How NITDA can implement its Emerging technologies plan under SRAP (2021 - 2024)

In developing SRAP, seven strategic pillars were developed, the thrust of the plan being to implement several initiatives under each of these pillars. This article is focused on the sixth pillar, emerging technologies.

How NITDA can implement its Emerging technologies plan under SRAP (2021 - 2024)

How will NITDA achieve its objective to facilitate the adoption and adaptation of emerging technologies in Nigeria?

In line with the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS), NITDA, Nigeria’s IT regulator, issued the Strategic Roadmap and Action Plan (SRAP 2021 – 2024), a medium-term plan that articulates in more specific terms, the NDEPS, as it affects sectors under the purview of NITDA.

In developing SRAP, seven strategic pillars were developed, the thrust of the plan being to implement several initiatives under each of these pillars.

My focus here is the sixth pillar – Emerging Technologies: facilitation of adopting and adapting emerging technologies in Nigeria, and how the NITDA can achieve its objectives.

Before this, a working definition of emerging technologies and their importance in Nigeria’s economic future. Emerging technologies cover the following areas – artificial intelligence, virtual reality/augmented reality, batteries, blockchain, advanced robotics, quantum computing, the internet of things, and synthetic biology.

Emerging technologies collectively represent the next frontier of competitive edge that serious nations are working to acquire competencies. As the world goes deeper into the 21st century, the difference between the nations that leverage and international influence may boil down to how much such nations invested in emerging technologies.

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Nigeria has plans – NDEPS and SRAP, which if faithfully implemented, can put us in the right stead as far as our contemporaries in the Global South are concerned—focusing on Strategic Pillar 6 (Emerging Technologies), my thoughts on how Nigeria can rapidly build capacity in emerging technologies.

Six initiatives are listed under Strategic Pillar 6 – Emerging Technologies, each with a stated objective and desired impact.

  • Initiative One: Development of the capacity of educational institutions on emerging technologies
    Objective: To deploy tools, infrastructure, and training on emerging technologies
    Desired Impact: Higher academic ratings of Nigerian institutions on global rankings
    My Suggestion: The approach most times with implementing government policies in collaboration with educational institutions is to seek to carry all of them along and to spread resources to all of them. In a nation with slim resources, this approach does not allow us to see the impact of policies in the shortest possible time, weakens accountability and generally leads to waste of resources.

Since the end goal here is to achieve higher academic ratings for Nigerian institutions, it makes more sense to work with specific Nigerian institutions. Private and public institutions are already topping the charts despite the challenges of operating in Nigeria’s thinly funded higher education marketplace.

For example, in the 2021 rankings of Nigerian universities issued by the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC), the University of Ibadan was ranked as Nigeria’s best university, followed by Redeemers University, Covenant University, and Ladoke Akintola University of Technology.

These are the top four universities in Nigeria, based on a criterion that includes Google Scholar index ranking, contribution to the knowledge, teacher-student ratio, percentage of international staff, amongst others.

Partnering with relevant Faculties in these universities to introduce emerging technologies (ET) into their curriculum through the National Centre for Artificial Intelligence & Robotics (NCAIR), a subsidiary of NITDA, is a step in the right direction. Access to direct funding from NITDA to these universities to support the curriculum upgrade and necessary infrastructure for standard education in the new modules will ensure that the changes made are not hollow, with an impact

Focusing on the top four universities, which is well balanced between the private/public and federal/state, will ensure scarce resources are deployed to institutions that can better guarantee a return on investments. With time, these institutions can emerge as African centres of excellence in ET research & development, secure international funding and attention to Nigeria’s benefit, and rank higher.

Early last year, NITDA had voiced its desire for emerging technologies to be incorporated into schools’ curricula. Although the statement was directed at primary and secondary schools, NITDA is likely to achieve immediate results if it partners with higher institutions, implementing a plan it can direct, rather than leaving it to the vagaries of local and state authorities.

  • Initiative Two: Collaboration and partnerships on the development of emerging technology projects/programs and POCs
    Objective: R&D and field applications of indigenous emerging technologies through the creation of pilot projects/POCs
    Desired Impact: Wider acceptance of and interest in using emerging technologies
    My Suggestion: To achieve this, NITDA may develop a network that cuts across companies involved in the IT space. A good starting point is those companies subject to paying the NITDA Levy by the NITDA Act. Therefore, by creating a voluntary network that involves these companies and the top four universities, students and lecturers can gain work experience, build industry/academia collaborative networks, and access direct funding sources for technology applications and projects in tandem with the needs of the industry.

Public-public and public-private partnerships in other parts of Africa have proven successful in developing and scaling affordable solutions whilst enhancing the capacity and employability of students involved in such solutions.

For instance, the National School of Engineers of Sousse and Faculty of Medicine of Sousse, both in Tunisia, launched a challenge to manufacture respirators on a national scale during the heat of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Within weeks, students of the National School of Engineering, Sousse, made 3D printed protective masks for medical staff at the Farhat Hached Hospital, where Covid-19 patients were hospitalised. Taking a leaf from this, NITDA could incentivise the top four universities to compete for higher amounts of subventions, based on the quality, social impact, and commercial value of innovations they can churn out.

  • Initiative Three: Design and develop a framework for collaboration with academia and development partners to create centres of excellence in emerging technologies
    Objective: Develop guidelines for the engagement of relevant in the creation of centres of excellence
    Desired Impact: Advanced academic capacity in teaching and developing emerging technology products and professionals
    My Suggestion: Advanced academic capacity in teaching and developing ET involves ensuring that lecturers and students have better exposure to industry use cases of ET in Nigeria the global market and can easily collaborate. Luckily, the top four universities are located in the Ogun/Oyo/Osun axis, making it relatively easier to set up specialised exchange programs across them. It also allows students and staff involved in ET to gain new ideas and perspectives on any projects in progress.

Already NITDA, through the NCAIR, has a partnership with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to implement iHatch, an incubation program to support entrepreneurs in refining their business models for scalability. Something similar can be replicated for the four universities, either with JICA or other international development partners.

There is certainly no interest in supporting educational initiatives in Nigeria, as long as a feasible plan is attached. For instance, in 2019, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) put together a $13.4 million grant for three universities, one Nigerian and two American.

The three universities were to work together to improve the educational outcomes of students in Nigeria. The Nigerian university was the American University of Nigeria (AUN), while the American counterparts were Kent State University and Columbia University. AUN got the lion’s share of this grant, amounting to $7.9 million, Kent State got $3.9 million, and Columbia got $1.5 million.

Moreover, these development partners can also serve as an intermediary with their home governments, providing students and staff of the universities preferred access to cross-country exchange programs. As academic community members in these institutions engage in local and international exchange programs, the exposure will ensure that they are updated with industry best practices, reflecting in their teaching approach, the content of course curriculums, and projects initiated.

  • Initiative Four: Design and pilot a scheme for the acceleration of emerging technologies as part of the NYSC programme
    Objective: Pilot an emerging technology scheme for the corps member of the NYSC programme
    Desired Impact: Improve post-service employability
    My Suggestion: Since the desired goal here is to enhance post-service employability, then the means of implementing this initiative through the NYSC must be through the Place of Primary Assignment (PPA) posting. Focusing on graduates of ET-related programs in our top universities, NITDA should collaborate with NYSC to ensure that they are posted to companies and agencies in Nigeria actively involved in Nigeria’s growing ET sector.

To achieve this, NITDA may need to directly interface with several companies, like those mentioned covered by Initiative Two, numbering in the hundreds requesting that they provide annual slots for graduates of those disciplines. These graduates have been engaged in four/five years ET learning, R&D, and exchange programs, the common problem of unemployable graduates, which makes companies would have been greatly mitigated or not even applicable to this crop of graduates.

The one-year learning and earning experience in the ET space would also give them room to implement what they’ve learned in school, possibly be retained by their PPAs after the service year, or move to other companies. Some of them might even boldly venture to set up their startups in the space, which will, in turn, provide learning opportunities to other graduates.

  • Initiative Five: Capacity building programs in emerging technologies
    Objective: To prepare young Nigerians and build their capacity on emerging technologies
    Desired Impact: A significant number of young Nigerians who are technology-savvy and experts in the areas of emerging technologies
    My Suggestion: The success of this initiative largely boils down to the successful implementation of the previous initiatives, by a combination of cross-university and industry-academia linkages, internships and NYSC posting to NITDA-affiliated companies, and updated curriculums incorporating aspects of ET. The sum of these initiatives, if fully executed, will produce a cadre of graduates from the four selected universities who are experts in different aspects of ET, right from their graduation and industry-ready.

However, the effects of this implementation strategy might not be seen until after four or five years, when the first set of graduates who are beneficiaries of Strategic Pillar 6 – Emerging Technologies, enter the workforce. Based on the success rate of this implementation strategy, an argument may then be made for its extension to other higher institutions in Nigeria.

  • Initiative Six: Introduction of creativity and innovation into teaching and learning for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths (STEAM), education for capacity development in emerging technologies (IoT, robotics, quantum computing, AI etc.) with subsequent field applications
    Objective: Preparation of the Nigerian workforce adequately towards the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) through capacity development in emerging technologies, upskilling and reskilling of the workforce to be future-proof and bridging the industry-academic gap to upscale sustainable efforts at national technology development.
    Desired Impact: Increased innovative capacity and competitiveness of Nigerian IT products and services
    My Suggestion: At this stage, the previous suggestions can be replicated for other higher institutions in the country. But in doing so, consideration should be given to the rankings of such schools, nationally and internationally, and their geographical proximity to ease the process of school exchanges and collaboration. In the same vein, NITDA-affiliated companies should be added to these innovation clusters; this way, we achieve mini clusters of innovation spread out across Nigeria.

These disparate ecosystems where industry and academia can easily collaborate while providing upskilling undergraduates, with NITDA at the centre, are ideal examples of industry-centric regulation. The government provides a framework for innovation and lets the system run itself.

Conclusion

If there’s one thing Nigerian technocrats are highly skilled at, it’s coming up with brilliant plans and targets. The internet is littered with our brilliance and genius, yet you wonder why it never comes to bear in the quality of our lives. That’s because planning is one thing; implementation is another. Implementation can be difficult when you’re trying to coordinate disparate targets.

Focusing on Strategic Pillar Six, my suggestions here are designed such that once the first initiative is implemented, it more or less naturally leads to the other initiatives, thus partially automating the process of implementation. Of course, the first step is always the hardest, but once taken, it can trigger a domino effect that enhances our chances of success.