The Chief Executive Officer, CWG Plc, Mr. James Agada, speaks to OZIOMA UBABUKOH on the company’s progress after being listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, among other industry issues
How will you assess the role of Information and Communication Technology in driving the continent’s economic development?
My view is that economic development drives Information Technology. The reason is because IT is a tool and when you have a tool, you can use it to assist but only if you are doing something. The only thing that makes IT a bit different from other tools is that it has been able to give you a lot of capabilities without the required physical infrastructure.
If you need to travel to Sokoto, you need a road, a car and that is expensive; but with IT, I can talk to somebody in Sokoto, see his picture and don’t have to travel to Sokoto. You can’t compare the cost of a phone to the cost of a car; so, the major thing IT has done is to bridge the gap and by bridging the gap, it makes business and services easier to deliver. The more we do that, the more it becomes possible for us to increase economic activities and we are seeing it happening all across Africa and around the world.
You can trade across borders, cities and deliver services that depend on information being managed. In that respect, IT has allowed emerging countries in West Africa to attempt to rework and get into the same level of technological development like the rest of the world.
To drive the economy, empowerment of the SME subsector is key; in what ways can ICT be efficiently applied to accelerate the growth of this critical sector of the economy?
They are many ways that IT can be applied to help Small and Medium Enterprises. If you are an SME, the major part of your consideration is being able to keep good track record of the business you are doing and the reason you have to do it is because funding follows records; so if you can’t show me that you have been doing business and how you have been doing that business, it is difficult for me to give you funding. For you to keep those records in a manual way is expensive because you will need to pay specialised staff, and it is also cumbersome.
You can easily see the relationship between the amount of credit that goes to SMEs and their ability to keep records. If you do apply IT properly with the product we call SMERP, the smallest organisation, that is the macro SME, can keep very good records of their business activities and provide them any time.
Another part of what IT does is the ability to increase the market. If you are a shoemaker in Aba, you could sell your shoes to a man in Mongolia because the man in Mongolia can see it; so, your market gets expanded quite exponentially. It helps SMEs because when you get them on the web, anyone can buy from them. It is also one of the things we offer with the SMERP, because you can create it to automate your operations and also create a web-front for you in the same way.
Also with IT, when you realise that it can become expensive when you start deploying it, it becomes a major cost factor; but because of the way the world is going and because of the development of IT, it is possible to offer a lot of services; so, SMEs don’t have to buy server anymore; they can use the ones in our data centre and put their material to be able to access it anytime and pay as they go. With that, we remove the barrier of need to buy big servers, have a computer room and employ more people just to manage IT.
In the three areas above, IT itself helps to reduce the cost because you can offer this as a service, use it to inform and keep proper records, it allows you to manage business properly, allow people to provide funding and the capital you need. They can see the funding and see the best that you are doing. By the time you exploit the power of the Internet, you have a potentially unlimited market for whatever product you have. These are some of the way IT helps SMEs.
The CWG, alongside other players in the technology sector, is investing in data centres. How is this investment in critical infrastructure helping the businesses and other organisations?
A major requirement for you to use IT in any business organisation is that you need to invest in what is typically known as the backend – the severs and storage – and this is where you are forced to have a computer room, and when you have a computer room, you need to provide electricity and provide special cooling, and when you put all this investment into your actual business, it is not for the goods you want to sell, or the services you want to render or people that you are employing.
You are spending quite a lot of money buying tools but it is possible not to do all that because you can take the servers to our Code Location Data Centres or you don’t have to worry about computer rooms, generator, power and cooling. Immediately, your cost of operations and making use of IT reduces drastically; it is a significant cost. You can further decide that you don’t want to buy a server so, providers like us have services that allow us to buy servers and put at our data centre and you can use them and pay as you go.
Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence appear to be the next level in ICT development to ensure effective and efficient service delivery across facets of the economy. At what stage is Nigeria in all of these?
You can say that the day you start using a computer is the day you start using Artificial Intelligence. Today, if you look at where we cut into in the general sense of what people see as artificial intelligence, we are looking at things that do deep learning, that is, language recognition, facial recognition and devices that can be used to do predictions. The big requirement for these kinds of applications, especially things like deep learning and its machinery, is a significant length of data so you can train; and without that data, you can’t train and it will be difficult to use.
People are working round the world, some are quickly creating training that can just be deployed, but in many cases may not work. For example, you are in Nigeria, you are giving a loan and you want to be able to predict who will default when you give a loan and a lot of other people have models that they are using; you can’t plug and play in Nigeria, because Nigerians behave differently.
You need to be able to digitise your system; when you digitise your system, that data comes and it is that data that reinforces the ability to use artificial intelligence. We have a significant issue in that we do not digitise most of our interactions; we still do a lot of things manually and in that respect, we are just laying the foundation to be in the position to use things like Artificial Intelligence very well. Artificial Intelligence for medical data purposes in Nigeria is impossible, because we don’t have any digitised medical data; so, as we move along and create that basis, it becomes easier to use things like that and things like IoT.
We deploy IoT the moment we put in a smart meter; you deploy IoT because it is going to measure your power and send the information to a server, and that is the basic. We have a significant challenge when we are trying to do IoT as we should in the sense that in Lagos, we have trash collectors and trash bins, but it is possible with the use of IoT for the bin itself to call or send a message to the office that it is full or almost full. The man at the head office can set a plan on how to send the truck to go to the location because there is no point for the truck to go to places where it isn’t needed.
To do that, you need power even though some of these devices last seven years without plugging them, but still, you need to charge them to power up. There are many things we can’t really do and it is a big challenge, but the opportunity to improve life for us is significant. You can drive a car on the road and it notices that there is a pothole; you don’t have to say it; it should show up on a dashboard and people plan when to come and fix it; no need to go do manual inspection.
The promise for us is so big but we need to get our basics done and working.
Do you think Nigeria is ready for the digital economy, especially since she just got out recession?
Yes we are; the question is not if we are ready, it is how much we are doing. No economy is ready or not ready, it is a continuous progression. You grow more and more until you suddenly become a fully digital economy. It is going to happen because of how much exposed Nigerians are and how integrated we are with the rest of the world economically. In every technology, you can think about, there are Nigerians playing key roles.
The CWG is a listed company on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, can you tell us what has been the performance of the group so far on the bourse generally?
We got listed in November 2013 and the one thing we have established since then is that we’ve tried to meet all the NSE listing requirements and we’ve been doing that consistently for the past five years. Our share price and the price of other shares have gone down over the years. We don’t have a high trading volume yet, but are hoping people will buy more shares and the volume will increase. As of today, our capitalisation is somewhere in the region of N6bn or so. That is where we are on the stock exchange.
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