Leo Stan Ekeh is the chairman of Zinox Group. Ekeh is a serial digital entrepreneur, and a man who carries around with him an infectious passion for the Nigerian project, especially with regards to seeing the country take its rightful place in the comity of industrialized nations by leveraging on the limitless opportunities in the ICT sub-sector. Speaking to ICT journalists in Lagos, he bares his mind on a number of issues including the current economic climate, the education sector and much more. Peter ugwu was there for Nigeria CommunicationsWeek. Excerpts
ICT as a Game-Changer in a Nation’s Economic Development.
That’s correct. I have always told anyone who cared to listen that the way to go when it comes to taking Nigeria to the level of development we so urgently crave is by building a knowledge economy. In this 21st century, no one has a business being poor especially considering the proliferation of Information and Communication Technology tools and the internet which has put the world at everyone’s finger-tips.
Today, you no longer have to physically leave your environment to gain access to formal education.
With a computer and access to the internet, a variety of degrees can be acquired at your convenience. So is access to new information on business intelligence, ideas and concepts which could radically change one’s circumstances. Information is power and it is at everyone’s disposal at the speed of light these days so what business do we still have as a nation being classified as a Third World or developing country? Many years ago, I had realized that the power to liberate millions of our youths lay in the internet and associated technologies hence the decision behind our “Computerize Nigeria” project which we launched in 2001.
The idea is to provide affordable access to ICT tools and processes which, among other things, promoted the digital re-tooling of individuals, institutions and corporate entities as well as the launch of the first computer ownership scheme in Nigeria.
Imagine every Nigerian being able to own a computer which with he or she can access the internet and avail themselves of the huge well of information and intelligence that is evidently manifest therein.
Before long, you will have built a knowledge economy of highly literate and sound-thinking people who can stand on their own and take meaningful decisions in business and life which will undoubtedly rub off on the nation’s fortunes. Understandably, all these will have to go hand-in-hand with improved access to education which is the foundational basis for every developed economy
Improving Access to Education and Building the Knowledge Economy
Education is the bedrock of development, as you have rightly mentioned. While I commend the efforts of previous administrations, it is worth stating that more needs to be done to raise the dwindling standards.
Contemporary realities make it evidently imperative for the government to beam its focus on the education sector as a matter of urgency and the time is now.
The recent budget presentation made by the President which saw an increase in the allocation to education thankfully seems to have taken into cognizance the need to urgently intervene in the sector. Nevertheless, while allocating 5.5% of the budget which amounts to 396 billion and represents the largest sectoral allocation, is a big step in the right direction, more still needs to be done in expanding access to formal education for millions of our youths.
Today, many parents find it hard to support or see their children through school especially at the tertiary level owing to obvious economic challenges and the spiraling cost of access.
This is one area the government should focus on, with a view to finding means of reducing the impacts on especially indigent and economically vulnerable parents. Furthermore, the government needs to do more in the area of reviving our institutions to average standards which is not rocket science, moreso when you consider that what obtains at the moment is at best a watered-down version of what some of us were exposed to back then.
The Economy, Prevailing Downturn, Falling Price of Crude Oil, Forex
Well, I have always been an optimist. I believe the Nigerian economy can never shut down totally, by God’s grace.
However, the shocks and gaps in the economy at the moment represent our current realities and we must find creative ways to navigate this harsh economic climate. The unprecedented fall in the price of crude oil is a global phenomenon which not even the smartest economist could have predicted.
The only regret is the fact that successive governments failed to save for the present rainy day we are experiencing when prices were at their peak.
Having said that, we must always look forward. I sincerely believe that the current administration has the requisite political will and capacity to see the country through this storm and the new mindset of Nigerians to get things done properly also helps. I also believe that the organized private sector holds the key to a way out of the present quagmire.
As a matter of urgency, President Buhari should engage the private sector to save Nigeria. The three levels of the sector drives over 80% of Nigeria’s economy and certainly, we can only move forward when the government carries them along. Recall that in the run-up to last year’s elections, President Buhari met with representatives of the private sector in Lagos to present his party’s economic plans. This and other engagements certainly went a long way in contributing to his victory at the polls.
It is my considered opinion that the time is right for the President to enlist the support of the sector in finding a way out of the current economic challenges by restating the vision and focus of the government as well as its sincerity to turn around the economy, as eloquently outlined during the electioneering period. In so doing, the President can secure the support of the sector for the vision and plans of his government. For instance, by reaching out to large corporates, influential businessmen and individuals, and even some of our big churches with huge reserves abroad, the government can find a way out of the foreign exchange challenges. These establishments and individuals can lend the government through promissory notes at an interest rate of, say 1.5% per year which will be the highest anywhere in the world and repay gradually over a period of one year. The government can raise money through this means which will provide the needed foreign exchange to enable it meet the numerous commitments and also help it navigate and offset the low price of crude oil in the global market.
Government, on its own part, can reward the private sector by giving them a chance to have a say in government and by looking into some of the challenges being faced by the sector in terms of confiscation of goods by some agencies, multiple taxation from the tiers of government, unconducive business environment especially as they are the custodian of power and they should be accountable to the people who elects them to office.
I am confident that in 18 months, the current challenges will be solved and the economy will rebound.
Massive Job Cuts and Losses Being Experienced
I am sure no employer will be happy to embark on retrenchment, right-sizing or down-sizing, as the case may be. It is a reaction to the prevailing circumstances as businesses try their best to remain afloat. Government agencies are also not left out as they are also heavily involved. Down-sizing or job cuts have a huge, negative multiplier effect on the economy as it not only affects the individual who is laid off but also affects families and other dependents while creating a myriad of social problems. Statistically speaking, there are well over 23 million unemployed and under-employed Nigerians who are looking up to the government to provide employment opportunities for them.
Although little can be done by businesses but the President can appeal to large corporates and even small and medium companies to leverage on reserves by also offering some tax incentives for the next 18 months so that employees are not unnecessarily retrenched in the short term. This is the time for shareholders to cut their dividend expectation for the economy to survive because if there is no economy, we do not have a business. I frankly believe things shall turn around sooner than is being speculated.
Next Big Sector for Employment
I have been saying it in the last 20 years. It is technology, technology and technology. If past administrations invested heavily in this sector, the ICT sector would be earning more revenue than oil with solid hopes of prosperity for the majority, mostly for those from poor homes who have the brain power. Do we expect miracles from oil? The answer is no. Global statistics has shown credible trend in countries resolving their employment challenges through structured investment in the ICT sector. Is it that our leaders and their advisers are too blind to see future measureable wealth? The Devices, Software, Solution and E-commerce sector could employ well over 45 million Nigerians with solid future and could also bring a minimum revenue of $150billion every year. I am not sure what we are still waiting for to save this nation. Is it not a shame we are all waiting for oil prices to move up for the nation to survive? We are ignoring what we have control of and putting all our hopes on nature in this 21st century.
Make-up of the President’s Team
I must state here that I appreciate the calibre and quality of Ministers President Buhari has assembled to pilot the affairs of the nation. It is a very good team of seasoned men and women who can stand the test of integrity and service delivery. ]Having said this, they must be encouraged and made to work and put in their utmost best for the country to bring about the positive change Nigerians are yearning for.