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NYSC as an innovation accelerator

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Farida Kabir is a self-taught young female Nigerian software developer who runs a technology startup called “OTRAC” or “Online Training and Awareness Campaign”. OTRAC is an e-learning software platform and mobile application for African health practitioners.

What is unique about Farida is that her NYSC year with the Federal Ministry of Health, Nigeria, was in the middle of the Ebola crisis.

A lot of rapid training was being done for health workers at that time to create awareness, and she realised the shortcomings of the training initiatives. She figured out a way to improve the training and decided to put a crazy idea she had to test. 

She submitted a proposal for this idea as an NYSC personal community development service project, and it was approved. She had built a learning portal using the WordPress content management software and gave it free to the National Center for Disease Control. 

The free project that Farida started as a community development effort became the award-winning platform called OTRAC run by her startup where she is currently the CEO. The community development project became a company that now employs six people.

According to Faridah, “I incorporated it in 2016, and it has grown beyond my wildest dreams.” The startup is also supported by the French Development Agency (AFD).

I became aware of all this when I wrote on Twitter that young graduates should do tech startups as their NYSC community development or their entire NYSC assignment. I suggested that we turn NYSC into an innovation enabler rather than a cost centre to the nation.

My argument was that people leaving school now don’t just need jobs, they need direction. I was fortunate to have had the same direction during my NYSC year, and that is how just like Farida, I pivoted from a Biological Sciences degree to learn technology and eventually started our company while doing my MBA.

The era of regular jobs is over
The Nigerian educational system was built to supply jobs to the colonial era civil service and post-colonial industrial era. Those periods have long disappeared, but we still keep training people for jobs that mostly no longer exist or have become scarce.

Knowledge has evolved rapidly globally, but our educational institutions seem frozen in time. 

In places like America, mainly because of technological improvements, the nature of work has changed forever. Temporary workers, independent contractors and freelancers now make up to one-third of the US workforce.

That proportion is expected to rise to about 40 per cent or 60 million workers by the end of this decade.

Young Africans are now also realising that equipping themselves with technical knowledge is the surest way to remain not only globally relevant but to be able to change things and create new jobs the way Farida has done. 

Farida is not alone in this revolution; it is now much easier to learn new technology skills just by using the Internet. Educational qualifications are becoming less relevant and are being replaced in the technology space by skills.

I have not seen a recent technology job advert requiring academic prerequisites. Having good education is essential, but young graduates are technically obsolete by the time they graduate if they don’t learn these new skills. 

Countries like The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have made early technology training an imperative. Some introductory computer science courses are now a compulsory part of the curriculum for ALL high school students.

They are taking this step to reduce the reliance of the country on expatriate workers and also to make the nation globally competitive in the future. They have realized that having oil alone is no longer enough.
NYSC as an Accelerator 

Before my own NYSC year, I had never seen a computer. But by the end of that year, I was not just exposed to technology and business, I became more aware of alternative career options.

The knowledge I got during my service year enabled me to get a job with a technology company where I met my co-founder who later joined me to start a company when I went back to school for my MBA. 

I believe it is crucial for founding technology startup teams to come together early and it is better to make mistakes on time.

Ideally, this type of experimentation should have taken place while in school, and that is why academic institutions are vital players in innovation ecosystems. I have always advocated that incubators should be built in schools. I also benefited from a school incubator while in the UK. 

In the absence of academic alliances with the tech industry and a structure similar to what is available in Saudi Arabia, the NYSC year is our best bet to kickstart technology innovation in Nigeria.

The current approach is too random, and a lot is left to chance. A deliberate effort to accelerating innovation using NYSC will be a great initiative.

The fifth objective of the NYSC as stated on their website is, “To contribute to the accelerated growth of the national economy.” I believe the scheme is probably our best chance of large-scale innovation acceleration. We need more Faridas. 


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