This article was contributed by Oswald Osaretin Guobadia the outgoing Senior Special Assistant on Digital Transformation to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Project Lead for the Nigeria Startup Act. He is the Co-founder and Executive Vice President of DBH Solutions, an African infrastructure and information technology company. He is also an author, a business strategist and a technology consultant with over 20 years of demonstrated expertise in information technology (IT) and business strategy development.

When I got the call to serve my country at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was not only elated, I also felt the weight of a huge sense of responsibility. I have been an entrepreneur in Nigeria for close to two decades and the impact of policymaking has always directly affected my entrepreneurial experience. For me, it was an opportunity to go from talking about how to make Nigeria great to contributing what I could to make it happen. 

Now, as my tenure as Senior Special Assistant on Digital Transformation to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria draws to a close, I’m reflecting on how rewarding the journey has been. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of a team that has brought about significant changes in a short period of time. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the federal government of Nigeria for entrusting me with the responsibility to participate in the governance of our great country. It has been a privilege to serve alongside so many dedicated and talented individuals who equally share a common goal of driving the growth and development of Nigeria.

As I reflect on my journey, one of the greatest achievements and milestones I cherish the most was the passing of the Nigeria Startup Act (NSA) into law. Yes, I will be adding “policymaker” to my profile, having led the programme, which is landmark legislation that will have far-reaching implications for the digital economy. This act is a significant step towards fostering an enabling environment for innovation and tech entrepreneurship in the country.

The significance of this act lies in the fact that it positions Nigeria as a contender in the global competition for technology as a core industry, and as a driver for the emergence of a better, more inclusive society. The NSA provides a collaborative framework for supporting the growth of tech and tech-enabled startups, which are essential components of any thriving economy in the 21st century. It will also facilitate access to funding, talent development, and other resources, which are crucial for the success of these startups.

Furthermore, the Nigeria Startup Act will enable the government to collaborate and engage more effectively with private-sector stakeholders to promote innovation and build a more robust digital ecosystem. I have no doubt that this act will serve as a catalyst for further growth, innovation, and exploitation of Nigeria’s tech ecosystem; indeed, ample evidence of this is already visible in the ecosystem. But enacting the act is only one piece of the puzzle. There’s more that goes into building a thriving and inclusive digital economy.

Oswald Osaretin Guobadia led the project team for the Nigeria Startup Act. He is the outgoing SSA Digital Transformation to The President, Federal Republic of Nigeria

Charting a path forward

There is absolutely no doubt that Nigeria has the potential to be a global leader in tech and innovation. Policy development and articulation that support the sector and allow for the government and stakeholders to collaborate better are vital to charting a path forward for a country to realise its potential. 

However, in order for policies or legislations to serve the purpose for which they were created, they must be implemented. The danger of doing otherwise is that the policies sit and gather dust on a shelf. Government must throw its full weight behind the implementation of the NSA in the same way the ‘Big tent approach’ pulled support from all ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and the private sector in the development of the then-bill. This will ensure that the interests of Nigerians are protected, which, in this case, is to yield benefits primarily for young people across the country.

The second hurdle in the path ahead is to lay a solid foundation for future growth that is all-inclusive and sustainable. We certainly cannot afford to repeat limited value chain participation in our natural resources. Our valuable resources and opportunities in this case are our young and talented citizens that can be trained to deliver, real hard problems that can be solved through market-creating innovations, and our large domestic market to service en route to global market entry.

We need to ride the momentum of the mobilisation for the NSA to make the right investments now that will help us achieve this goal. We cannot wish it into existence. We cannot leapfrog and avoid critical steps in the technology developmental cycle. 

I believe that the next great idea and startup that impacts the world will start and grow in Africa.  The question is, how do we get there? It is crucial to understand where in the journey we are and only then can we map a development path that is relevant and pragmatic for us as a nation.  

Asides from enacting and implementing policies, another major key to success is ensuring we are executing infrastructure initiatives that support our growth. Here are a few symptomatic questions that can get us started in the right direction:

  1. Have we digitised public services to make them accessible on an e-governance platform?
  2. What is our pathway to reducing our reliance on paper? Can a paper-driven mindset stimulate productivity that is on par with digital processes and services? 
  3. Have we moved digital citizenship from enumeration and control to providing services to our citizens? 
  4. Do we have digital access to our vast market population via rural connectivity and broadband medium diversity?
  5. How can we increase digital literacy as part of our universal basic education goals?

While new technology like AI and blockchain are great and we should investigate and participate, we must also interrogate what it means in this stage of our development. We are currently infrastructure-deficient, with siloed and uncoordinated digitisation initiatives.  In essence, we cannot afford to leapfrog; we must execute each step in the developmental path.  

Critical to all this is the governance organisational formation that recognises technology as a horizontal activity that cuts across vertical activities in all MDAs and aspects of our nation. Its execution must happen in a more intentional organizational structure that would drive a singular empowered governmental approach to digital technology strategy, policy and execution. 

I want to remind us that the development we seek is a journey, and despite all odds, we cannot stop innovating and building infrastructure. 

Finally, we must expand our investment in digital skills. We must support the numerous initiatives that exist and integrate them. Next, we must ensure that they reach every corner of the country. To realise our digital economy potential, digital skills need to scale. And we need to find a systematic way of ensuring that upon gaining these skills they can be put to immediate use. Implementing and states adopting the NSA to the letter can get us on this path very quickly.

This will require our sustained participation as citizens of Nigeria. The act is for us as it supports our growth and sets an example for other sectors. We must all remain engaged to ensure that the objectives are fully realised.

Once again, I want to express my profound gratitude to my colleagues, the government, and the people of Nigeria for the opportunity to serve. I will always cherish the experience, and as the journey continues towards Nigeria’s aspirations as a global player in a digital-first economy and society, I will be present, active and supportive. Nigeria is moving forward and upward, and we cannot be stopped.

Thank you.

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