COVID-19 underscores imperative of ICT research funding
As cases of the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) surge in Nigeria daily, it bears relevance to examine what key agencies in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry have been doing, and how they can increase their efforts in the area of funding indigenous ICT/telecoms-oriented researches and building tech start-ups to produce locally-relevant technology solutions that can appropriately address local challenges and offer some succour to the collective effort at arresting the spread of current health crisis and other sundry challenges. ADEYEMI ADEPETUN reports.
The call by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami, on the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the National Information and Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Nigerian Communications Satellite Systems, Galaxy Backbone and Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST), to provide research grants for promising innovative technology solutions may have stirred up the need to look inward for home-grown tech-oriented remedies for some native challenges the country is facing including the COVID-19 pandemic.
Going by events globally, innovation isn’t optional any more, it is imperative. No nation or organisation can thrive without innovation, especially at this time when economies are on lockdown. As such, efforts must be channelled at becoming innovative, leveraging the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry.
Interestingly, checks have shown that no nation doesn’t want to innovate, but perhaps, countries have been encumbered by lack of political will on the part of leaders, policy summersault, shortage or dearth of requisite skills, and largely, lack of funding.
Spurring tech innovation ecosystem
With the marching order on the Ministry’s agencies to support innovative solutions, especially on coronavirus, Pantami’s directive is expected to ensure that these agencies incubate the proposed solutions, transfer/deploy them to relevant areas of need.
The Minister’s directive was handed to the agencies during the Nigeria COVID-19 innovation challenge; virtual demo day, and prize-giving ceremony organised in Abuja.
Pantami said: “with COVID-19, there is a need to fast-track the implementation of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy for a Digital Nigeria, adding that “ICT will play a great role in supporting contact tracing and physical distancing in the war against the virus”. He said the COVID-19 Innovation Challenge was targeted at leveraging indigenous innovative technology to address the scourge of the pandemic.
The committee on COVID-19 Innovation challenge was set up in April 3, and they received 1,519 applications, while the best five were selected At the event, there was the presentation of research grants of about ₦2.2 million to three promising Nigerian startups, who participated in the innovation challenge.
The Minister further directed that half of the fund be invested in translating the proposed ideas into solutions.
Importance of research
The main purpose of research is to inform action, to prove a theory, and contribute to developing knowledge in a field or study.An effective science and innovation system in any country, and globally, depends on strong basic research and higher education infrastructure.
According to academicians, in addition to knowledge production, basic research facilities, development of human resources, and applications are critical.
But in the course of conducting, applying, and managing research, both researchers and managers of research and innovation have information needs. These needs must be satisfied in order for the scientists and the science innovation system to function effectively.
The competitiveness of any nation in today’s economy and global market greatly depend on the advances made by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workforce.
Instructively, technological innovation is one of the primary forces driving economic growth. Yet many economists have noted that the social rate of return to research and development (R&D) expenditure is likely higher than the private rate of return, which will result in a suboptimal level of investment in such activities.
Meanwhile, as lofty as the Minister’s charge was to the industry, it is not something new to some of the agencies such as the NCC and NITDA under the Ministry. The NCC has consistently funded laudable research and innovations in collaboration with academic and tech start-ups in the country.
NCC’s research funding in Nigeria
The NCC, as one of the key agencies in the ICT industry, , has continued to carry the ace in the areas of research funding to produce local technology solutions and prototypes that can address local challenges in Nigeria, while also making such innovations available to global community.
Indeed, deliberate efforts by the NCC in technology/telecoms research funding started in 2015, when the current leadership of the Commission established an R&D department. Since then, it has doled out millions of naira in funding relevant researches in the areas of telecommunications.
Last year, for instance, as part of efforts to improve research development in Nigeria, the NCC awarded N65 million grant to 11 universities to carry out technology research that would lead to ICT products and bridge some gaps in the country
The Executive Vice-Chairman, Prof Umar Danbatta, while making the presentation to the researchers, whose proposals were accepted by the regulatory agency, said the Commission was expecting prototypes to be commercialised from the exercise towards solving local challenges in any sectors of the economy.
Danbatta vowed that the products from the research efforts would not be allowed to suffer in the shelf as had been the lot of many research endeavours in the country. Rather, he said that any prototype emanating from the effort that was rated high would be translated to a product through necessary collaborations.
According Danbatta, the Commission’s objective is to tap the capacity in the universities to solve some problems in the telecommunications industry as well as life challenges that can be tackled through new technologies. He said, “We hope that working together, these proposals will bring about prototypes that we will be able to commercialise not in the too-distant future in order to revitalise the manufacturing sector of the economy.”
Also in May last year, the NCC endowed two professorial chairs in ICT focused and telecoms related research at Bayero University Kano (BUK) and the Federal University of Technology Owerri (FUTO) to the tune of N40 million for the two universities.
Startups and international exposure
Besides, NCC had, on different occasions, showcased some of Nigeria’s ICT startups to global audiences so as to pitch their solutions, and possibly gets international grants. This has yielded some results.
For instance, at the ITU Telecom World, which was held in Durban, South Africa in 2018, about 10 SMEs, innovators, among others pitched their innovations against other startups from other nations.
In 2017, Nigeria had a good outing at the Busan, South Korea edition of the ITU, when five of the country’s SMEs/Innovators made the final ITU Global listing for SMEs/Innovators awards. Three of them made the honours list. NITDA on its part used the yearly Gulf Information and Technology Exhibition (GITEX), which holds in Dubai, UAE to showcase Nigeria’s competitiveness to the world.
In 2018, NITDA sponsored six startups to the global exhibition. In 2016, 16 Nigerian startups participated at GITEX. The startups were carefully chosen by the Office for ICT Innovation and Entrepreneurship (OIIE) within the NITDA.
ICT Parks project and tech innovation
Like the Silicon Valley in the United States of America, which has produced so many innovators and innovations, Nigeria is for now investing in technology parks. Being facilitated by the NCC, the country has embarked on the building of six ICT Parks to promote research innovation and socio-economic transformation of Nigeria.
According to NCC EVC, the parks are to provide innovation labs and digital fabrication laboratories (Fablabs) for use by ICT innovators and entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into products and prototypes; provide a Commercial Hub for ICT capacity building and digital skills; create employment and entrepreneurial activities; and facilitate smart city deployment across the Digital Industrial complex.
The ICT Parks project involves the construction and equipping of fully-functional Tier-4 Digital Industrial Complex (DIC) in each of the six geo-political zones across the country.
The project concept is designed to support federal government’s ICT–related policies by facilitating the availability and accessibility of ICT services across the country and promoting their usage across all sectors.
Danbatta stressed that the commission embarked on the project in all the six geo-political zones of the country with a view to building capacity for the Nigerian teaming youths in the area of skill acquisition and innovation to join existing initiatives towards accelerating socio-economic transformation of Nigeria.
“The whole idea of putting these two things (i.e. skill acquisition and innovation) at the forefront of this very important initiative is to produce youths that can be self-reliant, generate employment for themselves and for other Nigerians,” he said.
He said the commission is starting the project with four ICT parks in Abeokuta for the South-West; Enugu for the South-East; Maiduguri for the North-East and Kano for the North-West, all of which are currently at different levels of implementation while the ones for North-Central and South-South are in the offing.
Danbatta, who stated that the project commissioning would take place at different times, possibly starting from end of this year, assured that, based on its national spread structure, no part of the country will be left out as beneficiaries of the initiative.
“The NCC ICT Parks project is another move by the current leadership of the Commission to boost youth digital skills acquisition, promote innovations, provide jobs for the teaming Nigerian youths and ultimately support the overall digital economy agenda of the Federal Government,” Danbatta said.
While Danbatta assured of looking more into innovation through grants, and others, the Chairman, Mobile Software Solution, Chris Uwaje, noted that for the past few decades, economic viability of many developed nations has been traced to their tech ecosystem.
He said tech ecosystem is an interconnected, interdependent network of various actors that combine to create innovative products and services in technology. These include tech start-ups and entrepreneurs, global tech companies, hubs/accelerators, investment groups, universities and research institutes that provide disruption leading to innovations in the existing sectors.
According to him, globally, these disruptions have produced great wealth, changed the narratives and continued to drive productivity while creating trillion-dollar companies such as Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Alibaba among others.
Uwaje submitted that if government and agencies can be more purposeful about research and developments by granting supports to startups, Nigeria can become highly competitive and find germane solutions to some peculiar problems in the country.
According to him, the era of remaining a dumping ground for all forms of technology should be discouraged. ‘‘This can be done by creating the right atmosphere for entrepreneurs and businesses to thrive. Enough of remaining a consuming nation, we need to encourage startups to start producing stuffs for the country,” he stated.