If anything, the Nigerian tech ecosystem and the government share a rather complicated relationship, largely tied to the latter’s perennial attempts to get hold of the billion-dollar industry through overbearing policy frameworks and regulations.
Little wonder players in the tech space often argue that the Nigerian authorities are only interested in regulating startups to death.
Beyond the much-talked-about success of the Nigerian tech ecosystem, overregulation and regulatory uncertainty are the stumbling blocks to this growth. This, of course, raises important questions about the need for collaboration between tech players and regulators.
In the latest instalment of our Policy and Tech series, Technext spoke to Oswald Osaretin Guobadia, the Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari, on Digital Transformation, and we took a closer look at the regulatory environment for tech startups in the country.
Guobadia, who is also the architect behind the acclaimed Nigeria Startup Act (NSA), the brainchild of key tech players and regulators, argued that the success of the Nigerian tech ecosystem is dependent on the level of participation on the part of the players, and not necessarily the government as many believe.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you describe the regulatory environment for startups in Nigeria?
There is not enough collaboration on both sides: policymakers and practitioners who make up the ecosystem. If they aren’t in conversation with each other, co-creating policies, we will always have gaps. Usually, Practitioners — the founders — want to disrupt, make things faster and more efficient, and create something new, basically disruptions.
But where the problems lie is that the policymakers don’t see disruptions; they see displacement. And because there is no engagement, the policymakers — whose job is to protect what already exists — take action to manage the displacement. So all the policies we have seen target the ecosystem are a product of the lack of collaboration and engagement between the two parties.
What would you say is the meeting point between innovation and regulation?
In other climates, you hear catchphrases like “innovation goes ahead of regulation” or the libertarian “we don’t need regulation”.
However, what I believe, and which was put into the Nigeria Startup Act, is a framework that allows regulators and practitioners to co-create policies and regulations. I admit that there is a bit of overregulation and overreach, but these things won’t happen if there is a partnership between both parties.
There is this seeming lack of engagement. We aren’t approaching the ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) to ask, “who are these human beings in government, and how can I become their friend?” We often forget that the people in the policymaking space are Nigerians just like us, and we tend to create the “them vs us” schism.
What the Nigeria Startup Act does is that it formalizes the framework for engagement. One of its key provisions is the Startup Consultative Forum, which comprises people on the practitioner side. Similarly, there is the Secretariat with all the concerned MDAs. These two form the pillars of the National Council for Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship. This arrangement means that the practitioners are meant to interact with the Secretariat daily on issues that pertain to the ecosystem and create an agenda for the Council.
The point is that we need a collaborative effort to build this ecosystem. That’s why the Nigeria Startup Act has brought policymakers closer to the ecosystem to see what’s happening and help startups succeed. The question now is, will the practitioners reach up and partner to see that we get value out of it? That’s the key part.
I know you are very passionate about the Nigeria Startup Act. But the problem with Nigerian laws, as identified by most tech players, is that they don’t trust the government. Why should founders back this law?
Was there any legislation like the Nigeria Startup Act before? The answer is no. Choosing not to trust the government is perilous because the government will always be there. When you take a collaborative approach to engage the government, there is no way the government won’t reason with you.
The Nigeria Startup Act was done through collaboration. That’s why I speak passionately about it. The law was done through the exact mechanism that it proposes. The practitioners and not the government provided 99% of the provisions in the Act. What is needed is increased pressure on the government.
Of course, I understand the lack of trust in the government: I have decades of experience in the private sector before I was invited into the policymaking space. Admittedly, there is a lot of overreach on the part of the government, and sometimes it looks like the government is almost competing with you. But that only happens when you aren’t collaborating with the government. It’s important the leaders of the ecosystem ditch the “I don’t trust the government” notion and understand they are the government themselves.
Political sentiments drive political will. For instance, if all the politicians in the country see that Nigerians are very passionate about strengthening our tech-enabled ecosystem, they wouldn’t harm it. It is high time that tech leaders drove the ecosystem toward engaging the government. I daresay that the Nigeria Startup Act’s potential failure lies in the tech practitioners’ hands.
The Nigeria Startup Act became the law of the land last October, and many are wondering if the Act had been swept under the carpet. What is the update on implementation?
The implementation sits with the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Prof. Isa Ali Pantami, and the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), which happens to be the Secretariat of the Council. In fact, the Act is written in such a way that it is self-implementing. On implementation, so far, there have been certain conversations about getting things in place. What you notice is that the implementation isn’t moving at the same pace as the entire development process of the Act.
However, I think it is also important that the ecosystem demand answers from the government. The Startup Act is a law that can be demanded at any time. That’s the difference between a policy, a regulation, and an Act. Regulations can be changed, while a policy dictates what should be done. But legislation or an Act is the law.
As stated in the Act, one of the powers of the Council is that no policy can be developed without getting approval from the Council. That’s a way of protecting the ecosystem. But if we don’t have the practitioners asking the government about the implementation of the Act, things won’t change.
One of the things we are doing at the Nigeria Startup Act programme office, which I run, is state adoption of the law. This is because we believe that the fabric of innovation will happen when every state in Nigeria has a version of the Act; states can now compete on policy.
Do you think Nigeria is closer to becoming a digitally transformed nation?
I’d say that it is potentially closer but also potentially very far away. Paper-minded people cannot drive digital transformation. It’s all about having the right people in positions of authority. I bring this back to the ecosystem: tech players can participate in the political process to ensure that this happens. Why can’t the ecosystem be the one lobbying for the next Minister of Communications and Digital Economy?
Different mechanisms need to be in place on the part of the government to ensure that we have a digitally transformed economy. I’m saying that if we want continued progress, we must get involved. So, the leadership of the ecosystem needs to take a stronger position in corralling people together to collaborate with the government. My point is that the journey to a digitally transformed Nigeria depends on collaboration and partnership.
Looking ahead, how would you describe the future of the Nigerian tech ecosystem?
We are positioned to take over the world. It just takes a few things to get us in place. I have said multiple times that the next idea that will impact the world will start from a Nigerian village. This is because we need to get all the ducks in a row. We should look at the education sector and see ways to increase the pipeline of people being trained with the right skills and knowledge.
Against the widely held belief, the Japa trend isn’t killing us. We need to increase the training volume and ensure we are exporting talent worldwide. We can take a cue from how India invested in training its young people who went on to build their careers abroad. This explains why many technology companies in the US today are being led by Indians.
As I said, the next idea that will impact the world will start from a Nigerian village. How do we get there? Education, infrastructure, and the right policies. As far as policies are concerned, the Nigeria Startup Act already settles that. We need a bit more deliberateness, intentionality, and forward motion on infrastructure.
The idea I espoused earlier is a vision statement that drives everything I spoke about. In the future, the new poverty line will be in the same space as the digital line. The questions will be, “how digitally enabled is your economy?” and how digitally savvy are your people?” The future is very bright, but it needs some things to make the soup sweet: the right leadership and vision to make it work.
Related article: Who has the best tech plans for Nigeria; Tinubu, Obi or Atiku?
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