During the Communication Technology Retreat in Ibadan at the ITTA yesterday, I waited to withdraw some money from the ATM. The chap in front was there for close to fifteen minutes and I wondered what was going on. Then the lady in front of me got impatient, so she inquired and discovered he didn’t know how to operate the ATM. Given his situation, she had to assist him by translating the instructions.
In that moment, it dawned on me that I took the ability to walk up to an ATM and withdraw money for granted. To use the ATM, you need to learn how to read in English and operate a machine. So here we were talking about pushing technology into the future and yet a Nigerian outside the conference hall could barely use technology that was already in existence.
The tech was there, but there was a clear barrier to entry. It got me wondering if tech in Nigeria uplifts everyone or if it simply makes the lives of the middle class more convenient.
Here are some rough numbers to depict the varying levels of exclusion. So Nigeria has a population of 178 million, 152 million active telecom subscribers, since people have multiple lines, and 97 million Internet users. When you take out the number of those who have access to such ICT resources, but can barely use these devices, you’re left with roughly half of what we started with. So if we’re honest with ourselves, a large portion of our population remains excluded from the benefits of technology.
This isn’t an indictment on tech itself, but an indication of the importance of cross-sectional development. Other infrastructural and socioeconomic indicators have to improve concurrently for tech to be inclusive and effective.
Tech is limited in effectiveness if people don’t learn how to read or don’t have electricity or can’t get access to a bank because there’s no road. So while internet bank transfer gets better, social media interaction burgeons, e-commerce websites spring up…it all remains so exclusionary to the majority of Nigerians. This exclusion presents a number of issues on the commercial and administrative levels.
How do tech startups scale within the domestic market when same domestic market is limited to the meagre middle/upper classes? Oh, did I forget they also have to compete for these same classes with the foreign competition? So the market is really much smaller than it seems.
How can one possibly wish to digitise the majority of government processes when the majority of the people lack the ability to use such technology? Heck, a number of public sector servants can’t even use their email.
From a productivity angle, technology’s effectiveness is also limited to ability. In economics, an additional unit of any input has a marginal effect on output. A student switching from paper to a laptop marginally changes her level of productivity. However, this margin differs from person to person. While a student might be limited to checking Linda Ikeji on her laptop, another might be teaching herself to code with the same device. Clearly, the productive value of tech is derived not only from the functionality of the device, but on the ability — and initiative — of the user. Raising this ability requires cross-sectional elements.
So the effectiveness of tech is influenced by a couple of other factors both exogenous and indigenous to it. And if you want to truly grow the market and make tech more inclusive, productive, and impactful, tackling these other factors is key. Focus on the cross-sections: education, health care, roads, and electricity. Without these, most people will be isolated from tech and its full effectiveness will remain limited to we ‘bougies.’ Given tech’s potential to spur development and improve the lives of many, such a future doesn’t sound appealing.