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Notes from Digital Bridge Institute, Abuja, Nigeria

Digital Bridge Institute founded in 2004 by the Nigerian Communications Commission. The organization is wholly owned by the NCC, but operates as a private company on an independent guarantee. The organization is planning a move to a seven-hectare campus under the leadership of Professor Akwule, an eminent Nigerian academic who has returned from the United States to lead DBI forward.

This week’s meeting is a partnership between DBI, the MacArthur Foundation – both through their Nigerian branch and through the home office in Chicago – Georgia Tech and the Berkman Center. It focuses on the ways Nigerian NGOs can take advantage of new media. Mike Best from Georgia Tech presents results of a survey we conducted of participants – Nigerian civil society organizations. It turns out that the organizations communicate more with each other and with the media than with constituencies – that may be an artifact of a survey that focuses on new media. The new media that’s most important to civil society organizations are mobile phones and SMS messages – in person meetings are less common than mobile phone meetings, and more sophisticated forms of IT use are lesson common. Email and mobile phones are considered highly effective in civil society communications.

Our groups are from all over Nigeria, concentrated in urban areas, but there’s a significant number of rural users. Looking at our data, it turns out that nobody uses fax machines anymore, but there is less uptake of sophisticated techniques like blogging. There’s a strong push towards adopting mobile phones to broadcast information, becoming more popular than radio. Organizational use appears to closely track personal use – of the people we spoke two, only one uses Twitter, and only one blogs. That said, most characterize their organizations as moderately computer literate – there’s a really strong interest in building online communications and little sense for what platforms might be most useful.

My friend and coleague Tunji Lardner has been operating Wangonet – the West African NGO Network – for ten years. He says that he wishes he was just starting the project now. When Wangonet began bringing Nigerian NGOs online, he was a pioneer, working in the “hairy days” of the Abacha regime in a field people knew little about in Nigeria – the use of technology by non-government organizations. “We were looking for fellow travellers on the highway, because there was nobody we could share ideas with.”

Lardner tells us that his group naively believed they could build a regional community of NGOs. While Wangonet involved Senegalese, Ghanaian and Nigerian participants, they quickly ran into the Anglophone/Francophone barrier which makes much regional cooperation difficult. In trying to get indigenous content onto the Internet. Wangonet found itself becoming an ISP. This wasn’t viable in the long run – they were outcompeted by commercial ISPs. But the real problem was in retaining talent – as Wangonet trained engineers to support the ISP business, they lost them very quickly to other IT-hungry employers. “We ended up training CTOs for several major banks.”

Despite these challenges, Wangonet has launched a set of very ambitious projects. Early this decade, they posted a database of 2000 NGOs, the first of its kind in Nigeria, which helped NGOs find each other and build coalitions. They launched ACID – the Anti-corruption Internet Database, an aggregator of stories on corruption, attempting to calling more attention to stories about this critical topic. More recent efforts have focused on tracking the behavior of the Nigerian Congress and bringing insight to legislative activites.

“Technology is no longer the issue,” Tunde tells us. While connectivity is costly and the power supply is a major problem, the real issues are human ones. We need to harness intellectual capital, build social capital around specific problems and address a sense of powerlessness by taking advantage of new tools and partnerships that can make us powerful. By embracing the sorts of technologies available today, it’s possible for individuals to act as IGOs, “Individual Nongovernment Organizations”.

Professor Raymond Akwule, the new head of the Digital Bridge Institute, offers an overview of the growth of the IT sector in Nigeria. He points out that Nigeria has the fastest growing telcommunications market in Africa, and that changes in connectivity have led to major changes in how business is conducted. It used to take months to get a phone line after paying for it – now there are 57 million subscribers in seven years, giving roughly half of all Nigerians a mobile phone. There’s mobile data, too. “I like to sit in my car and tinker with the internet – but between the major cities, I cry.”

There are 5 competitive GSM companies and 4 CDMA. And the massive expansion of the mobile industry has created an estimated 1 million direct and indirect jobs. Akwule wonders if there might be many more jobs than that – he refers to the “umbrella people”, individuals with mobile phones, who work as pay phones, renting their phones (and shade under an umbrella) for moments at a time.

Despit the massive growth in mobile telephony, there’s still serious infrastructure gaps. A fiber network connects Lagos, Abuja, and Port Harcourt, but it was designed for voice, not data. There’s a new program called Wire Nigeria (abbreviated WiN) designed to bring fiber that supports voice and data within 10km of all rural communities. One step in this plan is SABI – the State Accelerated Broadband Initiative – which is slated to bring broadband to all 36 state capitals, for the use of businesses and NGOs.

Nigeria’s most serious IT problems are skill problems. “Most university graduates are unemployable,” in IT fields. “The higher education system has failed at being able to train skilled IT professionals,” which is why Digital Bridge Initiative is focused on bridging this gap. (One question from the crowd wonders why, if DBI is attempting to build a bridge, their services are so expensive, as much as $5000 for a comprehensive IT degree.)

Gbenga Sesan, a Nigerian youth activist, notes the tendency of Nigerians to leave their country and seek opportunity. He hopes we’ll see more people saying, “Keep the visa, I have broadband.” Especially as educational institutions, broadband can solve a lot of problems that can otherwise inspire people to travel

Unfortunately, Nigeria tends to be associated with some of the dark sides of the IT world. He updates us on the Yahoo Yahoo boys, pointing out that the current hot scheme is a phishing scheme which operates under the name of “interswitch”. Youth are “intensely knowledgeable about and interested in technology” but have a hard time turning this interest in profitable directions. “If thase youth invested the same time in learning java, they would probably have gotten beyond introductory Java in that time” it took to send those spam emails.

Nigerian youth complain about connectivity, but you’ll see them on Facebook at 3am talking about television programs. In the old days, students needed to sign up for internet time at universities – now universities often have wireless access in the dorms. And we’re seeing young Nigerians created innovative tools like NaijaPulse, a local twitter clone.

The problem is jobs – he shows us a photo of thousands of people in the streets lining up for an aptitude test for a bank job. The police eventually needed tear gas to diperse the crowd. Without opportunities, there’s a huge set of innovative, creative people with nothing to do.

Within Nigerian NGOs, he tells us that 98% of organizations had email addresses. 58% had websites, but most use them for little more than signboards. 39% had blogs and used their websites in more interactive ways, and 70% subscribe to email lists. It’s easy to understand why not all NGOs have websites when you realize that only 40% have internet access in the office. Similarly, only 40% have professional IT staff. There are huge needs, he tells us, in capacity building, infrastructure, in the IT policy environment.

The head of Nigerian Communications Commission,
Chairman Odukwe, is introduced and celebrated as “the best regulator in Africa”. He recalls a recent past when ICT was almost nonexistent in the country. He credits the University of Ife as launching courses in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, which allowed Nigerians to understand that they were falling behind Asians in terms of IT usage.

As Nigeria emerged from dictatorship under Abacha, Nigeria licensed a second national operator, started licensing competitive wireless operators, and introduced 3g service. Teledensity has increased from less than 1% to 48%. The goals now are to attack the cost of bandwidth and to improve unacceptable speeds.

He points to the Wire Nigeria program as a plan to put lots of fiber in the ground. He predicts that in two years, there will be “fairly decent coverage of the country with optic fiber.” There’s a need to figure out how universal service funds can be deployed to “satisfy the yearnings of the Nigerian people.”

The people in the room are yearning for answers to hard questions about Nigerian telecoms. These questions include:

– Who’s regulating the construction of cellular towers? Why are so many collapsing and damaging people and property?

– What’s the status of Wimax licensing? Will the NCC license providers?

– Why can’t we turn yahoo-yahoo boys (spammers) into the next generation of technology professionals?

– Why aren’t there toll-free numbers in Nigeria?

– Why does Nigeria have a separate IT and telecommunications policy?

The last question gets the most attention: “Why do Nigerians have to carry multiple phones?” The chairman opines that it’s a matter of consumer choice – people clearly want to carry an official, business phone and a private phone. The crowd moans and groans. They carry multiple phones because the charge of calling between operators is high, and because networks are sometimes unreliable for days at a time.

The chairman objects to this last point – he talks about how unreliable his phone was when he travelled to the US. Colin Maclay explains that he’s had success in connecting only about 20% of his calls here, a rate that’s embarrasingly low and much worse than the US… Chairman Odukwe cuts him off to take a call, getting laughs from the crowd. “Let’s keep praying that with time we’ll have total radio coverage of Abuja and all cities in Nigeria.”

Some answers are more substantial. There are toll-free numbers available, though the chairman can’t remember the name of he company that sells them. “Maybe we need more advertisement.” He notes that the NCC found 6700 towers in Lagos, and believes that only 1400 or so are telecoms towers – the rest are used for TV antennas, or for two-way radios – he suggests that the NCC monitors tower construction closely and that the offending towers were probably not cellular towers. And he refuses to talk about Wimax while the decision is still pending.

4 thoughts on “Notes from Digital Bridge Institute, Abuja, Nigeria”

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  4. I have a strong believe that the digital bridge institute will contribute toward the development ICT all over the counry

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