The growing global demand for Information Communication and Technology (ICT) services has emboldened tech-savvy entrepreneurs to grab the opportunities inherent in the multi billion dollar sector to propel the world to new heights in various areas of human endeavours.

The global demand for ICT was heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic as people relied on technology to stay connected, work remotely and access essential goods and services.

When Nigeria set up the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy in 2019, the aim is to fully exploit the opportunities in the sector, create new businesses and jobs, enhance security and transparency and diversify the country’s economy.

The country also launched the Digital Nigeria Programme on March 19, 2020, a key initiative to empower innovators and entrepreneurs with skills required to thrive in the emerging digital economy.

This was followed by digital training for Nigerians at a time the world stayed home to combat the spread of ‪COVID-19.

The Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy partnered a number of institutions to enable Nigerians acquire cutting edge digital skills within the comfort of their homes.

Within the period, the Ministry provided Nigerians with over 280+ hours of free learning and 85+ courses on key emerging technologies like Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Cloud Computing.

This is in line with the Ministry’s commitment to developing the capacity of Nigerians to use technology to solve problems. Thus, the Digital Nigeria programme helped to empower Nigerians to develop skills and build innovative solutions to tackle challenges affecting communities.

This aim is being largely achieved, because as at the second quarter of 2022, ICT had contributed 18.44 per cent to Nigeria’s GDP, making it the fastest revenue generator in the Nigerian economy

Digital and high tech savvy Nigerians had grabbed the opportunity and delved into the multi billion dollar industry, setting up businesses to drive the sector. Today, out of the seven Unicorns from Africa valued at $11.45 billion , four of the unicorns, valued over $1 billion each, originated from Nigeria.

According to the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Prof. Isa Pantami, the revolution in Nigeria’s digital economy, which began under President Muhammadu Buhari, has been remarkable.

All these unicorns in Nigeria attained this position during this administration. The first was in 2019, while the second, third and fourth attained this position in 2021.

“57.14 per cent of the entire African unicorns originated from Nigeria while the market value of seven of them combined as at February 2023 is $11.45 billion, with the four from Nigeria contributing $7.5 billion,” Pantami said.

For clarity, Unicorn companies are those that reach a valuation of $1 billion without being listed on the stock market. It is the dream of any tech startup.

To push the boundaries of inclusiveness in the tech ecosystem, the Nigeria Startup Act was signed into law by President Buhari in October 2022. It is a bold step to institutionalise funding support for tech-savvy Nigerians.

“Today in the Act, there is a provision of supporting them financially. The government will set aside a minimum of N10 billion yearly in addition to other sources of funding that have been captured in the law,” Pantami said.

The law has also made clear provisions for tax breaks for Startups, ease of doing business, intellectual property protection and participation in public procurement, among others.

Nigeria has also raised broadband penetration now to 100 per cent following the deployment of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet service. This will invariably spur more investment in ICT and its generative residue in the tech ecosystem.

However, in spite of these interventions towards making Nigeria a global talent factory in the digital space, the country’s startup ecosystem still faces significant challenges, such as access to funding, appropriate support infrastructure and skilled manpower.

“These remain major barriers to the growth of the ecosystem, particularly for early-stage startups,” President Buhari acknowledged when he inaugurated a council to drive the implementation of the Startup Act.

He however said ‘‘the provisions of the Nigeria Startup Act 2022 represent an important step towards addressing these challenges and promoting the growth of a more vibrant and inclusive startup ecosystem in Nigeria.

‘‘Furthermore, implementation of the Act will lead to consolidation and further development of the gains recorded by Nigeria’s digital economy in the last four years, in the areas of contribution to GDP and increased revenue generation, among others.’’

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To ensure the implementation of the Act, Buhari on April 5, 2023, inaugurated a 14-member National Council for Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship to be chaired by the President, while the Vice President will serve as the council’s vice chairman.

The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, will however preside over the Council in the absence of the President and Vice President.

Other members of the council are Ministers of Finance, Budget and National Planning; Industry, Trade and Investment; Science, Technology and Innovation, and the Governor, Central Bank of Nigeria.

Also on the council are four representatives of the Startup Consultative Forum, one representative each of Nigeria Computer Society and the Computer Professionals, as well as Director-General, NITDA, as Secretary.

The inauguration of the council is significant to Nigeria’s determination to remain in the forefront of the remarkable growth of startups in Africa, having already raised up to over $4 billion in Startups between 2019 and 2022.

Buhari said at the inauguration that Nigeria was enticed to join the race for a slice in the sector by the remarkable growth of startups worldwide, where over $400 billion of venture funding was accessed in 2022.

‘‘This growth was fueled by a surge in demand for digital services as people worldwide turned to technology to stay connected, work remotely, and access essential goods and services largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘‘In Africa, the startup ecosystem has also been growing at a remarkable pace. In 2022, African startups raised a record of $5.4 billion in funding,’’ he noted.

In this respect, Nigeria’s target has been to fully harness its youth talents, lift the country’s economy to new heights, and propel its vision and commitment towards ramping the potential of its young and innovative population in the tech ecosystem.

According to the President, the Council will also serve as a critical governance structure in the implementation of the Startup Act.

It will ensure that government agencies, entrepreneurs, investors and support organisations collaborate with the startup ecosystem to achieve the goals of promoting the growth of a vibrant and sustainable startup ecosystem in the country.

‘‘I had earlier directed the Secretariat, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) to commence the execution of the implementation plan it developed.

‘‘One of the important aspects of the implementation plan is the development of the Startup Portal, which will serve as a platform that will drive the implementation of the NSA 2022 and collaboration between all stakeholders,’’ Buhari said.

No doubt, digital innovation and entrepreneurship are prerequisites to building an indigenous digital economy, as such the Council should consolidate the gains and achievements recorded in the Nigerian digital economy sector.

According to Pantami, the Buhari administration has set three unprecedented records of ICT contributions to GDP which should be surpassed.

“For example in the first quarter of 2020, ICT alone contributed 14.07 per cent to the country’s GDP. In the second quarter of 2021, ICT alone, without digital services, contributed 17.92 per cent to GDP while in the second quarter of 2022, ICT contributed 18.44 per cent.

‘‘Annually, this administration has been setting new records when it comes to ICT contributions to GDP,’’ the minister said.

Gbenga Adebayo, Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecommunication Companies in Nigeria, said the digital economy sector has done very well.

“Today we are one of the largest contributors to the GDP, we are also one of the largest in terms of employment generation. The industry has become a driver of many other sectors of the economy.

“From the number of policies formulated by the Buhari administration, we have quantum leap in the development of the sector. We have seen rapid development of the industry,” Adebayo said.

He advised that the incoming administration should maintain and sustain the achievements in the sector, while also addressing local problems such as high energy cost, to further propel the gains in the ICT and digital economy.