africa and South Asia: “These people have limited resources, unstable power grids, environmental problems on their doorstep, and many, many infrastructure deficits. But they find ways to rebuild or completely reassemble technology so that it works best for themselves.” There are lessons to be learned from this.

Instead of trying to build the world, as the founders of Silicon Valley as well as Chinese tech companies that have recognized Africa as a gigantic market claim to do, Srinivasan calls for “listening to the world”. The mistakes of the tech companies are also due to the monoculture of Silicon Valley, which the companies impose on other parts of the world.

Africa is also the continent where most of the metals such as cobalt and coltan are mined – essential for the production of electrical appliances. Srinivasan says: “We have them taken out of the ground by children in Africa, process them in toxic business models like that of Apple with its planned obsolescence. The devices stop working earlier than they should, and then the scrap ends up back in Africa. It starts in Africa and ends there.” This should be harnessed, he said, and a truly regenerative economy created, a cycle without exploitation. So that electronic waste doesn’t remain waste.

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