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‘Nigeria needs more investments in ICT skills to compete globally’

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information and communications technology (ICT)


Olakunle Oloruntimehin is the General Manager of Cisco Nigeria and West African Countries. He is responsible for all the businesses in West Africa covering private and public sector as well as managing stakeholder relationships for these markets. In this interview with ADEYEMI ADEPETUN, he spoke on the urgent need for fresh investments in ICT skills in Nigeria to aid the country’s active participation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He also spoke on some germane
industry issues. Excerpts….

Nigeria seems not to be doing well on the global innovation index, ranked most times 140 out of 145, what would you say is the problem?
If you take a look at the data being released from the World Economic Forum (WEF), you look at things from the digital readiness point of view, digital readiness index, measured from the 0 to 25, Nigeria is currently within 7.9 and they look at stages within that index. The three main stages are activate, accelerate and amplify. We are at the level of activation, which is the starting point.

I tend to align with what the WEF is saying. I see it not as a problem but an opportunity for us to grow and be deliberate about our own growth. There is no country in the world that does not have its own problems. Some of those countries are further ahead of us, and we also deal with the problem of legacy because technology evolves all the time. In some cases, they need to deal with those legacy problems and change infrastructure or mind set to be able to cope with the change required. Having said that, we are at the infancy level if I can put that mildly, to activate in my opinion, we have an opportunity. Now what we need to do is double down on accelerating. The ideal situation is for us to move from 7.9 to 25 in a few years and I think it’s about making sure the policies are in place not just policies but we ensure that we adjudicate on those policies and ensure that the regulatory frame work and ecosystem is encouraging. So, that in few years’ time, when the WEF comes out with new set of facts, we would have moved up the rank.

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Who do you think should champion this course, public or the private sector?
There is a place for both of them to collaborate. This task cannot be achieved by government alone or private sector alone, they both have important part to play and I think it’s a partnership driven by trust and a deliberate well executed plan with the two-side holding each other accountable.

Concerns are mounting over the dearth of ICT skills; in fact, there are claims that some experts with deeper ICT skills are leaving the country, how do you see this?
Given the opportunity that abounds, there is indeed, shortage of skills; however, ICT is not alone in this challenge. There is a shortage of doctors as well. We probably need five times the number of doctors we have and many more times the number of ICT skill we currently have in the country. It’s unfortunate that some of those skills are leaving the country but you cannot stop people from going where opportunities exist.

What we should do is to create more people quickly so that even if some leave we will have enough to help the country. It’s a deliberate process that needs to be done with the private and public sector working together to accelerate and I think we have more than enough people, and basic skill to give those interested an opportunity to become ICT experts.

The news around Cisco’s Network Academy program has gone down, what is the status of that initiative now?
What I can say is that there are exciting times ahead. The Cisco Networking Academy program is a global Information Communication and Technology (ICT) program focused on ensuring skills development in the area of technology, ensuring that those who go through the program are empowered and equipped to go into society to take on any job role. It is Cisco’s deliberate social responsibility program to push the boundaries of education. I believe that the two major equalisers in life are: Education, which gives access to be able to compete; and Digital Technology. Hence, it is important that Cisco has found a programme that merges this together, to make sure that we can build on the future of digitization. We run the Cisco Networking Academy globally, and since inception we have graduated over 9.2 million students. In Nigeria, we have had about 150,000 students graduate. I am happy to say that it is a successful program for us at Cisco, we have grown and we are still growing.

For the 150,000 students from Nigeria, what has been the follow up on the path of Cisco?
We have the ‘talent bridge’, which is a portal where we engage with our graduates to place them in jobs that match their skill set. We match each person’s talent and skills to a particular job role that is fit for them. It is a feasible portal where you have those that have graduated as well as students who are currently in the NetAcad, so that even before they finish the program, they have been given possible matches for job placement.

How has the Networking Academy Program impacted the Nigerian economy?
When you look at Nigeria, it shows that we need to translate to a knowledge based environment because for a long time, we have thrived as a commodity driven economy due to our dependence on oil. There has been a lot of clamouring for us to diversify the economy. We are now moving to a knowledge based economy and we are glad to say that the academy provides that talent to fill this knowledge based economy. This is the current and future impact. We have made some announcements that we intend to train in Africa alone over a million students in the academy in the next five years.

To date, we have trained 800,000 in Africa and in five years we want to train one million, so we are investing a lot in this regard. Of the one million students, we will train 25,000 in cyber security skills because we see this as a big focus area in digitisation. And so we are doubling investments in building a secure network because when you have secured networks, you can have better productivity without the fear of sabotage. From this one million, of course, a considerable number will come from Nigeria. As I mentioned, 800,000 students have been successfully trained in Africa and of that number, 150,000 are from Nigeria. This places Nigeria as one of the leading countries of establishment and implementation of the Cisco Networking Academy, thus we can be rest assured that of the one million students we have committed to train, a significant percentage of them will come from Nigeria.

Based on recent statistics, how strategic is the Nigerian market to Cisco?
The Nigeria market is very strategic when you look at the amount of recent investment we have seen. For instance, the Networking Academy is an on-going investment. Another is the Cisco Repair Centre being launched in Nigeria, making it the first in Africa. We are looking at what we call the EDGE Centre, EDGE is the acronym for Experience Design for market and Earn which is more or less like an Incubator. We have Tech Incubators across Africa and the next will be in Nigeria; all of this proves that Nigeria is of very good value to us. Regarding the Repair Centre, we are delighted about that because it is going to be the first one in Africa.

What types of institution are eligible for the Cisco Networking Academy program and who qualifies to be an instructor?
From a Cisco Networking Academy point of view, institutions that are eligible include universities, polytechnics, college of education and schools that are registered by the department of the Ministry of Education. NGOs that work within disadvantaged communities are also eligible. Instructors are selected from those that pass a pre-set criteria by the Cisco Networking Academy.

Those who graduate from the academy, are they guaranteed automatic jobs with Cisco? Or what kind of job opportunities do they have access to?
Going through the Cisco Networking Academy gives them an advantage in the job search market, including with Cisco. An example is the Manager responsible for a program within the academy, he is a graduate of the Cisco Networking Academy. From a Cisco point of view, jobs are always advertised and candidates are selected through a careful selection process where they are given a fair chance, regardless of whether they are NetAcad graduates or not. However, being a NetAcad graduate means they obviously have more knowledge on Cisco than a typical candidate, making them able to compete for a job placement at Cisco.

Can you shed more light on the Cisco Partner Repair Centre Initiative?
The Repair Centre is a deliberate strategy by the Cisco which aligns to three or more of the key initiatives we are pursuing this time. One of them is the circular economy, which has to do with sustainability. How well do you recycle and are you responsible to the environment? So anytime we get an opportunity to recycle equipment, we are encouraged to do that instead of creating new and we are contributing dumps to landfill and electronic waste.

As we strive to be sustainable we are driving the whole circular economy agenda by making sure we recycle equipment. The second is access to technology. Everybody likes Cisco technology but for some people especially smaller businesses, they sometimes find it difficult from the price point of view. This gives them the opportunity to access Cisco technology at the right price point because it’s either recycled or remanufactured equipment that will be available to them. Lastly, it creates jobs, those centres will eventually be places a Cisco Networking Academy graduate can go to as well and even the wider talent pool in Nigeria.

So, we are going to be creating Jobs for the country as well as helping the economy. For those qualified to be at the Partner Repair Centres, at the moment we are going to go through a careful selection of partners that are eligible but we expect in the future when this starts to scale up, that there will be an application process just like we have for our traditional partner space.

Let me take you back to the question on what institutions are eligible for the Cisco NetAcad program, how about the students, what are the criteria for choosing them?
The criteria are that students interested, can apply. We have a very rich curriculum starting from the base level of knowledge to the expert level. We have secondary schools that are Cisco NetAcad centres. Ultimately, anybody can join the program, we have a primary and secondary schools on the program. Year 5 and 6 students are part of the program, even year 2 and 3 students in primary are being taught basic coding. The idea is to catch them young and so we make sure we touch as many students as possible, so I know the school is going towards incubation centre.

What is the school driving at?
From a global strategy, Cisco’s approach has always been to partner, develop or jointly invest in opportunities to bring out innovation in the students we train. In some cases we need to partner institutions, whilst in some other cases we go into acquisitions. Cisco has made over 200 acquisitions and some of them have made us stronger as a company and brought a new wave of innovation to us. These incubation centres give us the opportunity to partner with people that can potentially offer world class innovation and co-develop with people working in the centres. So far, we have three centres in Africa: Two in South African and one in Kenya; the fourth centre is going to be established this year in Lagos, Nigeria.

Of what benefit is the Cisco Connect summit to the business community?
The Cisco connect is our flagship event for the region. It is an event that brings together partners, customers, Cisco employees and thought leaders over a two-day period where ideas are shared, and innovation and development, product solution, among others are discussed extensively. It provides a platform to get feedback from our customers and our partners on what to do and how to do it to make sure we remain successful together. This helps us to be more productive for the benefit of our business and our customers. This is because there is a method to cutting-edge innovation and Cisco Connect tends to be where we share the latest innovations we are driving; it gives customers and partners the chance to hear first-hand what Cisco has in store.

Are there things that Cisco is doing with the government?
Apart from government as an entity, multiple departments within the government leverage Cisco technology for daily tech needs. In that way, we work with the government. For example, some of the work done with the Npower program, they leverage content from the Cisco Academy. In addition, we are also working with the presidency on the innovation parks and plans to drive hubs across the country. Some of the strategies adopted are discussed with Cisco and we provide the input, guidance, and technical support. Therefore, when it is time to build those hubs we will be there to help them go through the process.

As a networking giant, what is Cisco doing in the area of cyber-crimes?
From a Company point of view, Cisco is one of the biggest cyber security companies. When you look at the security landscape, it is a very fragmented one but because of our large market, we are very relevant across that fragmented landscape; be it end-point protection, perimeter defence, antivirus and anti-malware. Having said that, Cisco is very relevant, we have got a team of cyber security experts, one of the biggest team in the industry, called Talos and what they do is help to fight cyber-crime globally and the amount of information around threat that this team processes is one of the highest in the industry and we use the intelligence from Talos to make our products and solutions even better. Such intelligence is propriety to us and differentiates us as a better security company globally.

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One of the key things from the cyber security point of view is awareness. We play a big part in providing awareness to our customers, making them more informed about mitigating threat and how to avoid them. There is also the process side of it by developing processes that work well for our customers and partners. On the technology side, we are the market leader from that point of view and lastly we are providing as much as possible skills in the market because there is a shortage of cyber security skills. The more people that are trained in cyber security, the more the chances we have to reduce and mitigate the threat. The key thing is to be prepared and to train your staff on how to spot cyber threats.

I know Cisco solution is for big companies, do you do anything for the SMEs?
That is a perception that needs be corrected. We are not just solution providers to big companies. While we are majorly a business-to-business company, we also have solutions for SMEs. I mentioned access to technology in our repair centres. The repair centres give access to technology that both big companies and small can adopt. We now have solutions and product focused on that segment and this year we have announced to the market that small business will take a large chunk of our attention globally and we should see some of that work even in Nigeria. We have had launches in Dubai, Johannesburg, South Africa, and Nigeria focused on small business.

For Nigeria alone, we have a database of 17,000 businesses that we consider small that we can address with relevant solutions, so we know those businesses and how to reach them, what they need and they range across different verticals. So, from the small legal firm of maybe four people, to the retail store that is selling provision, pharmacy or even to the small hospitality customer, maybe a small hotel of six rooms the hotel will need Wi-Fi and connectivity to the Internet. We have solutions that are relevant for them, which, is one of the reasons why we launched Meraki line some months ago. So, the Meraki set of product help us to address that small business opportunity.

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