Mr. James Emadoye is the immediate past President of Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPON) and Chief Executive Officer, BSSL Technology Limited. In this interview with SAMSON AKINTARO, he speaks on software and local content development issues in Nigeria, among others. Excerpts:
How would you rate your tenure as the President of Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPON)?
As you are already aware, Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria is an advocacy group and an arm of the Nigeria Computer Society, which is also the umbrella body of the profession that is regulated by the Computer Practitioner Registration Council of Nigeria. So, that puts it in right perspective.
So, if you’re looking at my tenure as President of ISPON, when I took over from Pious Okigbo Jnr., I said it that all I was going to do is to crisscross this country to make people aware that Nigerian children; your children and my children, can write software that Nigerians will use. To tell Nigerians that there is no need for us buying foreign products, be it software or any other thing and to re-emphasize it that this country cannot develop so long as our urge for foreign goods is at the level that it has been. And I am very sure and satisfied that I did it.
And I brought this news to virtually everybody in the land. Like an old woman who is dancing to music and nobody’s clapping, I could shake my head that I achieved that. I’m very sure that Dr Yele Okeremi will continue the gospel.
But let’s look at it, we are a country of nearly 200 million people and we are told that 40 per cent of this population is between the age bracket of 15 and 54 years. So, why on earth should Nigeria have problem with poverty? Why should we suffer? Why should we be hungry when we have youths that should be able to work?
So, tell me it’s like you have 10 sons, that is 10 men, in your house, when it is time for harvest, you go to the house of the man that has just one son to buy your needs. I’m just trying to bring it to you the way I see Nigeria. When I went to Abuja once and I was told that one of the major software that is being used by the federal government of Nigeria is from a country called Estonia, I just shook my head because the country called Estonia is a country with just 1.3 million people. Not up to Ilupeju talk more of Surulere.
So, I need you to think about it. How will you feel if you have 10 sons in your house and during the time of harvest or when you are in need you have to go to the man that has one son or that doesn’t even have a child to look for food to eat? Don’t you think you need to re-evaluate yourself?
We need to think and we need to take it very seriously. Something affected me so much recently. We were at a function where we were giving pre-inauguration dinner to the Vice President of the country, Professor Yemi Osinbajo and he told us a story that no Nigerians should sit on the fence, we should all come to contribute to nation building.
He told us a story of something that happened many years back, while he was a lecturer at the University of Lagos. He said three Sudanese students came to Nigeria and later on they became Justices of the Supreme Court of their country. But when the war broke out, they lost everything, to the extent that when he went there as a United Nation worker, he saw the Supreme Court justices on a queue with bowl begging for food that was being distributed.
Since that day, I have been thinking about this story and I could just tell you something; Jerry Gana used to say it in those days that if you’re a manager, manage well, if you are a commissioner commission well. If you are a Governor, govern well, if you’re a minister, minister, well; if you are a president, president well. What I am saying is that we all must be serious about our Nigeria; otherwise, at the rate of unemployment in the street, at the rate of frustration that is in the street, we just pray that nothing so serious happens to this country.
So, all the people that think that the only way to make money is to travel abroad, buy something for $1 million and come to Nigeria to sell it for N2 billion should stop it. What is the essence of sending your children to school if you will not be able to put them to work? What is the essence of finishing University and all you now do is to think of how to go to Canada; how to go to all the countries? Why can’t we make this country a country of choice; a country that other people want to come to? It is for you to think about.
That’s quite deep. Do you think the country’s leaders are thinking in this direction?
It is not only the leaders. Yes, I agree that the leaders are important, they direct, they lead, but the followers too are even more important. You can see what happens in other countries; when the followers say no, we will not take this, the leaders listen. Yes, we need leaders that have focus, that can direct us and make us realize the right things, but we also need good followers.
With the emergence of some indigenous software companies that are doing well like Systemspecs and the likes, there has been increase in number of innovation hubs across the country trying to groom new innovators. How do you see these initiatives?
Well, creation of hubs are good and relevant. We have some good software that has already been made; there are more on the street. The major problem is patronage. Now, I need you to understand this and everybody needs to understand this; there is no good software until it is put to use.
As a matter of fact, there is no software until it is put to use. You must have followed the story of Microsoft. When the software is released, then they listened to reports of users. They listened to feedbacks and then they do what are called patches, revisions and review to correct the software. No software is perfect until it is put to use. You would have remembered the story of the flights that took off and then software crashed it.
Now, when those who developed the software tested it, they would have thought that it was perfect, but they may not have tested that practical usage, where the pilot was battling to tip the plane up and the software was forcing it down. That is software. When it is developed, it has to be put to use and it has to go through the process of being fully used before you can say that the software is good or is working. The major problem we have in Nigeria is patronage. Now, this country is one of the first countries globally that started banking software. This country is one of the first countries that put its banking software on Oracle. So, if Nigeria were to be one of the countries that developed in the right pattern, we are supposed to be the destination for banking software.
But today we go to India and other countries. You know what those countries have done? When they build their products, they ensure that their country, their citizens and their corporations use it and perfect it. Once it is used and is perfected, they now start shipping out. When you develop software in those hubs and Nigerian companies, the Nigerian government refused to patronise you or your governor or your Commissioner travels to one workshop or seminar in Dubai and say oh, I saw one software and I bought it, how do you develop the local software industry?
So, these are the challenges, we just must have a total change of orientation. And that change of orientation has to go deep, deep to the extent that you should be able to say in Nigeria that there is a national day every week. In fact, two days every week should be declared National Day and that National Day is just for you to wear Nigerian made dresses, Ankara, and eat Nigerian made food; rice, jollof rice, nothing like Chinese rice. All hotels in those two days of National Day should use bedspread, tablecloth, and even curtains that are made with Ankara.
Let us start building a consciousness that we are Nigerians; this is our home, this is our place, nobody is going to develop it for us, we’ve got to develop it ourselves. If we declare those two days, every week, National Day, you will find out that that programme alone will take several thousands of people from the street because you will have to get Nigerians to sew those curtains, to sew this sort of dresses we are wearing, use it to make suit or whatever.
Two days every week, Nigerian National Day, call it dressing, food, whatever it is, let us be Nigerians. Forget about ties, it belongs to the British, forget about suits, they belong to Europe, wherever. Let me tie my clothes to the office on those two days of national days. I must get a Nigerian to sew them, isn’t it? You must get a Nigerian to sew your own. So, we will be creating economic activities by producing our needs. And the moment you start that, you will find out after some time some people will not even go back to the foreign style of doing things. It will just become part of them. And you will find out that we will be moving forward.
How would you rate National Information Development Agency (NITDA) in efforts to promote local contents in ICT?
Well, NITDA as you are aware, is the Development Agency established to develop the information technology sector in Nigeria, but like you know, anything government, it comes with power and money. And that is it. Sometimes the focus may then be a little bit blurry. But I’ll tell you the current young man who heads that agency, Dr Isa Pantami, has done very well. And that is also expected because he’s a young man and because he’s also a computer scientist. But we expect that a lot more be done. Already, he has started the ICT Clearinghouse in Nigeria now, which is a very noble programme.
But I must warn; Nigerians are very deceiving people. Sometimes, when you read memos that are written to justify acquisition of software, if you don’t have the benefit of hindsight, you may not even understand it. A memo for the acquisition of an ERP, which we have, which other companies have, will be written and described as special software for one engineering process to convince them that they need to import it. So, NITDA is doing very well, NOTAP is also doing very well. The procurement agency, they are trying to wake up. I mean, the institutional environment has fully been created. They need to work more to restore the dignity of Nigerians. They need to sponsor more software engineering academy. And in sponsoring this academy, they shouldn’t do it alone, it should be Public Private Participation (PPP). That is, very soon, we’re going to set up an academy here to train candidates who are just coming out of youth service. You pick like 10 or 20 from each of the batches and you train them. So, NITDA needs to key into such programmes because when NITDA has to establish the hub itself and all that, to establish it is easy, but to sustain it is a problem. This is one of the problems that I have seen in the land.
I’ve travelled to so many universities, you will see a lot of visa dishes, a lot of computers and all that established, but they are no longer working because of the sustainability that is not considered during the project conception. So NITDA really need to invest more in the existing companies. The focus at the moment seems to be what they call startups. Yeah, the startups are very very good because out of 10 startups, if we are lucky, one might just come up. But NITDA needs to get itself involved in the existing software companies and encourage them to set up the sort of academy that I have described. And you will see that more people will be coming out.
In the last administration, we had what we called the Sure-P programme and it was very good because I think in this organisation we had nearly 10 and all those 10 that we trained under the Sure-P programme are all gainfully employed. And I think we still have about three of them or four that we retain in BSSL. So these are the programmes that are expected, not just establishing hubs.
Yes, the hubs are good, but then when you want to establish them, it would be preferable you go to the university and establish them jointly with the universities so that after being funded, the university can take over the management. And talking about the universities, I am an advocate of paid education, because we cannot continue at the current level where at the federal University’s you pay less than N30,000 per session and all the Vice Chancellors, Senate members are flying to Abuja, every day, first of all, to the ministry, when budget is being prepared, then to the National Assembly to lobby for their budget. Then after the budgets have been approved, they start travelling to the ministry to lobby for releases. How can they concentrate on the job that they’re supposed to be doing when a VC is travelling to Abuja virtually every week?
I believe that if we set up an education bank or use the existing bank, and try to send allocation that is currently being made to each of the universities to the banks and ask Nigerians who cannot pay for the school fees, which should be around N300, 000 or N400,000 to apply to the bank for a loan, a loan, not for a gift. I think we have taken too much of a free freebies in Nigeria, everything free. Such a loan of maybe N400,000 per annum, once it is approved, will be sent to the school straight, not given to you as the student. Then if you are so indigent that you cannot take care of yourself, another 200,000 loan for you. So, let’s say a student for a four years course will take N600,000 loan in a year. So, you finish your degree with N2.4 million loan. Now, you will only start paying once you’re out of school and you can earn N100,000 and above and you are allowed to pay for 15 years 20 years. This is how the educational system overseas are run, even in the UK, US and in other places.
Not for us to every university VC to the apron string of National Assembly. So, what you have taken as loan for your degree is N2.4 million and you are allowed to pay for 15 years upward. But you only start paying when you can earn N100, 000 and above. You know the benefit of that? It will make our youths to become more disciplined and more serious with life.
Do you know another benefit? It will bring up business activities that will provide jobs both in the universities and outside. You know the other thing that will happen by the time the program runs for about four to five years?
Government will need not even make any budgetary allocation to the universities again. What government will now start to do is to build chairs, develop some buildings and all that. They will no longer be paying for overheads.
You will see the universities running smoothly; they will be able to finance their laboratory, they will be able to buy what they need to buy, they will not have issue of oversight; National Assembly demanding money or not. Not only that, parents will also now start trying to pay for their children.
You will discover that once this program is established, only those who are really indigent in the real world of indigent will apply for that loan. Then, you will have a country that is moving forward. Then you will see strike becoming something of the past. Have you heard any of the private universities going on strike? No. Then the university will be able to pay for their services because their income comes as at when due.
Well, that’s a serious one. The question is will the government give it a thought?
I have already submitted memo to government on this and I have also made a presentation on it last year when there was an education summit at the State House. It is just something that we need to do, we cannot continue this way where our children learn for less than four months in a year because of strike and all that. We need to have this to be able to compete tomorrow in this information age, in the fourth industrial revolution that we are talking about. And as you already know, the fourth industrial revolution is not going to be physical work, it is going to be the usage of your knowledge.