“We have no intention to establish new powers” -NITDA’s Yakubu Musa speaks on how the regulator is enabling the Nigerian tech ecosystem

Ganiu Oloruntade
Image Source: Technext.

It is clear that for any country to build a thriving and globally competitive tech ecosystem, it needs to have an excellent regulatory landscape. At the forefront of the regulations targeted at the Nigerian tech ecosystem, which has grown in leaps and bounds over the years, is the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), the government body controlling the country’s burgeoning tech ecosystem.

To understand the works of Nigeria’s tech regulator, Technext had a chat with Engr. Yakubu Musa, the National Coordinator of the Office for Nigerian Digital Innovation (ONDI) at NITDA, in the latest episode of our “Policy and Tech” series.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

From the point of a regulator, do you agree that the Nigerian tech ecosystem is overregulated?

Personally, I don’t subscribe to the notion that the ecosystem is overregulated. I’d rather say that due to the cross-cutting nature of technology, we have seen other regulators operate in the space whose mandate affects the ecosystem in one way or another.

Most of the time, we see that such regulators don’t have adequate engagement with the relevant stakeholders to ensure that the regulations align with the ecosystem’s needs. Admittedly, we have overlaps, but I don’t believe the ecosystem is over-regulated.

Yakubu Musa NITDA
Image Source: Yakubu Musa.
Whenever we talk about the Nigerian tech ecosystem in terms of regulation, NITDA always comes to the spotlight. So how is the agency creating an enabling regulatory environment for Nigerian startups?

NITDA is statutorily empowered to create frameworks for the planning, development, standardization, monitoring, evaluation, and regulation of IT practices and activities in Nigeria and, essentially, the development and growth of the tech ecosystem in Nigeria. The agency has engaged relevant stakeholders in co-creating and enabling regulatory instruments to support and empower the ecosystem in the last six to seven years. As the core regulator, we often engage other regulators about regulations that appear to be stifling the ecosystem.

To create an enabling environment for startups to thrive, the agency has collaborated with relevant stakeholders from the ecosystem on different interventions. For instance, when COVID-19 hit in 2020, NITDA — with the permission of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy — set up an advisory committee to advise the government on the impact of the pandemic on the ecosystem and see possible ways government can intervene to cushion the effects on tech startups. Also, in partnership with the ecosystem, NITDA co-created the National Digital Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Startup Policy (NDISEP). The agency is also one of the drivers of the Nigeria Startup Act.

NITDA created a special-purpose vehicle, the Office for Nigerian Digital Innovation (ONDI), to drive the implementation of strategic programs and initiatives to support the development, growth, and protection of the Nigerian tech ecosystem. NITDA also sponsors startups to attend international events to give them exposure and access to resources. At the beginning of this year, two Nigerian startups emerged as winners at LEAP’s Rocket Fuel Pitch Competition in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, each winning $150,000.

Two of the Nigerian startups that won LEAP’s Rocket Fuel Pitch Competition. Image Source: NITDA.
NITDA is the Secretariat in charge of implementing the Nigeria Startup Act, which appears to be slow. What is the situation report from your end?

As stipulated in the Act, one of the functions of the Secretariat is to get approval from the National Council for Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship to set up the Startup Support and Engagement Portal for the registration of startups with appropriate government ministries, departments, and agencies. Additionally, the Secretariat is also required to set up the Startup Consultative Forum, which consists of labelled startups, venture capitalists, angel investors, the Nigeria Computer Society, and civil society organizations involved in advancing technology in Nigeria.

However, the Council cannot be formed without four representatives from the Consultative Forum. This presents a huge task for the Secretariat. Thankfully, our team had to dig deeper into the provisions of the Act internally and found that Section 44 provides that the President gives the Council directives of general or specific nature relating to policy matters.

So, we leveraged that, and through the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, the President’s approval was secured to establish the portal.. We are currently working with relevant stakeholders to have the Portal in place, and the Federal Government recently set up a committee to kickstart the implementation process.

Read also: Nigeria Startup Act: FG sets up implementation committee, plans to spend N10bn yearly.

In January, NITDA, the NSA project team, and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) were on a learning trip to Tunisia to understudy their startup act. What were the major learning points for Nigeria? 

The delegation met with various actors within the Tunisian startup ecosystem, and we understood the various roles they are playing in terms of the implementation of the country’s startup act. It’s important to note that out of the five African countries that have enacted a startup act, only Tunisia has successfully implemented its act.

We understudied their processes and challenges. The key learning point for me is the synergy between the various stakeholders, especially how the public and private sectors are working together to implement their act. This level of collaboration is what we intend to sustain towards the implementation of the Nigeria Startup Act. Also, the transparency and accountability in processes we observed in Tunisia are other learning points.

The proposed amendment of the NITDA Act has sparked some reactions, as many say the bill will ​​give the Agency too much power and create bottlenecks for tech startups. What’s your take on this?

It is a misconception that we always tend to address when the opportunity arises. The NITDA Bill doesn’t seek to create bottlenecks for tech startups or other stakeholders. It also doesn’t seek to establish new powers for the agency. Rather it is more focused on streamlining the powers and functions of the agency as stated in the NITDA Act 2007 and taking the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS) into consideration.

Again, NITDA has no intention to establish new powers but redefine its existing functions within the provisions of the law.

How will the NITDA Bill align with the Nigeria Startup Act?

The NITDA Bill is designed to complement the Nigeria Startup Act. The agency doesn’t see any conflict or inconsistencies between the two acts. Instead, we see an opportunity to re-emphasize our role in enabling the Nigerian tech ecosystem.

Read also: Oswald Osaretin Guobadia tasks players in the Nigerian tech ecosystem with political involvement

Last June, NITDA introduced a draft Code of Practice for operations of Interactive Computer Service Platforms/Internet Intermediaries in Nigeria. Still, many Nigerians saw this move as a disguised attempt to regulate social media. How would you react to this?​​

For the avoidance of doubt, the code of practice was developed in consultation with the interactive computer service platforms and in collaboration with relevant agencies, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders. What the code set out is just the best practices to safeguard Nigerians not just against unlawful content online but also against lawful but harmful content. Furthermore, the code of practice aims to protect Nigerians and define a set of guidelines to enable interaction in the digital ecosystem.

The code of practice also goes a step further to provide measures for disinformation and misinformation (fake news), and it is the first of its kind in Africa. Like the rest of the world, Nigeria is concerned about online activities that affect offline activities. Even during the recent elections, we worked with Big Tech to ensure that fake news isn’t spread all over platforms.

On a closer look, some provisions of the code of practice raise concerns. A case in point is how the government can compel a platform to remove certain content. This could be misused to infringe on citizens’ human rights. Should we be scared?

These are valid concerns, no doubt, especially because we practice democracy. As I said, the target is to ensure that even if certain content is lawful but can end up being harmful to the country, nobody would want to sit and watch people use harmful content to destroy the country. This isn’t applicable to just Nigeria. It happens even in advanced democracies. In essence, the code of practice wasn’t conceived to gag people from airing their opinions as long as such opinions aren’t harmful to the larger society.

Away from regulations, how is NITDA addressing the talent gap in the Nigerian tech ecosystem, especially with the “japa” wave?

The talent gap isn’t peculiar to Nigeria, rather, it is a global problem. For instance, a report by Korn Ferry says that there will be a global talent deficiency of about 85 million jobs by the year 2030. So NITDA intends to leverage Nigeria’s large youthful population not only to address the talent needs of the tech ecosystem but also to position Nigeria as a global talent factory to render services to establishments within the country, Africa, and the rest of the world.

NITDA created the Digital Literacy and Capacity Development department last year to drive the mandate of building a critical mass of tech talent within the country. The department is currently driving a partnership between the agency and CcHUB to conduct a talent gap assessment whose goal is to collate data about the existing talent within the country. The outcome of that assessment will help create initiatives, incentives, and regulatory instruments that will supercharge supply to meet the demand in the ecosystem.

Additionally, the agency has the One Million Developers initiative to pilot a private-public partnership in building talent. The Digital Literacy and Capacity Development department has also embarked on different trainings for young Nigerians on relevant tech skills. NITDA also runs an online academy. There are other projects in the pipeline to upscale the capacity of Nigerians in skills development and capacity building.

It is also noteworthy that the DLCD department, in partnership with local and foreign volunteer experts, reviewed the National Digital Skills Strategy (NDSS) draft document. DLCD has engaged relevant Government Stakeholders and multinational stakeholders for their input and recommendations to the draft document. However, the engagement is still ongoing. When this process is concluded, the NDSS document will be adopted by Nigerians and implemented, thereby addressing the talent gap problem in the Nigerian technology ecosystem*.

Image Source: Yakubu Musa.
How would you describe the future of the Nigerian tech ecosystem in terms of regulation?

From the point of regulations, I see a very bright future for the Nigerian tech ecosystem. Why? Under the agency’s current leadership, there has been a change in how NITDA issues its regulatory instruments, and we often co-create these instruments with the ecosystem. The DG has always stressed the need for co-created regulations to ensure that the needs of the tech ecosystem are met and enable its growth rather than stifling it.

Also, having the Nigeria Startup Act in place is a game changer for the ecosystem since the law will now ensure that going forward, all regulations won’t have overlaps and inconsistencies. I believe that the Act will ensure that the much-needed enabling environment is created for startups.

Read also: Nigeria Startup Act’s Project Manager, Victor Famubode, discusses its implementation and impact

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