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New ministry pushes ICT growth

Article - December 12, 2012
Mobile telecom services have grown rapidly in recent years, while IT access and use still needs greater promotion
Nigeria’s information and communications technology industry is composed of two very different parts. The communications sector has grown rapidly, offering mobile telephone service all around the country to people who in the past would not have been able to afford, or even get installed, a fixed-line telephone. Even with that rapid growth, though, there are still quality issues to be addressed.

The information technology sector, on the other hand, is still quite small, but has enormous growth potential in a country of around 170 million people. The government of President Goodluck Jonathan is aware of the issues that face Nigeria’s ICT sector and one important step the President took after being elected in 2010 was to create the Ministry of Communication Technology.

President Jonathan made sure to select a respected and experienced IT professional to head the new ministry, and picked Omobola Johnson, a former country director at the well known consulting company Accenture in Nigeria, to oversee the start-up and operation of the new government department. Mrs Johnson was already familiar with Nigeria’s ICT sector and the challenges it faces.

“The telecom sector has been very successful,” she explains. “This is because we had a very robust and forward-thinking policy that drove the liberalisation in the industry. So what you have is a very large and successful telecoms industry, but a fairly small IT industry, and that is really the priority of this ministry.”

Because her department was created to help spur the evolution of a knowledge-based economy in Nigeria, it will focus on the several different parts of the ICT sector. Its mandate is to facilitate and spread widely available and economically accessible communications infrastructure around the country, but also to promote the use of ICT and the growth of the ICT industry.

That focus will have many positive effects on the country and economic development. ICT is a sector that is constantly creating excellent employment opportunities for a wide range of educational and economic backgrounds, and will help build up Nigeria’s middle class in a way that will spur even more new employment.

“The best thing about this industry is that while we said we were going to focus on some priority areas, every single circle in that industry has the potential to create jobs – both white collar and blue collar jobs,” Mrs Johnson says. “More importantly, these jobs can be created for fairly young people.”

The ministry has implemented a process for encouraging greater use of information technology and for spurring the development of solutions to the needs of consumers and of the government. The goal is to help the country’s small software industry to grow organically while attending to the needs of Nigerians.

“We are using fairly innovative means to encourage people to come up with what their needs are in the market, whether they are in agriculture, health, business, and then challenging software developers to actually meet those needs, and giving them incentives and capital and the infrastructure through the development of IT parks and software development centres,” Mrs Johnson says.

Even before the ministry was started, the government was working on improving the country’s telecommunications system. Last year the NigComSat 1R satellite was launched into orbit on board a Chinese Long March rocket. Obviously planning for that launch started before the ministry was created, but now the satellite’s operation falls under the ministry’s purview.

The new satellite, which replaced an older satellite, has a lifespan of at least 15 years and carries a total of 40 transponders that can carry voice, data, video and internet. It will help cut the cost of telecommunications around the country and provide services for consumers, the government and the military.

The past two years have seen other important advances in Nigeria’s ICT sector. The telecommunications industry has been modernised and made more competitive by the introduction of SIM card registration as a security measure, and by permitting portability of mobile telephone numbers among different providers.

Next on the government’s agenda are improving and extending the use of IT by government ministries, to ensure that the money being spent on spreading information to citizens is being put to good use, and rolling out Nigeria’s broadband infrastructure. Those are, of course, challenging endeavours, but the ministry, and the rest of the country are ready to face and surmount such challenges, Mrs Johnson confidently asserts.