Strengthening digital economy amid COVID-19

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    Technology innovations and acquisitions come with different challenges; depending on the environment; the people and the approach the government of the day adopt to achieve set objectives.

    In modern times, technology innovations and solutions have become competitive, a driving force for human advancement in all fields of endeavours. It is for this reason that government established institutions, agencies and departments to be on the lookout for innovations, or to monitor and regulate developments as well as develop policies for promotion and advancement of innovative technologies.

    With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world began to witness a new normal as adjustments had to be made on the way and manner services are rendered and delivered across all spectrum of the economy to ensure safety of citizens and minimise the spread of the pandemic; particularly at community level. In Nigeria, one of the agencies that responded to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic was the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). The pandemic provided an opportunity for it to push the quest for a digital economy forward.

    The performance of the national economy, according to the statistics rolled out by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in Q2, 2020 the performance index later showed that the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector make some inroads into the efforts of the Federal Government to diversify the economy.

    According to the NBS, Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Products (GDP) dipped by 6.1 per cent (year-on-year) in real terms during the period, particularly as the World’s economy also shrank due to the pandemic which forced a total shutdown of economic activities globally.

    The nation’s non-oil sector contributed 91.07 per cent as against the contribution of 8.93 per cent to the GDP by the oil sector. Significantly, the ICT sector contributed 17.83 per cent to the total real GDP that is about 54 per cent higher than its contribution in the previous year and, in the preceding quarter with a total contribution of 14.07 per cent to the GDP.

    The push for digital economic transformation is expected to promote online business transactions, improve the production of goods and services, especially from person to person, industry to industry and institutions to institutions. Such efforts will not only create job opportunities but in the long-run also improve productivity.

    Going by the NBS statistics, the efforts to diversify the economy was not in vain. Similar developments are seen in education, agriculture and health sectors as players embraced digital platforms to promote production and provision of needed services.

    However, it is necessary to stress that even with the performance of the ICT sector and the efforts to get things moving again despite the harsh economic meltdown occasioned by the pandemic, it is not yet Uhuru considering the various age-long challenges within and outside the industry.

    At a recent function in Abuja, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Ibrahim Pantami outlined some of the challenges confronting the ICT sector as the problems of infrastructures, especially broadband penetration, Right of Way (RoW) vandalism of infrastructures, price of data, activities of hackers and cyber crooks, slow internet services and lack of internet services, especially in rural areas.

    Dr Pantami is in charge of major agencies of government that are in the vanguard of promoting the nation’s digital economy. The agencies are the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), the Galaxy Backbone Limited and Nigeria Communications Satellite Limited (NICOMSAT).

    He also outlined policies aimed at addressing some of the problems, some of which are already yielding results.

    Dr Pantami revealed that the country has achieved about 40 per cent broadband penetration this year,  while he is taking up the issue of Right of Way with the state governors, through the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, the charges have dropped in some instances to as low as one naira. Some states have waived the charges also.

    Going by the policy document obtained by our correspondent from the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, the vision of the present administration to transform the economy into a digital hub is anchored on eight pillars as contained in the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy for a Digital Nigeria, (NDEPS).

    The eight pillars are Development Regulation; Digital Literacy and Skills; Solid Infrastructure, Digital Services Development and Promotion, Soft Infrastructure, Digital Society and Emerging Technologies; and Indigenous Content Development and Adoption.

    Therefore, for the digital adoption and transformation to be impactful, agencies of government have to be proactive in agenda setting aimed at addressing noticeable drawbacks.

    Most of the agencies adopted various approaches to ensure that besides its regulatory roles, policy issues targeted at advancing innovations and providing technological solutions to the country’s challenges remain at the front burner.

    Youth unemployment is one of such challenges. For it to be tackled head-on, the literacy level has to improve, skills have to be upgraded and appropriate technology deployed. There is also the urgent need to provide necessary working materials and tools, such as laptops, computer hardware and telephones and ensure availability of internet facilities.

    The Director-General of NITDA, Malam Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi told reporters in Abuja that the agency had made conscious efforts to address some of the challenges facing the ICT industry in the country.

    According to him, there is no doubt that the new world will be dominated by technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, (AI) Internet of Things (IoTs), Cloud Computing, and many more cutting edge technologies.

    Nigeria cannot be left behind, he said, especially as the government has responded with policy measures outlined in the NDEPS document to confront the challenges. For instance, he said NITDA has issued supplementary regulation in line with the National Digital Economy Policy to strengthen the Nigeria Data Protection Regulation (NDPR) and enhance data security and safety of all Nigerians.

    “We have also inaugurated the Data Breach Investigation Team in collaboration with the office of the Inspector-General of Police. This has allowed us to track and report data infraction cases to the police and over 790 data regulation issues have been addressed,” Malam Abdullahi said.

    Malam Abdullahi asserted that COVID-19 did not only bring about unprecedented demands for digital technology solutions, but also had also brought about the “new normal” with new opportunities and possibilities unlocked by digitalisation.

    “The vision of Digital Africa to ignite a passion for Africa’s development through the use of ICT aligns appropriately with our mandate at National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) which is to develop and regulate Nigeria’s Information Technology (IT) sector by setting up the essential regulatory and governance structures that will stimulate the growth of the IT ecosystem and transit the nation to a digital economy, and Africa by extension,” he said.

    Continuing, he said: “In the face of COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on business, governance and society, NITDA has been playing its role to ensure the opportunities presented are maximised for the optimum benefit for Nigerians.

    “We have organised Hackathons to discover innovative solutions and give our start-ups an opportunity to scale their ideas. Our Virtual Learning Programme of the NITDA Academy for Research and Training has so far attracted over 25,000 participants with over 22,000 active sessions.

    “Our National Adopted Village for Smart Agriculture (NAVSA) project aimed at generating five million smart agriculture jobs across the value chain is witnessing tremendous success.”

    Abdullahi added: “Data Protection efforts have created over 2,860 new job roles. We have done so much more in the areas of developmental regulations, digital literacy, job creation, deployment of ICT infrastructure; IT projects clearance process, implementation of Public Key Infrastructure, among others.”

    Again one of the major problems within the system is the adoption and development of Information Technology projects in government agencies. Information Technology (IT) projects being executed at Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) failed as a result of lack of skills and experiences.

    It was gathered that Information Technology (IT) projects in most MDAs still operate at silos level with the attendant structural challenges. However, as a response to the development, the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, in collaboration with NITDA, recently launched the Government Enterprises Architecture Portal and inaugurated the Chairmen of Digital Transformation-Technical Working Group (DT-TWG) to solve the problem.

    About 250 digital skills acquisition projects across the country have been inaugurated so far to strengthen the drive for digital skills, while the Computer Emergency Response Readiness Team (CERRT), has been put in place to tackle the menace of cyber crooks and hackers.

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