The Nigerian government is inking the final roadmap for the development of one of the country’s most ignored but excessively acknowledged industry to leapfrog the economy: the local software and applications industry. Through the country’s IT guardian, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), government is seeking to put in place a National Software Policy “that can stand the test of time and adequately position software made in Nigeria in the forefront of global ICT market” as emphasized by the Director General of NITDA Prof. Cleopas O. Angaye, himself a software developer with many patents and a professor of Computer.
Nigeria is looking to the Indian example to justify its need for a forward looking official thrust at encouraging explosive growth in the local software industry where more than a hundred companies jostle for existence and opportunities to grow beyond ‘verandah companies.’ Some of the biggest earners in the budding industry include Computer Warehouse Group (ExpertEdge Limited), SystemSpecs, Programos Software Group, CSA, Precise Financial Systems (PFS) Limited, Signal Alliance Group and Infosoft among several others in the top earning league in excess of $80 million (about N120 million).
But that is as far as the local companies could go in an industry heavily dominated by foreign software companies particularly of Indian origin who mop up the billion dollars in terms of monetary gains and brand acceptance. Market has remained a perilous ground for the local companies in the absence of clear-cut government support and a mix of factors that tend to erode sustainability and brand acceptability including unwillingness of corporate Nigeria to pay huge sum for locally made bespoke software.
India offers a classic example of how a country could rework its economic fortune in the new world order. The authors of Nigeria’s new national software policy are clearly looking at the strong points. Last year, India made some $20 billion (about three trillion naira and in excess of Nigeria’s entire national budget) from software export to consolidate on its position as one of the biggest earner in global software and applications market. In the last half a decade, the $20 billion figure has become an annual gain-point that Indian software companies and the Indian government have sought to consolidate and expand on as part of the India’s economic growth indices.
From 2007, the Indian software with auxiliary industry alone employed more than two million people and contributed about 4.8% of India GDP. In the last 10 years, India software export impact on nearly 95 countries to prove reach and acceptability. In contrast, and according to the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP), Nigeria losses about $1 billion (about N150 billion) annually to software importation majorly to India where Indian software applications virtually run the banking sector. With a potential market potential of $6 billion (about N900 billion), many experts think the Nigerian software industry lies in limbo because government has failed to see economic potential beyond the oil industry.
Perhaps, the new drive under NITDA at providing a national software policy offers the most convincing attempt in official circle to support a most ignored sector for well over a decade, where practitioners have ceaselessly called for clearly defined support for the indigenous software industry. In the last 10 years, government has approached oiling the local industry with woozy statements and hazy actions including the establishment of a national software park, National Software Development Initiative, National Software Development Taskforce and the national IT policy, and un-patterned public-sector patronage often leaving the local practitioners confused and vulnerable to manipulation by public establishments. For instance, a leading software company which got a World Bank aided deal to run locally made software application that would manage the country’s civil service got the deal terminated in its second phase by a government ministry in favour of a foreign company for reasons the World Bank considered objectionable. The local company would rather sulk than fight its case because there is no official policy thrust it could rely on to push its case on merit.
“Despite these efforts, we have not been able to adequately explore the full potentials of the industry in a way to make software Nigeria a major player in the global software industry,” admitted Prof Angaye who looks hopefully for a brighter horizon founded on a new policy thrust as has existed for the computer hardware industry.
In the hardware sub-sector, practitioners such as Zinox Computers and Omatek Computers Plc have been able to push for a clear-cut policy that encourages the patronage of local computer companies first before their foreign counterparts. But the Nigerian local software companies have never been able to muster sufficient public consciousness to pressure government to adopt policy that will affect its growth in spite of the existence of an umbrella body: ihe Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPON). While companies like Zinox, Omatek and even smaller players such as Beta Systems and XXXXXX have been able to be primal gainers in government’s multibillion naira spending on computer hardware in the last eight years, the software market has gone to the Indians and other foreign companies lament the Director General of NOTAP, Dr Umar Bindir.
In their 2004 survey report titled: A Profile of Nigeria’s Software Industry, Abimbola Soriyan and Richard Heeks observed that “Nigeria’s software industry is an industry that has been disappointingly neglected to date in work on software in developing countries, despite Nigeria’s size and both economic and political importance. The survey found there are more than 100 firms active in the industry, principally clustered around the South-West of the country and virtually all private-owned. Most firms are small enterprises (11-50 staff) and most professional staff have at least a first degree. Customers are drawn almost exclusively from the private sector and from the domestic market: software exports are few and far between.
“The majority of work focuses on providing services – such as installation, customisation and training – related to imported packages, and there are signs of decline in development of locally-written software. Strategic analysis of the industry according to Heeks’ quadrant model shows that Nigeria needs to bolster such local development work. For this to happen, firms must target market segments with some degree of protection from imports. They must also strengthen their software development practices, something that will be partly dependent on improvements in the provision of software education by local universities.”
Much of that observation has not changed almost eight years later as policymakers make to chart a new course for the industry. Angaye is convinced that with the new thrust, positive change is in the offing. His words: “I strongly believe that we shall come out with a credible National Software Policy that can stand the test of time and adequately position software Nigeria in the forefront of global ICT market.” But his optimism is depended on government’s change of attitude as one stakeholder puts it: “Government, who controls bulk of the economic activity in this country, has to be ready to spend the right amount of time, energy and money into software development.”
This conviction is shared by the CEO PFS Limited, Mr. Yele Okeremi. “Only government has the key to open the floodgate of opportunities in this industry,” Okeremi tells IT Edge News in his office in Lagos from where PFS has serviced a growing number of clients in the financial sector. But he thinks the competition could get fierier and more rewarding to local players against foreign players if government has a policy that kits the margin in favour of the local players from the start line.
On a final note, Soriyan and Heeks believe the potential of the industry lies in its ability to develop beyond providing supportive services to foreign software applications which largely depends on theor local usage on the ability of the local partners to offshore vendors to twitch the application to meet the local needs. “The Nigerian software market is dominated by imported packages. However, this has not meant the Nigerian firms are simply retail outlets for those packages. Instead, the imported packages form the base for further software services to be offered by those firms.
“In part, this servicing derives from contextual differences: the fact that software packages developed in and for industrialised country markets are not exactly applicable in developing countries without some adjustment (Avgerou 1996). Perhaps in larger part, though, locally-provided services derive from the fact that many packages – products such as Microsoft Access – are “shells” or “skeletons” that must at least be populated with user-specific data and, at most, can be programmed with user-specific interfaces and processes.”
So where does the future lie with government support? Quality production of software, graded and tested by a body certified to do so which invariably offers market confidence to the products and ultimately encourages patronage for the local brands.” Development of these strategic positions can only be properly achieved if software project processes and methods are of sufficient quality. Without that quality, there will be shortcomings in locally-produced software, which will turn customers off, and push the industry further towards a basis on foreign products: a vicious circle. On the other hand, if that quality can be built, then locally-produced software will be more effective than imports in meeting customer requirements. In that case, a virtuous circle can be created in which local software enjoys a growing market and feedback loops of learning and improvement that take it from strength to strength,” write Soriyan and Heeks in their 2004 survey report.