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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Local brand apathy: Like hardware, like software


Although, Nigerian computer hardware and software companies have tried to endear their products to their consumers over the years, they have continued to witness some measure of apathy which has persisted. But then, is the government doing enough to encourage Made in Nigeria IT products? Asks REMMY NWEKE.

A Lagos-based small enterprise with over 20 staff in the bid to empower its employees, entered a deal with a local Personal Computer (PC) assembly plant, otherwise called local Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), also located in the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria.

Based on the deal specifications, employees of this company were to pay for their choice of PC, be it desktop or laptop by installment with the company offsetting about 20 per cent sum upfront, while the balance will be spread between 12 and 24 months. But as soon as it was announced to the staff, one after the other those interested turned the in-house System Analyst’s office to a ‘Mecca’ of sort with inquiries on the durability and workability of this local brand, compared to the foreign brand.

The initial fear was why some of the management team use the foreign brands while now asking them to buy from a local brand?

The System analyst, Mr. Vincent Dewu, happens to be a patriotic Nigerian who until his appointment into the company was one of the whiz-kids at the popular Computer Village in Ikeja-Lagos; where he has experimented on lots of PCs, both local and foreign brands.

However, for those who consulted him, he advised that they should go for the local brands. His reason was that by patronizing these brands, “You are helping to create jobs for our other extended relatives and encouraging the assembly plants to remain in business.”

Another reason offered by Mr. Dewu, is that as a local brand, the customer care centre is often around the corner instead of being limited to the highbrow areas like Victoria Island, Lekki, Abuja, Port Harcourt to name a few. Even as his third point is that the local brands were made from the same raw material with the so-called foreign brands, while the difference has to do with the names and model so as to be distinct as well as popularity.

Citing China and India, for instance, he noted that when they started, they were laughing stocks of the world, but overtime and taking into consideration market reports seriously, they improved upon those notable demerits of their products and now rank among the top economies in the world and strongholds of the Asian tigers of today.

So, he asked, when shall we be proud enough to patronize our own ‘Made in Nigeria,’ which is not even as bad as some of the elite thought they were. Stressing also that due to the peculiar power challenges facing Nigeria, the local PC brands took into cognizance, and came up with a concept to ensure that their PCs, most at times do not suffer from power fluctuation, thereby, making certain that local brands last as long as the foreign and even surpass foreign brands in durability.

Additionally, the local brands have inbuilt double-fan due to the tropical nature of Nigeria and West Africa generally.

But the truth is that all those who came to seek counsel from Mr. Dewu, left confused on whether to trust him or not, despite that he has worked in that company for over three years.

The aforementioned is the agonizing trauma the local brand operatives; from the chief executive officers down to the last man in the marketing unit go through trying to argue their ways into the hearts of Nigerians over local brands.

Today, Nigeria can at least boost of four locally known brands, namely Zinox, Omatek, Brian and SpeedStar (Beta) among the army of other unknown companies cloning PCs without brand names nationwide.

Apparently piqued by the non-patronage of local brands, the chairman, Zinox Group, Dr. Leo Stan Ekeh, advised Nigerians, recently, to emulate the Chinese and Indians in playing their roles as nationalists if Nigeria must emerge the black power that the world expected.

Giving this advice at a one-day seminar tagged Technology Outlook 2009 in Lagos, Ekeh said that Nigeria has a lot to learn from those two Asian countries to be technologically viable, decrying the attitude of Nigerians for foreign goods, relating it to a fad that feeds on the cultural inferiority complex of a colonized people.

“... We must take a look at China and India and copy their models if Nigeria must emerge the black power that the world is expecting,” Dr. Ekeh asserted. Laying emphasis on the fact that this has been the reason for Zinox’s desire to place a computer on every table in Nigeria, so as to enable Nigerians achieve their destinies of being the foremost black power in the world. Concurring that there are a good number of computer brands in the market today, Ekeh noted that it would not be too difficult to fill Nigerian tables with computers if we had to order just any computer in sight.

“…The national goal here include the creating of computer manufacturing capacities for Nigerians, the creation of millions of jobs for Nigerians, the establishment of an industrial infrastructure on which we can build a future Nigeria,” he affirmed Mr. Dewu’s position and cautioned that Nigeria as a nation will not achieve this dream without the patronage of local brands in the technology sector.

“This dream would never be built unless we consciously concede the computerization of Nigeria to Zinox and the other OEMs,” he said, urging government to ensure the stability of the Naira, as the instability would affect the dream of placing PC on every table in the country for the use of Nigerians. He maintained that this requires government involvement in the face of the on-going financial problems which is getting more complex by the day.

“What is the lending rate from banks to the manufacturing sector or are the manufacturers directed to borrow only from designated banks? Would the computer manufacturers, for example, be entitled to some tax exemptions because of the expensive trail blazing efforts of being a pioneer?” he asked, expressing doubt on how the nation would protect the computer manufacturers from the free fall of the Naira. He stressed that the entire production chain is agitated when Naira loses against the Dollar.

Hence, OEM like Zinox, would become incapacitated to deploy the computers on the precious Nigerian tables, saying “if we cannot forecast and control the cost of inventory, the market would be unable to buy the products if the pricing is unstable.” Ekeh insisted that Nigerians must be culturally attuned to grow Nigerian technology products, and wondered if we have the disposition to patronize our own products? He emphasized that Nigerians are luckier than most other climes where technology had to grow from the scratch.

“In the case of Zinox Computers we obtained all known international certifications for quality before we started production. We had to go the whole length in order to assuage the skepticism that would arise from a lack of self esteem among Nigerians,” he submitted.

In the same vein, the Group Managing Director (GMD) Omatek Ventures Plc, Mrs. Florence Seriki, urged Nigerians to celebrate local brands and patronize them as a way of creating wealth and preventing the country from being a dumping ground for anything foreign. She, also, implored the federal government to seek new ways of empowering entrepreneurs through policies so as to eliminate the many challenges confronting them.

Speaking at this year’s Economic Summit organized by the Trinity Leadership School in Lagos, recently, Mrs. Seriki advised young entrepreneurs to ensure they have the passion and focus in their endeavours.

“There has to be a public statement, the public sector can empower us more, we did not need to have started the hard way if the government itself bought what we were trying to build,” she said.

The Omatek boss also called on the banks to change their attitude towards startup entrepreneurs, especially the young ones, noting that banks hardly believe that customers are knowledgeable enough to deal with them.

“Again, I will like to appeal to banks that the kind of accounting officers we had in the past contributed to our success, because they will seat with you and plan with you, and then package it for you. Today, we no longer have that kind of accounting officers; they believe you do not know what you are doing. I am insisting on this because funding is key for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in the information technology (IT) sub-sector,” she said.

Mrs. Seriki who dwelt on the ‘Importance and use of IT in a global world and the opportunities in a developing economy,’ said there is an urgent need for seminars to be organized for the public sector, which she think was the model China took and made local brands a government thing and a whole country’s affair.

She pointed out that the first few years will not be easy for any local brand to warm itself into the heart of the people for patronage and at the end of the day pricing will not be cheap either. Citing an instance, she said that often suppliers are required to buy upto 10,000 pieces of mother boards per month.

“And for a completely knocked down factory, the amount is enormous as we will need to buy several components from 13 or 14 different factories scattered in as many towns and provinces in Asia. Therefore, the supply chain is a challenge,” she lamented.

She further advised young startups to learn to use consultants in the particular area of business venture they engage in, stressing that there is a lot to be done in the IT sector and there is a lot to do in the SME scheme and entrepreneurship is something to be promoted now.

Equally commenting on the apathy facing local brands, the chief executive officer, Wadof Software, Mr. Wahab Animusarom, lamented the state of the Nigerian software industry, which he described as ‘endangered specie.’

According to him, the Nigerian software industry has been abandoned by the government that supposed to be protecting it and now left its fate in the hands of foreign software buccaneers from Asia, precisely from India and China; who are out to milk the country and make sure that the local software industry is dead and buried in no distance time. “Nigerian software industry has been abandoned by the government, and bullied by the private sector,” he decried.

Speaking on Nigerian Software at this year’s Titans of Tech lecture which held in Lagos, penultimate Tuesday, Mr. Animusarom said the time has come for Nigerian government and companies to optimize the abundant energy of youths in the country, especially those melting into what he described as ‘Yahoo, Yahoo energy’ to reposition the nation’s software industry by encouraging the development and use of local software industry through practical engagement.

Major challenges facing the local software industry, he said, has top on the list the internal discrimination, absence of a service culture, lack of project management skills, absence of a government framework to protect, guide and nurture the industry. Just as poor remuneration, ranks high in the list of challenges facing local software developers as the industry is regularly bereft of good hands.

He pointed out that the industry needed quality personnel, but currently is like an orphan. “Basically, we’re like orphans,” he declared, saying that good pay attracts quality staff.

Additionally, the Wadof boss lamented that over decades of local software existence, there is no Nigerian software company with pioneer status, even as the same status have since been awarded to several foreign companies in the country.

Mr. Animusarom attributed the success made by his company in recent times to the grace of God and exceptional character based on determination to improve its ruggedness. “You must resist corporate bullying,” he advised, while application must be developed in a way so as to solve a peculiar business problem.

The National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), he said, must develop a framework that protects local brands, especially the software, advocating that there should be an executable ban on any foreign application with local equivalent.

For him, the supposed umbrella body of software developers under the aegis of the Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPON) is long dead, hence it has defeated its purpose and called on ISPON members to rally round once again to resuscitate a vibrant pressure group that will speak for them, because individually they may not achieve much, but ‘united we stand.’

He also noted that a situation whereby local software is priced below N1 million by corporate organization for a year of retainership – deployment and services, while its foreign equivalent attracts payment of about $5m in addition to about 50 per cent service charge by local representative, does not mean well for the growth of the industry locally.

Above all, government through its agencies like NITDA need to wake up, in order to sustain the achievements made so far and propelled by telecommunications liberalization, about eight years ago and carry its mandate to the letter as may be contained in the National IT policy, which review is since overdue.

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