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‘IBM targets more tech savvy youths from Nigeria, Africa’

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Faulkner

Dipo Faulkner is the Country-General Manager, IBM Nigeria, and is responsible for the firm’s overall business in the country, with a focus on deploying its advanced technology capabilities in cognitive, cloud computing, big data and analytics, mobile and security to solve current and future needs of institutions in key economic sectors.

In this interview with ADEYEMI ADEPETUN, he spoke on some of IBM initiatives targeted at empowering young Nigerians and others in Africa.
Excerpts:

Shed some light on IBM’s $70 million investment into the D-NA programme

IBM’s Digital – Nation Africa programme (D – NA), is focused on empowering African youth. IBM is offering all young Africans access to skills and tools to help them leapfrog to a better future and providing access to a wide range of opportunities in the new digital world.

The D – NA programme combines digital knowledge with practical understanding, supporting African youth to apply this to real-world learning; opening the door for them to qualify for jobs of the future and build their digital careers – all on one comprehensive free online platform. 

As you are aware, there was a launch in Maputo in 2017, and government functionaries were present from several African countries where the demo was described, and the road map was presented to them.

Implementation started earlier in the year and most other African countries are at different stages of implementation.

One of our first stages was to get the content ready, the countries are also involved minding the market nuances to ensure that these countries get full implementation, but understandably, implementation differs from country to country. 

What level is Nigeria, looking at the country’s peculiarity?

If you also look at the structure of Nigeria, we stepped back and we took a look at it, and we felt that the best strategy would be to address the grassroots level rather than at a Federal platform.

We selected the six geo-political zones. We picked out two states in each zone.

In the North West, we picked Kano and Kaduna as our pilot states, in North Central, we picked Abuja and Nasarawa; in South West, we picked Lagos and Ondo; in South East, we picked Anambra and Enugu; in South-South, we picked Akwa Ibom and Delta.

The uptake has so far being impressive, and once we build up traction- we will move on to the other states. 

In each of the states mentioned with the exception of Kano and maybe Enugu, we already have an implementation plan in place.

Remember that there is a lot of thinking that needs to be done. D-NA is not meant to be a programme for the elites, it’s meant to be a programme for all.

It’s meant to be a programme where irrespective of where you are within the continent, you can have access to it as long as you have access to the current programme in your country.

You talked of peculiarities; one of the peculiarities we found was that in the hinterlands, the issues there are really more fundamental than digital literacy.

Some do not have electricity, some do not have devices, and in the situation where they even have electricity and devices, the students won’t be able to start the programme and run it on their own.

In some of those areas and the states that we have been to, we introduced the train the trainer component, which is slightly different from the concept, but that is taking peculiarity into consideration.

So we have a situation where we have a set of trainers, we train them and they take the courses and get all the necessary badges and then go into different localities to train the people. So if you look at Kaduna, using it as an example, they have identified 50 to 75 trainers.

They have been brought into the centre to get trained, and we just finished the first batch of training and the intent of the state government is for them to go to every local government area in the state, so that when they go to local government areas where facilities are provided, people can come and get trained and get their own circulation as well and that is one of the peculiarities we have brought into this.

Are there criteria for joining?

The students will need basic digital competency to access and use the D – NA programme. Where the probable users are likely to require support, we are collaborating with organisations both government and private to provide this.

The whole idea behind D-NA is that irrespective of what you have, you can contribute, as long as you have the right skills and connectivity and that’s why one of our partners is the N-Power programme. We are trying to ensure that we lay out the N-Power programme with the D-NA content as well so that, that way we add more to what’s on the ground already.
Is this a one- off initiative?

IBM’s D–NA platform supports the socio-economic development of the African Continent, therefore in no way is this a one-off initiative. Unemployment remains a core issue in Africa, yet coupled with the largest population of young people in the world; it creates a demographic opportunity, an opportunity that needs to be nurtured by digital literacy.

For the socio-economic development of Africa, there is a need to develop digital literacy and skills that allow young people to take advantage of the new digital opportunities that arise.

School and university curriculums need to expand to cover basic digital and broader employability skills.

Here, comes the D – NA programme for the empowerment of Africa’s youth, where IBM is offering young Africans the access to tools they need to leapfrog to a better future and allow them to reach out to a wide range of opportunities in the new digital world.

By using the D-NA programme, job seekers will gain a digital edge, which they may not have received in tertiary education and apply for jobs that match their skills in the market where they live and work.

It is about arming the youth of Africa with relevant skills for the job market, which is something we will continue to do.

Is IBM looking at a particular size, in terms of figure for the training?

The D-NA programme is targeted at everyone on the continent – from those who want to improve their digital literacy skills for the future, to those who want to master a new digital skill and technology. We don’t envisage an end to this – only continued support of this platform as part of our commitment to the continent.

The online platform provides three elements of digital awareness needed to help capable African youth achieve success in digital markets.

The first element is for “Explorers” – targeted at young, capable citizens who have at least basic digital skills, but crave an understanding of what technologies are driving the new digital world.

It covers topics like Cloud, AI & Cognitive, Data Science & Analytics, Internet of Things, Blockchain, and Cybersecurity.

This section provides a very easy way to understand the technologies and how they can change the world.

The second element targets the “Innovators” – those who have already explored the digital landscape and need help bringing their ideas to life using IBM’s unique collection of inventions and tools.

This section provides unique material for African youth, who want to be able to develop solutions leveraging the same new technologies.

The third element is called “New Collar” – for those who want to gain additional technical skills. Enabled by IBM’s famous Artificial Intelligence platform, Watson, African youth can get closer to their digital destiny by aligning their skills to the requirements of the job market.

Through a Watson powered tool, recruitment websites are analysed, jobs and the related skills are understood and a required learning path is advised to these Afrilennials to build up their skills set.

If you watch what typically happens, we all go to school, get a degree and when we come out, there is a disconnect between the degree and what the jobs wants.

There are very few job opportunities today that say they want a mechanical engineer except it’s an engineering company, and there are very few who say they want a sociologist because such roles are very limited and it’s for very specific companies. You hear them saying they want a data system specialist, they want a Blockchain expert, and a data scientist.

How do you match those basic university graduation skills or qualifications to jobs on offer and that’s where new collar comes in.

New Collar has a way of concluding its focus around what we call the new requirements and that’s why it’s called the New Collar.

You take this training and earn badges for this training and it becomes easy. Easy for one to transition from one stage to the other or from one job to the other, it’s not made only for people working right now.

It’s also made for students coming out of the universities or even for students in the universities. Part of what we have also done is to enter into partnership with most of the job firms in Africa so that when you get the badge, your name gets populated into their database and it gives you more visibility.

That is why it will help with unemployment for both those students in the universities, those outside universities and those who are already working seeking other tech related roles.

The outcomes from the D – NA programme are threefold: More people are given more opportunities – empowering themselves; more people are enabled with the knowledge and tools to innovate, design and develop their own digital solutions – empowering communities and more skills in the marketplace means stronger economies – empowering the continent.

The DNA would run on ubiquitous broadband availability, but this infrastructure is still challenged in Nigeria. Is there anything that IBM will do to ensure that this will not limit the programme?

We are working with our partners to try and limit the impact and the problem of the Internet. Our state partners are committed and what they are doing is that in every state in the country, they are building one technology hub or the other.

A technology hub is basically an infrastructure that has devices and I am very careful not to use laptops or desktops. They have devices and connectivity and that is where the power of collaboration comes in.

For those who have such locations, we are very keen to work with them to make this happen.

We just started a conversation with one of the telecom operators but it’s still at a very early stage and I can’t give any update on that but the intent alone is to see if we can bundle solutions that may make it a lot more affordable.

These talks are still at the very early stages but we understand the challenges of the local market. 

How effective would this be, would the D-NA really get the youths ready digitally? 

If you look at D-NA, the first thing is you’ve got to pick up the skills.

If you don’t have the skills, then you can’t be ready and you can’t be relevant and that is the whole idea about us going ahead to develop the content that will get you ready.

The next is for you to take on the opportunities provided by either going online yourself or going to a DNA center accredited by your state and a local government to get involved.

Part of what we are also looking out for is that we don’t want to limit it to government alone. We want to talk to churches and mosques for them to get involved as well.  We are a very religious country.

A lot of us go to churches and mosques on a regular basis. You can imagine if the central mosque in Lagos had a small corner somewhere within the premises where you have four to five computers and you have internet access.

It’s very powerful for the youths to come in there to pray and do things and it works for them and this is similar to churches.  So we are trying as well to see how we can get everyone involved.

Recently, we heard that House on The Rock Church gave out 1000 laptops to schools in Lagos and that is a huge number, which is meant to help with digital literacy and issues and we are very keen to see how we can get involved in this.

The key message here is, that the D – NA programme offers African youth the free chance to become digitally empowered by providing them with digital skills and knowledge to both design and develop innovative digital solutions, as well as helping them gain skills to match those required for the available jobs in the market.

The programme champions innovators and entrepreneurs, enabling them to tap into IBM’s cloud platform services and drive business growth that’s founded on innovative digital solutions.

How relevant is D-NA to Africa achieving 4th industrial revolution ?.

At IBM, we believe that digital skills are critical in Africa’s growth story.

Digital skills are key for the development of Africa, and we must invest in it; as technology rapidly evolves and emerging technologies lead to a changing workforce.

Our role is to be an enabler of digital skills development across the continent and the D-NA programme is in response to our commitment for the growth of the continent.

You know technology has moved from just having a desktop or a laptop to work.

It’s about the capabilities of the system to help you do the things you need to do and D-NA is at the heart of all of that.

This is rooted in IBM’s global push to build the next-generation of skills needed for ‘New Collar’ jobs: IBM defines “New Collar” careers are those that go beyond traditional education paths, and look to sought-after skills in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, data science, cloud, and more.

These are jobs somewhere in the middle between professional careers and trade work; they combine technical skills with a knowledge base rooted in higher education. These jobs require the right mix of relevant in-demand skills, sometimes obtained through vocational training.

The skills gap is not an issue confined to the tech industry –firms in healthcare and manufacturing, for example, also struggle to find candidates with the right skills.

It’s something you can do on your own device. It’s self-paced and so no one is forcing you to do it ahead of yourself. It’s free and it’s a direct access to getting into the digital economy and uploading whatever your vision is in commerce.

For examples, IBM Researchers in Kenya are helping to harness safe water for remote parts of Kenya.

In so doing, IBM is using technology to build resiliency to help communities attain water self-sufficiency and combat extreme drought conditions.

The key work product of the IBM research is a software platform known as the Water Management as a Service Platform (WMaaSP), which provides decision support capabilities to county water officials and other partners.

The IBM Research-built platform can enable decision making by predicting water demand based on population trends, ground and surface water supply, climactic patterns and land use.

This Water Management as a Service Platform (WMaaSP) is accessible on both web and mobile as an app.

The platform, which uses sensors to provide supply and demand patterns based on groundwater extraction data, can also help water service providers significantly reduce their non-revenue water (water that is “lost” before it reaches the customer through leaks, theft or metering inaccuracies).

I know quite well that as a country, we have a lot to do in terms of bridging the technology divides, but can you as an expert probably foresee the possible timeline when we can actually bridge this?

That’s unless I have a crystal ball. But let me say the kind of changes that I have seen that gladdens my heart.

As a growing child, we watched the black and white TV and they had channel tuners and only our fathers knew what the channel numbers were.

It got to a point where coloured TVs came in and the first coloured TV came in when I was about 13 to 14 years old and so I was fully aware of the things around my environment but it still had the limitations of the channels and after a while, something called the remote control came and made a huge difference in our lives.

Then the programmes started by 4.00pm and ends with the network news and then the weekend TV came and then TV 24 hours. I look at the way technology impacted our lives today as compared to my life when I was growing up.

If you have a child that is about 12 to 18 months old and you have an iPad, if you leave the iPad in the child’s hand, the child will keep pressing on things on the pad.

Our children are becoming more aware because of the technology in our environment and for me, they are the future of not only the world but especially Africa and Nigeria.

The things my children know today, I didn’t know them until I became an adult. With that knowledge and that exposure, things will change clearly.
 
Secondly, a lot of companies are giving back to society. When I look at our partners who are building technology hubs and I ask why are they doing this? There is a partner company that is just building hubs around the nation and they are building them in containers of like five to 10 pieces with data, generator and batteries attached to them and that’s huge.

So it’s not just the children of the privileged who have iPads and iPhones that are going to have access.

There are average kids on the streets that can walk into somewhere that is free and is open to all within the community as long as they are not there to steal or break down anything but to learn and that is a huge possibility for us.

Those kids are going to be the ones growing up to challenge things around us and build solutions that really matter.

This is how Nigeria is going to move forward and that is why companies like IBM must continue to provide the platform for such kids to improve on their skills and do better.

There will be a role for the government to play but it’s not going to be a role for government alone to play.

It’s going to be a role for both the private and public sector to come together to collaborate and make things happen and that is when we are going to transform as a nation. 

Is there anything that IBM is doing with the government at both state and federal levels in Nigeria? Well D-NA is one. We have been on this continent since 1920.

In those years we have always had partnerships with the government as well as academic institutions to improve the lives of local community members.

As a company, our focus is not just on our commercial ventures but to ensure that we also contribute to the environment in which we find ourselves. We have some very strong programmes that we run.

There is a particular one that we run where a grant is made available and a team of IBM Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) across the world come together, identify one or two critical issues which the locality has identified and help find solutions through recommendations to these problems. This is called the Smarter City Challenge.

The last one that was done in Q2 was won by Abuja FCT and we had a team of about eight people in Abuja for close to about 10 weeks, looking through the problems with revenue generation and helping come up with recommendations of what the FCT need to do in that regard.

I know we have done similar work for Lagos State on transport management.

We have done similar work with Ogun State on improving technology utilisation within the state government itself. So we do all of this and we try to make our own contribution.

We are in partnership with Nigerian universities where we make available our Telecom solutions for learning.

For the software solutions, we train the faculty members and they become certified and then the faculty members train the students and then students get certified.

Till date, we still have that partnership with 11 universities and we have over 4000 students certified on IBM solutions and over 700 faculty members.

You would say that within the scheme of things that it’s still small but it’s progress and we are making progress and all of these are free of charge. We don’t charge them anything in order to make this happen.

So like I said, for us, we are very much interested and we are doing all of this to improve technology awareness, improve digital and technology skills.

With locations in Nairobi and Johannesburg, IBM Research – Africa is IBM’s 12th global laboratory.

The locations are the first on the continent for conducting applied and far-reaching exploratory research into Africa’s most pressing challenges such as energy, transportation, agriculture, healthcare, and public safety and thereby are committed to delivering commercially-viable innovations that impact people’s lives.

Additionally, IBM has technical and client centers across Africa including global delivery centers in Egypt, Morocco, and South Africa; client centers in South Africa, Kenya, Morocco and Nigeria, and a regional Digital Sales Center in Egypt.

IBM also helps solve problems in Africa through the practice of employee volunteerism.

With the help of Corporate Service Corps (CSC) projects first initiated in 2008, IBM has deployed approximately 1000 IBM employees as of September 2016, on projects in South Africa, Ethiopia, Angola, Senegal, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, and Egypt.

Recent engagements include recommendations for developing smarter healthcare and education capabilities in Angola, South Africa, Senegal, and Morocco and enhancing education opportunities for women in Ghana.

Is IBM leaving Nigeria? 

It’s a clear no! IBM is a company focused on how to improve our business as well as our local community and environment. I think that D-NA coupled with our CSR initiatives, enables us to showcase that it’s not just about our commercial business here.

It has always been the concern for people and we are truly invested in the local environment. 


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