Taiwo Otiti, the country general manager for IBM West Africa, is responsible for the business operations and growth strategies in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and other emerging markets in Anglophone West Africa. An accomplished technology and financial services professional, he worked at Afribank Nigeria Plc and First Bank of Nigeria Plc as group chief information officer and group head of information technology respectively, prior to joining IBM. His career has seen him in the forefront of landmark developments in the financial services and technology industries, where he developed the strategic blueprints and drove the implementation of numerous organisational and industry-wide initiatives. These include the design and roll-out of Nigeria’s online banking platforms, ATM networks, e-Payment and Point-Of-Sales systems now widely deployed by the retail and financial services industries in the country. He is the current chair of the Nigeria Institute of Bankers Information Technology Technical Committee, and a member of several government, banking and technology industry associations and think-tanks. Otiti, who has BSc and MSc degrees in physics and computer science from Carleton University, Canada and Loughborough University of Technology, England, respectively, talks about IBM’s recent forays into Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa.
Q: What is behind IBM’s pro-Africa focus?
A: Africa is a key part of IBM’s geo-expansion strategy. Africa, China, India and Brazil are all fast-growing economies and, as such, are part of our global geo-expansion drive. The world’s emerging markets have tremendous growth opportunities, thanks to the transformative powers of extant technologies.
Our Africa footprint continues to grow in tandem with this trend. IBM has, in recent times, made substantial investments in Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and Kenya, where we have expanded our customer offerings and staff strength. We have also brought IBM’s business consultancy capability, which is one of the biggest worldwide, to Africa.
Q: IBM recently established its first research laboratory on the continent in Kenya. What informed the choice of Kenya over Nigeria, and what does this portend for the growth of technology in Africa?
A: We need to look at the bigger picture here, and not just narrow our perspectives to the debate over the location of the laboratory. The fact of the matter is that the first IBM research laboratory on African soil is for Africa but, indeed, it is also for humanity; it is manned by a multinational team of professionals, researchers and scientists, many of whom are Africans and friends of Africa. So, really, it is about entrenching the culture of research and development amongst our people whereby we can help make the successful and meaningful connect between academia, advanced research and the business environment.
So, of course, Kenyans will expect to benefit from having this laboratory in their country. Proximity helps but in this day and age, scientific research and knowledge engineering are often ‘location neutral’, due again largely to advances made in ICT. In the years ahead, the impact of the research lab will be felt across the African continent.
This is just the beginning of many more IBM-driven science and technology initiatives in Africa. The issue really is about IBM’s desire to incubate scientific and engineering knowledge everywhere it goes.
IBM understands research and development, which is critical for Africa’s future, but R&D is not cheap. Successful R&D will require focus and commitment from all stakeholders. Like Kenya, Nigeria also has a budding technology sector. So, in my view, the IBM technology laboratory in Nairobi is a milestone development for Africa and an indication of IBM’s continued commitment to Africa.
Q: What are the key challenges that you face in doing business in Africa?
A: A lot of people think or visualise Africa as one country. But it is not as homogenous as it sounds. Every region or country in Africa has its own challenges. Learning to deal with them is very important. Putting in place strategic management and business control measures specific to each country is one of our strategies of dealing with these challenges. We are learning a lot and reinjecting our learning into our strategic road map.
Q: In Ghana, IBM recently built a customised data centre for Ghana’s Fidelity Bank. What does this portend for Ghana?
A: IBM is a leading data services company and the leading provider of data centres globally. The Fidelity Bank deal was a competitive one. Our team in Ghana successfully convinced the management of Fidelity Bank Ghana to go with IBM’s data centre solution. The bank has its sights set on its growth plans and wanted a database management solution that was scaleable and able to cater to its expanding service delivery obligations. Clearly, our ongoing relationship with Fidelity Bank means that the bank’s customers, and by extension the Ghanaian environment, will be benefiting from the latest data centre technology.
IBM operates some of the biggest data centres in the world. We build and manage data centres for customers in many economic sectors, and industries. In Africa, IBM provides and manages the technology infrastructure that supports Airtel’s cellular network across its entire sub-Saharan Africa operations.
The thing about doing business with IBM is that we are a globally experienced company with an unrivalled pipeline of scientific knowledge and technologies which we make available to our customers wherever they are.
Since 2010, when we opened our Ghana office, our portfolio of clients has grown, we are supporting clients in a variety of sectors. We have also delivered free consultancy services to municipal authorities in Accra, Takoradi and Tarkwa through our Executive Services Corps (ESC) and Corporate Services Corps (CSC) teams, which go to these local authorities investigating specific public sector administration issues and challenges, and proffering smart and tech-friendly solutions to these issues.
The same applies to Nigeria, where several CSC teams have done pro bono work in Abuja and Calabar over the last three years. The quest for adding value to the business environment and society is embedded in the DNA of the company.
Q: How would you rate the ICT environment in Nigeria? Is it at par with global standards?
A: We have been quite lucky in Nigeria; our late adoption of certain technologies has allowed us to deploy the latest available technologies. So we sometimes tend to leapfrog from behind without realising it. Africa’s ICT environment is not yet a level arena, and talk of being at par with global standards is a relative thing; it is also a matter of policy and regulatory environment and the society’s appetite for change.
In some ICT areas, a relatively more developed economy like South Africa, for instance, is still on legacy systems, whereas the rest of Africa has leapfrogged these. In terms of telecommunications infrastructure, Nigeria is using very modern technology and when it comes to banking, we are also using very modern technology. Our payment systems are also up to full standards.
But if you talk about risk management, credit management and market risk, we are not there yet. Globally, those are revolving around the Basel 3 now, not Basel 2. So in some areas we are mature and in others we are emerging out of the woods.
Again, if you talk about credit risk assessment and management systems, our practice and knowledge level is good and the integrity of our processes is progressing towards excellence. We are getting to the maturity stage in those kinds of areas. The systems are there, but we need a few more things to be done. The size and complexity of our economy may sometimes mean that progress may be slow.
Generally, though, technology awareness is up in Nigeria, however, there are still a lot of ICT deficiencies in our society, in business and in governance. You know, even the concept of global standards is a constantly evolving one. We have done well in telecommunications. Nigeria’s telecoms industry is the toast of the world. But we need to build on this telecoms and datacoms infrastructure and move the environment to the next level.
There is tremendous opportunity for private and public sector stakeholders to partner with technology firms in a lot of areas. For instance, power, health care, education, transportation management, law and order, business analytics, computing, etc. The electronic and digital solutions to these ecosystems are available in the market place.
We need to think beyond today’s ICT requirements and deploy smart technology solutions. Many of our technology initiatives are operating in their own silos and we just need to connect and develop our ICT landscape into a system of smarter sub-systems working in harmony with our social and cultural ethos.
Q: What significant changes has Nigeria’s banking system witnessed in the last decade in terms of ICT?
A: The Nigerian banking system is in a growth phase presently. The banking consolidation and reform exercises of the recent past helped fast track the growth and adoption of ICT. Every Nigerian bank now understands the power of technology. Funding for ICT in banks has quadrupled in the last five years. Services and outsourcing have also become a growing trend in the financial services industry. Luckily for us, our well-earned reputation as the world’s biggest technology solutions service provider has helped. About 70% of the banks in Nigeria now use IBM technology.
Q: Do you think Nigeria is ready for the ‘cashless economy’ drive of the Central Bank?
A: The banks already have the IT infrastructure. It is the same infrastructure that runs the ATMs that will run the cashless society. The Central Bank understands this, but we all need to help promote and support the vision. Our banking and cash management practices need to become smarter. We also need to do a lot of consumer education. The telecommunications infrastructure and technology support for the retail sector also need to be improved.
One of key issues for merchants and banks involved in e-transactions in this environment is the transaction-to-settlement cycle. I believe the current pains of the emerging cashless society will be gradually fixed. There is still a lot of learning going on, on all sides.
Q: Where do you see IBM in Nigeria in the next five years?
A: IBM will continue to grow in line with our global business strategy and helping to fulfil the company’s emerging market growth objectives. As Africa’s number-two economy, Nigeria is a key market and our business here is a crucial contributor to IBM’s 2010–2012 road map. We see a lot of opportunity and potential in well structured public-private sector partnerships (PPPs) going forward. So IBM will be fully on ground and part of the business and economic success stories of the Nigerian environment.
Q: How is IBM’s ‘Smarter Planet’ concept expected to raise the standard of living of people and impact on businesses and governments?
A: The Smarter Planet concept is IBM’s grand vision for society; it is the future of computing power and technology. It seeks to upgrade and smarten up our way of living and working. Our Smarter Planet concept begins from the premise that everything in life and in society is a system of sub-systems all interlinked into a series of ecosystems. So within this smarter planet philosophy and conceptual framework reside our smarter health, smarter transportation, smarter government, smarter education, smarter energy, smarter power and smarter banking platforms and so on.
Some of the key development issues in Africa today are infrastructure, healthcare and education. Governments, businesses and social service providers in Africa require smarter solutions if we are ever going to transform our societies to a developed status.
Smarter transportation means developing intelligent road, rail or air networks; maps and surveillance systems, for instance. So, as we speak, IBM technology manages the transportation systems of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, New York and London. In these cities, IBM analytics is at work, forecasting and doing traffic management, security, disaster recovery planning and communications.
We are also installing technology for smarter health systems in numerous locations and customer sites worldwide. IBM’s Watson, an artificial intelligence computer system which was recently developed, is capable of answering questions posed in natural language. Watson technology is currently employed in medical diagnosis abroad, and as you know, wrong diagnosis is one of the biggest healthcare problems we have in Africa today. IBM technology also exists to support e-learning. Planners and education providers in Africa continue to tackle issues like how to teach in, or extend formal instruction to remote areas; how to structure content on the Net and provide web access for tutors and students in rural communities and how to make computing part of the learning process.
IBM has also been contributing to the world of commerce, banking and finance for decades. IBM’s centres of excellence for banking, retail and service management exist in different parts of the world, including China, Mexico and India. Africa is eager for these sorts of initiatives which will support its growth and development agenda, and there is a genuine quest by indigenous and foreign companies to invest in and help develop their host communities. The partnership between Africa and IBM can only get smarter with time.