Interview: Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami
In what ways did the Covid-19 pandemic affect Nigeria’s ICT sector and digitalisation efforts?
ISA ALI IBRAHIM PANTAMI: In recent years the government has prioritised achieving an indigenous digital economy. In 2019 President Muhammadu Buhari renamed the Ministry of Communication Technology to the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, highlighting the importance of technology in economic growth. In November of that year the government launched the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy 2020-30, which aims to turn Nigeria into a digital leader, as well as leverage innovation and entrepreneurship to create jobs. Five months after the launch of the plan, the country went into a lockdown as a result of the pandemic.
Even though we still have a long way to go, the framework served as the basis for important policies that helped us get through these difficult times. It allowed the government to continue functioning, despite the fact that most ministers and civil servants were working remotely. The new digital measures implemented during this period were also used to start discussions on how to help public institutions engage with citizens, and while making sure essential services could still take place – especially in the health care sector. The pandemic has undoubtedly been challenging, but it has underscored the importance of ICT to Nigeria’s future economic growth. Expansion in ICT has been notable, with the sector growing by 14.7% in the fourth quarter of 2020 alone. This trend continued into 2021.
How do you assess progress made towards realising Nigeria’s digitalisation goals?
PANTAMI: While performance of the digital sector is strong, there are still many notable challenges that must be overcome. Foremost, it will be necessary to create an efficient system of regulations that will help the sector thrive. The re-designation of the ministry and policies have helped, but there remains room for improvement. Another challenge is making sure that new legislation and policies are integrated with the operations of other ministries, as well as those of state and local authorities. Our digital ambitions have also been hampered by inefficiencies in electricity distribution. Addressing this is key to ensuring that the country can fully capitalise on the benefits of digitalisation. Even so, it is expected that Nigeria will start developing 5G in the coming months. We have started working on a policy for the deployment of 5G after successful trials in the major cities of Lagos, Abuja and Calabar.
What can be done to attract more foreign investment into the local ICT sector?
PANTAMI: We can attract foreign investors by highlighting our competitive advantages. Nigeria has a population of over 200m people with an average age of around 18 years old. This means it has a large population dominated by tech-savvy youth. Nigeria’s location also contributes to its attractiveness as an investment destination, as it is in a strategic place on the continent and can act as a gateway to different regions. Nigeria is also the largest economy in Africa, and investors can use their presence here to expand into the rest of the continent.
We want to ensure that these opportunities are a win-win for foreign investors and citizens alike. Towards that end, we are working with the private sector to boost digital literacy and train Nigerians in fields such as cybersecurity, robotics and artificial intelligence. We also want to make sure that investment in the digital sphere results in more financial inclusiveness. Together with the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Nigerian Communications Commission, we have introduced policies to support the transformation of our economy. All companies willing to help us in those ambitions are welcome.