Road to Tunisia: the awakening of technology and innovations in Akwa Ibom
By Edidiong Udobia
Come August this year, tech innovators from Akwa Ibom State will be in Tunisia to represent Nigeria at the up coming All African Technology and Innovation Expo. The state Commissioner for Science and Technology, Prof. Nse Essien made this known in Uyo while receiving the Akwa Ibom son, Engr. Ndotenyin Kingsley, who bagged the 2nd prize (Technology Entrepreneurs Category) at the recently concluded 2018 National Technology and Innovation Expo, in Abuja. Engr. Kingsley, who came second with his invention, ‘Mobile Traffic Light with Defaulter Alarm’, outlined the uniqueness of the mobile traffic light system to include, mobility, defaulter alarm to help road traffic enforcement agents in detecting traffic defaulters, plug and play defaulter system, use of minimal solar intensity and advert display option. The science and technology commissioner assured that Kingsley’s invention will be on exhibition in Tunisia. Kingsley is one of the many techies in the state who are leading a silent technological revolution. In 2017, a tech team from the state also won a similar competition in Lagos. At the pace these techies are going, it is hard not see Akwa Ibom as an emerging Silicon Valley.
In a layman’s knowledge, Silicon Valley is a region in San Francisco, California, USA, with a high cluster of industries. Contrary to the common notion that Silicon Valley is home to only world largest high-tech corporations like Adobe Systems, Google, Apple Inc, Facebook, Yahoo, etc, there are also many unicorns that are largely unknown like, PlayPhone, Quora, and Siemens. From a little area of semiconductor companies in 1980s, Silicon Valley has metamorphosed to a “global center for high technology, venture capital, innovation, and social media” accounting for “one-third of all of the venture capital investment in the United States.” According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the economic growth of Silicon Valley outpaced the rest of the US including the country for five consecutive years, and Jessica Floum of San Francisco Chronicle, adds that it even beat China’s 2015 growth rate of 6.9 percent. The steady blossoming economy of California can be attributed to a number of other ventures like entertainment, agriculture, and energy, but technology and innovations make all the difference; from employment to revenue generation. Micah Weinberg, president of the Bay Area Council’s Economic Institute, says, “There are footprints of all major industry sectors in the Bay Area, but tech is the big kahuna.”
Matthew Mahood, president and CEO of The Silicon Valley Organization, can only be right on his claim that, “There is really only one Silicon Valley”, for two reasons. First, if Silicon Valley is only considered as a geographical location, and secondly, if technology, innovation and manufacturing industries are non-existent outside San Francisco Bay Area. Outside these two reasons, an analysis of the 25 most high-tech cities in the world by a data innovation agency, 2thinknow®, shows that London, Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, Boston, Toronto, Beijing, Berlin, and lots of other high-tech cities are metonymical Silicon Valleys. From world-class technology-based, innovative and manufacturing companies to small startups, the world is not just exploring technology as a distinct venture but crossbreeding it with other ventures to produce a hybrid society. While many societies are still very technologically deficient and even worse than San Francisco before Don Hoefler first coined the phrase ‘Silicon Valley’ in 1971, the truth remains that the world has come to see technology as a basic necessity and everyone is making frantic efforts to meet the demands of this new reality.
Perhaps, the conception of Ibom Science Park and Akwa Ibom State University of Technology (AKUTECH) by the Victor Attah led administration was our first quantum leap. “I see certain things around here, [that] if I don’t do them, nobody else will want to do them. So, I go and do these things. For instance, I have not built a stadium, because I know the next governor will build a stadium. But I can go and build a science park, because the next governor may not think like me and want to build a science park,” the then Governor Victor Attah was quoted while speaking on his plans to build the Ibom Science Park. On AKUTECH, he said, “I know how much money the oil companies are paying for seismic data from outside. So, if I set up a university paying full salaries [so] that we have a research department that can handle all of those things, look at all that money that will stay inside the country”. As part of the plans to kick-start the proposed science park, the state government in March 2016 signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to establish a joint venture among Akwa Ibom’s science park and two Chinese companies—one a subsidiary of an American company, Technoconcepts, to manufacture and market cellular telephones throughout Africa. That would would have been a major breakthrough in technology for Africa.
As at the time Attah conceived the idea of Ibom Science Park, South Africa’s first accredited and leading science and technology park in Africa, Innovation Hub Science Park (IHSP), was just recently established in Pretoria, South Africa in 2001. Today, South Africa has about five world-class science and technology parks. IHSP is a major driver of the South African green economy. “In September 2013, the Hub’s Climate Innovation Center – with help from the World Bank’s InfoDev Climate Technology Program – embarked on a series of workshops to raise awareness of the green economy and the impact of climate change on marginalized communities. As one of the pillars for the Gauteng Green Economic Strategy, the Hub’s Climate Innovation Center supports innovative clean technology enterprises which build the domestic industry, increase climate resilience, reduce carbon emissions, connect to international markets and create jobs. The center also help entrepreneurs develop, transfer and deploy advanced climate technologies”, writes D.A. Barber of Moguldom Newsletter. The science park in Akwa Ibom would have been in this league if the “end of 2007” proposed date of commissioning was a reality. Sadly, as Attah predicted, his successor did not only abandon the Ibom Science Park project, but also distorted the original plan of the State University. That was a double loss to the state.
In his research work, “Science and technology parks: an overview of the ongoing initiatives in Africa”, Raymond Tavares reveals that, “The first science and technology park was established on the campus of Stanford University more than 50 years ago. This is the base of the success of the Silicon Valley well know today for its technological, financial, educational and research-based capacities”. Evidently, the park and the university have been critical to the success of Silicon Valley. Another case in point is Taiwan. Taiwan first ventured into science park in 1980 with the opening of the Hsinchu Science Park. Besides harbouring the country’s giant computers, semiconductor companies and leading place for innovative and knowledge-based activities, the Hsinchu Science Park has expanded and split into more parks. An article, “Taiwan’s Science Parks” reveals that the Hsinchu Science Park made a turnover of 1.04 trillion TWD (over 34 billion US dollars) in 2016. By December 2018, the Ibom Science Park would have been 11years old, and barring every unforeseen circumstance, that abandoned massive storey which is trapped in the bush along Itu Road, would have launched Akwa Ibom into the golden era of science and technology. So, the death of Ibom Science Park and AKUTECH was catastrophic and the loss, unquantifiable. But, needless flogging a dead horse.
Fast-forward to today. There has a been a science, technology and innovation awakening in Akwa Ibom in recent years. The rapid birth of ICT startups like Start Innovation Hub, Roothub, Hubitz, Xpress Technologies, etc, rising influence of Akwa Ibom social media and the increasing dependence of businesses on ICT. During the visit of Facebook founder, Mark Zukaberg to the country in 2016, President Buhari admitted that Lagos and Uyo lead in active social media engagements in the country. The rapid emergence and convergence of young techies and partnerships with renowned ICT firms like hotels.ng is boosting the ICT ecosystem of the state. This awakening could not have come at a better time than now. In today’s world, it is impossible to talk about industrialization without technology and innovations. So far, Governor Udom Emmanuel led administration has either facilitated or directly established manufacturing industries in State like the Jubilee Syringe Factory, Electric Metering Company, Akwa Ibom Toothpick and Pencil Factory. There is Akwa Prime Hatchery in Uruan and the rehabilitated Peacock Paints in Etinan. There is a place for technology and innovations in these factories. For instance, the Syringe Factory, which commenced production with 350million units yearly capacity, can hardly meet the annual syringe demand of the state, and the factory itself is still far from meeting the best in the world. With one or two technologies and innovations, these gaps can be closed.
We often recall with sad memory, the death of very lucrative industries like the Nigerian Newsprint Manufacturing Company (NNMC) in Oku Iboku, Quality Ceramics in Itu, International Biscuit Company and Sunshine Batteries in Ikot Ekpene, Qua Steel Company in Eket and others “too numerous to mention”. Till date, there are many unanswered questions over the collapse of these industries as well as strong agitations for their reactivation. As far as we are unable to properly address the situation with the defunct industries, our biggest worry then should be for the new industries springing up in the state. The good news is, in this age, technology has a solution to almost every human problem. When compared to other states in Nigeria, Akwa Ibom is already in a very advantaged position for any major breakthrough in technology and innovation. In his article, “Akwa-Ibom: From smart city to smart-state”, Chris Uwaje writes “Based on my assessment of the ICT landscape in Akwa Ibom 2016-2018, the state will be one of the most advanced ICT Smart-State in Nigeria and indeed perhaps the first to deploy Robots for Education, Health, State Security, Essential public service, etc for sustainable development (derived from her current advantages of small population of 5.4m, enormous resources and abundant intelligent pioneers with ‘Can-do Sprit’); Readiness for acceleration of robust ICT infrastructure development, with respect to State-wide Broadband Internet access, State of the Art Fibre Optics Network for state security and youth empowerment will unleash monumental innovation beyond basic imagination”.
Governor Udom Emmanuel has repeatedly affirmed his administration’s commitment towards providing an enabling environment for Akwa Ibom people especially entrepreneurs to excel. “We will transform the economy of our state via industrialisation and sustainable public-private sector initiative, thereby opening up opportunities for growth and improved living standards. We will use ICTs to promote entrepreneurship among Akwa Ibom youths to help drive unemployment and engender wealth creation”, the governor had pledged shortly after assuming office in 2015. The administration began by establishing the Akwa Ibom Employment and Enterprise Scheme (AKEES). The AKEES secretariat had since become an incubator for sustainable business ideas and the scheme has helped in transforming these ideas into very lucrative businesses. Ukpong Ukpong, a consultant to AKEES, says that the scheme has transformed many ideas into money-making ventures through training, knowledge transfer and providing necessary support, adding that many young entrepreneurs in the state . The Dakkada Business Forum is another platform that is breathing life into entrepreneurship in Akwa Ibom. Blessing Emah, the inventor of Ekpangnkukwo Flour, is one of the success stories of the Forum. Miss Emah first came to limelight during Dakkada business exhibition last year where she wowed the audience with her invention and went on to win a one million naira cash prize courtesy of the state government. Today, “Ekpangnkukwo girl” has become a household name in the state.
Utibe Akwa, CEO of Uty Trends, has been the toast of media in the state since she came public with her latest invention, Unique Milky Custard. Collins Oscar, another young entrepreneur in the state, recently convened the Akwa Ibom Entrepreneurs Summit, a first of its kind service and product exhibition by entrepreneurs. There has been an awakening of entrepreneurship spirit among young people in the state recently and this had led to invention of many local products. Technology has a big role to play if these products and services are going to go beyond local markets. I spoke with Hanson Johnson, the CEO of Start Innovation Hub, and he assured that techies in Akwa Ibom will soon begin to provide solutions to businesses in the state. According to him, the tech community in the state is presently focused on expansion through capacity building and equipping intending techies with the needed knowledge and skills, adding that once the current phase is completed, the next phase which is partnering and providing ideas and solutions to businesses, will commence. “The partnerships currently are that of capacity building and getting people started appropriately. The next phase will be for us to use the skills we have acquired to identify problems within our local communities and come up with solutions. So, the next phase of partnership will be that of investment and helping businesses get started and growing”.
Some time last year, the Speaker of Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon Onofiok Luke revealed plans to digitalize the Assembly complex. Part of the plans is to install Internet and personal computers in the chamber for all the lawmakers. The idea is to move the Assembly from the era where lawmakers carry files, diaries and sheets into the chamber to an era where lawmakers will be one touch away from whatever information they need during plenary and debates. This is a big step in technology advancement. The question now is, how well-placed are the techies and developers in the state to make them the most preferred options for such offers? Hanson Johnson reveals that the progress of the tech community is stalled by a number of challenges such as infrastructure and finance, adding that how soon they surmount these challenges will determine when techies in the state will begin to fully utilize their knowledge and skills. “We are looking at launching three startups this year; by next month, we’re going to launch one. A month after that, we should be able to launch another one. But if we have investments, the pace will not be that slow”, he added.
Almost every part of the state is in dire need of technological intervention. In health, the remodeled General Hospitals in Etinan and Ikono are a virgin territory. For starters, there is need to urgently push out the analog method of taking and keeping records to more digital methods in the hospitals. There are similar gaps in education, sports, security, tourism, transportation, etc, that only technology and innovations can bridge. The ecosystem of the state is charging with so much energy and the techies must maneuver past their challenges to take control of these energies and create mind-blowing innovations out of them. To this end, the Technology and Innovation Expo in Tunisia should be an opportunity for our techies to aquire new knowledge, break new grounds and conquer new frontiers in technology and not forgetting to shine.
Edidiong Udobia is a journalist and writes from Uyo, Akwa Ibom State.