COVID-19: GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO SUPPORT THE TECH ECOSYSTEM
The world continues to suffer from the dreaded coronavirus disease and as at the time of writing, the total number of people affected is almost one million globally. The death toll for Spain on this particular day is nearly hitting 900, while the United States is about 1,000. The world has suddenly realised how vulnerable we are to diseases and quite frankly, this gives us all the opportunity to give recognition to and appreciate those who work in the health-care sector.
In the case of Nigeria, we have taken some bold steps that will help us flatten the curve and that includes, the shut-down of the key cities that have had the most infections. However, some of the questions in the minds of many are simply these; how long can the average Nigerian stay at home without the need to go out and seek for daily bread? What happens to all those start-ups that are already struggling to survive? How would they get back on track?
Last week’s edition of this column focused on start-ups and innovation centres, who are trying their possible best to add value. From the #COVID19InnovationChallenge by Ventures Platform that has now the selected start-ups in incubation, to innovation centres that continue to build prototypes, should the situation get out of hand. God forbid. Not forgetting numerous start-ups partnering to make a difference and help fight the COVID-19 disease.
As of the time of writing, the United States reported an unemployment figure of about 6.6 million, which is the highest for over a decade. Now, that is the US. What will be the case in Nigeria? How will the innovation community that has made our country proud, cope with the new realities? In advanced economies, governments have come up with policies that directly support their ecosystems. For example, Germany is offering to cover 60 per cent of the new salaries for employees reduced from full to part-time and the UK is considering a “ Runway-Fund”, with a convertible note scheme for companies that cannot access bank loans.
These are moves and initiatives designed to cushion the negative effects of the pandemic on the various ecosystems. The biggest on my mind has been, what becomes our fate? Would people leave all the great projects they have been working on? Obviously, we are likely going to face another recession. It excites me to learn that, the Director-General of the National Information Technology Development Agency, Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi, has inaugurated a 10-member advisory committee to advise the government on measures to be taken to cushion the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on start-ups, small and medium businesses, as well as the technology ecosystem.
The committee has the Chairman, Innovation Support Network, and President, African Business Angels Network, ABAN, Mr Tomi Davies, as its chairman. Other members of the committee are MD/CEO, Outsource Global, Amal Hassan; MD/CEO Co-Creation Hub, Bosun Tijani; Chairperson Jumia Nigeria and Head, International Affairs, Jumia Group, Juliet Anammah; Founder, Ventures Platform, Kola Aina; MD/CEO, Teasy Pay, Musa Ali Baba; Co-Founder, Andela, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji; MD/CEO Signal Alliance, Collins Onuegbu, and Special Assistant to the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Kalli Zannah.
The National Coordinator, Office for ICT Innovation and Entrepreneurship, OIIE is, Amina Sambo-Magaji, will serve as member/secretary. The terms of reference of the advisory committee, as listed by the DG include: Devise suitable strategies for the provision of affordable Internet access, to individuals and businesses; Develop a framework to facilitate access to financing for tech and tech-enabled ventures; Devise modalities for encouraging the development and adoption of digital technology use, support policies in line with the ‘Work-From-Home’ directives of the Federal Government; and Develop a support programme for innovation hubs to facilitate access to remote resources, by start-ups, during the work from home, as well as, other forms of support the hubs may require, to be sustainable.
The committee is made up of reputable ecosystem leaders, which gives one hope. Of course, the challenge with several moves by the government is that committees are usually formed for the sake of it and in some cases, are ways to pay back loyalists. That said, I have a strong feeling that this will be different in many regards. Nigerians cannot afford to joke with COVID-19 at this point, as it has dealt the world a heavy blow and what is, even, worrisome is that, no one can exactly predict how long the sit-at-home order will last. We need to be decisive in our actions.
Today, the new order is remote or virtual work, however, our case is this grim because, remote work will forever remain a mirage without good quality Internet and power. For example, many start-ups have complained that their employees are unable to truly work remotely because of these challenges. I can attest to this fact because, in the last couple of days since the stay-at-home began, I have seen myself switching between multiple networks because of the obvious lack of capacity.
Elsewhere on the continent of Africa, former Minister of Information Technology for Rwanda and Start-up Genome Advisory Board Member, Jean Philbert Nsengimana, explained that the lockdown that COVID-19 has imposed on the global economy is having a disproportionate impact on countries with larger informal and SME sectors. He explained that emergency public health and food security programmes are being initiated in many places, including Rwanda to protect the most vulnerable and prevent a humanitarian crisis.
He, however, stressed that digital entrepreneurs are contributing their own quota, to the fight against the pandemic. “Digital entrepreneurs have joined the fight, with solutions that range from education for behaviour change, crowdsourcing food and medical supplies, enforcing social distancing, to building more sophisticated public health risk assessment capabilities,” he stated. “We need to be proactive in helping start-ups navigate these difficult times, because they will be the engine, for job creation and economic recovery, once this wave of the pandemic subsides,” Jean concluded.
I must say that I absolutely agree with Jeans conclusion. Thus, I urge the Nigerian government to take a special interest in the start-up ecosystem at this period and give them the necessary support to weather this trying period, as they will be needed to help ginger the economy, once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.