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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Nigeria and e-inclusion


Cover of the week:

As stakeholders assemble in Abuja today for a two-day national forum on National Information Communication and Education Programme (NICEP) network, REMMY NWEKE appraises Nigeria’s effort at ensuring e-inclusion takes its rightful place in the country.

Recently, during a Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO)-organized Information and Communication Technology (ICT) forum at the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja, a call was made by an expert to the 36 states of the federation in Nigeria on the need for digital inclusion, otherwise called e-inclusion.

Popularized by its specific references within the European Union (EU), this term has since assumed a global dimension to connote the possibilities of using ICT tools to bridge the digital gap existing among the people, especially between urban and rural dwellers, the haves and the have- nots.

The Free Dictionary by Farlex, described digital gap as the difference in technologies used and/or deployed in two separate entities, companies, countries, ethnic groups, to name a few; where one is more advanced than the other. Also, it could be said to be the difference involving those who have computers and high-technology devices in general and those who do not, equally tagged as ‘digital divide.’ As well, it could be the disparity dividing the current-day products and the technology on the drawing boards.

Thus, digital inclusion becomes imperative to shore up the livelihood of rural and underserved communities, which would eventually lead to bridging the poverty gap through the empowerment of the citizens, invariably through ICT infrastructure and usage of the available tools, positively.

One main advantage of ICT tools in our daily lives is the enthronement of a knowledge driven society, which leapfrogs into a knowledge economy and even evident in several parts of the world including Africa, with clear records in Egypt and South Africa, as shining examples.

Principal of a Philadelphia-based digital inclusion consultancy firm, Karacomm, Ms Karen Archer Perry, in one of her contributions toward ensuring socio-economic inclusion, especially in developing countries of the world, which includes Nigeria, outlined ‘Eight Ways to Promote Digital Inclusion Now!’ She prescribed the reading of “Innovating for Inclusion: A Digital Inclusion Guide for those Leading the Way,” sponsored by Microsoft and authored by Maria Wynne, Lane Cooper and herself.

As said by her, innovating for inclusion offers a framework for creating an inclusion initiative in a given community, which includes excellent references and success stories from around some parts of the United States.

In addition, she prescribed checking-out the Pew Internet and American Life Project as well as the Brookings Institute by considering how these reports could impact on individual’s community, social fabric and economy.

She suggested a few favourites comprising the adoption of broadband technology and effects of broadband deployment among others. Just as making sure all of related websites to the e-inclusion project are accessible to those with visual impairments.

For instance, beginning with the Web Content Accessibility (WCA) guidelines by making certain that the version in use is the most current available.

Equally, she suggested the promotion of the use of technologies that could assist users with visual and physical disabilities. Setting up a meeting with community leaders from the local government chairman, supervisory councilors, house of assembly members, governors, chief information officers as well as the members of the National Assembly; as in the case of Nigeria, is vital.

Efforts, she said, should be made by opening up a discussion about policies and investment in Digital Inclusion, which could be likened to the recent visit of House Committee on Governmental Affairs to Galaxy warehouse in Lagos. Very importantly, according to Ms. Perry, is the ability to spend some time at local libraries to feel the pulse of the people and learn what could help them to become ‘digital citizens’ by using broadband-connected computers among others.

Essentially, there is need to always update Community Technology Centers where they exist. In Nigeria, for instance, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) with the support of some state governments and members of the National Assembly sited several Digital Awareness Project (DAP) and Advanced Digital Access for Tertiary Institutions (ADAPTI) across the nation, alongside its State Accelerated Broadband Initiative (SABI).

However, Perry suggested as motivational step to ask youngsters and school teachers how pupils adapt to usage of technology to support and reinforce core curriculum.

“While most people think about the digital divide in terms of access, there is a new divide forming around efficacy. Make sure your clients and your kids are using the web to deepen their understanding of concepts, create new ideas and expand their own learning communities,” she declared.

Adding his voice to the e-inclusion campaign at the CTO forum in Abuja, the Managing Director, Galaxy Backbone Plc, Mr. Gerald Ilukwe, beckoned on Commonwealth member states to embrace ICT as a platform for bridging the poverty gap in their regions.

Noting that Galaxy Backbone Plc, a wholly independent company of the Federal Government was established to provide a common platform for the provision of network connectivity and transversal services to the public sector, facilitate digital inclusion of rural and underserved communities.

Ilukwe underlined the fact that his company aim is geared towards effective connectivity for a socially inclusive and commercially vibrant Nigerian society. Recollecting that not quite long ago, GBB signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Nigerian Postal Services (NIPOST) for the provision of broadband connectivity to all of the 1,500 post offices across the nation.

Stressing that the partnership affords his company the opportunity to drive key objective of delivering e-education, e-health, e-agriculture and e-government solutions through National Information Communication and Education Programme (NICEP) network; offering opportunities for Galaxy to secure partnerships with leading ICT establishments, bandwidth wholesalers, equipment vendors, funding and development partners and solution providers.

Emphasizing on inherent opportunities in (NICEP) for the country, Mr. Ilukwe said, during a recent presentation for the members of the National Economic Council (NEC), that more than ever before, mostly with ravaging global economic crisis and falling prices of crude oil, there is no doubt the Federal and State Governments should seek alternative ways of leapfrogging the country into the 21st century knowledge economy.

“Nigeria can strategically position to compete in the knowledge economy by acquiring the right infrastructure and implementing human capacity development strategies relevant in the new millennium,” Ilukwe said, proposing a sustainable partnership framework through which the 36 state governments could extend the reach of NICEP services to cover all state capitals and local government areas countrywide.

NICEP, he explained, is an ICT intervention programme of the Federal Government to provide connectivity for broadband internet, data, voice and video communications to rural and underserved communities including educational institutions in the country.

He noted that the network, when deployed could be leveraged upon to bring about continuous growth initiatives to all Nigerians, even as it will facilitate the digital inclusion of underserved communities, assist in the area of human capacity development and deliver beneficial e-services to citizens.

Already, he said, more than 1,000 locations across the country have been connected to this network, stressing that to provide internet access, the network is capable of supporting ICT-based solutions targeted at universal access, health, education, poverty alleviation, wealth creation, as well as those focused on enhancing public sector efficiency.

“With so many public services going online, for example, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), National Examinations Council, (NECO) registration and recruitment into some government agencies, the need to provide access to people in rural areas can never be overemphasized,” he said.

While calling for partnership between the public and private sectors in the pursuit of national development, especially using the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) as tool, Ilukwe said, any agency involved in e-inclusion should not be driven primarily by a motive to make profit, but to serve the under-served communities.

“We have also had situations where people say Galaxy is competing with the private sector, and we say a large part of where we go and provide services have always been out there and the private sector did not provide those services simply because the private sector operates with a single primary motive and that is profit. Government is not solely profit-driven. However, there will always be room for partnership,” he said.

Pointing out that the culture of competition instead of collaboration among customers and service providers alike as well as challenges with critical infrastructure especially, power, have become impediments to digital inclusion.

However, he said that from these challenges there are emerging trends and opportunities, identifying some of these to include a shift from reactive to proactive services, industry and government regulation, encouraging and enforcing sharing and collaboration, strong investments and subsidies from government in critical information infrastructure. Observing that private sector service providers are re-investing earnings and seeking for new revenue streams and large enterprises are focusing on core missions and competencies as well as outsourcing ancillary services.

Ilukwe said that there are lots of opportunities opening up as networks grow and that these abound within local governments, community centres and post offices, stating that these locations are severely under-utilized.

“Quite a lot of people who manage these locations do not know the potentials that are out there. The post offices in particular are located in strategic and prime areas. I observed recently, during a trip to Enugu that in one of the post offices’ warehouse I visited, somebody could put down 300 personal computers (PC) there,” he observed.

Above all, as the stakeholders gear up for the two-day national forum on NICEP, which is at its third edition, at Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja, there is apparent need for the states and local governments across the country to come up with strategies for heeding the call made earlier by GBB boss, through partnerships with the company.

Industry observers, therefore, look forward to an enlightened session that would further reposition Nigeria as a thriving nation with digital inclusion at heart through political and technocracy collaboration, especially if we expect any reasonable progress to be made in the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the key objectives of the 7-point agenda and Vision 20: 2020.

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