Edo State under Governor Godwin Obaseki has recorded giant strides in the digital technology space, topping it with becoming the first fully E-governed state in Nigeria on 1st September 2023. In this interview with Acting Editor, Chuks Oluigbo, and Political Correspondent, Tobore Jerome, the Edo State Commissioner for Digital Economy, Science and Technology, Hon. Ogbeide Ifaluyi-Isibor, speaks on the state’s digital journey, the mandate of his ministry, what has been achieved and what lies ahead. Excerpts:

When you came in as Commissioner, there was a mandate given to you by the governor. With less than a year to go, how far have you achieved this mandate? What do you think is left undone?

As the Ministry of Digital Economy, Science and Technology, we have a vision, we have a mission, and we have a mandate given to us by His Excellency, Governor Godwin Obaseki. Our overall vision is to promote the socio-economic development of Edo State using science and technology to create value, to improve the quality of business, quality of life, and the Gross Happiness Index of the people.

Upon my appointment, I saw it as an opportunity to add value to government, to bring in ideas, to bring in innovations to see how we can amplify the gains of the government as contained in our mandate and it bordered on improving science and technology in public secondary schools. So, we went on an on-the-spot assessment of the science labs first across Benin City to see how far we have gone and what we have to do going forward to make sure that the idea of the governor for us to have students who are up to par with science and technology in Edo State is actualised. We have been working very closely with the Ministry of Education to see how we can improve the quality of our labs and standardize them. We also realized that being a new ministry, not many Edo people really understand the concept of digital economy – what we do, what value we bring to the socio-economic development of the state and to the SMEs in Edo State. So, some form of enlightenment was needed to let the people understand that everything that concerns the economy of Edo State can be scaled using technology. That is to say, whether you are a farmer or a cobbler or whatever enterprise you are engaged in, can we use technology to improve it? If yes, that falls under our purview. How can we use technology, the digital space, to improve capacity of MSMEs operating in the state? That encapsulates what our ministry is all about. How can we promote the economy? How can we promote businesses? How can we promote enterprise in the Edo economy using technology?

You can see that Edo is the most digitally advanced state in Nigeria and wherever I have gone to, I have been so proud of our story and I tell the story with so much zeal and zest because I am proud of the commitment, the dedication and the faithfulness our governor has put into technology, into ICT, and into digital governance. It makes me proud to reel out our achievements before the people, that for the first time in any state in Nigeria, we have gone paperless, meaning that whatever correspondence within the MDAs in Edo State doesn’t have to be done on physical paper; we have our E-gov platform where all correspondence, mails from the governor, memos for my staff or permanent secretary, and memos from me to other ministries are done on our E-gov platform. It means that I can work from anywhere in the world and be efficient and effective. Also, we have access to 24 hours of internet connectivity; it is unheard of in any state in Nigeria. Edo State is still the very first state where civil servants can work in such a conducive environment with 24-hour electricity, 24-hour internet connectivity, so as to be able to ensure that their KPIs are achieved. Again, Edo is the first state in Nigeria where we have been able to lay 2,000 kilometres of fibre optic cables. It’s unprecedented, unexampled, unparalleled, and we must be happy and excited to tell these stories.

Your ministry is in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG), and the PIC. How far have these partnerships succeeded? What has the state gained and what are your partners gaining also from these partnerships?

As a state, our governor loves to synergise. Governor Obaseki loves for us to collaborate, to work in connectivity with foreign and local partners to see how we can bring in funds into the state economy to develop the state. And so, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in collaboration with the PIC and the NESG are working with the Ministry of Digital Economy in Edo State to develop a digital policy toolkit. We are working on a digital toolkit that allows us create a framework that even after the expiration of the tenure of Governor Obaseki, the next government can only continue with what we have done. The progress that we have made in internet broadband, in E-governance, will be sustained with a legislation, and that is why we are working closely with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help us create that. We also have other partners, strategic partners in and out of the country who are helping us with various interventions. We still need a lot of trainings, we need our tech startups to have access to finance, to digital business services, have exposures to foreign corporations that can help to scale whatever they are doing.

As per what the NGOs stand to gain, when a society is developed and an NGO has played a vital role in the progress or development of that society, that’s a gain for them. So, there is no financial gain for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation apart from helping to develop a digital policy toolkit. But will that help us to improve the quality of life of Edo people? Will that help us to improve the quality of business that we do in Edo State? Will that promote tech startups across the state? The answer is yes. It is indeed benefit to the NGOs and to all other partners that we are working with to see that we can improve the way we do business, improve collaboration with local startups in Edo State and startups in California to make sure that we are sharing services, information, ideas, and we are prospering because the ideas create jobs, and when you create jobs you reduce poverty, income inequality, and you are building a society that is vibrant and productive. And that is what our governor is concerned about and we are glad that we are in this space with him and we are happy to find out where we can connect, collaborate, and build networks to ensure that the people are progressing, the economy is progressing, Edo youths are productive and the society is getting the benefit of it.

All of these developments that have happened in the digital sector, how have they benefitted Edo youths?

A lot. We have the Innovate Hub where the government has provided a classroom, or a platform, for tech startups. We are giving them free access to the internet, electricity; we are providing office space, free trainings, and we are working with big tech companies like CISCO to see how they can transfer knowledge to us. We are also giving the beneficiaries from our Innovate Hub access and job opportunities outside of Nigeria. You can be working for CISCO, for example, or HP, but you live in Benin and you are earning foreign exchange. So, we are providing jobs and changing the course of their lives because now you don’t have to be in Atlanta to earn in dollars; you can be in New Benin and earn in dollars because government has provided that platform free of charge – free training, free internet and free devices, that’s unprecedented.

We realized that many startups in Edo State have a dilemma of high cost of internet subscription. Some people spend as much as N100,000 for subscription just to get internet access. So, we thought of what to do to address it. We met with ISPs operating in the state on how we can form clusters of small businesses, of individuals on a tech ecosystem to have a good number to see how we can drive down the cost. We had a very good handshake with some ISPs and we are saying that if you come under this umbrella we are trying to create, under this cluster, we can drive down the cost of your connectivity by as much as 50 per cent and increase the data you already have or use to over a 100 per cent. So, what we are doing is making the business more viable, cutting cost of overhead, giving you the capacity to have more staff, to be more innovative because now you have increased data, increased access, and this in turn prospers the business of young people. The time has passed when everybody has to be an engineer or a doctor or a farmer to make money. Now we are saying that it is good for people to develop digital skills; these are life-changing skills that children in their teenage years can become digitally skilled and make money even as kids. Now there is no gender bias any longer as long as you expose yourself to that skill. A girl can benefit as much as a boy, so that gender inequality has been defeated because of technology. That is why our governor is very committed to it because you can see how you can alter the course of a girl’s life by teaching her some digital skill, how you can alter the course of the life of a boy who would have otherwise wanted to go abroad through Libya. Now they can see that they don’t have to do that, that there is a school they can go to, funded by the government, where they have internet, electricity, free devices to use. All they have to do is to submit themselves to teaching and learning and they get the skill. So, it is a long-term thing for our governor. He has seen that if you put young people together, train them on skills that they will always use and be productive in society, in the next 10, 20 years, you have developed a generation of smart-thinking and productive young people who have no barriers knowing that they can do whatever they want right in their bedroom. We have kids as young as five and six who are doing coding. We have kids who are nine or 10 already developing software because we have given them that platform. We have seen a multiplicity of tech hubs across the state, not just in Benin. We have tech hubs springing up in Uromi, in Auchi. This is unprecedented in Edo State. Everybody now sees that the Edo State government under Governor Obaseki is committed to providing this platform and they are taking advantage of it. We are excited as a ministry to work in line with the government’s decision and in line with the governor’s will to ensure that Edo State remains the cynosure of all eyes in the tech ecosystem.

On 1st September 2023, Edo became the first fully E-governed state in Nigeria. Could you talk us through the processes leading up to that very initiative?

Governor Obaseki is an IT guy and he knows how much we can prosper a whole lot more using technology. Imagine if I have to move files from my desk every day to the governor’s office or to the SSG’s office. We have over 70 MDAs in Edo State, imagine the number of papers that we would use to communicate from ministry to ministry. And imagine if everyone is writing memos to the governor using a piece of paper. How many is he going to read? But right on his phone he can give assent to memos; he can give approval for disbursement. So, Edo State has led the entire nation. Nigeria as a nation intends to go paperless in the next 15 to 20 years, but Edo has already gone paperless and it didn’t happen all of a sudden. Edo State has a tier 3 data centre that has a capacity to store data of more than 1.5 pentabytes, that is about the largest storage capacity any state in Nigeria has. We set down those public infrastructure through the years in the last decade to get us to where we are today. We have a data centre, we have data connectivity across all MDAs. Right here in the secretariat building, every government worker has free wifi 24 hours, so there is no reason why you cannot do your work because you are not paying for data; it’s made available to you for free. That’s the same with all government buildings including the House of Assembly, the State High Court, so all three tiers of government are communicating on a very secure platform and we have all our information hosted on our own data centre, so we are not paying the Federal Government or any data centre to house our information; it’s kept within our borders and that’s a plus.

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Like I said, we have been spending so much effort laying fibre optic cables across the state. The plan is that every local government, every school, every hospital is connected. I am optimistic that we will achieve a whole lot in the next one year, but I also understand that infrastructure can be scaled to be more productive so that in the next five years, if the governor wants to have a meeting with all local government chairmen, they don’t have to come to Benin, everybody will get on their laptops, a special zoom link is sent to them. That is possible now but there are some local governments that don’t have access to the internet, but in the next few months everywhere is going to be covered such that schools in Agenebode, Afuze or Uromi where we have tabs to teach our kids will have free internet access. You can imagine what our little children do with phones or what they can do with technology. Imagine if we let them have these devices or that technology in schools, the possibilities are mind-blowing.

So, our E-gov platform has got us to a point where other states are coming to borrow from what we did and how we did it and we are happy to share information with them and to teach other states to become what we have become.

During the governor’s budget presentation recently, he said the state should be well-positioned to adopt AI in governance in the near future. Do you share this optimism? And how soon is this near future?

The governor was being very conservative and I understand why, but the truth is that the public digital infrastructure needed to work with AI is already available the same way it is anywhere in the world, all you need are internet access and digital devices, and we have them already in Edo State. But again, he was amplifying what he intends to see in the future because just as infrastructure is progressive, just as knowledge is progressive, innovation is also progressive. If now we are training kids in machine learning, AI, robotics, and then we are putting the infrastructure that is going to be available for them in the next few months to marry that knowledge they are getting from school to the infrastructure available, the possibility is mind-blowing. So, yes, I fall in line with the governor’s wish; I am in perfect simulacrum with the governor.

Are you worried about cyber security issues?

Oh yes, every economy in the digital space should be worried about their security, but I can tell you that our data centre in Edo State has a 99.9 per cent storage efficiency. This digital centre has been in operation since the last four years and there has never been a one-second downtime, so that gives us the boldness to say, yes, we can teach others what we have done. It is effective, it is efficient, we are not losing data, so we are sure that nobody can hack into our system because it’s very well protected and we use the highest level of protection for government information because it’s vital. There is no fear at all and we keep improving. When there is new technology, we submit ourselves for new information to learn how better to do it because we have seen big corporations crash due to cyber insecurity and we are not oblivious of that possibility, so we are consistently doing the needful to make sure that every information that is saved on our data centre is safe, secured and protected.

Do you have a backup?

We have two backups in our data centre in Edo State. Most people have just one but we have two and it’s almost impossible for all backup systems to crash at the same time. So, if one fails, which is very unlikely, we have a backup for that one that failed and if the second one fails, we also have a backup for it. We are prepared for the future, for innovation, and we are prepared to move forward.

It has been predicted that technology will lead to cutting down of workforce in the near future it; what is the state government doing to ensure that people don’t lose their jobs?

I think that is a legitimate fear, but again, technology even makes it easier for humans to be productive. For example, Uber is the largest transport firm in the whole world and it doesn’t have one vehicle but millions of drivers are driving Uber and becoming self-sustaining because of technology. Many of these people would otherwise have been unemployed but technology has created millions of job. Look at Amazon or Alibaba, those are retail platforms, they don’t have any inventory but they are connecting a supplier in China to one in Benin City, so you are increasing the capacity of one to be productive, you are creating jobs. So while there is legitimate fear that technology has the capacity to take the jobs from humans, technology on the larger spectrum has the capacity to even create more jobs for humans. There will never be a time that a machine is completely going to perform a surgery on a human being; there will always be need for doctors and nurses and as we are training more nurses and improving technology, we will be needing more doctors.

What is your ministry doing to reorient youths who are using the internet and social media for illegalities such as fraud?

We are promoting social media campaigns and reaching out to young people. We are also reaching out to those who want to make money doing the wrong things and letting them know that it is no longer fashionable because now you can do it right and still make money, and now you are not going to pay for the knowledge, it’s absolutely free, so why are you hiding miserably trying to steal when you can comfortably come out and earn? We are doing a lot of media campaign and are desirous of having partners like you, The Nigerian Observer, to tell young people that if they need some help, they should go to the Ministry of Digital Economy, Science and Technology. We have a hub desk situated in the ministry that will answer all the questions you have on varying subjects; whatever information you need we can offer it here. Wherever you are is not a problem. We have social media accounts that you can reach us with. Send us a message on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp. We have our WhatsApp number on our website, let us know what your complaint is and we will tell you how we can help you. The world has become smaller due to technology so anyone who really needs help can get help.