Recently appointed honorary chairperson of the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) speaks about the role of the Net, the West African country’s ICT market, challenges and opportunities.
Dr Omobola Johnson has served as Nigeria’s minister of communication technology since 2011. Under her charge the West Africa’s country’s ICT sector is said to have attracted US$6bn from foreign direct investment and, according to regional media, by the end of 2014 the sector contributed 10.5% towards the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Her focus has been on expanding national broadband penetration, under the auspices of the country’s National Broadband Strategy, as well as further implementing the e-government masterplan.
In September Dr Johnson joined the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) as the organisation’s honorary chairperson.
Dr Johnson discusses her career in ICT to date, the challenges, opportunities and achievements.
Q: Congratulations on your recent appointment as Honorary Chairperson of the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI). Could you tell us a little bit more about your background and how you became interested in working to expand affordable Internet access?
Dr Omobola Johnson: Thank you. I am absolutely delighted and honoured to be a part of the A4AI team. I have a Bachelors degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering and a Masters in Digital Electronics. Unsurprisingly, my career started on an IT track as a programmer/Systems Integrator at Accenture, where I spent twenty-five years.
I guess this was really where my interest in digital communications came about, but because of where I worked I took connectivity for granted and was more interested in and focused on how technology and access can deliver competitive advantage to our clients at Accenture. So I must admit that my interest in affordable Internet access came about in the early days of my tenure as the Minister of Communication Technology, when I was confronted with the access, penetration and affordability indicators of Nigeria.
If we were going to achieve our vision of making ICTs a key driver of growth of the Nigerian economy, then we needed to address the access and affordability challenges fast.
Q: You most recently served as Nigeria’s Minister of Communication Technology, where you spearheaded a number of efforts to expand Internet access and ICT services across Nigeria. During your tenure, Internet penetration in Nigeria nearly doubled (to 43%) and you succeeded in surpassing many of the Internet access and penetration goals you set out at the start of your term in 2011. In your opinion, what factors were most critical to achieving these goals?
Dr Omobola Johnson: Two factors were major contributors to us achieving these important goals. First of all making the development of Nigeria’s Broadband Plan and Roadmap a national issue with full Presidential backing and not just a telecoms or IT issue. The Committee that worked for nine months to develop the plan was a Presidential Committee, which automatically gave it high national priority.
Second, the diversity of committee members (telcos, IT companies, youth, the regulator, banks, SMEs) ensured that we had a plan that was not only all encompassing in its outlook, but also very practical; as such, we were able to commence implementation almost immediately after the plan was approved by the then President Goodluck Jonathan.
Q: Why do you see regulation and policy as a key tool to drive prices down? What are some innovative practices you’ve seen that have had success?
Dr Omobola Johnson: A well-articulated policy with clear intended outcomes must be the starting point of any government intervention, regardless of industry. While policies can be aspirational, they must be properly grounded in current realities and context to assure the intended outcomes can be achieved – this is where regulation comes in. Fair and consistent regulation is potentially the most important tool by which government policies are implemented.
To a large extent, sound policy and regulation have contributed to the successes we are recording on Internet growth and penetration in Nigeria. After defining our goal for broadband penetration from a variety of perspectives, such as coverage, speed, and, of course, price, we elected to work very closely with industry, strategic stakeholders and beneficiaries to articulate a policy that would help us to achieve this goal.
Even after the policy was approved, we put together a Broadband Council comprising industry, government and NGO stakeholders to oversee the policy implementation. This ensured that all the goals for penetration – of which pricing was a key one – were always front and centre, as each stakeholder had at least one goal that was very close to their hearts.
Q: What do you see as the key barriers remaining in the way of reducing the cost to connect in the developing world?
Dr Omobola Johnson: The barriers that tend to be most cited in developing economies include funding to build the infrastructure necessary to provide connectivity, and the availability and appropriate pricing of spectrum to support wireless connectivity. I do agree with this assessment, and I think that the public and private sectors in developing economies must come together and collaborate to find win-win solutions that address both the issue of connectivity and the issue of cost.
Such initiatives could include government incentives to telcos to connect the less commercially viable but underserved areas, and roll-out obligations for telcos in exchange for lower priced spectrum. A number of these solutions have been tried out to good effect; now it’s time for developing countries to embrace and implement them in a way that works for them.
Another barrier that I see is what I would call a ‘prioritisation’ barrier. Developing country governments and administrations must appreciate and accept the cost effective provision of connectivity as a key input to socio-economic development and give it the high priority attention that it deserves – the same as education, health, etc. Giving it high priority in the development agenda almost assures that innovative and creative ways will be devised to reduce or even remove these barriers.
Q: Nigeria became the first African country to join the Alliance in October 2013, just days after A4AI’s official launch. What inspired you to take this step? How did the Alliance help your work when you were minister?
Dr Omobola Johnson: My inspiration to take this step was founded in my strong belief that ICTs and connectivity will play a major part in the growth and development of Nigeria. The ICT sector was one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy and between 2011 and 2014 alone the contribution of ICT to GDP had doubled. Remember that during this period GDP was growing at around 6-7% per annum.
Joining forces with like-minded people that would bring the credibility, expertise and support to push countries and governments to make the Internet affordable to the majority of the unconnected and unserved was a natural manifestation of that belief.
One of the most important and effective contributions of the Alliance to my work as a Minister was the provision of empirical research that helped to not only validate the policies that we were pursuing but also help us think further into the future as we implemented.
Q: Increased access to affordable Internet has been shown to have positive impacts on economic, education, health, and development outcomes. Is there one area that you believe Internet access has the greatest potential to improve?
Dr Omobola Johnson: This is a great question because it forces us to address the mind to what the high priority areas for Internet access should be. While as you say the Internet can and does have a positive impact on a number of economic and social aspects of development, the one area that the Internet has the greatest potential to improve for me would be education.
Internet access can improve not only access to education (through the delivery of educational content through various channels to the remotest parts of the world) but also the quality of education – MOOCs being a case in point. Improvements in access to and quality of education will also result in positive outcomes in health, agriculture and commerce. Education for all is a great enabler of development.
Q: A4AI’s recent Affordability Report confirmed, women are disproportionately under-represented online and in the technology sector more generally. As a high profile and successful woman in the ICT sector, what advice would you give to a girl or woman looking to work in the technology sector?
Dr Omobola Johnson: Go for it! The Internet as a technology is completely gender neutral, as are the opportunities for career development and self-actualisation for women in the fast growing Internet economy. There is, however, a lot of work to be done to not only bring more women online, but also to encourage girls to pursue careers in ICT.