By Adekunle Adekoya
IF you don’t pay attention real good, you may not hear what he is saying. Soft-spoken John Obaro, Managing Director of SystemSpecs, an indigenous software engineering firm is also the vice-president of the Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPON).
Obaro comes across as a patriotic Nigerian that is passionate about national development in his own area of operations as we move deeper into the information age. Software solutions developed by his firm are doing well in the market, especially those he boasted were developed “here in Lafiaji in the centre of Lagos.”
He believes that it is better to patronise local software than foreign ones, because, as he put, that is the way to “enlightened self-preservation,” and opines that NITDA must resist the temptation to become a player in the ICT sector, but remain the umpire/regulator that should just ensure a level playing ground for operators.
In the interview below which took place at SystemSpecs’ offices in Lagos, Obaro wants funds dedicated as loans for software engineers. He speaks more on this and others. Excerpts:
Give us an overview of the Nigerian ICT industry as you see it now.
Thank you very much. When we talk about ICT-Information and Communication Technology, which some also call information, computer, telecommunications, many people think more of telecommunication service; but thatâ€™s a big arm of it. But we also look at computers which would be involved in hardware components and we also look at software components and of course, tie all of this together to have information management.
In Nigeria, there’s no gain saying that telecoms has made a lot of impact. We now have GSM and CDMA mobile technology, which has also helped to provide improved foundation in which we can develop the other arms.
In terms of software, things have happened in the past few years too. Many people have become conscious of what software can do and appreciate the value it adds to their various businesses and ordinary ways of life. So, we are just coming from abroad with foreign software. We also have some that are being developed locally. Day and night, the consciousness is increasing for people to know that there is need for software.
Incidentally, we play on both sides and look at the best of foreign software we can not immediately provide in Nigeria, we support them in Nigeria. At the same time, where we feel better producing locally, we produce locally so that we can have the best of what we want.
Let us know about your own products.
Like I mentioned, we bring foreign solutions and local solutions. On the foreign side, we have financial and supply team management solutions, which is from Infor of the US, but we are more excited about our our local solutions, the Human Manager which is a human resource management software. We also operate in the e-payment arena; we have a product called Remita which is an electronic payment solution, which is one huindred per cent developed indigenously
Did your firm develop them?
Yes; we developed Human Manager and Remita here in Lafiaji in the the centre of Lagos.
What synergies exist between your firm and others for instance?
Well, in the computer
industry, we have the Nigerian Computer Society, NCS. It is an umbrella body of associations that cater for various interest groups, including all parties interested in the development of software in Nigeria and we try to work together to create awareness that a lot of things can be done locally. We also see areas where we can work together in order to make strong impact in our delivery to the society.
What can you give as the usefulness of the government toward helping the industry grow through its agencies like NITDA?
Well, Iâ€™ m aware that NITDA (National Information Technology Development Agency) of late has been meeting and consulting with industry and we really want to get more active in promoting information technology in Nigeria.
Iâ€™ m aware they have plans of setting up one or two parkl in no distant future which will be the environment that will promote development of software. I would also want to suggest to NITDA to look more into how to empower the private sector rather than making government to become a player.
There is a very strong temptation and itâ€™s very easy to fall for it if you want to make government a big player. I would rather say we empower the private sector; competition in the private sector has a way of bringing out the best for society.
At the same time, the moment government is seen as a key player, it discourages the private sector from wanting to play because you can’t compete with the government, and at the same time, because of the nature of government, efficiency is not likely to be at the optimum.
Having said that, one suggestion I have for NITDA is that it should work in partnership with banks, especially the development banks, maybe the Bank of Industry to have dedicated loans to ICT and especially to the software sector.
The reason is simple; if you go to a bank today that you want loan especially as a software house, they are not inclined to give their value to your biggest asset which is intellectual property, that is, your codes and systems you have developed. For us to grow to be able to make the kind of world impact we need, we need to be able to make unique these facilities and thatâ€™s why I believe that purpose driven fund should be made available for easier access to software firms.
What has been the market response to your products?
Well, the market itself was low in picking up and even when it started picking up, people understood IT as a foreign thing and therefore, when they want to buy software, it had to be foreign. But software is just likeÂ acting. You will agree that Nollywood has come to stay.
People have come to recognize that we have good Nigerian actors who can stand their own anywhere in the world. So, you find that people even prefer to see Nollywood films than the foreign ones that have noting to do with our culture. The same thing; software is about acting. Itâ€™s about creativity and local system developers are more likely to come up with solutions that relate to our environment. So, increasingly, people are beginning to see that.
Did you play any role in
the e-payment initiative of the Federal Government?
In 2005/2006, the Federal Government in collaboration with the World Bank as part of the public sector reforms actually invited proposals from several firms. There were fourteenÂ firms â€” local and international â€” which bidded. Fortunately, we won that bid which was to deploy our solutions to some pilot ministries of the Federal Government . That project has been adjudged to be very successful, and it has been rolled out in about seventeen MDAs (Ministries, Departments, Agencies) now under the pilot scheme. We are expecting that government will roll this out across the full public service spectrum for it to achieve the desired impact.
Those concerned have expressed the worry that Nigeria may become a digital colony owning to the lack of focus, in terms of a National Software Policies and things like that. Whatâ€™s your take on that?
It is real. Slavery at one point or the other was having our people fall in line to till the soil for their captors. Now, the thing is for them to dump their solutions on us and we are obliged to continue to pay them for ever. When a software is developed, the developer of the software is entitled to some royalty from the users of that software and this can go on and on. So, when a Nigerian firm signs a contract to use a foreign software, he is not just signing away money today, he is signing away tomorrow. We need to be very careful; thatâ€™s the more reason why we need to look at it very very closely before we choose a foreign software over a local software.
To any organisation that
loves this country, if you see a local software that meets seventy per cent of your demand, it is in your own longer term interest to pick that software over a foreign one that you think meets your requirement 90 to 95 per cent. Who knows, the same company that you promoted locally will be in a position to buy your own products or to upgrade people and reduce the number of miscreants that we have in the society. Thatâ€™s the only way we can continue to live peaceably in our environment. I won’t even call it social responsibility, I will call it enlightened self preservation.
Tell us about yourself and this company?
Thank you very much. my background is in computer science and also in business administration. I worked essentially in the banking industry for about 10 years before setting out to set up SystemSpecs. SystemSpecs is about 15 years old now, and we are strong in the areas of financial accounting, human resources management and electronic payment. We currently have in our employ over 450 people in this building and at our office in Abuja. The system work is done on our eighth floor here where we have our team of young people drafted according to quality assurance team that vets what that goes out into the market. We have business advisory team that works with prospects to advice them on which of our services are best for them. We have solution delivery team that goes out for project management and implementation of our solutions. We also have support team that listens to any issue that come up from our client.