A Weekend in the Sunshine State

“Come over to Macedonia,” were the exact words of the coordinator of Ondo State Information Technology Devenlopment Centre (SITDEC) after I finished speaking. It was during this past weekend while I spent time visiting family and discussing how I can help improve the lives of young people in the state I have inscribed on my birth certificate, Ondo State — aka Sunshine State.

The journey began with various eMails with ‘Tunji L’ght Ariyomo, the governor’s Special Adviser on ICTs (who also doubles as the coordinaor of SITDEC), an award in recognition of my contribution to the development of ICT in the state, and an earlier interview for a government publication hinting about the State’s interest in my input. I was born in Akure and spent the first ten years of my life there before sharing my time between Idoani and Akure while I grew from 11 to 16. I visit my family in Akure but also spend a few days speaking at selected meetings every year, especially due to the comradeship I feel within the state at large, and the thought of my opportunity to inspire other young people with my now almost-popular story, “From Akure to the World.”

Sometime towards the end of last year, I was in discussions with my brother and friend, Praise Fowowe (who also happens to write “Ondo State” each time the popular “state of origin” question comes up). We stumbled upon a few names that are strongly related to Ondo State either by birth or “origin,” or both. Titi Akinsanmi, Fela Durotoye, Joshua Awesome… and the world-famous Philip Emeagwali. These individuals’ link to Akure are a major source of inspiration to any young person who’s growing up in that state today (or grew up there a few years ago). While location has nothing to do with success or failure, the fact that people you can identify with are seen as heroes is a great way to know that your excuses for vailure are limited. You probably see their parents drive around the city, or you walked past the house he grew up in just a few weeks ago. Somehow, we draw inspiration from the fact that there are people who grew up under the same circumstances with us, and are now seemingly doing well for themselves!

I arrived Akure on Sunday night after spending some time alone with my parents, and seeing my nieces and nephews again! Irawo has grown up so fast, wow! Thanks to Celtel, I had access from every location, including the unforgettable moment while I was enjoying the best delicacy from this side of Nigeria, pounded yam, and now as I post this blog. My mum rose up to the challenge of proving that red carpets and airport pick-ups are nothing compared to time spent with one’s family! Watching a movie with my cousin, along with the lifelong act of sleeping off and refusing to retire to my room, brought memories. I called up the team that has been helping me with the background work towards my planned projects in Ondo State and we agreed to meet up at 10am on Monday, at the newest eatery in town.

By 11am on Monday, we had done more work than I possibly could have imagined done from a rather unconventional location. The usual introductions added flavour to the meeting as each person kept giving me the “wow, he has changed a lot” look. We made our way to the SITDEC office and arrived about 15 minutes early. An earlier call from the office to confirm that they were expecting me planted a smile on my face because I must confess my displeasure with the bureaucracy associated with government establishments. I had just handed my card to the receptionist when Engr. Ariyo, my host, arrived and took over the job of welcoming the team and introducing us to the staff of the centre and his other guests. After a few minutes, arrangements were made to take us round the state’s ICT projects — ahead of a feedback session during which I was to tell them what I thought, and how resources could be best maximized. “This is Mr. ‘Gbenga Sesan, an Ondo State indigene and Nigeria’s pioneer IT Youth Ambassador. We must get as much as possible from his ICT expertise during his short visit…” Then we set off for the tour.

At some point during the tour, I turned to Ayo Ojeniyi and said, “I can change the world with the ICT infrastructure that this state has put up.” And I meant it. I visited three facilities outside the imposing SITDEC office itself and each facility (though yet to be put to effective use) whispered to me, “‘Gbenga, we’re here when the state decides to use us towards a grand ICT vision, and to produce some of the best ICT minds in Nigeria!” I hear you, infrastructure, I feel the need too and I’m ready to roll up my sleeves.” There were 295 PCs, about 40 laptops, numerous accessories and enough bandwidth to set Ondo State on eFire! And the little chat I had with the staff shows the readiness to line up behind a grand vision the moment the whistle is blown.

We returned to the briefing session after lunch with the team, and it was a really charged moment. While I was a bit concerned that government officials may not take kindly to my blunt assessment, I was surprised when the coordinator responded with some huge warmth that melted the side of me that was scared of bureaucracy.He went as far as sharing some documents (when are we going to finally have the FolI bill so I can ask for more documents) and explaining how they’d been on my trail for a while. Well, the next steps are clear: official report back through the relevant process, returning for the initial planning session, commencement of the long-term work and hosting the Ondo State Youth Empowerment Summit (OSYES).

With the duo of Bayode Atandeyi and Ireti Adesida at the driver’s seat, the OSYES will debut sometime in July 2008 with the vision of connecting young people with life changing opportunities through an annual summit that will focus on three themes — ICTs, Entrepreneurship, and Self Discovery. I will be asking my friends, brothers and sisters that share the same state of origin to join me as we fix as many lives as possible before they give up on their future. The summit will clolse with a dinner on Sunday, where relevant stakeholders will be tasked with the responsibility of sustaining OSYES and the many follow-up activities that will take the lessons beyond conference rooms. Each year, I will do all I can to get my mentors to keynote at the closing dinner. Ondo State? Yes! OSYES… Is there someone thinking that this is a huge marketing opportunity for the bank that claims to say YES to all dreams?

It was, for me, a weekend of sunshine even in the face of the harsh harmattan. I am on my way back to Lagos and look forward to briefing the PIN team, and to resume our evidently busy 2008 calendar, but think it’s time for each of us to redouble our efforts towards improving the lives of other young people, especially those within our visible line of influence. The best of life is not measured in duration, but in donation!

Lessons from “The Bucket List”

(c) IMDB Movies   (c) IMDB Movies   (c) IMDB Movies

I still remember the first day I heard the phrase, “kick the bucket.” It must have been 1991 during Mr Ojumu’s English Language class while I was in JS 3B in Federal Government College,Idoani. As much as he tried to explain that it was an idiomatic expression, I just couldn’t understand how buckets could be related to death. Come on! Buckets were very sensitive things to talk about while I was in that school because it was the most itinerant item — making it’s way from the original owner through many “borrowers” and then back to the owner one morning as he takes his shower in our characteristic open bathroom. So, you must appreciate the silence that visited the class when Mr Ojumu drew that particular expression about kicking the bucket from his entire vocabulary.

Seventeen years later, I watched the movie, “The Bucket List.” Trust me, I wouldn’t have thought anything of the movie but for the you-just-can’t-ignore-them actors, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. When I saw the movie title, I remembered Mr Ojumu and my last bucket at FGC Idoani (it was stolen but I had told my mum that I would bring it back home soon). Other movies fought for my attention, and time hasn’t proved very abundant since I turned the first calendar page this month. Sometime earlier today, I saw the movie. As expected, Jack and Morgan didn’t disappoint me but there was more to The Bucket List.

You should see the movie yourself but allow me to highlight three major lessons. First, the bucket list (the duo’s list of what they wanted to do before passing on a few months later) itself reminds me of my auto accident in October 2005. When the car decided to stop its random dance, I looked around to check that everyone was okay and stood a few meters away remembering how everything I’d wanted to do with my life played through my mind within that instant when I thought the end had come. I don’t have a “bucket list” in anticipation of a terminated life but I always keep a list of what needs to be done. Just as the duo ticked off after each experience, I have a few ticks gone — but a lot more work lay ahead. Ask yourself, “if I had only 3 more years to live, what would you have on your to-do (or “bucket”) list?” Then, go for it — and make another list after those 3 years come to an end.

Then, the speech by Jack’s character at his new-found friend’s funeral service. He said, “[h]is last few months were my best. He changed my life and I didn’t know it.” What would friends, enemies, family and fans say if you funeral service held today? How much impact does your life have beyond your daily rituals? It’s time to ask that question: “what will the world remember me for?” That a shy young man from the corner of Nigeria used what he knew best to bring positive change to the lives of underserved people across the world? How about, “Well, well, hmmmm, what did you say his name was again?” The climax for me was the moment when both terminally ill men stood at the top of one of Egypt’s famous pyramids and Morgan’s character told the story of how the Egyptian myth goes about gaining entry into heaven. The custodians of the gate would ask two questions to decide who was qualified for heaven: “Did you find joy in your life?” And, “Did your life bring joy to others?”

Not much needs to be said after those two questions. Hmm…

[NB: It’s 10:05pm and I’m with my parents in Igbabra Oke, Ondo State, Nigeria. I have just explained how I got online to my dad, and he’s obviously glad he got himself a Celtel SIM pack — which he did after I told him about One Network. One can only imagine what interesting options Nigerians will have access to over the next few years as ICT competition heats up ;-)]

Lessons from Life

Today, many young people graduate (or generally move on in life) as “still births” – dead on delivery, unable to cope with the expectations of the New Economy, and as green horns joining the mass labour market at the mercy of employers. Striving at the base of the pyramid, much of today’s youth stand the risk of being frustrated after years of training within the four walls of our tertiary institutions… but it should not be so! True, dynamic global precedence is not in conformity with the present level of preparation young Nigerians are exposed to but we need to take the bull by the horns and carve a path for ourselves within our chosen career sphere. Let me share seven quick tips with you, as defined by the lessons I have learnt over a relatively busy three-decade period.

A baby will never walk from the mother’s back! Many people love to remain in what has been severally described as “comfort zones,” hoping that they will be able to move on to better things from there. Unfortunately, it never happens that a baby that stays on the mother’s back will learn to walk; it comes with practice, failure (from which one just needs to rise and move on), triumphs (which will always be a great reference point when failure stares you in the eye again) and repeated attempts. I can’t forget the day my younger sister walked for the first time; she would walk a few steps, fall, stand up, walk… and then she really walked without support! Just as a closed palm can never receive anything, a life that will not dare can never achieve the extraordinary. Take the step, get off mummy’s back… and tell the great story of your success later.

1 minus 2 is impossible until you know the answer. In my elementary school, we were told that it was impossible to subtract a higher number from a lower one. The answer, in the rare moments the questions was asked, was actually “impossible!” But a few years later, in secondary school, I was told that if a higher number was subtracted from a lower number, I would have a negative number. It was no longer termed impossible, simply because we had an answer to it at this point. How many times in life are we almost tempted to call certain things impossible? If you could just learn more about the problem, you will soon come to terms with the fact that “impossible” is just an excuse we give when we do not have enough knowledge to tackle a problem. The answer may be strange, but every problem has a solution. As a student who loved his advanced mathematics, I came to realize that the more complex the problem, the better your chance at explaining the solution with some air of confidence (and pride). 1 minus 2 is not “impossible”, you only need to gain enough knowledge to know the answer.

Today is a snapshot, tomorrow is in the full-length movie. Have you ever thought about the difference between a snapshot – that simply shows where things stand only at the moment the shutter went off, nothing more – and a full-length movie, which usually tells the complete story? For a snap-shot, you may see a dull face. But for the movie, that dull face may regain a smile few minutes later. It would be wrong for you to then judge that face by what the snap-shot says. Today is like that, it is only a reflection of the temporary state of things, it does not define the final outcome of any process. Today may look dull and helpless, but there’s always a chance to change tomorrow. While many will look at today’s picture and laugh at you, what they have no access to is the brighter tomorrow that follows – as long as you commit yourself to the efforts that can transform a day of tears into a lifetime of laughter. Move on, there’s still a chance to change the eventual outcome.

20 friends for 20 years? No way! I thought it was a joke each time I heard this said. Twenty years after leaving primary school, I’m now wondering where some of my “20 friends” from St. Peters’ Demonstration Primary School in Akure are. Reality is that some of them are doing very well and I can probably get through to them by asking a few others, but there will be those who have either moved on geographically or down on the social pyramid. Twenty years from now, will I still be able to look around to see my 2008 “20 friends”? I doubt it. Naturally, water will find its level and even if new technologies help friends stay in touch, some of them will find out that they really don’t have much in common anymore. While you speak of career development, some are wondering if you’re not “taking that thing too far”. Twenty friends could even chose to remain in the same location for more than twenty years but the chances are that some will break away from the pack. Where will you be in 20 years? Look around you today, and note that based on the choices we make and relevant actions that follow, only few out of every twenty will break beyond the glass ceiling.

Don’t take that job, build a career! There is a great difference between a job and a career. A job earns you a monthly cheque, and maybe some prestige but a career does all that and also allows you to stand at a vantage position through which you can influence positive change. Many people are trapped in 9-to-5 cages, waking up everyday to the annoying reality of having to perform that boring routine often masked as “work.” While it is true that many young Nigerians do not have a fair idea of what they wish to do by the time they choose (or have chosen for them) their courses of study, it is also true that certain levels of education (and learning, even outside the walls of an academic institution) should expose us to the opportunity of defining what can give us both satisfaction and an opportunity to get reward for the value we provide. Stop and think about what career path allows you to combine your passion with your skills – and offers you economic value – and start the journey towards it. It may not be a straight road to your career path, but you’d be glad you took the time (and pain) to locate that path. There is nothing as exciting as doing what you would gladly do for free, and being handsomely rewarded for it!

The whole world only stands aside for those who know where they’re going. This statement is as true as the fact that day comes after night, and has stuck with me as a life-long lesson. As it were, not much of the world have an idea of where they’re headed – and that explains why the few who do enjoy the ovation of others. If you’ve ever been in a crowd, try this: tell the crowd around you to please make way for you. Some would turn around as if to say, “who’s this rude guy who thinks he knows better than us all” but just as they do that, there’s some room for you to take a step forward. It’s like that when the world comes to know you as a focused person; every time they are aware of something related to what you proclaim as your life’s direction, they send you a text message to notify you. At various points in my life, I have learnt to speak up about my life’s direction and I have been rewarded with many periods when the world stands aside for me because I have given expression to a clear direction. Life gets easier and opportunities become clearer when we have a better idea of where we are headed. Where are you headed in life?

Nigeria is a land of opportunities – only for the prepared! In a few years, we will see some people and call them lucky, saying that they seem to be getting all the attention. It won’t be a matter of luck but adequate preparation. I have often said that Nigeria is on sale because smart people are learning and working hard to position themselves as solution providers in various areas of the economy. As young people, we often stand the benefit of being able to see farther into the future and possibly predict how new attempts will offer solutions to the problems we see around today. It is my submission that there will be two categories of Nigerians in the next few years – those who will keep complaining, and others that will be rewarded for the problems they solve. The choice, really, belongs to each individual. Nigeria has many problems, but haven’t you noticed how certain people have been getting rewards for solving key problems? Actually, I think those things we call problems are actually opportunities begging for exploitation. As I told my Ajegunle.org students in August 2007, shine your eye!

I continue to learn more lessons by the day, and trust that I will be able to share them before my fingers slow down on keyboards. With the opportunity to look back at my life on the 1st of January, 2008, I could only laugh at some of the moments when I failed to heed the lessons of life myself. But as usual, tomorrow (which begins the moment after you read this phrase) presents another opportunity for us to improve our lives based on the lessons we have learnt from life – and those other lessons we are able to pick from others’ lives, through books or other channels.

‘Seun Salami!

I have been told a number of times that it takes a lot to impress me, but I doubt that it’s true. However, I do know that it takes a lot for me to make the name of a 21-year old the title of my blog – for reasons as simple as being accused of praise-singing, and as complex as defending why the particular individual merits the mention. That said, ‘Seun Salami is an example of the Nigeria we speak so proudly of when we use the phrase, New Nigeria.

I had scheduled a media appointment for 1pm at a location closest to my 11am meeting venue with the hope that I’ll just meet up with the journalist and then leave for my next assignment. At 12:29pm, however, I was still in the middle of this meeting (which I’ll write about later) and then had to inform the journalist that I would be late and he should please note that I had no intentions to be rude. Then, my phone rang: “My name is Seun and _____ said I should meet you for the interview…” I paused for a second as if to ask why the change was necessary but said a polite thank you, asked for some time to get to the meeting location and continued to bring my 11am to a close.

I walked into the room calling the new journalist’s number and after a few minutes, we introduced each other. I thought the handsome young man who walked up the stairs looked like the person I was to meet with but wondered if the journalist would recognize me. Well, we introduced ourselves and he went on to explain why he was the one who would be interviewing me. He was at the New Nigeria Club launch, had seen my resume online and thought it’d be great to interview me – but little did he know that I was a lot more inspired by his story than he was of mine. The interview went well, as has now become customary, but I’m still sitting here and tapping away on the keyboard with ‘Seun long gone.

I couldn’t help wondering how such a fresh face would be responsible for all the excellent back-page con-versation articles in the National Standard. After he made me provide more information that I thought I could possibly do within the 60 minutes we spent together, it was my turn to ask questions. “What’s your background?” I wasn’t through. “How old are you, if you don’t mind?” His answers were not very surprising but they proved the point I was making during the interview when I spoke about how some Nigerians are already benefiting from the simple fact that they dared to stand out from the usual crowd.

Seun is a final-year student but already holds his own within a major media outfit. He had been at the National Standard’s office for his industrial attachment (a compulsory component of some Nigerian degrees) but they wouldn’t let him go. Why? Because while many are complaining and saying that there are no jobs, smart employers also know that great employees are hard to come by. ‘Seun has no idea that I’m writing this, and will probably discover this when a friend refers him to it, but he’s made my day! I have spent years telling anyone who cares to listen about how there are so many young Nigerians who are occupying strategic positions and may be called lucky when they begin to reap their rewards – and ‘Seun is a visible example. While some of his colleagues are busy undertaking the CPF rule (cram, pass, forget), he’s carving a niche for himself.

It was people like ‘Seun Salami that I had in mind on November 26, 2001 when I wrote: “I see a new Nigeria emerging, one that will be built on the labours of our heroes past, hewn out of the debris of the present waste and engineered by the strength of the future leaders: the youth. These young men and women will adopt Information [and Communications] Technology for the purpose of personal development, nation building, regional cooperation and global participation. They may be unknown today, but in the secrecy of their abode, they master the tool that will change their lives and that of their nation. They’re building the nation’s tomorrow today!”

‘Seun Salami, I salute you!

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NAN Resurrects As NIGHT Force

No doubt, I hate cybercrime. If one thing has eaten deep into any little trust that the world had for Nigeria, cybercrime will top any chart. Yahoo! Boys (and Girls), as they are popularly known, spend their time seeking to exploit unsuspecting — and of course, some outrightly greedy — people with the sole aim of robbing them of their hard-earned resources. While I do not understand why some people will respond to (and even act on) most of the eMails that start the chain, I hate the act all the same. If only for its huge cost to Nigeria’s (and by extension, innocent Nigerians’) image, I am moved way beyond emotions to take action!

That explains why, a few years ago, a few friends and I teamed up to start the Nigerian Anti-Scam Network. We held seminars, some members of the team conducted research for relevant agencies and we all pushed the bar in pointing young people towards alternative lifestyles that can allow them redirect their passion (and for some, skills) towards clean online activities. I remember some of our meetings and bow in respect for these young men who went beyond personal career feats to save our generation from what I once referred to (at a United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime event) as the new face of crime.

After what I will call the first phase of our work at NAN, the work we started is now wearing a new look — and has some extra administrative and technical support. After a few hours of discussions with Ayo Oladejo, the then coordinator of the network, we decided to review operational strategy and core content of NAN’s work — for increased efficiency and sustainability. Enters NIGHT Force, an effort that is managed by Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, which is receiving huge support from stakeholders. Nigerian Internet Governance Hybrid Task (NIGHT) Force hopes to work while it’s dark so that the morning meets us with pleasant smiles. With a focus on Internet Governance issues (including cybercrime) in Africa, NIGHT Force will focus on research, training and stakeholder consultation.

In the past few days, we have held meetings with partners in the media and with Economic & Financial Crimes Commission’s (EFCC) Fix Nigeria Initiative (FNI) staff on the immediate action items that deserve urgent attention. At the meetings, I’m quick to announce that Ayo is the techie while I’m the loudspeaker — doesn’t that make for a great team? 🙂 Over the next few days, we’ll be doing a TV recording (details of show time will be made known) and preparing for a comprehensive research assignment. I am excited about the opportunity to add to Africa’s knowledge pool on Internet Governance while also defining a few issues around cybercrime. For example, what is the economic cost of cybercrime? What are the things that serve as alternative engagements for some of these kids who are willing to redirect their energy and skills?

What Do Africans Do With Mobile Phones?

On the 3rd of December, 2007, Nigerians woke up to read about the sustained growth of the positive surprise that is now synonymous with the nation’s telecommunication sector – telephone subscribers are now 46.2 million! The usual comparison with the not-close-to-one-million at the beginning of the millennium leaves one wondering if this race will continue until the 50% mark hits the front pages. While Nigeria’s teledensity to 27.42 is phenomenal, the core of the growth comes from the mobile sector, with total number of connected GSM lines at the end of September standing at 43,593,310 lines and total number of active GSM lines (subscribers that have made calls within the last 90 days) was 36,692,806.

That implies that 84% of the total number of connected lines were active within the 90-day period prior to the collation of data by the Nigerian Communications Commission, a figure which is still leaves an impressive growth rate by many standards. With fixed wireless and CDMA services accounting for many more hundreds of thousands, the Nigerian mobile space remains amazing. Add the news of 3G and 3.5G services being rolled out by GSM operators and the image of increased access to ICT resources becomes more magnificent. A September 18 2005 report painted the picture appropriately: “In the past 10 years, subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa have risen from 72,000 – excluding South Africa – to a forecast 25.5 million [in 2005].” Note that in 2006, the number of mobile phone users in sub-Saharan Africa exceeded 100 million ! And by 2007, 100 million was even less than the number of mobile phones users in only Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt!

While completing a recent assignment for a US-based institute with interest in the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools for advocacy by developing countries’ non-profits, I came across startling discoveries around the use to which non-profits and individuals are putting mobile phones. From the popular missed calls (“flashing”) to high-end mobile databases for advocacy (and in some cases, product/service marketing), mobile phones are increasingly put to innovative uses. Thus, the need to know what Africans are using this platform to do is important. Considering the ongoing revolution and competition in the telecommunications sector (especially among GSM companies), only unserious nations will ignore the potentials of positive and negative mobile phone usage by individuals and institutions. Building on earlier research efforts, it is important to find out what Africans are using their mobile phones for – making/receiving calls, paying bills, transferring money, conducting business, accessing the internet, listening to music, watching video, etc.

It is important for Africa’s relevant stakeholders – across government, civil society and the private sector – to documents the use to which mobile phones are being put. This will help with various opportunities such as identifying best practices (one is not surprised to know that some rural folks are already changing the stories of their lives through mobile phones but where are they and what exactly are they doing); discovering policy improvement opportunities (considering trends in usage and increasing opportunities, how can policy positions encourage the use of mobile phones to bridge the gap between the informal and formal components of the economy?); discovering socio-economic applications (how about possible massive use of mobile phones in education and improving livelihoods as is now evident in entertainment and some successful business models), and deliberately building a database and information-pool that can inform national planning.

And this is also an opportunity for governments to make true their romance with the idea of making African nations globally competitive – for example, Nigeria seeks to become one of the world’s top 20 economies by 2020 – by ensuring that the mobile phone addiction in Africa is maximized for mobile government (mGovernment) roll-out. If the word addiction caught your attention, then you should look around you when next a delay is announced, for example, at the airport – people pull out their mobile phones and get busy!

By the time you are reading this, I will probably have commenced discussions with relevant institutions that should provide a platform for the implementation of this key research need. If you would like to discuss the process further, please write to me at me[at]gbengasesan.com. Let’s build a bridge between the rising addiction to mobile phones and possible socio-economic development opportunities. Ever asked yourself this question: How did Africans cope without mobile phones?

Friends of PIN — and our first YouTube video!

The video above is probably the first you will see on my YouTube Channel (but I should tell you to also watch out for 9jaTube — coming to a screen near you soon ;-)) Thanks to the Korean Internet Volunteers (KIVs) who put the video together — and to the guys who co-started the Ajegunle.org revolution (Ugo Nwosu and Praise Fowowe), thanks guys! To our partners (Afrinvest West Africa, FATE Foundation, HiiT Limited, Junior Achievement of Nigeria, Korean Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion, NiPRO, Success Attitude Development Centre, Teledom International, UK Trade & Investment, British Deputy High Commission, Uncommon Man Network), thanks for believing in the story while it was yet to be written!

Okay, and the main news for the day… Friends of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (FoPIN) is in pre-launch on FaceBook. FoPIN has come together as a platform of support for PIN’s activities and I’m excited about the groups growth, at least on FaceBook. For many years, many people asked how they could join PIN — and here comes the answer, FoPIN. In the next few days, we’ll perfect the information materials and donation platform so that you can contribute towards the work PIN is doing with underserved groups in Nigeria.

Progress in the Midst of Storm: Review of Telecoms Sector in 2007

By ‘Gbenga Sesan and Titi Omo-Ettu

Is a reason once used to explain high telecommunication tariff also useable in the explanation of poor quality of service?

Mobile operators in Nigeria did not bargain for what they got when, midyear, quality of telephone service degenerated to an unbearable level and condemnation of mobile services became widespread. Federal legislators stepped in and the music changed as they dragged in the regulator to share in the bashing for the mess. The latter also didn’t bargain for what it got, or so it seemed. But for the fact that Nigerians and their politicians are not exactly good bedfellows, both the regulator and mobile operators would have been thoroughly bruised.

Dysfunctional public power supply (the same condition under which telecom operators and everyone else in the economy operate); arbitrary taxes (‘multiple taxation’ in operators’ parlance but hardly a unique problem of the telecom sector); theft of infrastructure (‘armed’ and ‘unarmed robbery’ in consumers’ parlance, a mantra of the Nigerian system); dysfunctional NITEL (the very reason why the operators were let loose on the consumers in the first place); and much more. These are the reasons mobile operators gave for why consumers have to pay more than in other climes where the markets are smaller and the business, even less lucrative.

It was when the same reasons were being advanced for why quality had to dip so low and text messaging — a cheaper and more convenient communication solution — started to play annoying games that Nigerians woke up to the reality that they were in fact in deep ‘s**t’.

In the days of NITEL, the problem was about getting a phone. When the better days came, the problem changed to using a phone. Among other myriad of problems of its monopoly days, a notable malady of NITEL was its emphasis on engineering to the detriment of product marketing and customer care. The new comers changed the music, and rightfully so. Technology is a tool for solving peoples’ problems, albeit as good business. It is not marvelous just for its own sake and that point is now succinctly made. The new comers, however, have now over-emphasized the marketing aspect to the detriment of the engineering. Something must give – and when it actually did, chaos reigned. Lessons must have been learnt by all concerned: the regulator, operators and the hype-loving consumers.

Looking back at the expired year, it is important to recognize the good (network expansion, improving internet access, commencement of market induced consolidation, etc); the bad (poor services, lack of human capital); and the ugly (political interference in industry regulation and the attempt by state governments to take a huge bite in the cake which the industry is baking, among others).

Only three of the five operators forecast for buy-over in the expired year actually made it into buyers’ hands while another two, which were not known to be ailing, got bigger players to buy heavily or totally into them. One was particularly a good buy. Reading from the performance table, and going by feelers within the industry, this year may witness the acquisition of five ailing operators by existing and incoming big players while those who are migrating to higher technology platforms may also expand into underserved locations, thus boosting the spread campaign.

NCC has published a figure of 37.9 million which it calls ‘active’ mobile lines as at October 2007, with another 1.4 million being the figure for fixed and wireless lines. Discounting attrition, multiple-ownership and allowing a little inflation of figures on the part of every provider, there may well be some 30 million active mobile users. That may account for a 21% penetration, which means the market remains good in terms of unmet but suppressed demand. Emerging technologies abound, begging, to provide smart solutions and major providers are expected to eye the Nigerian market, a queer one that is both difficult and lucrative. A few weeks ago, France Telecom got Kenya’s nod to take control of its national carrier while India’s Reliance Communications Ltd picked up a license in Uganda, just as our own Globacom also won a license in Republic of Benin – where it has already made initial test calls on its ready-for-service network. Globalstar Inc. announced recently that it is backing a Nigerian company, Globaltouch West Africa Ltd, to commence Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite (GMPCS) services in Nigeria by the second half of 2008.

Reluctant licensee, Mudabala-Etisalat’s emergence is important but really and largely to the extent of the big bucks it placed on the table. It will be a pleasant surprise to see a radical influence similar to how Globacom forced every player to go ‘per second’ and to make SIM card price roll down the hill with high velocity when it emerged in 2003.

For 2008, two players to watch are Starcomms and Visafone.

Starcomms has shown indication of optimum marketing of a technology standard just as it carefully watches over its engineering flank while Visafone, a new entrant which immediately bought over an ailing operator, has the challenge of spread as mandate. The promoter of Visafone comes necessarily into analysis since he has a record of aggressive approach to marketing banking products with a strong base in Information Technology. Considering the complimentary strength of his earlier and new efforts, he may spring some surprises and make good strategic influence in the fixed wireless services arena. Will he take Visafone to the capital market the way he did Zenith? Only he and time can answer.

Inadequate human capital may haunt the industry more than any other thing, even though it may not be a topic of common discourse. It has really never been. Lack of improvement in available indigenous capacity, especially in technical areas, may stall rapid bailout from the poor quality of service syndrome that taunted the industry in the expired year and ever since. Deliberate effort may just be required to put the industry in shape in that regard. The Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, did well by establishing the Digital Bridge Institute a few years ago and it must have been evaluating what influence the Institute made on the overall available capacity. It has been mentioned that the NCC was granted the right to acquire NITEL’s former Training Centres in Lagos and Kano. Hopefully, it will consider licensing smart trainers to meet the challenge of putting the facilities to good application rather than doing it by itself.

The telecommunications industry has grossed $10 billion, and still counting, into the Nigerian economy since deregulation. Figures for the direct inward financing for 2007 are yet to be put together but things are certainly looking up.

It is a pity that a few state governments have been unable to appreciate the direct benefits of the nationwide spread of telecommunications to their citizens, hence their desire to take a direct bite in the cake which the industry is baking in their backyard. Some resorted to drama in the pursuit of the objective. One has acted ultra vires while at the same time over-dramatizing the benefits which co-location of infrastructure could yield to the industry. Their pronouncements, desperate and combative, sound like co-location is war (which it is not) rather than an industry management tool (which it is). When the chips are down, there is really nothing sacrosanct in co-location of infrastructure going by the interplay of emerging technologies.

The National Assembly added an ironic twist to a brewing confusion by commencing a regime of issuing directives to operators as if there were no laws governing the industry. Good a thing they have been largely ignored. If committees of the National Assembly begin to issue industry intervention directives whenever they get annoyed with one industry player or the other, we may expect a rise in the number of litigations — a potential drawback to rapid growth in the telecommunication industry. Nigeria has enjoyed an unusual speed in its telecom growth partly because the industry has been managed in such a way that due process guides regulatory intervention and the negative effects of rash litigations have been curbed so far. At a time when legislators would do well to study the industry and fine-tune existing laws to make sanctions issued to erring operators more prompt and effective, they went about chasing the shadows of an accomplished Commission.

A few legislators, in a show of annoyance, told us that the Nigerian Communications Commission was incompetent. Of course that is untrue and the whole wide world, knows it. Things may be slower than we all want in some aspects of regulatory intervention but who does not know that due process is slow but that it remains the best option when the chips are down. There are lessons to learn in all of these as part of our growth, including lessons on the relationship between legislative oversight functions and industry regulation.

Are research establishments also industry/business managers? Or should they be?

The question begged for an answer when managers of Nigerian Communications Satellite Company Ltd, NIGCOMSAT (a subsidiary of National Space Research Development Agency, NARSDA), claimed they got President Obasanjo’s nod for their participation in telecommunications service delivery, apparently in mindless disregard of the need for a licence to do so. The issues eventually brought to fore a few other monstrous creations of the past government, all in the name of providing rural communications — a path once traveled with resounding failure and wasted resources. The Rural Telephony Project, a loan initiative of a consortium of Chinese investors, had gulped N5 billion before it could no longer fly while those who run NIGCOMSAT asked the National Assembly to appropriate $150 million for their operations. The rest is history-yet-to-unfold and maybe 2008 will complete the story for the records. Would NITEL reincarnate in ‘NIGCOMSAT’ in 2008? The world must be watching.

NITEL finally took a bow in 2007 when privatization managers gave it out, the year earlier, to a government ‘conglomerate’ known as Transnational Corporation, Transcorp. That was the final step needed to make it sleep for a long time if not forever.

Unification of ICT as one industry took a step forward, two backwards as federal authorities took decisions that showed either that there must have been competing power blocs within the bureaucracies which concern the subject matter or that the whims of the ultimate decider was yet unclear.

On the international scene, Apple it was that used AT&T as official carrier to drive its iPhone into the US market, and much later Europe, thereby making itself a company to watch in 2008 and beyond. Did someone say that the Google’s Android Challenge is a sure sneak-in on the Apple/AT&T plan? Well, whichever way the various competitions go, such innovations and the recent electronic numbering (ENUM) protocol — which is the result of the Internet Engineering Task Force’s work, and supported by the ITU — will bring the customization of our phone lines along our personal identities closer home. We cannot wait to see it happen.

And for Google? When some folks put billions of dollars on the table for frequency under auction, it makes it a reality that they are on the 2008 watch list.

No doubt, 2007 drove home the point around the role of ICTs in effecting socio-economic change but that change has to be embraced and led by all stakeholders — regulators, industry players and consumers. It was a turbulent but certainly remarkable year with good lessons to learn.

The regulator would by now have commenced a regime of taking measurements in all its ramifications and at all times while operators should have learnt how not to make product campaign a replacement for the product itself; just as the consumers, sooner or later, will live to love hype less.

This report has been published by Technology Times (5th January), Daily Independent (8th January), Nigerian Tribune — Reference (8th February), Digital Divide network (8th January), Forex PR (8th January), Financial Standard (9th January), ThisDay (10th January), Loan Consolidation – Google News (10th January), Independent Online (10th January), ZIBB.com (10th January) and CyberschuulNews


Mixed Fortunes for Africa


In a piece titled, ‘Gbenga Sesan: Mixed Fortunes for Africa, AfricaNews posted my views on how the African continent will fare in 2008. The question was, “How will the African continent perform in 2008 in terms of economic growth, which countries and which sectors will have the best changes?” My answer was based on facts that emerged from research work that I’ve been involved with over the past four years. Feedback is welcome:

2008 will no doubt be a year of mixed fortunes for Africa, with some countries taking advantage of the focus on Africa (not neglecting the silent Sino-European competition for the continent’s attention and resources) while others will fail to see or maximize such opportunities.

Unfortunately, three indices of the category that may experience slow growth and reduction of investor interest are Political Chaos (another word may reduce the import here), Corruption and Stakeholder Fatigue. Political chaos will come from controversial election outcomes, manipulative pre-electoral processes or outright econo-political imbalance. Nations that are unable to convince the world that corruption is a serious threat, that is receiving due attention, will suffer from reduced investor excitement! Also, various stakeholders (especially private sector and civil society) may get into fatigue states in nations where their efforts are being continually frustrated.

However, these indices may slow down certain economies but other emerging opportunities will make up for the loss in some instances. Countries that combine some obvious attributes of increasingly successful (used in modest terms) economies will get global attention and may be able to convert such into economic growth. Population size (much of which must be employable for various strata of work), highly reduced remuneration compared to western economies, infrastructure presence, etc will contribute to deciding which nations enjoy better growth in 2008.

Across the continent, Nigeria, Egypt and Rwanda stand out. Considering improvement in entrepreneurial awareness among resident Nigerians and increased return of the country’s lost intellectual capacity (mostly due to strong signs of economic growth and the unbelievable stock market); Egypt’s strategic position and commitment to increased participation in the knowledge economy; and Rwanda’s undeniable focus provided from the highest political level, these nations are set for positive focus in 2008.

Where Do You Stand: Nigeria’s Four “Tribes” and You

I am a Nigerian. Please don’t look at my name and try to peg me to a tribe otherwise I will be glad tell you the stories of other people I have met in the last three decades of my existence — people who can not be defined by any tribal nomenclature. I will also remind anyone who’s willing to listen of the fact that tribal issues mostly raise their heads when people fail. When a leader succeeds, the people call him a great Nigerian leader (regardless of the reach of his influence) but when a ruler (please notice that this word is deliberate) fails, (s)he is suddenly tagged by various tribal connotations. Even her own tribe call her by an hyphenated tribal name. Ask the immediate past Speaker (of the Nigerian House of Representatives) how the people she called her own tribal parapo gave her a sub-tribal tag when she was in deep trouble!

I am a Nigerian. Even though I grew up hearing stories of people I was given reasons not to be seen with — tribes that were eternally tied by erring minds to greed, others unfortunately seen as sluggish, etc. I have come to learn that people use these stereotypes to get away with selfish needs. When you need that political appointment, your opponent is obviously guilty of being of the same tribe with the immediate past occupant of that position. Those whose jobs are threatened quickly write an anonymous memo to the powers-that-be about the sudden discovery of how the threat’s tribe has always produced the MD while a certain tribe that has huge investments in the company has never produced even a DMD. Watch it, the author of the memo is from the deprived tribe (even if it requires him/her laying claim to maternal links — her mother’s brother’s younger sister’s cousin’s friend was married to the trader who sold the first mirror in the history of the deprived tribe :)).

Truth be told, the difference between Nigerians isn’t tribal. Neither is it even dependent on location or present (note: present) socio-economic or political status. Well, some would argue that there are the untouchables and the rest of us but even that is a transient stratification. Ask some of the past untouchables who have seen the unpreventable shift of loyalty towards the new power brokers and they will tell you that being untouchable has an expiry date. “So, what are these four ‘tribes’ that this young man is referring to?” As I told the group at the launching of the New Nigeria Club, they are the Hopeless, Relieved, Returnee and Strategically Positioned.

The hopeless are those who usually speak of facing reality as a major excuse to explain their frustration with the Nigerian project — and the impossible task of bringing about change. They are quick to refer to agents of change as frustrated time markers and a bunch of unrealistic people. The hopeless have simply given up and you waste your time when you tell them to see the silver lining because they will assure you that the sound they hear cannot be that of anything but the rain that will wash away your perceived silver lining! The hopeless never recognize change when it happens because it’s seen as either some form of trickery by the ruling elite or a temporary situation. “Do you remember 19-gone-past,” they say, “when Olusare tried to trick us with XYZ and it didn’t last.” For them, history serves as an archive of mistakes. Stay off that tribal space!

The second group is very dangerous because it presents an illusion that appears as a solution — while it comes with extra doses of self-induced problems. The relieved have escaped from the rot around them, as far as they are concerned. Physical absence from the perceived location of stress and self-generated short-term solutions come to this group as natural options. But little do they know that those who are relieved of the problems are also relieved of [disconnected from, unlikely to see, blind to] the opportunities because their time is spent celebrating their exit from the common rot. Make no mistakes, this group of Nigerians have nothing to do with specific location, but they will be quick to challenge you when you tell them that their temporary relief is just that — temporary. They are usually encouraged by stories of others who have been relieved, but much of what they hear is actually make-belief (an attempt for each of the members of the group to give the impression that their relief is the best option).

The Returnee is most likely one who was previously relieved but has come to see the need to return to the space where opportunity is available. Unfortunately though, most returnees find out that the pace of change (even the slightest of it) has shifted the balance of things. As you know, a slight change in direction of only 1 degree can create a huge gulf when that same change is sustained over a period of time. Returnees usually need time and help from the last group in order to key into the change process and be able to benefit from it. It is not uncommon to see returnees get frustrated when they find out that their sojourn back home is met with hiccups, but reality is that being away for so long is unsafe for anyone who wishes to benefit from what you once departed from — and that is an established law of life!

Hmmm… I hail this group! The Strategically Positioned are not very popular when they start the process of proclaiming, then leading, change. They are accused of being unrealistic and are usually the first to get text messages, eMails or phone calls when things go wrong. But when these people — who have laboured to position themselves as agents of change while others were busy complaining — move from their lonely abode to the limelight, they are tagged lucky or even dismissed as being friends with people in high places. Where were you when they decided to locate a problem, improve themselves (and others) to solve that problem, design a solution, test their solution, prove the sustainabilty of their model… and then get rewarded for it. Trust me on this, Nigeria is on sale! And by that, I mean that certain smart individuals (and people-groups) have positioned themselves (or are in the process of doing the same) in such a way that when calls are made for solutions, their doors get the first knock. In a few years, when many will wake up to recognize the change process, the juicy segments of the nation’s space will be sold out to the early believers and actors! I salute you, New Nigeria ambassadors!

Where do you stand? Do you believe in this change we speak of? Are you too sucked into the past that you interpret every new development according to the dictates of your fears? Will you not wish to be on the side of those who are not denying the obvious — they see the rot — but are also not blind to the signs of change? I have been around Nigeria (and the world) a bit, and I keep meeting people who don’t only believe in the New Nigeria (and many of them are not Nigerians by citizenship), but are also working. Some are even already being recognized and rewarded for believing in (and acting on) change. Standing in this space has helped me identify opportunities — and I’m loving it! Of Nigeria’s four tribes, I declare myself a Strategically Positioned Nigerian. I stand with the opportunity of changing what others run away from, where do you stand?