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Beyond Selfies: Zuckerberg’s Visit and The Knowledge Economy, By Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú

Zuckerberg-at-Co-creation-Hub

Nigeria is light years behind in the new knowledge economy. For it to compete, ground work must be laid to become factor driven, efficiency driven and innovation driven. A lot of work needs to be done in education and skills development, power generation and distribution, technological readiness and innovation.

Beyond the selfies and the ordinariness of Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance, his visit articulates the need for growing a knowledge-based economy in Nigeria. This millennium is the age of the knowledge economy, where research and innovation are central to development and economic growth. Zukerberg’s Facebook and many other knowledge based platforms show how access to digital technologies could fundamentally transform life in different ways, create employment and new economic opportunities. His visit, hopefully, highlights pertinent issues relating to the underfunding of public education, spiralling youth unemployment, potentials for economic growth and human capital development in Nigeria.

Nigeria cannot succeed or compete with its current short term fixes. We must begin to think and add value to commodities. Widespread poverty, unemployment and want, will be difficult to conquer as long as we rely on just offering raw natural resources for sale without adding value to these. While Nigeria is excited about finding high grade nickel in Dangoma, hoping to reap from an abundant and largely unskilled labour force to exploit nickel and other natural resources to drive growth, developed economies derive their growth from companies who mine data. While we focus on harvesting peanuts and cowpeas, they are harvesting mobile apps. Without doubt, information is the new face of prosperity. We are light years behind but we can still be at the dinner table.

Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge economy” in 1969 to describe a shift from traditional economies to one relying on the production and use of knowledge. The important components and foundation for the new economy are academic institutions and companies engaged in research and development, the programmers who develop new software and search engines to utilise data, the health workers who use data to improve treatments and those who educate others by applying this knowledge. The products of this economy improve the work environment, change human interactions and create efficient supply chains in many traditional fields, thus spurring productivity and growth.

At the heart of the knowledge economy is information and communication technologies (ICT). Nigeria cannot achieve any progress in the knowledge economy without good educational systems, available skilled labour, institutional structures that support entrepreneurship, high speed internet, ICT infrastructure and an innovation-driven academia, a cooperative private sector, and the general public. Unfortunately, Nigeria trails on these indices. We are lagging as creators and users of online knowledge.

Apart from these isolated entrepreneurial efforts in Lagos, Nigeria must create an official plan to improve Internet penetration and access through a mixture of business incentives and infrastructural development. Erratic electricity supply remains a big obstacle to Nigeria’s development, alongside a low literacy rate.

With a population at 170 million and growing, the world sees us as a ready market for its products. That is the reason behind Mark Zuckerberg’s visit and he chose Nigeria and Kenya for a reason. The market in the Americas are saturated and growth is flat. Africa presents a new frontier of youthful consumers on the social media platform. He wants to target them. Kenya is Africa’s leading technology hub. Through its Vision 2030 plan, the Kenyan government hopes to make ICT companies account for ten percent of GDP by 2030. Vision 2030 has produced many digital innovation centres in Kenya with a technology park in Nairobi. Nairobi’s iHub has almost 20,000 members and more than 150 companies. It is the watering hole for young entrepreneurs, investors and technology partners in Africa. Lagos is coming up but relative to our population, we are below par. During his visit, he highlighted an IT hub in Yaba. Lagos has dynamic start-up scenes where companies have launched mobile apps, education websites and consumer payment services, gaming apps and do on. These concerns employ talents with tremendous skills in programming, engineering and business administration. These companies will bring better wages to the state’s economy and build human and technical capacity.

Apart from these isolated entrepreneurial efforts in Lagos, Nigeria must create an official plan to improve Internet penetration and access through a mixture of business incentives and infrastructural development. Erratic electricity supply remains a big obstacle to Nigeria’s development, alongside a low literacy rate. The issue of power must be tackled as a national emergency. Without literacy it is impossible to access the troves of information needed to create the knowledge economy. With 40 percent of Nigerian adults as illiterates, it means a large swath of the population cannot contribute nor participate in the knowledge economy in any meaningful way.

For Nigerian productivity to become more diversified, building a knowledge economy is the most sustainable way to drive growth while providing citizens with higher incomes and more fulfilling work. Building a knowledge economy takes quality and accessible higher education, sound information infrastructure, better research and development capabilities, innovation, the right economic institutions and autonomy to collaborate and share information.

Investing in institutions, funding and strengthening industry-university partnerships, promoting cross-border institutional partnerships will help create greater opportunities. This can be part of the diversification from oil. It takes time for the effort to yield but the time to start is now!

Nigeria is light years behind in the new knowledge economy. For it to compete, ground work must be laid to become factor driven, efficiency driven and innovation driven. A lot of work needs to be done in education and skills development, power generation and distribution, technological readiness and innovation. Serious and focused actions must be taken to bridge the gaps in the quality of education and planned increase in tertiary education enrollment rates.

Apart from investment in education, Nigeria will need to invest in hard and soft infrastructure to facilitate knowledge creation and diffusion. It will have to invest in building a public sector that collaborates with the private sector to nurture knowledge and innovation. There can be no short cut to this. Nigeria must do it right to be competitive in the long run. It cannot afford to tow the Chinese or the Indian path by producing knowledge-intensive goods and services alone. Instead, it must make sure knowledge is internalised and disseminated within the economy. Critical to success is an educated and skilled workforce. Investing in institutions, funding and strengthening industry-university partnerships, promoting cross-border institutional partnerships will help create greater opportunities. This can be part of the diversification from oil. It takes time for the effort to yield but the time to start is now!

Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú, a farmer, youth advocate and political analyst writes this weekly column – “Bamidele Upfront” for the Premium Times. Follow me on Twitter @olufunmilayo

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