Businessday Nigerian Broadband Summit 2017: A Side-Mortem

Virality versus Piracy: Creating Value from Chaos

I have come out of hibernation.

The last time I wrote an article for public consumption was nearly a decade and a half ago, on a “quaint nostalgic” web platform called Nigeriaworld. It really does seem like eons ago. There was no liking, tweeting, sharing, snapping, or sliding into DMs; however, I digress…

HITCH smart router (live field test unit)

I had recently moved back from the US to Nigeria (into the Lion’s Den as it were), and it slowly dawned on me why governance and public service were so problematic in our neck of the woods. I had come to understand and appreciate what being in a “dialogue with the deaf” meant. The object of our scorn, ridicule, counsel, and frustrations — the shrinking component of public service intellectuals who could comprehend our insights, were simply not listening; probably because of the distracting missiles and discretionary bullets that careened with reckless abandon across the landscape of our collective procrastinations. Nigeria’s extended tango with mediocrity, was numbing to observe from afar. Less than half a decade into our “fourth republic”, our dalliance with absurdity (seen up-close), relentlessly deferred any hope for redemption.

Nevertheless, I must confess that this was a different lifetime and timeframe. A child born then probably only knows Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram as THE mediums of expression and introspection. And so, I have had to reframe my vocabulary (and reformat my mindset) to cope with these exigencies, in making sense of the resultant minefield of expectations, comprehensions, and perspectives we now face. Not only that, while I was a thoroughly dyed-in-the-wool denizen of the critical armchair socio-political “commentariat” then, I have now cut my teeth in the Nigerian experience as a wizened participant in the burgeoning apoplexy of Nigeria’s emerging (and oft-misunderstood) business landscape of possibilities. We, of the “on-ground” categorization, are in it for the heart-hardened red-eyed long-haul.

As I type this missive, thousands of feet above sea level on a vessel resplendent in its personification (nay purveyance) of Africa’s limitless resurgent possibilities, I wonder to myself. Where did we get it wrong? My mind snaps back to my plush pressurized surroundings. I have just left Nigeria. The last event I attended on my way out, was the 2017 Broadband Summit at the Wheatbaker Hotel in Ikoyi, Lagos on June 2nd (graciously organized by Businessday Newspapers); following my month-long technology test deployment sojourn (spanning stints in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Enugu, and Nsukka).

I am fresh off the heels of partially observing a mystifying proselytizing, and sometimes contradictory entrepreneurial joust; equally replete with words of wisdom, misconceptions, and accidental insights from various industry stalwarts and commanders (perhaps commandeers) of the next digital revolution, which is needed to unlock the foundation-altering dynamics of Africa’s promise of economic independence.

I am happy I attended and listened to C-suite representatives from Mainone, MTN, Airtel, Spectranet, etc., because this was my only firsthand appreciation of the collective burdens that these “commanders” bear in ushering in the possibilities inherent in Nigeria’s 2018 broadband aspirations; if not anywhere, then most definitely in Africa. And for me — given the exigencies of the operating climate — Nigeria. Amidst the fog of swirling ideas, perspectives, debates, and protestations, there emerged an element of perspicacity and sustained consensus around the perceived and real limits of Nigeria’s broadband penetration targets.

However, that was the altruistic backdrop that got my intellectual (and more importantly my entrepreneurial) juices going. For ever since I donned the cap of impact-technology-enterprise student a decade ago, the reality has been much more different. Nevertheless, with Nigerian-style multi-tasking grilled into my veins, I had a side meeting scheduled. And in the course of sharing my thoughts on what held the key to unlocking this not too distant future of Nigerian broadband nirvana, I inextricably stumbled on the crux of my thoughts today.

Broadband deployment and uptake (as was mobile voice communication before it) in Africa will be markedly different from the normal conventions that drove and underpinned the commercial predilections of other climes. The dynamics that have connected nearly 1 billion of us (Africans) since the liberalization wave of the late 90s and early 2000s, are wont to throw-up innovation at a rate and scale that not just disrupt traditional models of service, access, and delivery; but create a scope of potential infused with unbounded imagination.

And the dynamics that will usher in that epoch will be rooted in a simple challenge:

How to create value from the scale of piracy that drives applications, services, and content consumption in Africa today, by leveraging opportunities present in the fast evolving technological and market conditions that now characterize the digital landscape; represented as the volume, velocity, and variety of options much sought after today as viral. And more introspectively, in the Nigerian context, what is the sustainable pathway to transforming this analog “piracy” (or mass un-remunerated consumption) into a value-adding “virality” that now powers — amongst others — Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snap, etc.?

To be honest, I spent all of 90 minutes in the middle of a scheduled 7-hour industry intellectual soiree. But I had enough time to catch the tail-end of Ms. Opeke’s fantastic keynote, and much of the sales-and-marketing-oriented contributions of the industry stalwarts. However, apart from some nuggets gleaned from the lengthy contribution of the Spectranet CEO, and the essential discernments from the representatives from MTN and Airtel — revolving around an emphasis on the functionality of value delivered by broadband (as opposed to the broadband service itself), I was more piqued by the summation of the meeting that I scheduled with an impending partner on the sidelines of the summit.

And it was this: that the inherent difference between the destructive effects of piracy (especially in Nigeria’s primarily-analog consumption environment) AND the beneficial economic impact of virality in its promising and sluggishly emergent digital environment, is the accretion, capturing, sharing, or exchange of value. So, in asking questions and addressing concerns of Nigeria’s seeming impossible bid to achieve 30% broadband penetration by 2018, the real question I think that needs to be asked is: who are the innovators who could potentially disrupt the broadband landscape by sustaining the creation of value out of transitioning analog piracy to digital virality? And what are the platforms, thinking, and ways/means of achieving this?

Given our severe hard and soft infrastructural challenges and self-imposed constraints, there lies the blue ocean that ascendant and novice entrepreneurs in Nigeria’s technology economic conundrum need to address. Alongside its intersection with the downward trends in the costs of hardware, software, and other allied ICT components, ignited by the open-source community, commoditized pervasive hardware (embedded computing), decreasing distributed renewable energy systems costs, and unlocked efficiencies of sharing economy principles.

This simple premise could prime the private sector to catalyze and nurture an expanded value network for Nigeria’s broadband fortunes; and more rapidly usher in substantive progress, faster than conventional or legacy incremental frameworks can. In a pervasive search for complementary stakeholders and synergies, we just might be able to swim in blue-hued waters, instead of submerging gouged-out carcasses in reddened swathes of tumultuous waves.

Again, and truth be told, I am betting that I have some insights concerning this particular challenge. Indeed, my career depends on it, and so (I believe) do the fortunes nay aspirations of the Nigerian Broadband roadmap; fixated as it seems to be on some esoteric (rather than pragmatically conclusive) notion of what 2018 represents. But then again, maybe I have tunnel vision. In any case, this is enough ideation cud to chew on. For now, as Chris Brown sonorously opined, it’s deuces…

Uche Onuora

Co-Founder/Lead Evangelist — HITCH (by Flexfinity)


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