SPECIAL FOCUS ON OUTSTANDING CEOs IN NIGERIA (IV)
A SPECIAL PROJECTS UNIT PUBLICATION
BY IKECHUKWU AGADA, EMMA AKINOLA AND ABIODUN AWOTOYE
Kashifu Inuwa, the Director-General/Chief Executive Officer (CEO), National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT Sloan) trained strategist with 18 years of cognate experience in IT operations, business transformation and solution architecture, across both private and public sectors.
A Computer Science graduate of the prestigious Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi, Inuwa also attended Leadership and Management courses at Harvard University in the USA, the University of Cambridge in the UK and IMD Business School in Switzerland. The first Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) in Nigeria’s Public Sector, the NITDA DG/CEO is also a Certified Project Manager and Solution Architect with numerous professional certifications in Networking, Telecommunications, Service Management and Solution Design.
He had a stint at Galaxy Backbone where he held several positions such as Network Engineer, IP Network Field Engineer, Senior Network & Lead, IP Operations Team, and Senior Solution Architect & Lead, Technical Solution Design within a space of nine years. He later joined the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) as a Technology Architect. He dedicated his time to developing a Technology Architecture Repository that gives a 360-degree view of the Bank’s IT Infrastructure and facilitates ease of decision making on new IT investments.
He was part of the team that executed software license rationalisation that has increased cost savings for the Bank in licensed annual subscriptions before he joined NITDA in 2017 as a Technical Assistant to the then DG, Prof. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami. He became the DG/CEO of the Agency in 2019. By every stretch, a CEO of Distinction; Inuwa, in this interview, speaks on his achievements. Excerpts:
Like any other nation of the world that is faced with challenges on the ease of doing business, the Nigerian business environment has often been described as tough, given the realities of insecurity, multiple taxation, infrastructural deficits which include, but not limited to poor electricity and bad roads, as well as the slow rate of economic growth occasioned by fluctuating oil price.
Despite all these and the negative impact of Covid-19 on the global economy, reports have shown appreciable growth recorded by some organizations in Nigeria as evident in the acceptance of their products and services. These successes, no doubt, have been achieved through the efforts of some thorough-bred and purpose-driven Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) who have defied the odds to lead their various organizations to outstanding heights. Kashifu Inuwa, Director-General/Chief Executive Officer of National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), stands out of the pack.
What prompted the establishment of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) and what are the factors that have contributed to its growth?
If you can remember, around the end of the 20th century, there was this media hype that computers would lose memory at the beginning of the new century. That is why we had the Y2K compliance, where many companies and individuals were coming up with different solutions that will help government and private organisations to be Y2K compliant. Then in late 1999, the then President Olusegun Obasanjo attended the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) Forum in Morocco. The President participated in the African Information Society Initiative (AISI) discussion on IT.
AISI provided a roadmap to guide African countries in addressing the challenges of the emerging globalisation and information age by developing and implementing National Information Communication Infrastructure (NICI) policies and plans within the wider national socio-economic development objectives, strategies and aspirations. So, when the President returned, he started the process of establishing the Agency through the formulation of the National IT policy. The policy was approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) in March 2001, and NITDA was set up in April of the same year to implement that policy. The main objective of the policy is to get Nigerians to use IT. You know, when new technology comes, you will have people resisting it. This does not only apply to computer technology. If you look at history, even during industrial revolution, people resisted technological advancement. They felt the technology will come and displace their jobs and the same thing is happening with IT. At the time of NITDA’ establishment, about 560,000 Nigerians were using computers in general, and ICT was contributing less than one percent to our GDP. So, NITDA was set up with the primary mandate of implementing the National IT policy and getting Nigerians to embrace IT both in government and private establishments so that they could improve their processes. Examining the numbers from that time, we have moved from ICT contributing less than 1% to Nigeria’s GDP to more than 17%, with over 120 million Nigerians using ICT today. Today, we can say that NITDA has achieved a lot with deep impact on our economy. When you talk about ICT today, it’s not only computers, even our mobile phones are computers, and most of our smart phones are more powerful than the computers that took Apollos spacecraft to the moon.
The Agency has been implementing the IT policy until 2019, when Prof. Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami) was appointed the Minister for Communications. He proposed to the President, Muhammadu Buhari for the inclusion of Digital Economy to the name based on his experience at NITDA and because communication is not just a technology. The fundamental question was: are we accidentally using technology or purposefully using it to enhance our economy?
Technology is a means to an end, with NITDA’s end goal being the use of technology to improve our economy and create wealth and prosperity for our country. This informed the decision to propose to Mr. President to redesignate and expand the mandate of the Ministry to cover the digital economy aspect. The President graciously approved it on 13th October 2019 and on 28th November 2019, Mr President unveiled and launched the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS) for a digital Nigeria. That replaced the National IT Policy, the policy we were implementing before 2019. For this reason, our purpose changed; we had to calibrate to position ourselves beyond just using IT.
Our purpose is to encourage Nigerians to use IT as an enabler for their economic activities. We want to use IT as a source of inspiration to develop new business value propositions. This purpose informed the remodelling of our Agency, changes to our strategic intent, and crafting of a new Strategic Roadmap and Action Plan (SRAP 2021 – 2024) based on the new policy.
The NDEPS has eight pillars: Developmental Regulation, Digital Literacy and Skills, Solid Infrastructure, Service Infrastructure, Digital Services Development, Digital Society and Emerging Technologies, Soft Infrastructure, and Indigenous Content Development. Our strategy houses 7 out of 8 pillars, making us the critical driver of the Policy implementation under the Ministry. Our pillars are Developmental Regulation, Digital Literacy and Skills, Digital Transformation, Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Emerging Technologies, Cybersecurity, and Promotion of Indigenous Content.
NITDA has continued to raise the bar of excellence through the numerous services it renders; can you highlight some of those services?
At the core of our services are the regulations and guidelines for using IT, digital inclusion, IT Project Clearance of MDAs, Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) registration, Indigenous ICT Company certification, OEM type A product certification etc. These, coupled with our training, scholarships and intervention centres, have directly impacted the lives of more than two million Nigerians and indirectly touched five to seven million Nigerians.
As an administrator with sterling track records in management, what have been the challenges of managing businesses in Nigeria and how have you been able to weather the storm?
For me, the major challenge is transition. I transited from managing ICT devices to managing people. As a techy person, I was trained to manage routers and switches that were explicitly obedient to any instructions given. If I configure a system, it will continue obeying that instruction until I stop it, but managing people is entirely different. I have to look at people’s emotion, mindset and skillset. When NITDA was established, most of the staff members came from the mainstream civil service. The Agency was established to manage IT.
The stakeholders we are going to manage are IT people, and you know how IT people think? They are dynamic. They always want to see how they can stretch the law, how they can be innovative, and come up with new things. So, my major challenge coming from IT and banking sector to mainstream public service, because I joined the Agency from the Central Bank of Nigeria; I came with that private sector mindset. In addition to the techie mindset, we always disrupt things. We don’t believe in status quo. In the Bank, everything is digitized, I have to adjust myself to start aligning to this. While reflecting on our processes, I’d ask my staff, “Why do we have to do it this way?” Then they will tell me, “This is how we do things here. This is government”.
“I will tell them, “If you don’t have any law that says we must do it this way, then let’s innovate”. This is because I was trained as a strategist; to be innovative, to disrupt how things work and to come up with new business models. I always tried to implement innovative ideas learned from my previous experiences in NITDA. As mentioned, you will encounter resistance when innovating. I don’t blame anybody; it is natural, but the only way you can convince someone is to let them know the benefits the innovation has to offer. I had to develop a strategy on how to manage people. I needed to find a way to unleash energy in people because we have this mindset, the nonchalant attitude toward government work. People think whether they work or not, they will collect their salary at the end of the month. We had to change that.
We had to come up with the carrot and stick approach; that’s why we have an appraisal system in place. We have performance management standards. We try and align the purpose, performance and core values. To achieve that, we must even transform the Agency in general. The challenge we had was about mindset and skillset. We had to change the mindset of the people; we had to do cultural re-orientation, we had to get people to know why they come to NITDA everyday, to understand the purpose why NITDA exists. We had to match NITDA purpose to individual responsibility on a daily basis. That’s the performance; we measure that performance and have our core values. Part of the transformation was that we changed our mission, vision, and core values.
Before, we had these generic core values, which are the same. If you go to many places, the core values you will see are integrity, hard work etc. you will see they are almost the same thing everywhere, but I challenge them. I say, what are core values? Core values should be my values. This is what I do and what I cannot do no matter what, so we have to change this based on our purpose. We say okay, our core values, now are people first, we exist to serve Nigerians, we exist to get Nigerians to create and capture value from ICT; we exist to serve ourselves within the Agency. I’m a customer to my staff members, and they are my customers. They serve me, and I serve them. From the cleaner to the CEO, everybody is important. If the cleaner doesn’t clean the office on time, if I come, I have to wait for him to do the job. If the security guards didn’t come on time to open the gate or secure the place, I wouldn’t have the peace of mind to sit and work. If my driver doesn’t come on time to pick me up, I will be late for the office. There was a need for that mindset change in the Agency. Secondly, we must be professional. Our second core value is professionalism.
Everything we do, we have to do it according to best practice. That’s the skillset. You know I’ve said the major challenge is – mindset and skillset. So professionalism is about the skillset. Everybody has to go and learn how to do what they do in the best way possible. Then the last one is innovation. I don’t believe in the status quo. I don’t believe in ‘‘this is how we do things here”. I always challenge my staff to disrupt and come up with a new way of doing things. These are my major challenges, but with this strategy, I was able to turn the challenges into opportunities. When I came, the first thing I was given to work with was a memo.
Today we don’t use memos anymore in the office. Everything is electronic. If you bring a mail from outside, at the gate, they will scan, archive it and send an email to me when they collect it. So, I don’t work on any paper. If you see any file, it has to do with procurement because of the procurement law that says you must keep hard copies, but we will also scan it and convert it electronically. What helped me through was my Minister’s support and the staff’s willingness also to excel.
What values stand you out as an administrator and National Information Technology Development Agency as an organisation?
I was born and raised in a small community called Makwallah in Hadeija Town, Jigawa State. The community is full of enthusiastic artisans, where success means being a good carpenter, bricklayer or tailor. So, my community has two values: Standout and get noticed. I will never forget one day when I asked my father why he always wanted me to go to school while my friends were making money. He told me: ‘‘I named you Kashifu, an Arabic name which means a Discoverer or an Explorer’’. He said he purposely gave me that name because he wanted me to live that name and be completely different.
That is why I always try to live up to these core values, my community values and my family values. Coming to NITDA, I think what helped us was our strategic roadmap to be different. Most of the challenges you see in government agencies, you see someone is appointed who doesn’t understand the organisation’s mandate. He doesn’t have any direction or plan of what he intends to achieve within his tenure. However, in 2017, when the Minister was appointed DG, the first thing he did was to set up a team to review the Agency’s mandate and develop a strategy.
As computer professionals, we were trained as part of our software development that planning is very important. At NITDA, we started the implementation of our first strategy from 2017 to 2021, which the Minister crafted when he was the DG. That helped the Agency to achieve a lot within that period. When I came, we continued with the implementation and came up with a new strategy when the period elapsed in 2021. In the history of this administration, NITDA is the only government agency that has received the productivity award. We also have our internal strategies for making sure you create clarity. We unleashed energy within the system by building staff capacity, improving remuneration, and giving the staff liberty to express their ideas and opinions. Some people hate command and control, creating malicious obedience in a system.
But if you give people the flexibility to let their opinions count, sometimes you get the best idea from the last person on the ladder. So, we created an environment where people brainstorm. People can walk to me with an idea, no matter their level. This open-door policy is helping us standout as an Agency. We built trust in the system. We try to win today by implementing our strategies and thinking ahead to shape our tomorrow. We are a forward looking agency and have a lot of initiatives targeting what will happen in the next five to 10 years.
What values pulled you through the COVID-19 lockdown?
I will never forget the day the Federal Government ordered the COVID-19 lockdown. The President had just launched the National Broadband Plan on 19th March and, during the launch, he directed the Minister to do a lot, with these activities being distilled to the Agency. The Minister gave me a lot of assignments, and the next day, the government ordered the lockdown. I am a person who delivers my assignment on time, but I was faced with the unusual circumstance of a lockdown. So, I called the Director of IT Infrastructure Solution Department.
I asked him about the status of our Microsoft Teams because Microsoft had just installed a collaboration platform like zoom for us that week. I told him I wanted us to meet with the management staff on that platform and we held our first virtual meeting on Microsoft Teams that day. Subsequently, I started receiving calls from people in the ecosystem like Jumia with issues moving essential materials like medicine, food, etc. I set up a committee, Tech4Covid, with people from the industry to brainstorm on what we could do to help people.
The committee brainstormed and came up with a solution; I returned to the Minister with recommendations, and he took them to the President for approval. We got waivers for some of the people in the ecosystem to move essential materials and services. We organised an innovation challenge virtually where three winners emerged. One came up with a solution My Clinic, an app where you can consult physicians virtually.
If you could remember, during the lockdown, people were scared to go to the hospital that time because of COVID-19 as they saw the hospital as a place where you could contract the virus. These guys developed the app where the doctor will prescribe a solution to whatever illness you may have. The second one developed a Ventilator, and the third developed a Decontamination Tunnel that you can pass through, and we supported them all to build the products. They are all doing well now. These experiences prompted the Minister to propose to the President that we could use virtual tools to have our Federal Executive Council meetings, which helped bring the government back to operation.
We developed and conceptualised the NITDA Virtual Academy, where people can learn from home. As we speak, we have more than 480,000 Nigerians who benefited from that academy earning valuable certificates. We achieved more during the lockdown than we achieved in my first six months. That really helped us to attain anti-fragile capacity in the Agency; anti-fragile being a situation that makes you stronger. COVID-19 made us stronger as an Agency. It helped us understand that we could work from home. That is why today, we have flexibility at the Agency meaning we can have meetings during the weekend and at night, and you don’t have an excuse that you cannot deliver your assignment. Based on our experience during the lockdown, we learnt that we could work from home and still be efficient, which helped us move faster in computerising our processes. Today we want to computerise all our operations, from treating a mail to requesting a cash advance, to leave, everything. We can break that jinx and make it more electronic.
Can you take us through some of the innovations you brought on board since you became DG/CEO?
Well, there are many fundamental and foundational innovations taking place within the Agency. When we came onboard, we needed to align our purpose with our performance and core values. We started with rebranding the Agency starting from looking at our logo and changing the way it looks because your logo means a lot. That is our identity outside. Then our Strategic Roadmap and Action Plan (SRAP 2021 – 2024) aligned our initiatives with our policy and mandate. We are currently optimizing and automating all of our processes and activities.
As part of the remodelling of the Agency, we also looked at the working space and made the necessary adjustments and improvements. We also have an ongoing initiative on culture re-orientation; training people to understand why they even come to work daily. Within the Agency, we also introduced a performance management system to give a sense of purpose to everybody. We have an appraisal system in place that checks staff performance.
Quarterly, staff will know if they are performing or not. What do they need to do to improve? Also, if they perform, there is a reward; if not, there will be consequences. For every action or inaction, there is a reward or a consequence. Then, we also have the knowledge management system in place meant to aggregate all of the Agencys’ knowledge to enable seamless transferability of knowledge and transitions within the Agency.
We are also remodelling the Agency to change even the public perception of the Agency. Five years ago, many Nigerians didn’t know about NITDA, but today, people know about NITDA. People are ranking NITDA among the top 10 government organisations in the country, and, we are also changing the image entirely, even in the ecosystem. Innovation is about the ecosystem. It doesn’t happen in isolation. And the government has its role. There are five major stakeholders in the ecosystem: the first is government. Then you have the higher institutions because when you talk about innovation or digital economy, it’s about a knowledge-based economy.
The higher institutions are the ones producing the human capital. They also need to understand the needs of society so that they can produce people that will add value to the community. Then we have the risk capitals, the people with money and looking for opportunities to invest it in the startups. Today, most startups will tell you they need government grants, and government cannot provide seed-fund for everyone as this is not scalable. The ecosystem can help you turn ideas into reality. The major reason we exist is to intervene in policies and infrastructure provision in un-served and under-served communities. That is part of the innovation and the innovative rebranding going on at NITDA. Furthermore, externally, we are implementing many innovative initiatives that are strengthening the ecosystem. Three weeks ago, the Federal Executive Council approved some of our prayers. The Minister led a delegation to Lagos to meet the Lagos ecosystem, Africa’s most vibrant tech ecosystem.
We met and interacted with the movers and shakers in the ecosystem to know their pains, with three areas being identified that need government intervention. The Federal Executive Council has approved some tax and other incentive measures, a bimodal procurement process for startups’ participation in public procurement and a stronger intellectual property system to protect the startups’ ideas.
What are your future projections?
The first priority of government is to implement government policies. Today our major priority is the implementation of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy. We have ambitious targets in the policy like achieving 95% digital literacy by 2030, achieving 95% broadband coverage, making Nigeria a startup nation, and getting Nigerians to create and capture value from emerging technology. We also have so many initiatives to help us achieve this mandate as seen in our Strategic Roadmap and Action Plan. We started the implementation last year, and we trained more than 500,000 Nigerians within a year. We are now working on a framework with the tech ecosystem to train one million developers in the next 18 months. The training is in two forms: we need to train people who can consume the services and also those that can build the services, those are the programmers.
We established the National Center for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics that will help Nigeria harness value from the emerging technology. We are working on the Artificial Intelligence Adoption Strategy. We established the first and the best digital fabrication centre here in Abuja, with the facility open to all Nigerians. Anybody can come and create or turn his idea into reality. With the FabLab, you can design a mobile phone, furniture or anything you can think of on your computer and print it with a 3D printer. This will help people to create a prototype if you have an idea and turn it into a product or service by doing a proof of concept before mass production.
Our major target is to achieve 95% digital literacy. We have the Nigeria Start-up Bill at the National Assembly, which has passed the second reading. We are also working to ensure we have more robust ecosystems around the country. We have implemented several initiatives to make us achieve this target, like building innovation Centers in all six geo-political zones. In addition, we have an initiative called Hives that helps universities attract people with good ideas, train them on entrepreneurship, and help students develop their final year project so that, as you are graduating, you have your startup company and your project is a product we can sell in the market. We also have the National Adopted Village for Smart Agriculture (NAVSA) and are trying to make agriculture a fanciful job by using technology to enhance and create agribusiness’s value chain.
What advice would you give to upcoming professionals and young CEOs to survive the challenges that will confront them?
I think the best advice for any CEO is to read this book, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.’ If anybody can master those habits, they will really help you excel in any position. The book looks at the Maturity Continuum. In life, we all depend on our parents for anything we do, which we call the first level of dependency. To move from that level to independence, you must master three habits. Firstly, you need to be proactive. If you manage any organisation, you need to be proactive by knowing your purpose, crafting your strategy, articulating your vision, mission, and core values and executing the strategy. Also, one of the challenges you see in most organisations is developing strategy just for the sake of having a strategy, but that strategy will end on the shelve catching dust. The strategy should be developed for execution purposes.
The second habit is that anything you are going to do, start with the end at mind. Then the third habit, you need to prioritise important over urgent. Mostly, we are distracted by urgency. As a CEO, your focus should be on how to move the organisation forward. What is your strategy? What kind of connection do you need to make outside so that they will help you move that organisation forward? As the NITDA CEO, some of my key strategic goals are moving the Agency forward, obtaining funding, unleashing energy in my staff, building trust, supporting the attainment of key Agency targets and how to win today whilst shaping our tomorrow.
Then the fourth habit is Think Win-Win by collaborating more effectively by building high-trust relationships. Many people think I don’t need you if I am independent, but life is not like that. To excel, you have to be interdependent. Then the fifth habit is synergy. You need to create synergy between organisations. Then the sixth habit is to seek to understand before being understood. Most of the disputes we have today are because we have a predetermined mindset. We don’t listen to empathise. We forget respect is mutual. T
he first three habits will help you to move from being dependent to independent. The next three will help you move from being independent to interdependent. The last habit is sharpening yourself. You need to do four things to achieve that: you need to try and be physically fit, you need to be mentally fit in terms of reading, you need to be fit spiritually in terms of connecting with your God, through your faith, meditation, etc. Just find a time to disconnect from the world, to reflect on happenings as it will help you to come up with a better solution. Then, you need to be socially fit. It is not always about work. Create time for yourself. That will help you not only turn challenges into an opportunity but thrive in your work.