ABA BASED TECHY, CHIBUEZE UKAEGBU ENCOURAGES THE USE OF TECHNOLOGY IN SOLVING SOCIAL ISSUES

11 months ago
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Q: When it comes to software development, Aba does not readily come up mentioned like other major cities in Nigeria due to its reputation as a major centre of hardware development. Why did you decide to settle down this path.

A: Interesting question. Well, I grew up in Aba, and one of the things I saw growing up here was their Can-Do mentality. The average person living in or doing business in Aba believes that he can do anything, if given the opportunity. Having worked in Lagos several years, lived in Accra for about 3 years, visited the UK, I still feel Aba has what it takes to become a major technology center.
Once you talk tech in Nigeria, everyone thinks of Lagos first and then Abuja and Port Harcourt as 2nd and 3rd respectively. But the larger population of youth live outside these 3 cities; not all of them will have the opportunity or means to migrate to these centers. There is a need to bolster other cities so as to create opportunities for such ones.
The 3 major factors that determine if a place becomes a major tech center are the people, the infrastructure and the opportunities. Aba has an abundant supply of tech-hungry people, who without even the exposure others in more advanced cities like Lagos and PH have, still do some amazingly creative things. Infrastructure is almost non-existent, but the recent investment by Geometric to provide uninterrupted power supply to Aba, will definitely attract other infrastructure like the much-needed fibre network.
In establishing in Aba, our goals spanned these 3 areas: we will train the people in the latest digital skills to enhance their creativity; we hope that this will generate a faster cycle of innovation and creation which will attract the investment in fibre; and lastly, the products and services created on the back of innovation will create more opportunities for our local skilled personnel, bringing in more income and driving up demand.

Q:What was the major reason for establishing Learnfactory and what do you hope to achieve with it

A: Our motto at Learnfactory Nigeria is Grooming Engineers and Software Craftsmen, and our twin values are Character & Capacity. Our primary goal when we set out to establish Learnfactory Nigeria was to create an ecosystem that will foster solving local problems using technology. This goal had three aims:
1. To build technical capacity (i.e. Groom skilled tech personnel) that can use technology to solve local and global problems.
2. To solve our local business and social problems using local skill set.
3. To create employment; empowering our youth and reducing delinquency.
These are our core; they drive all our paid and free youth development programs.

Q: Andela which is based in Lagos is a major competition for you in the development of world class developers who can create top class projects. How will you make sure that your protégés stand out and compete with their peers across the globe in project development?

A: First and foremost, I don’t see Andela as competition; I see Andela as inspiration. Andela proved a case in point that Nigerian born and trained developers can compete on a global scale, they set the pattern and they showed that it works because today Andela has drawn about 64 million dollars in investment, and they have developers all over the world doing awesome stuff.
We look to successful implementations like Andela, not as competition but as case studies for success. We learn from what they have done; we are studying how they have achieved it. We also learn from what MEST (Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology) in Accra is doing and we find what works for us. The uncontested fact is that we are still supplying developers to the same market space; where we are have differentiated ourselves is in two major areas. First in the Platform: Andela has a core focus on Python and Android, Java and all that. We are rather more focused on the javascript ecosystem where we have Node.js, mongodb, and for web and mobile development we use the Facebook javascript stack of React, graphql and then React Native for mobile development.
In 2018, we are also integrating a lot of Python and Machine Learning and hope to dabble a bit more into Artificial Intelligence; as a fact, one of the projects we are working on have requirements for some of these features. We came to the realization that tech is just gradually shifting from just simple mobile and web apps to more advanced data intensive apps that utilize machine learning and artificial intelligence to make decisions and choices.
Another growing trend we are also integrating into our courses to help differentiate our developers are the use serveless technologies from Amazon and Google. Tools like Cloud Functions and Firebase from Google; or AWS Lamda et al from Amazon are defining the future of apps. And, in 2018, we are ensuring that are devs are up-to-date on them.
The second differentiating factor is in cost. Presently, we do not have any investors or VC funds, so our main course, the bootcamp, is paid for. Some of the initiatives we are rolling out in 2018, like the Benefactors, are aimed at crowdsourcing funds to help offset some of the fees for students. We are presently restructuring the company with a goal to attract some investment that would further mitigate some of this cost. This has become necessary because of our location: we are faced with the twin challenge of people not understanding why they should pay so much for a course being done in Aba of all places (ignoring the fact that whether the training happens in Aba or Lagos, it’s the same set of technologies you are going to learn); and those who understand the value of what they are going to learn opting to go to Lagos or Port Harcourt for the course.

Q: in demand digital skills of the future is still a major problem in Nigeria and Africa which has made us not ready for the fourth industrial revolution. How do you intend to solve this?

A: If you look at the stories of China, India, Singapore and more recently Dubai, what has helped them leapfrog has been a concerted effort on training. There was a concerted narrow focus on training in a specific set of skills that has made these countries the powerhouses for technology. Yesterday, I was listening to a video by Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple; he was answering a question on why Apple manufactures in China instead of the US. He said the focus China gave to vocational training has given them a huge number of experts with core skill set in some of the fields required for their manufacturing process, citing an example with tooling. He said in the US, if a conference is called for machine tooling experts, they hardly fill room. But in China, a similar conference would fill several football fields.
Even though there may be a lack now but there has to be strategy in place to bridge that gap. Now having gone through the university system, I graduated in 2004 and as then I was frustrated with the curriculum. From 1999 to 2004, I felt like: why was I learning FORTRAN, why was I learning QBASIC? Languages that were discontinued since late 70’s and early 80’s; what use or value were they adding to me then? Sadly these are still the same things still taught in schools now and I felt that I had to make some choices for myself. So, though I was schooling In ESUT in Enugu, I registered for a course in NIIT Port-Harcourt; every Thursday I had to go from Enugu to Port-Harcourt and by Sunday evening I was running back to Enugu. I did that for about two years (2001/2002); yes it affected my grades, I didn’t get the first class I was targeting by I still made a 2.1.
That brings me to the core of what I am saying about TRAINING. To bridge the digital skills gap, we must first identify the skills set we need and then train up the people to have this skill set. How is learnfactory participating to help mitigate this problem?
One, in 2018, we are launching the ICE Clubs, where the ICE stands for Innovation, Creativity and Excellence. The goal of the ICE Club is to integrate coding and core STEM training into UBE (Primary 4 to JSS 3), Senior Secondary and Tertiary institutions. We believe that if started early at this age, and given the right training and access to materials, these young people can develop to become critical masters. So with the ICE CLUBS we are reaching out to engage the young people in their schools to ensure that we train as many people as we can. As part of the ICE CLUB, we will launch an online platform where every member of an ICE Club can get some free courses and have access to links and materials they can use for self study. This would be especially useful for those that cannot come down to Aba.
The second thing is what we hope to achieve with the Benefactors. The Benefactors is a platform where we encourage experts, technocrats, people in diaspora and business men, anybody with interest to contribute to the training of people here in hardcore digital/technical skills. Truth be told, tech training is expensive; we have tried to mitigate as much of the cost that we can. To raise experts, you have to get an expert to train them; and you must pay an expert his dues. He has to be well paid to be able to carter for his responsibilities and that requires money. So, the Benefactors would enable people to contribute towards a particular training goal or to adopt a certain number of people to train. For example, let’s say someone says “I am in the UK and I want to be a part of this and I can give 20 pounds a month”, and we get 10, 20, 50 or a 100 people; that that would go a very long way to help us run scholarship programs that train people through the bootcamp.

Q: Why do the elite in the east not support ICT which has the capacity to transform the region, create jobs and empower the youths but prefer trading, artisan and small scale non-competitive manufacturing?

A: Well not to indict anybody, my frustration with this question was one of the reasons that led to the establishment of learnfactory Nigeria. While working for one of such gentlemen in 2007-2008, I persistently pressured him on the need to create a tech university in the South-East. On my own, I wrote proposals because I felt and I still do feel that the South-East is a technologically advanced place. I live in Aba, I have seen what this people can do, they can crack or fabricate anything. You go to Nnewi or Onitsha, you see the crazy things we are doing even without advanced training.
I remember seating with one of the key officers at NIBSS in 2013 discussing a project we were trying to integrate into their platform. We spent over two hours and during the long discourse, he gave me the last book by Prof. Chinua Achebe, which had just been published – There was a Country. You know, after reading that book and seeing what we had done, I became restive. Not too long afterwards, I parted ways with my employer then and moved back to the South-East. I spent some time at the National War Museum in Umuahia and on the Techpoint teams last tour to the South-East in November, I took them there. It is absolutely amazing to see some of what was constructed under duress and without all the requisite fabrication tools.
I believe that if the South-Eastern elite can come together, the agitation for Biafra can be channeled aright into us becoming the technology hub for Nigeria and Africa; because we have the skill set and brain power that can leapfrog us into becoming the Japan of Nigeria. I’ve written almost 483 letters since 2015 and i’ve written almost to everybody: to the elite, government, corporate organizations and much more. One of the primary things I started writing then was about the Benefactors, encouraging them to invest a little token so we could develop our people, and I wrote especially to those from the South-East, even to entertainers.
We have so much funds being invested in things that, in my own opinion, are not driving growth for a larger percentage of people. For example, you see the winner of a Big Brother house going home with Twenty Five Million Naira and a Kia Sorento SUV of between 15 and 20 Million Naira, making a total of 40 million and above. I ask myself, at the end of the day how many people have been positively built up and empowered? If I had Twenty Five Million Naira alone, I could train over a hundred young people into becoming cutting edge technologists and software developers. No offence to anybody, I have written to telcos, some of the people that back these events, without success. I don’t understand, I think it’s not understanding our priorities.
To be fair only two people out of the whole lot I wrote to from the South-East gave their time to listen to me; one was from government and the other from business sector. The first person was Mr Uche Ogah of Master’s Energy. I prepared our proposal, traveled to Lagos, located his head office in Ikeja GRA, and without knowing anybody in there, I met with him on my first visit there. Even though he was very occupied, when he heard I was from Aba, he gave me 10 minutes. We chatted, I explained what we were about and he promised to be in touch.
The second person is the SSG of Anambra state, Prof Solomon Chukwulobelu, who I also did not know prior to the first meeting we had. A former colleague who knew about our project got us a 5-minute appointment to see him at home. I remember getting to his home that Saturday morning, he was about going for jogging, but he still graciously decided to see us for five minutes. He never went for that jogging again; we spent the whole day in his house. His enthusiasm was infectious, he said he had been to visit one of the top Asian economies recently and what I was talking about was what he had witnessed in the educational sector there. He put a call through to the Commissioners for Education and Youth Development; for the next one week, we had presentations at his office for some of the key people. I was simply blown away; this was against the norm of doing business in government in Nigeria. Till date, he is one of the people I look up to; if government business was done like this on merit, there is indeed hope left for our dear country Nigeria. We had to put a hold when the elections and some other things came; hopefully we would pick it up soon from where we left them.
In my own state, Abia, I haven’t made much headway despite my many letters. It was initially discouraging and demoralizing; many thoughts ran through my mind: maybe it wasn’t glamorous; or it wasn’t yielding immediate returns like the business man would expect; or it wasn’t adding to the political points. So, we decided at learnfactory to focus on building as much capacity as we can and channel our energies to building value and see how we can grow organically. That’s the strategy we have been employing.

Q: What are the major challenges you face running learnfactory in a city where the knowledge of software development and the value is non-existent?

A: The primary challenge has been getting adequate jobs. Currently our business is two-fold, there is Software (Web and Mobile) Development and Training. Both of them have been negatively impacted by this lack of awareness and lack of understanding the value of what we do.
Now for the training, it’s been especially difficult because people walk in and expect you to still do the #10,000.00 or #5,000.00 kind of training. But with regards to software development that’s not an option. Microsoft Office training became bastardized in Aba, it became like a commodity. Every apprentice or any one that goes for a 1-3 month MS Office training became a pro overnight and opened training shops everywhere. Competition made some charge as low as #1,000.00, #2,000.00 for MS Office training. Actually, looking back, most of our students have been from outside Aba – from Awka, Umuahia. However, a larger proportion of those who have been from Aba have interestingly been females. The majority of the males have had an attitude of “if I will spend that kind of money to learn, then I will rather travel to Port Harcourt or Lagos”. Creating credibility was a challenge, and it consequently affected income.
For software development, our greatest competition has been pen and paper. The average Aba businessman would rather use hard copies of pen and paper that he can touch and feel; mobile or web apps seems a bit too esoteric for him. He doesn’t see why he should get a CRM to track his customer data or an invoicing software to auto-generate invoices when he could go to a printer and print paper invoices. Making the Aba market our sole source of income would have killed the business, so we had to look outside Aba.
To be fair, the awareness is gradually increasing; we are also investing a lot in 2018 in creating awareness and marketing to help customers understand the advantages tech can introduce into their businesses. As our corporate social responsibility, we are also working on 2 core social problems that affects Aba primarily; we hope that through this medium we can also raise the people’s awareness on tech.

Q: What plans do you have to use Learnfactory to create an ecosystem that will revolutionize Aba, Abia state and the south east through youth empowerment and economic development?

A: I would say there are a couple of initiatives and projects we have planned which we believe would create this ecosystem. The first, which I have spoken of earlier, are the ICE Clubs; which are learnfactory Coding and STEM clubs to run from primary all the way to tertiary institutions. Remember ICE stands for Innovation, Creativity, and Excellence; and the goal of the clubs are to help empower the youth with the requisite digital skill that would prepare them to participate and compete effectively in the next revolution, which is a future driven by ICT.
Another goal of the ICE Clubs is to foster collaboration amongst students from different schools and cadres of life. We hope to achieve this by creating clusters among the schools, providing these young people with technology resources to learn, explore their creativity, collaborate on projects and then provide a platform for them to showcase it to the world. This will have a short term and long term impact. On the short term, it will positively channel the abundant energy of our youth into profitable ventures; on the long term, it creates a sustainable process to groom succeeding generations of tech enthusiasts.
Secondly is the Benefactors program. Our goal for the resources raised here is two-fold: train the next generation of hardcore technologists using our premium Bootcamp program; and provide employment for these young ones through our outsourcing program. This will put money in their pockets, food on the table for their families, and give them a skill set that they can use today, tomorrow and into the future to compete effectively on the global scale.
The other aspect of what the Benefactors will do is that it provides us the necessary funds to build infrastructure. One of the primary challenges of Education in Nigeria, especially amongst public primary and secondary schools, is infrastructure; with IT infrastructure being at the lowest rung of the ladder of priority. As part of the ICE Clubs we want to build ICE Labs, which are small to medium fully-equipped tech labs located in schools or within local government headquarters or somewhere where children have access to this infrastructure. The ICE Labs will come equipped with every resource that a child will need to learn, explore, create and enhance his regular education as well as technical (IT) education. The kids will have unfettered access and can go in at their own time to utilize the resource. Our hope is that as this gains traction, more technocrats, philantropists and even government can chime in to make help expand the scope.
Finally, in 2018 learnfactory Nigeria will do a lot of tech events; free and paid seminars, hackerthons, workshops, webcasts etc. Such environment will bring together creative young people, who are hungry learn to code, exchange ideas and form partnerships that can have lifelong implications. We believe that in doing this, we would create thriving innovative communities that will look at social and business problems within Aba first and create solutions around them using technology. The more we create solutions using technology to problems that Aba and Abia state faces, the more we are opening up the ecosystem to involve more people; it will expand what we are doing, creating more awareness, building credibility, more people believe in it and finally more people contribute to it. It’s a circle; we prove our goal is worthy and we have integrity, more input comes in from the community, and we can expand to affect more children. These are some of the things we have in mind.