Quality has a lot to do with perception and expectation. If you visit a website and have to click the refresh button 5 times before the page starts loading, or you switch on the light switch and the bulb doesn’t light up, are you bothered? It depends on your expectations. My parents, who live in a town north of Lagos called Ibadan, might not be bothered. The bulbs remain dark most of the time in their part of town!
On the surface of it, quality expectations in Nigeria are low. Most people are ‘used’ to poor quality and accept it. The result is that those responsible to deliver goods and services do not feel under pressure to increase quality in order to remain competitive. Standards remain low.
Build you own products and face global competition
There are examples of countries that were able to improved their quality image over time. I was in recently in China and was fortunate to be invited on a few company visits; I must say that I was very impressed with their capacity to produce with a good quality.
‘Made in China ROC’ is no longer a sign of low quality. On the contrary, products made in China are increasingly being seen as good value for money. So what are the factors that have pushed these countries to excel and how applicable are they to Africa and particularly Nigeria?
If we consider the development timeline of China from 1958 (Mao: the great leap forward and later Deng Xiaoping) we notice a strong drive to mass urban employment combined with a focus on exports of manufactured products.
In the early days, the quality of goods produced were much lower that today. The importing companies and governments from the west imposed strong quality requirements on the Chinese manufacturers and in order to remain competitive, they adapted. Sure, from time to time there are set backs (see the series of recalls from 2007), but these only seem to further strengthen the quality consciousness in China. This development was possible for two main reasons:
- The government was able to dictate and enforce national policies (perhaps with emphasis on dictate but that’s another story)
- There is a sense on pride which makes Chinese want to feel as if they are competitive as a nation on the global market. To them, their position in the global context is very significant.
Nigeria is moving; but where to?
If we come back to the Nigerian situation, do we find these elements present? And are they even relevant? In my opinion, the answer to both of these questions is no. Nigeria do not have a strong central government able to implement and enforce national policies and potentially they do not need this. And while Nigerians rally around as a nation on certain topics (such as soccer), there is not a strong national identity that prevails in society. Instead, something often referred to as ‘tribalism’ is stronger. The focus is very much on the individual, trying to outdo the immediate neighbours. Not very challenging when compared to the aspiration of being the best in the world!
But Nigeria needs to have the global perspective in mind in order to be competitive, even at home. Otherwise it will remain childs play for the Chinese, South African and western companies to lay claim to the most strategic sectors, including software development. In this case, we can take a page out of the Chinese book. Whenever they have a certain sector in mind, they commit massive resources until they have mastered it and are competitive, not just opening up to wholly foreign owned FDI endeavours which do little to foster local expertise. IT is a great place to start because in some areas, you can do a lot with comparatively little capital investment.
That’s not to say people are not doing anything. The National information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) has been tasked with coordinating efforts around IT development. But with a budget of less than 2.5 Million dollars in 2013, they are woefully underfunded. The government seems to be leaving the field to others, not only in the area of IT. There are numerous fragmented private initiatives that are currently ongoing (for examples FAU) but there needs to be a national vision that is underpinned by sound strategies. Sadly, leaving this type of investment to the private sector leaves the door wide open to the likes of google and microsoft to continue the exploitation cycle. They are free to hand pick the most talented Nigerians to generate revenues for shareholders in the US and London while the local market remains undeveloped. Yes, global companies want to implement products that are relevant to local markets wherever they are in the world. But the products themselves are mainly built in Redmond or Silicon valley. Becoming globally competitive under these circumstances will be a difficult challenge.
Local content for local needs leads to global success
The Nigerian government needs to put the emphasis on local content developed by local companies. It will be rough at the early stage, but on the long run, the benefits would be immense. There would have to be a legal framework to ensure the expected results are achieved (in China there are rules controlling such investments). Unfortunately, the rule of law in Nigeria is still not what it should be and the influence of foreign entities with bags of money goes largely unchecked.
So in conclusion, while there is local demand for products produced in Nigeria, the push for more quality comes from global competition and indigenous Nigerian companies are largely lacking. Looking at the software sector, most of the software products that are currently used in Nigeria are built abroad and implemented locally. Sure, some minor localisations or integration work takes place locally, but the core products are imported. In most cases, foreign support is needed to maintain those systems, especially in the case of failure. Most recently, software solutions for some of the most successful online and mobile offerings are built outside the country (see Jumia or Easy Taxi).
So what can we do? Start making software locally! Quality takes time to engrain itself. For local (software) products it is the one key differentiator (next to price) which will allow Nigeria to become competitive on the long run, but raising this consciousness will not happen overnight. Government needs to massively stand behind the initiatives that have started in Nigeria. And let’s keep quality in focus, right from the start!
Just a thought: Africa has done a lot of leapfrogging in the areas of telecommunications and mobile banking. But there is a lot more that can be done in the area of software development, especially around mobile apps. Why use monster applications from Europe and America when we could potentially get similar results by using a multitude of tiny applications running on our mobile devices?