The boom in the telecoms/ICT sector spawns a revolution so total and mind-boggling that not a few Nigerians wonder how they survived for decades without the ubiquitous technology that has, in spite of its negative side effects, dramatically changed the way they live, work and do business in the last 11 years
Ikechukwu Uche, a member of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, was in the middle of a youth fellowship meeting after a thanksgiving service in Okokomaiko area of Lagos metropolis, Sunday, June 3, when his BlackBerry Bold 2, 9700 series beeped at about 3.54pm. As soon as he opened his BlackBerry Messenger, BBM, hell was let loose. Alas, the message from a friend informed him that a DANA AIR plane had crashed in Iju-Ishaga, a suburb of Lagos. “It was an unfortunate tragedy, but I tried to hide the information from other members of the youth fellowship so as not to cause panic and disrupt the meeting,” he said, adding that the most devastating aspect was when pictures of the crash and recordings of the inferno that ensued were forwarded to his smartphone by his friend. Apart from BlackBerry, other mobile devices that came in handy in spreading the news of the crash to millions of Nigerians like Uche, included camera phones and tablets. Pictures of the crash scene also went viral on various social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn, among others, as Nigerians regularly updated their friends and posted comments about the crash, which killed 153 passengers and crew members on board, excluding those who were killed in their homes where the aircraft plunged into.
News of the tragedy spread like wildfire in harmattan, but that was not exactly a result of an effective news media. Before news hounds from the traditional media such as newspaper, radio and television could get to the crash scene, some people, apart from street urchins known in local parlance as area boys who went there for some extraneous reasons, were already on ground, taking shots and recording the inferno with their BlackBerry and camera phones and forwarding same to others who were still in church or attending to other social functions at the time of the tragedy. They were reporting the plane crash minute by minute using their mobile devices and other social media platforms thus, changing the dynamics of news reporting from ‘immediate’ to ‘instantaneous.’ The plane billed to land at 3:21pm crashed at about 3:43pm, and by 3.50pm news of the crash had reached virtually everybody who owned a mobile device. While owners of BlackBerry disseminated latest news of the crash to their friends, colleagues and family relatives using BBM application, which allows them to do a Blackberry to Blackberry chat in what is commonly known as ping, others who do not have BlackBerry used their mobile phones to send short message service, SMS, to other mobile phone users who would otherwise have been left out of the information loop. That was not the way the news travelled in October 2005, when the ill-fated Bellview aircraft crashed at Lisa village, in the Ifo Local Government area of Ogun State. In fact, despite the fact that some people also witnessed the crash and got messages across to a broadcast media house, the story did not spread fast enough such that even government officials went on a search of the plane in a far away place in the Oke Ogun area of Oyo State. For update on the crash, people relied on the traditional media. Not any more.
The advent of GSM and the social media has changed all that. What this means is that mobile devices, Internet and social media have not only come to stay but also become the preferred methods of dissemination, putting the power of communication in the hands of Nigerians irrespective of age, gender, and social status. The use of mobile phones, Internet, and social media has become so pervasive that access to them is no longer the exclusive preserve of the rich and privileged few. Today, students, young boys and girls, and even unemployed Nigerians now clutch various sizes, designs, series, colours, and shapes of BlackBerry and other mobile devices. In many offices, BlackBerry and other tablets have become communication gadgets of choice for all categories of staff. In commercial buses, eateries, shops, business centres, churches, mosques and other social gatherings, it is common to either see people downloading and listening to music from iTunes, watching videos, communicating on Twitter or chatting on Facebook on their BlackBerry and smartphones. The situation is the same in tertiary institutions across the country where feature-rich mobile devices especially iPad have become a fashion statement of sort, particularly for female students who flaunt it to the envy of their colleagues who do not have them.
But it is not the democratisation of access to communication tools that has made the exponential growth of the telecoms/ICT sector in Nigeria amazing. Rather, it is the profound and astonishing way it has transformed Nigeria’s socio-economic landscape. Apart from eliminating the barriers when it comes to owning a mobile device or having access to the social media as evidenced in the widespread use of the technology by traders, artisans, commercial vehicle and motorcycle operators, mechanics, farmers, business people and even students, it has also helped to eliminate distance, as more Nigerians are now able to link up with their friends and family irrespective of where they reside. For instance, John Aneke, a dealer in mobile phone accessories at Iju-Ishaga, Lagos, recalls that before the advent of mobile telephone in Nigeria, communication was hectic, as one would have to write letters, post them and wait for a week or more to receive a reply if he wanted to communicate with his parents in the village. But now, such long process, he said, has been cut off.
His words: “Now, with your phone, you can talk to your people wherever they are on earth and get whatever information you need from them. If anything happens in the village now, you will know as it is happening. So, telephone has helped to bring people closer than before. The Internet too, is doing the same thing. If you go to Facebook, you chat with people online, contribute and air your views on issues that are relevant to the nation. You also use the Facebook to find friends whose contacts you have lost for a long time. So, practically, the age of mobile telephone and the ICT has turned around things and made things a lot easier for the human race.
Gbenga Adebayo, chairman, Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria, ALTON, could not agree less, noting that “the revolution brought about by telecommunications has changed the way we live, the way we do things; as a people it has changed our socio-culture and improved our lifestyles. It has improved our economy and created employment for people.”
Indeed, job creation is one of the most visible impacts of the telecoms boom. Apart from those who are directly employed by the telecoms/ICT companies and are paid mouth-watering salaries, which are in some cases higher than what their counterparts in the banking and oil and gas sectors earn, there are thousands of Nigerians who are doing businesses and supporting the industry indirectly. For instance, the sector has created new line of businesses including private commercial telephone operators in form of the ubiquitous ‘umbrella phone business’ and a huge sub-sector in mobile phone and accessories sales and repairs. Many young Nigerians have since acquired skills to service mobile phones and other devices. Others are supporting the operating companies by building cell sites and sourcing for land to build the sites. Some landowners who have been struggling before now have suddenly become overnight millionaires, courtesy of the generous leases for site for base stations by the telecoms/ICT companies.
The telecoms boom has also boosted the informal sector through the creation of a new class of entrepreneurs. Today, many Nigerian youths who were hitherto unemployed have become budding entrepreneurs by leveraging the power of the Internet to create multiple streams of income either as web designers/developers or bloggers. Eluwa Michael, a web developer, is one of them. Ever since he joined the league of Internet entrepreneurs, having discovered the potential in the business, he has never looked back. Michael, 28, has, by his own admission, developed over 20 websites for individuals and corporate organisations, raking in huge income in the process. The 2009 National Diploma holder in Electrical Electronics from The Polytechnic Ibadan, Oyo State, told the magazine that online businesses particularly web design is indeed, lucrative. Michael whose rise to fame and fortune is as a result of his passion for computer engineering and networking, said that the awareness and consciousness of Nigerians on the use of the Internet have been growing and many Nigerians are already taking advantage of the numerous online business opportunities the Internet offers to lift themselves out of poverty.
Yet, web development is just one out of a coterie of profitable online businesses, which many Nigerians especially youths are now leveraging to change their lives. Other businesses thrown up by the Internet, arguably world’s biggest marketplace, include web hosting, domain name registration, blogging, foreign exchange, FOREX, Google Adsense, adword, affiliate programmes as well as writing opportunities and Internet-based network marketing programmes. The Internet, mobile devices and social media have also redefined the way companies communicate with their customers and employees, with the SMS now a good alternative for advertising products and services at a fraction of the cost of conventional advertising. Already, Aneke is considering embracing this option to grow his printing business. “My friend just offered to open a website for my printing business and I think it is a good idea.
A friend of mine who advertised his catering services online is making it big time as he receives calls for business from people every day. They discuss online and he goes on to deliver the services. It is a surprise to me how he gets businesses online and I would like to experience it too,” he told the magazine.
The marketing department of Vitafoam Nigeria has since keyed into this alternative medium of communication to reach out to its numerous customers and clients. Peter Folikwe, Director, sales and marketing, Vitafoam Nigeria, told the magazine that a significant portion of the company’s operations is now done using mobile phones. Hear him: “These days we only make calls and get immediate response from our customers. We get orders for our products on phone rather than e-mail because the GSM is closer to customers than a laptop; it is more convenient and easier to operate. A customer can call us and ask us to deliver our products to his house and he makes the payment when we deliver. Our customers can also credit our accounts from his phone while we also receive an alert from our phone too for confirmation. It is easy for us to do business with customers and it helps our business in that regard.” He disclosed that the introduction of iPad has also made his job a lot easier, allowing him to link up with members of his marketing team online and attend to sales and customer enquiries while on the go.
Operators in other sectors are also counting their blessings on account of the tremendous transformation of their lives and businesses following the huge growth in Internet access and Broadband availability. For instance, advertisers have discovered a unique way of reaching prospective targets through the GSM. For many Nigerians, invitations are sent through SMS or bulk messages rather than the print medium. The education sector has also got a boost from various technological innovations that came in the wake of the telecoms/ICT revolution. Today, results of examinations conducted by the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, JAMB, West African Examination Council, WAEC, and other examination bodies, are released in a matter of days or weeks.
Unlike in the past when candidates are made to wait for several months to get their results, results can now be checked and admission processed in minutes via the use of scratch cards and mobile phones. Huge investments in ICT infrastructure by the exam bodies have paid off significantly in form of drastic reduction in cost of printing and logistics.
The mobile networks are also providing the backbone of the e-payment platforms upon which capital and money market operators are now using to drive their businesses. For instance, courtesy of a remote trading technology adopted by the Nigerian Stock Exchange, NSE, a few years ago, many capital market operators are already conducting their trading activities with ease, at the click of a button, in the comfort of their homes. The remote trading technology, according to Adebayo Ajayi, managing director, Ned Phillips Capital Limited, a stockbroking firm, is a broadband Internet connection, which connects the trading engine at the exchange with the market operators who must have been licensed by the NSE. “We talk to each other through the broadband Internet connectivity. The computer in the exchange and stockbrokers communicate with each other and it is open to other operators who are connected. Before now, we use telephone conversation to trade but now we use broadband because it is faster and efficient”, he told the magazine.
Ajayi explained that all an operator needs to do is to apply for a licence from the NSE, and he would be given a licence with a code that makes it easier for the regulator to track and identify the operator when trading via the remote trading platform. The device, which serves the Abuja and other branches of the exchange, uses Very Small Aperture Terminal, VSAT, which makes it possible for stockbrokers to access and trade anywhere in the world. Ajayi recalled, for instance, that when some market operators including him went on a boat cruise to Italy, the device made it possible for them to trade from their locations without any hindrance. The same device made it possible for operators in the capital market to go ahead with trading activities during the six-day strike embarked upon by the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and other civil society groups in January this year in protest over the removal of fuel subsidy.
Eugene Juwah, executive vice chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, has at various fora also attested to the catalytic effects of the telecoms revolution on all the sectors of the economy. At a recent National Stakeholders Consultative Forum held in Lagos, with the theme: Harnessing Communications Technology as a Catalyst for National Development, Juwah said the telecoms revolution has made communications permanently visible, with its applicability to almost every human endeavour from agriculture, to food security, to manufacturing, energy and physical infrastructure sectors with ramifications for e-governance, e-commerce, and the provision of public and social services. It was not an empty claim, as the banking sector, for instance, has been perhaps, the most visible beneficiary of the multiplier effects of the growth of the sector so far. At the moment, mobile telephony is set to have more significant impact on the lives of ordinary Nigerians with the introduction of mobile money platform, which would make the mobile phone a virtual purse.
With the mobile money being promoted in the country, one does not need to have a bank account to carry out financial transactions. Mobile money is a facility that enables people to use their mobile phones as electronic purses from which to effect financial transactions, including receiving and making payments. Banks have also been able to provide enhanced services to their customers through the mobile phones and Internet-enabled devices. For instance, customers are able to monitor transactions on their accounts through regular alerts on their mobile phones. With a laptop and a mobile Internet modem from any of the networks, Nigerians can now recharge their mobile phones electronically using Quickteller service, a simple, smart, convenient and revolutionary platform from InterSwitch for making payments electronically.
Courtesy of Quickteller service and similar Internet platforms that have since spread like wildfire, Nigerians no longer go through the stress of travelling long distances particularly in cities such as Lagos where the traffic is usually heavy and chaotic to settle their bills. Nigerians now carry out their banking and other online transactions in the comfort of their homes, offices and cars. Statements of account are easily accessed online, just as payments could be made via e-mails and SMS using the mobile phone. Quickteller provides airtime recharge and utility bills payment across all InterSwitch channels including automated teller machines, ATMs, web portal, point of sales, PoS, among others. With the service, Nigerians can also book their airline tickets, pay their DSTV subscription and make donations to charity organisations without hassles.
An editor of a Lagos-based newsmagazine, who has embraced online or Internet banking, said he no longer remembers the last time he visited the banking hall to carry out any transaction. The editor, who is a GTBank customer, recalled, for instance, how he was able to send money to his wife in Lagos via an Internet cash transfer in the comfort of his hotel room in Abuja while on an official assignment. The editor, who declined to have his name in print, said he was originally billed to be in Abuja for one week, but due to unforeseen circumstances, he had to stay beyond one week, a situation that required him to quickly send some money to his family for their upkeep. He said all he did was use Token, a device obtained from his bank to generate a special code, which he imputed into a column for online transfer. The transaction completed, he said he got a call from his wife few minutes after that she had withdrawn the money from an ATM in Lagos. The interesting thing about the transaction was that it was done on a Sunday.
The agriculture sector is not left out either. The sector is being positioned to leverage on the boom in the telecoms sector to change the fortunes of farmers. “We are working with all the farmers’ organisations and farmers’ cooperative societies to disseminate information about new technologies. We are reaching our farmers using their mobile phones called electronic wallet. We have 100 million cell phones as a country; in the rural areas, everybody has a phone; with the electronic wallets, for the first time in this country, the farmers are getting seed and fertilizer on their phones. We have done a national census of farmers, we have a database, we have developed biometric information of our farmers and we have put that on cell phones”, that is Akinwumi Adesina, minister of agriculture and rural development, on how the federal government is using telecoms to drive the reforms in the agricultural sector in the country.
This, according to the minister, means that a farmer who needs the support of government in form of credit or fertilizer would now get such information on his or her phone. “The farmers would get alerts that government is providing a certain amount of money to buy feed and fertilizer; they could go to the input retailers who are all registered in the villages. No money changes hands”, he told the magazine, adding that it is one of the newest cost effective ways the ministry is using technology to empower farmers.
The dramatic and profound way the sector has transformed Nigeria’s socio-economic landscape was made possible by the unprecedented growth in subscriber base and teledensity. From less than 500,000 active lines as at mid-2001, the subscriber base has risen astonishingly to over 100 million active, fixed and mobile lines today. Consequently, there are now more than 250 lines to every 1,000 Nigerians, representing a staggering increase of over 350 per cent as against the less than one per cent at the outset of the telecoms reform in the country. This has effectively put Nigeria on the world map of telecommunications, earning it the reputation as the fastest growing telecoms market in Africa after displacing South Africa and among the 10 fastest telecoms growth markets in the world. Nigeria has also taken the global ICT industry by surprise, becoming Africa’s largest Internet market, according to latest rating by the International Telecommunications Union, ITU. The world telecommunication body said in its report that over 43 million Nigerians now have access to the Internet, surpassing Egypt and even South Africa, the continent’s largest economy. Nigeria’s Internet users account for 40 per cent of Internet users on the continent.
The robustness of the growth of the sector in the last 11 years has rubbed off on the economy generally. For instance, from a private sector investment of about $50 million in 1999 when the current democratic regime began, the telecoms industry in Nigeria has, at the last count, attracted more than $18 billion in private sector investments, including foreign direct investment, FDI.
Juwah said that more than N300 billion has been contributed to the coffers of the federal government through Frequency Spectrum sales, enabling government to plough back revenues earned from the sector for provision of development infrastructure at the various levels of government. The impact of this on the economic growth has become impressive. The telecoms sector now contributes significantly to the gross domestic product, GDP, of the country, which was hitherto dominated by the oil sector.
However, as exciting as it is, the growth of the sector and the transformation it has spurred is not without some flip sides. For instance, while some people argue that mobile telephony has encroached on people’s lives in ways not envisaged such as the use of mobile phones to arrange kidnapping, robberies, and other social vices, others point out that most of the information emanating from mobile devices and social media particularly broadcasts on BBM bordered on mischief, misinformation, and outright abuse. This was evident in the way information about last week’s DANA AIR crash was managed. For instance, shortly after the tragedy, rumours started making the rounds via BBM and SMS that the Lagos airport was shut down due to the visit of Patience Jonathan, wife of President Goodluck Jonathan, to the state, a situation they claimed made it difficult for the distressed DANA aircraft to land at the airport.
On the same day, the cyberspace was also agog with what turned out to be a fallacious story that HID Awolowo, wife of the late sage Obafemi Awolowo was dead. It was an embarrassing story just as the country gets embarrassed by the actions of some unscrupulous Nigerians; who besieged the cyberspace to perpetrate all manner of Internet fraud such as 419 or yahoo yahoo in local parlance.
Aneke is one of those wary of Internet fraud, which is why he would not touch Internet banking even with a long pole at least for now. Hear him: “I only use the ATM, not because I don’t like Internet banking but because I am afraid of fraud. Even the ATM, it took me time before I started because of the fear of fraud. I have heard stories of how people’s accounts were cleared by fraudsters and the unfortunate thing is that the bank cannot help you because there is no name of the person who withdrew the money with ATM. All that is required is the password and criminals can joggle numbers to get your password. It is terrible. I may still go into Internet banking because of its convenience to transfer and receive money but for now, I am okay with the ATM.” His fears and perhaps, those of other Nigerians are not without basis.
For instance, Aneke also said he had been a victim of mobile phone fraudsters. “I have been duped once on phone to the tune of N7,500, but it pained me then. Somebody called me pretending to be somebody I know and begged me to send him recharge cards. Innocently I sent cards worth N7,500 and it turned out to be fraud,” he explained.
There are many of such stories by Nigerians some of who reportedly lost millions of naira to fraudsters. The notorious ‘yahoo yahoo boys’ ply their trade on the Internet. Besides, the increased capacity to stream video, music, games and pictures also means that the Nigerian young population, which is between the age bracket of 16 to 40 – a group considered as easily excited by such services as video on demand, video streaming, mobile games and music, are now exposed to more explicit Internet contents. Although, such contents particularly X-rated movies are currently available for downloads in form of clips, the increased capacity means that under-aged children can download them more easily. People are also known to use telephone to lie a lot.
Someone would be up North and tell his interlocutor he is in the eastern part of the country just to avoid the fellow, especially if he is indebted to the person. Suspicious text messages as a result of network failure have also resulted in strained or broken relationships. Though worrisome, the consensus of Nigerians is that the positive impacts of the revolution far outweigh the downsides.
(Additional reports by Juliana Uche-Okobi, Abiola Odutola and Temitope Adeogun.)