By Prince Osuagwu
CEO of Trade technology company, Webb Fontaine, Mr Alioune Ciss, is a tech professional with cognate experience in Trade and Customs field. His job entails strategically bringing together new technologies and ideas to implement and change mindsets. He has worked in different international fronts including the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, where he spent a record 24 years. While at the UNCTD, Ciss worked on Trade and Customs issues, and was instrumental to digitising the sector in Nigeria. His experience in Nigeria gave him more insight to the pool of talents from Africa. So, when he joined Webb Fontaine in 2015 as the Executive Director of Sales, basically helping countries to optimize trade through technology, Africa was on his radar. Today as CEO, he has a lofty plan to establish an Artificial Intelligence centre in Africa; which he says will open up the continent’s economy.
You once worked at UNCTD. How has the experience helped you to shape the vision of Webb Fontaine?
When I was working for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, we were offering ICT solutions for Customs Administrations. I was collaborating with Customs Administrations such as the Nigeria Custom Service. This allowed me to develop a great understanding of the importance of technology to develop the trade environment.
In Webb Fontaine, our purpose is to transform the future of trade through technology. Our mission is to empower governments and communities with future-proof technology and expertise to transform the Customs and Trade environment.
At Webb Fontaine, our ethos is centred around knowledge transfer and this is something I have carried with me.
You recently announced readiness to establish AI Centre for R&D in Africa, which of the three big African ICT countries; Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt are you looking to do that?
We are investing in Africa because we know the talent is there and its growing, I have seen it with my own eyes. As you mentioned, there are a few countries that are really taking strides in IT, and Nigeria is definitely one! We are looking at all of the IT leading countries in the region and looking for the best fit. Setting up the centre will be a step-by-step process. Firstly, we need to identify the best of the best Africans to power our research and development centre. We will organise bootcamps where we will gather people from different countries. We will be looking at a large spectrum of talent. Not only in ICT, but also need people in geography, mathematics, physics, to enable us build the best solutions.
We have realised that the location of the center is not such a big issue. Today, people work remotely while others will be working in the centre.
Why Africa, for this project?
Look at the technology around AI, you have things like face recognition, right? But when you go to an airport today, you have to use face recognition, which most often, doesn’t recognise Africans or dark-skinned people. This is because the technology was not built to fit our needs.
Although this has started to change gradually, but we still have a long way to go; and I believe the technology that is being developed in Africa now will not only address that but will be exported and shared across the globe.
How will the project open up Africa’s economy?
I think things are changing especially in ICT. For a long time, Africa has been receiving a lot of new technologies. This has changed tremendously over the last few years where we have seen ICT hubs and development boom from within Africa by Africans. But we want to see this more and be a part of this. This is why we will be opening our R&D hub.
The pace of technological development in Nigeria is high and that makes almost everybody who wants to come to Africa, think of Nigeria. Are you considering the country for modular space of innovations?
It is a consideration, a serious consideration that we’ve been working on. As I said, Webb Fontaine has been working in Nigeria since 2006. And we are already collaborating with a lot of IT companies and telecom companies to set up the solutions we are delivering to Nigeria Customs Service today. Nigeria is definitely one of the countries we are seriously considering for this centre.
Are there expectations that the centre will attract FDI in the region?
FDI is extremely important across the Africa region, especially in this new era of the African Free Trade Area that we’re setting up for the continent. I think that we need to continue developing our economies, but we also need to attract people to invest and build companies.
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From a Webb Fontaine perspective, through our technology, the Trade environment is being optimised. It’s easier to import, it’s easier to export and this is extremely important in attracting FDI.
I have taken time to study Webb Fontaine and I can see how much you have increased your outputs in multiple countries. What other plans beside the AI Centre do you have for Africa?
Webb Fontaine has some of the largest R&D centres in the industry that are all fully in-house. This means that we can develop the most effective Trade technology in the industry from within Africa that can be fully tailored to Africa but also more importantly, taken to the rest of the world. We see so much talent in the continent, we want to tap into this talent, and we want Africa to be at the forefront of the trade transformation that is happening.
Are there policies you think will challenge your setting up the AI Centre?
Not at all; we know the policies very well across the region. We are in talks with a few countries already in regard to setting up the centre.
The countries I talked about are definitely giving good incentives to set up centres.
Nigeria, we know quite well and of course have a large foothold there already therefore this is of huge interest to us.
Recently you got three prestigious awards at the Nigeria Technology Awards, are they part of incentives spurring your actions?
I think it was a great honour, to receive these awards in Nigeria. This is a testament to not just us but to our partners and their vision.
Nigeria Customs Service, our partners here in Nigeria are really making strides in digitalisation in Trade and Customs and you can see this through the continued positive results. They are a great example of an optimal Trade environment powered by AI and technology. Even through the challenges of Covid-19, NCS continue to set a great example to not only the region but to the rest of the world as well.
This award is about the coming together of two partners to create positive change.