The Walk To Freedom…

The Walk to Freedom

The present height must be about 30,000 feet and I’m loving it… At least I’m off the stress of Lagos for two days: Long enough to get some work done on Junior Achievement’s new program focused on careers for young people, and short enough for me not to miss that Lagos order in chaos. I have read a lot since take-off but two things caught my fancy: a Financial Times article on how motivational speakers keep smiling to the banks (and to each other) while many of us don’t remember a word of what they say; and an article in Nigeria’s The Guardian describing how Nigerians in two cities in the US have since commenced Independence Day celebrations!

In five days (specifically on October 1, 2006), Nigeria will be 46 — well, would have been an independent country for that length of time. A lot of events will hold, speech-making will be the order of the day from Local Government to State to the Federal level… and I have even received an invitation from a Southern state in Nigeria inviting me for an indepence celebration on the 6th of October in Abuja (I can’t help but wonder why a state will be … oops, straying thougts). But one event stands out, and you can call me biased: it’s the event holding at the University of Ibadan, where myself and Deolu Akinyemi will be speaking. Tagged, “The Walk To Freedom,” and holding at the Trenchard Hall, the event starts at 9am and I am particularly drawn to the meeting for many reasons.

First, it holds at Nigeria’s premier University — the same place that has produced a whole generation of global giants (many of who stood tall when it was time to decide for independence) — and second, it is being put together by a new generation — young people who are tired of the status quo ante! While the theme describes the walk to freedom, I plan to speak about a topic very dear to my heart… I plan to announce, “time up!” For what? The participants will tell you from October 1 evening 🙂 When will we get tired of what is, and desire to move on? When will we stop blaming others for the rrors we could have avoided? When do we decide to take ownership of our lives, communities and nation? Well, time’s up for what can’t conform to our dream of a New Nigeria. Yes, we have moved from dependence to independence, I am of the humble opinion that we must move further — to interdependence.

Join us in Ibadan, n’ile Oluyole, as we announce, “time up,” and consolidate our walk to freedom

Ignore The Lid!

Image (c) Manchester Evening News

If you ever thought your excuse was acceptable, listen to Sammy!

Sammy Gitau lost his father when he was 13. He has had no formal education since he was 13. He lived life on the streets…. but he is now completing his postgraduate program at Manchester University. I should allow you to read the major highlights of the story, as told by Roland Hancock in his 19th September 2006 article titled, How a dustbin held the key to new life:

“A former street kid from one of Africa’s worst slums has turned his life around to become a Manchester University student… four years after finding a prospectus in a Kenyan dustbin. Sammy Gitau had no idea that his future was about to be transformed when he picked up the booklet, left on top of a stinking pile of rubbish in a back alley. He took the prospectus home in 2001, left it on a shelf for a further two years and applied only after a friend nagged him. Now he will spend the next 15 months studying for a master’s degree in international development – having had no formal education since the age of 13 when his father died… Sammy, 34, had already managed to turn his back on a life on the streets and had been a charity worker in Nairobi for eight years. He was setting up outreach programmes for slum dwellers when fate set him on the long road to Manchester. [Sammy] said: Behind the smart restaurants and offices of Nairobi there are abandoned streets where people just throw their rubbish out of the window. Kids set up polythene shelters there and scavenge on thrown-away food. I went there to talk to kids about the project we had set up for them when and while I was there I saw the prospectus and had a leafed through it.

“The prospectus advertised Manchester University’s postgraduate course in international development, which equips students to apply for international aid from charitable projects. Sammy took it home for two years until a friend finally persuaded him to send in an application, which was accepted despite his patchy education. The university’s Institute for Development Policy and Management and the School of Environment and Development which are run jointly with the engineering department, have a tradition of recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They were impressed by Sammy’s work in the community. After flying to Manchester a week ago, Sammy is still getting used to life here. He said: All we have to go on when we think about life in the west is the movies, so I expected people to pull out guns and general rowdiness. But all I’ve found is warm, kind people. His journey from the desperate streets of Mathare – Nairobi’s biggest slum – and eventually to the streets of Fallowfield began when Sammy was just 13, cradling his dying father in his arms… By the time he was 18 Sammy was on a Kenyan hospital ward recovering from a drug-induced coma – and he decided his life had to change. He began to work with younger children, warning them of the dangers of a life of crime. Today the largest of his four outreach projects helps more than 20,000 people with programmes ranging from drugs awareness to sprucing up the streets. He said: People have the ability to get themselves into the worst situations, and I truly believe that they have the ability to get themselves out of them too.

The article ended with this: Though Sammy’s course fees are provided for, his living costs are paid by donations. To donate or find out more, contact the university at emailto: abd@manchester.ac.uk.

Now, tell me what your excuse is… background, family, school, money, what? We all have some little excuse in our purses or breast pockets, but its high time we threw them out the window and disregarded the lid. Just as boiling water lets out steam that often gains enough energy to get rid of the lid, we can also release enough energy from our many circumstances (and some of them are quite tough, but not tough enough to keep tomorrow locked in the tear bags of yesterday or today) to throw off the lid. A big thank you to Sammy for reminding us once again that the lid is only there for those who care to honour it. You must remember the story of the monkeys who were kept in a room, and when any of them tried climbing the pole that held banana at its top, hot water was sprayed. One after the other, they tried and got the hot water treatment. After a while, none of them bothered about the banana — even when hunger was right in their eyes. One of them was taken out and a new monkey brought in. The new monkey tried to climb and had not even moved close to the pole when the other monkeys pulled him back! As new monkeys replaced the old ones, the same process continued… until all the monkeys were new (that is, had not been threatened at all with hot water) but none of them bothered to climb to get the food — because the accepted norm was that the lid existed.

Even in the face of hot water and monkey push/pull, I choose to ignore the lid… there’s only one plce for me — the top! See you there…

One Week That Almost Made Me Weak

(c) OLPC Foundation

If I had a choice, I would have broken up the immediate past week into various weeks — but I was left with not much choice. With enough well-meaning activities packed into the week, I could only whisper to myself, “If I endure this week, then I’m built to last!” Monday through Wednesday was at the Digital World Conference (DWC) in Abuja, Thursday was with the Presidential Task Force on ICT Harmonisation (also in Abuja) and then my postgraduate exams from Friday to Sunday — and I must not forget some self-inflicted research report deadlines. But that should not be something to bore you with, let me now speak more about some highlights of the past few hours, well, days.

The DWC hosted a pre-meeting between Civil Society actors, young Nigerians, members of the Think Thank (tt30) of the Club of Rome and other stakeholders in the project of ensuring that ICTs tools are used for the purpose of development — and creation of better livelihoods — for Nigerians. While various issues were discussed (and with deliberate focus on action), one major highlight was the presentation by Prof. Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab and the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Foundation. He discussed the new possibilities in learning for young people even in the most remote areas of the world, and — of course — presented the laptop (an earlier model) to the audience, allowing participants to pass the model around the room. After his presentation, civil society actors were able to share thoughts with members of the Think Tank (tt30) of the Club of Rome on possible ways froward on the issues of access, participation, education and governance. I also met with a long-time friend (my Ghanaian twin actually) and we’re up to something big, soon… trust me to share when its fully planned — but it may wear the tag, West African ICT Innovation Camp.

During the main conference, Prof. Negroponte (of the $100 laptop fame) spoke about major highlights of the why and how of the One Laptop Per Child project. My presentation was almost the last during the conference (having had only one speaker after me before the closing ceremony), and I think it was interesting. Telling the story of how I was denied computer lessons while growing up and why we now do what we do at Junior Achievement of Nigeria, I spoke on the inspiring challenge of building Nigeria’s tomorrow today. The applause and comments notwithstanding, the highlight of the feedback I got was from a young man who walked up to me to say that Prof. Negroponte wanted to see me if I had a minute to spare… of course I had all the time to spare! Details of our discussion will be on this page sometime in the future, but permit me to say that the juice of the story is that if any young person stays at what (s)he knows to do, and does it well, there will no glass ceiling to stop your phenomenal growth and global reach. Stay at it, get better, the world needs that solution from you.

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Keep The Visa. Give Us Broadband!

I have been denied many visas. The UK embassy started the trend in 2002 with a transit visa denial; and as we say here, the other flies came calling while I was on the no-visa-for-you dunghill. The US embassy followed suit, even though I had spent the night before my visa interview dreaming of which hotel to stay in New York. So did the French. Did I also get a no from the South African, Spanish and Swiss embassies? I almost did, but the story has since changed. However, many other young people are still sweating it out on the queues – or at the mercy of mercenaries who have promised them escape from this complex environment.

Please take a quick trip back in time, with me, to 1991: two young Indians who had applied for US visas had to spend the entire day occupying their time and mind with various activities while awaiting what they thought “at that time” was the final verdict on their future (what am I saying here, their destiny actually)! And the decider was of course the consular officer. Please come back with me to 2006 and consider how tough it is for today’s Indian youth to get a US visa. But can the same be said of Nigeria? Your guess is as good as mine. And if you need a fair idea of how some Nigerians are at the mercy of consular officers, try an early morning ride through Eleke (oops, Walter Carrington) crescent. I actually hold a personal view that that crescent should be renamed after the Nigerian who has been the most frequent visitor to embassies – and is yet to be issued even half a visa. Why does an average (mind you, not all) young Nigerian believe that a lizard in Nigeria can become an alligator in North America or Europe – and increasingly, Asia? The answer is simple: precedence! Many of their friends were struggling until they escaped, traveled honourably or got lucky through the opportunity of winning the US Diversified Visa lottery (by the way, my friends understand my thoughts on the relationship between visa, lottery and slavery). So, even though many of these travel-out-and-succeed friends are cutting odd jobs, the assumption is that it is better to slave in a system that works than work in a system of slavery.

There is, however, a different class of young people in Nigeria. They are passionate, focused, daring, but not empowered. The world they live in is a different one and it has been referred to by those who should know as a global village – in fact, Thomas Friedman dared to call it a flat world. In this world, location should not matter. In this world, the Internet, new technologies and other forces of globalization should enable a young Nigerian (like his Indian or Ghanaian counterparts) earn more – and live better – without the need to apply for a visa. Unless, of course, he decides to travel for a well-deserved vacation or necessary appointment. Why is it a should-be story? I would argue that the reasons are not far-fetched: young Nigerians see the new opportunities on cable networks and on the Internet; we hear of them when we connect with our friends through Skype; we dream of them after reading past editions of The Economist or Time‘s features on Innovation. But one single factor that can help us take the next leap is missing. Internet access in Nigeria is plug and pray, not plug and play – and that is even if you can afford it. To play on a global stage and in a flat world, we need time online and not just any type of access but broadband access! Guess what, if you give us broadband access today, my favourite embassies will miss me – and they will most likely start placing online adverts to attract young Nigerians to the embassies. Keep the visas, give me broadband – and see how fast Nigeria will get to the global map of innovation.

The flight is about to commence its descent into the Abuja airport (so this laptop has to be shut down), and I am on my way to another conference where we hope to look deeply into the relationship between ICTs, youth and better livelihoods (with a special focus on education). While I understand the place of discussions, I am honestly getting tired of meetings – I want broadband Internet access! “What will young people do with the access,” you may ask. I wouldn’t debate the fact that – like every good thing in life – Internet access is being abused. Fortunately, there is a high-level discussion today in Abuja to discuss the issue of cybercrime – and hopefully extend the arms of the law against the shameful act. It is interesting to also note that the earlier meeting I mentioned, the Digital World Conference (hosted by the NCC, GBF and the Club of Rome) will showcase the famous $100 laptop and talk about how ICTs can improve education and lifelong learning. But there is some good news though. NCC has been speaking of the State Accelerated Broadband Initiative (SABI), Wire Nigeria (WiN) campaign and has now taken off full-steam with the Universal Access Provision (UAP) in its much-needed help for rural development. While this is laudable, there needs to be some sense of acceleration and support from every possible quarter to make this a reality in next to no time.

While on my way to the venue of the meeting, and thinking of the other terrible issue that needs to be resolved, I met the best person who could discuss the issue. Your guess is right; it was power that occupied my thoughts. Even if broadband access was available everywhere, how much time can even laptops go for? Please don’t talk about generators and inverters as they should be the exception and not the norm. As it would happen, the man who shared the airport cab with me (incidentally going to the same venue to discuss power supply issues in Nigeria) shed some more light on the real issues, and spoke convincingly of the way forward – while also adding some icing to the cake by offering some dynamic opportunities to the students that we have trained at the Lagos Digital Village, who have had to constantly fight their IT knowledge from getting rusty (from lack of use on any job).

Take this from me, if you give us broadband (and stable power supply), we will transform Nigeria into one of the most desirable nations in the world even ahead of the 2025 deadline that this generation seems to have set for itself. As long as there is broadband access, you may please advise all consular officers that they would soon need to place adverts that will read AFOVGACVF, “Apply For Our Visa, Get Another Country’s Visa Free!”

Nigeria Seeks to Harmonize ICT Efforts

(c) Paradigm Initiative Nigeria

No doubt, the boundaries that existed between telecommunications, broadcasting and Information Technology are increasingly thinnning out, and bowing to the concept of convergence. To this end, I am pleased to advise that the Federal Government has set up a Presidential Task Force on ICT Harmonization. The Task Force will recommend to government measures to be put in place for an institutional and structural framework that will result in a more effective, efficient and harmonized performance of ministries and organisations that are involved in policy making, regulation and implementation of government policies in the telecommunications and ICT sector in the country.

One of the sub-committees of the Task Force, the Technical sub-committee, has the following terms of reference:
(i) To identify areas of modern innovations in the telecommunications, broadcasting and IT sectors that enjoy common mode of operation with a view to ascertaining and stating the implication and viability of establishing a common regulatory regime for such mode of operation
(ii) To identify stages of telecommunications, broadcasting and IT convergence as it affects prevailing government policies and regulatory agencies in terms of services provided, market implications, industrial alliance and platforms to be adopted relative to convergence of technology
(iii) Propose regulatory and policy models that will address the issue of agressive programme for rural and urban ubiquitous access to telecommunications, broadcasting and IT facilities.

I am sure you would like to help Nigeria towards the opportunity to benefit from the convergence within the ICT space (and reduce the rate of duplication and “interference of services”), so please note that a “rolling” call for inputs (on the terms of reference highlighted above) has been made towards the subsequent meetings of the technical sub-committee. Please send all comments to icttaskforce@gbengasesan.com on/before October 1, 2006. I am hoping that your views and comments will be presented to the technical sub-committee at its October meeting. I look forward to receiving your comments, and thank you for your kind support.

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T.A.P: Nigeria is getting better!

Things are getting better!

Nigeria is getting better! I have had reasons to share thoughts with various people (at different levels) on the future of Nigeria, and I’m often told about my unusual optimism when I go my way of I see a New Nigeria…. A few minutes ago, an eMail message from a friend took me to a website that has gone further to prove that things are getting better. I honestly believe that the right people (who are prepared) will soon man the right institutions — and change will be inevitable! When next anything makes you doubt that Nigeria will be a much-desired global destination by 2025, remember that you and I are the custodians of tomorrow, and we can begin by influencing our various sectors of influence — and the waves will come together to form ripples… then the ripples will lift us out of this present darkness.

I have been inspired by this project (TAP: Tracking Assets for Progress) from the Federal Ministry of Education (and I don’t have to say too much about the evident high expectations that Nigerians woke up to when the new minister was named as head of the ministry) and it speaks volumes about what education will be like in the next few years. The project was described on the website:

As part of its reform efforts, the Federal Ministry of Education recognizes that you are an Asset – a critical stakeholder in Nigeria’s development. By virtue of the fact that you are a product of the Nigerian educational system, you deserve support! We have designed a short survey to understand your background, work history and challenges. All information received from this survey will be treated confidentially. Please be clear and honest.

By participating in this important initiative:

  • Your name and background will automatically form an important part of the TAP database which will shape the design and implementation of high impact strategies for assisting you to achieve your highest potential;
  • You will receive periodic information about employment and entrepreneurship training opportunities which the Federal Ministry of Education will initiate in collaboration with other Nigerian public, private and nonprofit organization;

Please note that the deadline for online survey would be on September 29th 2006. The project website also adds, “Thank you for taking another step towards a brighter future!!!” And I honestly agree with that. While wondering if it was truly a public sector project, I saw this: “T.A.P is an initiative of the Federal Minsitry of Education, Federal Secretariat, Phase III, Ahmadu Bello Way, Abuja. For further Information contact: Helpline: +234 (0)806 9489 754, (09)480 3614. Email: info@tapnigeria.org”. I belong to the target group (beneficiaries of one of Nigeria’s secondary, tertiary, technical or vocational institutions who graduated or discontinued their education from these institutions between 1995 & 2005) that is being asked to complete the online survey, and you can be sure that I have been there. Log on now (www.tapnigeria.org), and spend a few minutes to contribute to a national database that can help our servant leaders plan for our future — at last!

By the way, the project also promises that “[y]ou will receive periodic information about employment and entrepreneurship training opportunities which the Federal Ministry of Education will initiate in collaboration with the Nigerian private and nonprofit sectors.”

Back At Home, and Seeking Blog Proteges

Doing what he knows best ;-)

It’s 3:02 am and the setting is very different from what I have become used to in the last five-or-so years. The television (and its entire family of electronic gadgets) is a few meters away, with a flower vase and two picture frames gracefully set within the space. There are two large crafted hand-fans hanging on the wall and the only sound (outside the ones from the birds outside in the dark) that assures me of not being alone is the fan. My cousin is asleep, and all my folks are out for the weekend. It is a pleasure to be back at home; though not the same house where I grew up (we’ve since moved through four different locations) but with the same feeling of home. Is it the heat in Lagos that makes the difference, or there’s just something about home that makes home home?

This week has been really busy for me (as if others have been any different) but I had to admit the fact in the word busy sometime on Thursday — that was about the peak. In this one week, I have taken care of Lagos business at the Digital Village, attended the inaugural meeting of the Presidential Task Force on ICT Harmonization, facilitated three sessions with young people in Akure, shared thoughts with secondary school students in Agbor… it’s been an almost endless week, with the entire space dotted with multiple lines of text written from primary source interviews, secondary data and literature review for the ongoing research exercises. Being back at home has had its own effect on me — calming my nerves, as I walk through the house with a deep sense of gratitude for the lessons I learnt from Mr. J. O. and Mrs. D. B. Sesan!

The last four months of the year — from what my calendar says — will be quite interesting, as I take many fronts of my involvements to the next level. I also hope to resume my frequent blogs, while also working at kickstarting a number of blogs that I have acquired domain names for. I will not be running the blogs myself, but will provide them as a platform for other young people to manage — learning actively while providing value. Call the eventual volunteers my Blog Proteges and you may not be too far from the truth. A few of the blog projects that I’m set to run with include, “If I Were Nigerian President,” “Mentorship Blog,” “Ideas MarketPlace,” “ICT Opportunity Pot,” and “Nollywood Today.” If you (or anyone you know) will be interested in running with any of these blog projects, or need more information, let me know…