By Ebele Orakpo
There is no doubt that Â Â Â this is the age of information technology. Everywhere you go, you are faced with the computer and the internet.
Soon, those who are not conversant with these technologies will find life cumbersome. From the banking industry, to airports, shopping malls, hotels, name it, things are changing fast. It is, therefore, very essential that Nigeria, and indeed Africa, join the technology highway or else, the rest of the world will leave us behind.
This was the thinking of Mr. Salvation Alibor, the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Syscomptech Communications Ltd.,a leading solutions & products vendors in Information and Communications Technology (ICT). In a chat with Vanguard in Lagos recently, Mr. Alibor says Nigeria is indeed at its elementary stage in the consumption of technology because of the poor adaptation of technology to our needs. Excerpts.
According to Mr. Salvation
Alibor, an electronics engineering graduate from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), doing business in Nigeria is challenging. â€œSome people say that business is a success by birth, but in the case of Nigeria, business is not exactly a success by birth, you actually make it become a success because there are a lot of challenges from the onset.â€
Recounting the hurdles they crossed before getting to where they are today, Alibor and one of his partners, Mr. Reuben Kalu, a graduate of Geography also of the UNN said they started the company with nothing. â€œWe didnâ€™t have anything.
We were borrowing computers. We had our first meeting in somebodyâ€™s house because we could not afford a hall in a hotel. This was in Abia State from where we came to Lagos. Imagine waking up one morning and going to work in your parlour. We were wearing our suits in those days and sitting on the floor because there were no chairs. We started from calling people and telling them what we could do. The person will go and tell another person and the person will call us to come and pick up a web project. We will then borrow a laptop from a friend and do the job and we are paid, we use the money to place adverts.
We couldnâ€™t put the address because where we were living was not ours so we only put phone numbers and web address. From borrowing laptops, we bought a fairly used computer, you know â€˜push and startâ€™ and finally, armed robbers stole it. That gave us an opportunity to get another one. It was on a 31st night, we came back from church and discovered our laptop was missing and we had a lot of jobs in it – web sites, programmes we had developed, our proposals, everything.â€
But rather than throw in the towel as many are wont to do in the circumstance, these challenges spurred them to more action. â€œWe started all over again. You can imagine starting to think again, to build things again. When you are coming from behind, you need a lot of strength, ideas etc to be able to come up and then after coming up, you are taken back again to start all over. Weâ€™ve had such experience not once, not twice but that first one was the one that shook us,â€ said Kalu.
Speaking on what they do, Alibor said: â€œWe are into information and communications technology (ICT) services starting from VSAT for internet connectivity, to web portals, e-commerce sites, software development, mainly enterprise software that we develop for different purposes. We do bespoke software for different enterprises and uses and we also of late, have gone into SMS services, adding: â€œ
I donâ€™t know what else we would have been doing if not this because primarily, our vision has been to build a society that is effective via information technology and our solutions have been tailored to meet those needs so that every of the solutions we bring about is meant to make work, services and the system easier. If you donâ€™t provide a solution that actually meets a need like the name goes, then you wonâ€™t have a market for it. Nigeria provides a lot of opportunities because there are a lot of needs across the country.
The country is indeed at its elementary/primitive stage in the consumption of technology because of the poor adaptation of technology to our needs. So if you see any need today and you are able to meet it, you will most definitely have a market,â€ he said.
Speaking further, he said: â€œIn Syscomptech, we Â Â Â have been able to develop solutions that actually meet the day-to-day needs of Nigerian businesses. For instance, our web portals are designed to meet the daily needs of the Nigerian businessman – how you buy online, do offshore consultancy etc. We study all these and bring about a solution that enables them to offer these services remotely using the Nigerian business model as against those developed offshore because when you bring them here, they donâ€™t exactly fit into the Nigerian market. But in designing our own, we design it bespoke. We first of all understand the business model of that particular Nigerian business or company and we design solutions to meet their needs.
For instance, banking in Nigeria is not exactly the same with banking in other parts of the world so the way you want to automate banking for a micro-finance bank in Nigeria would be very different from the way you automate retail banking for those outside Nigeria. By the time you talk about our e-learning services too, the way it is run here should be different from the way it is run abroad. Overseas, they have constant power supply, constant internet service, and the cost is close to nothing and for universities, it is actually free but in Nigeria, the cost ofÂ internet services is high and you want to run e-library or e-learning services, it will put a whole lot of costs on the schools. But in the case of our company, weâ€™ve been able to come up with some beautiful solutions. The model of our solutions enables the universities offer e-library and e-learning services at little cost.â€
On the challenges they have contended with, Alibor listed electricity, manpower, theft and armed robbery, especially intellectual property as the major ones. â€œ The major challenge in having a market in Nigeria is cost. Those who produce outside the shores of Nigeria sell at a much more lower rate in the sense that over there, they donâ€™t have the high cost of electricity, property etc. And then labour is highly skilled so that with one or two personnel, you can achieve what six personnel will achieve in Nigeria. By the time you are producing in Nigeria, power alone would raise the cost of production so that your price cannot compete effectively with those producing outside the country.
Theft and armed robbery is also part of the challenges of doing business here, especially intellectual property. You have an idea and you are looking for funds to implement it and then someone steals it and implements it because he has the money,â€ adding: â€œHow many people who studied electronics engineering are able to handle a VSAT? I went to school and graduated but I canâ€™t say I could fix a VSAT.
I had to learn that on my own. Most of the things you face when you graduate, you didnâ€™t learn in school so you have to do additional skills development on your own.â€ He said our curriculum is incomplete as it is not actually designed for the Nigerian system. â€œAs it is now, you have to retrain everyone you recruit. The only thing your degree does for you is to make you trainable. But if we get the curriculum right, if someone goes to the university and graduates, he is immediately employable. That saves cost. An educational curriculum is designed to reflect the vision of a nation.
In Nigeria, we are yet to design a curriculum that will reflect our vision. If you go to some nations, youâ€™ll see that they train them to become entrepreneurs, some are trained to become offshore manpower because there is really nothing they produce in their country so they train them to become expatriates. They work abroad and repatriate funds to their country so they are their own countryâ€™s export.Â In Nigeria, if we have a vision for building an enterprise economy, then our curriculum would reflect such and in that case, you put everything in place in institutions of learning that will develop the people to be able to offer those services.Â Another challenge is communication. The high cost of communication affects a whole lot of things. If communication is cheap, you can communicate your brand to the public, and get feedback from those who are interested but you incur a lot of costs doing that,â€ adding that â€œpower accounts for almost 80% of our cost. It is higher than what we pay for house rent.â€
He appealed to government to take care of that because â€œif power is stable, communication would be more affordable because they charge us for the cost of drawing power to keep the base stations running. Power is important because almost every other personâ€™s cost starts dropping and as their cost is dropping, your own cost is also dropping and how much you sell to the public will also fall
The company which is about three years old, and has seven full-time staff and 15 consultants, makes on the average a yearly turnover of about N30 million.
â€œMost of our consultants used to be full-time employees but we discovered we could not continue keeping them because if in a month we are not able to have a turnover that would cover their salary and we keep taking overdraft to pay salaries, itâ€™s better we keep them as consultants and it enables them also to service other companies. It pays them more. God has been faithful, itâ€™s just His favour. He has given us speed and strength in these three years,â€ Alibor said.