It was a very busy day for a man who just concluded hosting an international conference with close to 1000 delegates from different continents. Apart from working with different teams to see to the success of the conference held during global pandemic, he must equally see to the smooth running of his own personal business. We track down the Chairman, Conferences Committee of Nigeria Computer Society and Lead Consultant/CEO of Management Edge Limited Mr, Ayodeji Rex Abitogun on the relevance of EATI2020 to the nation. EXCERPTS
Tell us about EATI2020:
Rex: What we are doing is not about us but the larger society. Due to Coronavirus pandemic many things have happened across the world and it points to: where are we in terms of technology adoption or technology penetration? To find the right answer to that question it is very important that you bring stakeholders together under one umbrella to assess the industry readiness and recommend the way forward.
Of course, the Nigeria Computer Society is the largest Information Technology (IT) body in Nigeria, if not Africa. So, it is important that we rally stakeholders to take stock of the work done so far and set agenda for new opportunities. This year’s conference is unique in the sense that we had speakers cutting across continents- Africa, Asia, North America, and Europe. The intent was for us to share experiences with what is obtainable in their respective countries; assessing ourselves on areas we have covered and those needing attention. We have no reason not to be at par with other leading countries; that is exactly what Emerging Applications and Technologies for Industry 4.0 conference is about.
Q: Is Nigeria and Africa in general positioned to take advantages inherent in Industry 4.0?
Rex: Well, we start by talking about it. Every action starts with simple conversation. We must have that conversation; it is in talking you know where you are and your readiness in terms of adoption. Obviously, Africa didn’t benefit much in the past years; that feeling must spur us to action in the era of Industry 4.0. So, if you ask: Are we taking action? Yes, we are. Are we in the right direction? I will say, we are. However, we need to identify different stakeholders with regards to their views towards the adoption of Industry 4.0. The government has major role to play likewise the citizens have their roles too. The technology industry has roles to play.
A typical example: Do we collect adequate data today that can be used for predictive analysis? When Coronavirus started it was like a joke. Everybody was talking about China. Most countries failed to act about their home-fronts rather people focused on other climes. When the pandemic hit every economy the question of capacity to produce even Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) became apparent. But if we have been monitoring trends or collecting the data and analyzing it for decision making, we possibly would have reduced the casualty figure. Rather stakeholders including governments and health workers were sleeping until it hit us. Even the only State in Nigeria that appeared most prepared to mass-produce facemasks could not use predictive analysis to start on time.
So, in terms of production, do we have the right tools? What is the level of industrial automation in Nigeria? These questions are very critical to leapfrogging to industry 4.0. In Nigeria, we must reduce manual production which will not help us if we want to be at a par with other countries of the world. This is where the IT professionals come in, coming up with modern applications for process automation.
We are talking about engaging qualified IT professionals with the right tools – hardware and software. You need the software people to write the codes that will feed the data to the machines to make production faster and easier. If we do not have them, there is a big problem.
This is why EATI2020 was germane as we discussed some of these pressing needs. We will issue a communique that will address critical action that we put us in the right direction.
One of the most impressive results from EATI2020 is collaboration. The Director General, National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) talked about how they will collaborate with our members to deliver on the national identity project. Identity management has been identified as a key tool in mitigating cyber threat industry 4.0
Q: How prepared are members of NCS to deliver on the project, in terms of capacity, technology and skills?
Rex: Trust me, our members are prepared and willing to work with any government or organization; not just NIMC, to achieve and solve local problems. The truth is, different countries have their unique challenges and that is where ‘local content’ comes in.
Our members have been championing the course for reforms in government especially in taking government services online. We criticize government where and when appropriate and proffer solutions to areas we identify gaps. I think we are making headway and we will continue to push for IT development in the country.
Q: The Federal Government through NIMC is moving to drop plastic identity cards for wholly digital identification, is NCS in support of this?
Rex: The card is a “nice to have”, but not “a must-have”. The unique thing is the National Identification Number. The eleven (11) unique number is what every Nigerian needs to have. Remember that these things reside in a database. In the past, we have paid much attention to the card and have been spending more money on the production of cards thereby ignoring the main thing.
When the telecommunication network operators started in Nigeria, the likes of MTN, Econet (now Airtel), etc., they started with cards (recharge cards). In fact, at a time they were imported cards until the government mandated the operators to be producing and printing locally.
They moved from that to printing on ‘ordinary’ papers. Today, somebody can credit your line virtually from the comfort of her home or office. The PINs are now digitalized. That is the right approach. The same thing applies to National Identification Number, NIN. Should you need any information about a citizen, all you need is just to punch in the person’s NIN and you get all relevant information about the person.
Q: Nigeria’s digital economy: what is NCS’ resolve, especially as discussed at EATI2020?
Rex: Excellent question. What we are advocating today will go a long way in the manner we conduct business, governance, approach to growing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), improving lives of the citizens and ultimately break the vicious circle of poverty in the land. This is because, our budgeting approach (as a country) will eventually change. The heart of digital economy or Industry 4.0 is data. You can’t talk about big data, machine learning, connected devices, artificial intelligence, etc., without having data.
So, one of things revealed at that conference was different stakeholders forming microcosm of groups that when the aggregates are put together we will have a whole gamut of digital economy. First, is data collection, followed by analysis and usage for predictive decision making. This cuts across sectors – agriculture, education, health, transportation, telecommunications, manufacturing, security etc., you require data to make informed decision. Example, our national budget, how much of data do we have as to number of students in a school; there demography and what they require for improved learning. What is more interesting to people in Lagos? In what areas are residents of Lagos different from Akure, Daura or Bayelsa?
Answer to these questions will be based on the data you have harvested and analyzed based on behavioral pattern. And that is what we are preaching. In other words, it is not enough to harvest data; it must be analyzed and use by relevant authorities and evaluate the outputs. This data will be easier to collect when you have more people on the information superhighway
Q: NCS’ advocacies have led to the establishment of institutions, agencies and even laws like the Cyber Crime Law of 2015, rising from EATI2020 what is the primary focus for members?
Rex: The Nigeria Computer Society (NCS) is an advocacy group and will continue to monitor trends in the industry, the country at large, Africa and the world at large. Like you rightly pointed out, we have advocated for sectoral changes that gave birth to different institutions or agencies that are doing very well today.
Some of the things we will be advocating for, moving forward, are for those institutions to do the right thing and equally monitoring the implementation of their mandates. We also recognize the fact that they must be empowered. For example, one of the key things we face today is corruption. And we have said you can’t fight corruption without investing in the right technology; the right tools to track transactions, audit and monitor.
Corruption is not fought by mere pronouncement or just using the legal instruments, technology must be given its rightful place in the whole process.
Technology help you reduce the level of interaction of humans in business transactions. Look at the hospitality industry today: from the comfort of your home, you can make hotel bookings; you can check in without money exchanging hands unless in some cases.
Proper monitoring and enforcement with adequate regulations is key. We will continue to push for this to the advantage of the citizens.
Q: How about the level of participation at EATI2020?
Rex: (Laughs). I laughed because ab initio (before covid-19) we had a plan to hold the conference at Akwa-Ibom State. We have had discussions with the Akwa Ibom State Government, and everybody was looking forward to the conference but just towards the end of first quarter of the year the coronavirus pandemic struck, and government had to make lockdown the country. At that point, the challenges of covid-19 have not become too obvious, because we thought within a month or two the restriction will be relaxed, and we could go back to our normal life. After some time, it became clearer physical event will not become possible.
The restriction leads us back to the drawing table to brainstormed on the way forward. Thank God for the doggedness of the National President, the national executive, and the conference planning team. So, we started planning for hybrid-conference where few people would be on ground and others join virtually.
Even at that, there was no flight to convey people to Uyo. We met the National Executive Council of NCS and explained the situations and options. At that point, we agreed for 100% virtual; that is embracing the New Normal.
Even when we agreed for virtual conference, there were some resistance from some members who raised concerns about cyberspace saturated with a lot of free-events. So, people wanted it to be free. This is what people need to understand: There are different reasons for each project – training or event. In most cases, the free invites are not free because what the organisers need is your data. But in our case, it is different, we are bringing substance, we are bringing people across continents together to network, learn and share information- Value creation is the ultimate.
Eventually, our people realized that the conference is about value creation and they embrace it. So, for me, the participation was fantastic. We had people from different parts of the world. Just before this interview, I got a mail from someone in Malaysia saying he presented two papers and he was very impressed.
This is heart-warming for me. The fact that we had well thought leaders drawn from the United Kingdom, France is a plus to the conference; the keynote speaker is a global leader in cyber security, from the United States. We also had speakers from Asia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and of course 70% of presenters are from universities and industries within the country.
In all, we did well, and this achievement largely goes to all those involve in the planning and implementation of the conference in one way or the other.