India’s Information Technology Lift-off - A Lesson for Nigeria


Bello Salihu

Changing Lives and Improving Communities

Imagine a patient in a hospital room in the small village of Dikwa in Borno State describing his or her symptoms to, and being “seen” by, an expert in the University of Lagos. They are communicating via a live video link relayed through the internet between the two locations. The patient and the doctor are looking at each other and together at a blow up of an x-ray image being evaluated by the doctor.

This scenario replicated in Los Angeles or London is no cutting edge technology and will certainly raise few eyebrows. But in India where it actually happened it was almost as cutting edge as it can be. Considering that the patient was in a remote location and the doctor was in his cozy office at a Regional Cancer Centre situated in a major city, it not only showed how, Telemedicine, as it is called by its proponent, India’s Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), can open up avenues, hitherto unthinkable, for the delivery of quality services to people in remote locations but it also shows what a leap India has taken since the inception of digital revolution.  This and other technologies such as rural PC kiosks were showcased at the World Summit on the Information Society held in Kram, near Tunis, three years ago.

The manifestation of the unfolding digital miracle came in the person  of young Sukanya Sakkarai, a teenaged villager who graduated top of her class but couldn’t continue her education due to poverty and was about to settle in a  marriage arranged by her parents. As the smartest girl in the very small southern Indian farming village of Ulagupitchanpatti, she was approached by a group of entrepreneurs and sold her he idea of opening an information kiosk in her village. Since she nodded her pretty head in agreement neither herself nor her village has been the same. Today her kiosk serves as the village’s secretariat, cyber café, cinema, school; and even acts as the village’s ombudsman. She writes and relays replies on behalf of villagers and distant relations, those villagers (who can) now browse the internet, those who can’t and their children are enrolled in her computer school, those with time on their hands watch the latest Bollywood movies played off a CD-Rom on her computer. Contact with the geographically far-removed authorities is now done via her kiosk. Anything from requesting for a birth certificate to distant diagnosis of plant and human disease is easily handled by her small webcam, computer and an internet link. By charging a small fee for the services, Sukanya now takes care of her parents and many siblings. Her backers now have over ten thousand of such kiosks scattered all over rural India and many more are in the pipeline. There are over six hundred thousands such villages in India.

From villagers saved the ten rupee bus ride to the main town to get a birth certificate because he could apply for it online, to the faceless venture capitalists who power this revolution, digital technology is changing lives in the Indian subcontinent. India’s IT industry, worth only a paltry fifty million dollars in 1991 is today worth over thirty billion dollars.

Help from Abroad

Indian IT professionals started arriving in California, USA in the 1960s. The most prominent early arrivals were Dr. Narinder Singh Kanpany, the father of fibre optics, who founded Optics Technology in 1960. Later in the late 70s Sirjang Lal Tandon founded Tandon Computers, a highly successful company that supplies hard discs to computer manufacturers. By 1990’s many names have been added to the illustrious list of Indian’s who are major players on Silicon Valley. Examples include Vinod Khosla who co-founded Sun Microsystems and retired to be a venture capitalist at thirty. Sabeer Bhatia, who started Hotmail at twenty-six and sold it to Microsoft, and by twenty eight, Sabeer was worth four hundred million dollars and was at the epicenter of the internet revolution.

Then there was Vinod Dham who created the Pentium Chip while working with chip maker, Intel, under founder Andy Grove. Kanwal Rekhi, another American-based IT heavyweight teamed up with other successful Indians in America to start The Indus Entrepreneur (TiE), an incubator-cum-venture capital grouping to help Indian start-ups.

With a strong background in the sciences and mathematics, young Indians arriving in America were challenged by the American spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation. They took the challenge head-on and turned around this new technology to the advantage of their society thousands of miles away.

The Bangalore Miracle

The ground-zero of the revolution is Bangalore, the capital city of the state of Karnatka. Touted as India’s Silicon Valley, it houses most of the country’s indigenous and foreign technology powerhouses and venture capital funds.  It is one of the fastest growing cities in Asia if not the world. Located 920m   above    sea level,     Bangalore, is a vibrant cosmopolitan city, a   major industrial and commercial   centre of the country. Despite being a fast growing city, it remains one of the most elegant metros in India.  A well planned city, with wide tree-lined avenues,   a   large    number of parks,   gardens   and     lakes. Bangalore is aptly called India's garden city. The  city  attracts  people  in  large  numbers,  from  all  over   the   country, and abroad, who come in search of better job opportunities,  and   higher   education.   Most who come find a home and stay.

Some of those who came and stayed are the top technology companies of the world or have since their arrival become global players in IT.  This Silicon Valley with a red dot on its forehead has given birth to companies such as Wipro Technologies (founded by Azim Premji), Accord Software Systems, Infosys (founded by Naryana Murthy), Tata Consulting Services (TCS) owned by the giant Tata conglomerate, etc.

Today these companies are all billion dollar players in the digital realm and are indeed global players with presence in Asia, Europe and the USA. Infosys already has 650 international professionals working in its 55 offices around the world. Sales and marketing people are generally from the countries where offices are located. While the US remains the major market, the European and Asian markets are rapidly growing. Shanghai and other East Asian cities have become major hubs for TCS and Infosys.

Each company has a multinational presence with important centres in Asia, Europe and the United States. The business model of these companies capitalizes on the biggest selling point of India’s IT train; cheap quality services delivered on time at a fraction the current cost of such services in the western world. So smaller services companies are reaping benefits from the in-roads made by the bigger ones such as Wipro, TCS and Infosys, thus fueling entrepreneurship. A country with the greater majority of the its billion-plus strong population below the age of twenty-five, India has built an army of programmers, virtual help desk start ups, contact centre workers and innovators. Most of them, and the companies they work for, started doing mundane, labour-intensive programming tasks for major US companies such as Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. Before long, they built a reputation of delivering, under budget, ninety percent of projects on time compared to sixty-five percent by US companies. Two areas that exemplify this confidence are service outsourcing and innovation.

Outsourcing of contact centres by major banks and retailers in the UK and USA has become a political hot potato in the western world. Contact centre employees in India make about two and half dollars an hour while their counterparts in the west make about five times of that. The shrinking of geography due to digitalization makes it possible for banks and supermarkets that are just round the corner in London and New York to respond to customer complaints from contact centres located in Bangalore and Chennai.  No amount of pressure brought to bear on these companies by their western governments eager to save local jobs can beat the simple, economic commonsense of relocating contact centres to cheaper India. And it is not just customer contact centres; help desks, software support centres, programming code writers, detailed components’  design, animation and graphics, etc. It seems everything is going east.

On the innovation front, about thirteen thousand cinemas in India will junk their old projectors for digital cinema (d-cinema) where movies will be sent digitally to near and remote cinemas to be screened using a digital projector made by an Indian company called Real-Image. By doing this, the need to print a movie to celluloid is no longer there, there is no need to physically transport the movies to the theatres and no physical copy can be hijacked by pirates to be illegally mass produced. It is believed that once Hollywood gets over its squabbling over this model it will be adopted worldwide. The company behind this innovation is a small Indian company based in the southern city of Chennai (formerly Madras) and is run by a small band of young under-thirty Indian IT entrepreneurs.

These are just two examples in an area where examples abound.

Indian IT companies are deeply entrenched in the social fabric of the Indian people. Most of government business is on the process of being digitized. For example, the state of Karnatka developed a 3.7 million dollars programme to computerize the land records of 6.7 million farmers scattered in thirty thousand villages thereby saving 6.7 million people the trouble of traveling long distances and paying corrupt officials for vital documents. A tractor making company asked the government for a list of villages with farms larger than four hectares to effectively target his marketing campaign. They got that information for a price thereby generating revenue for the state. At this rate, very soon the system will pay back the 3.7 million dollars used to develop it. The government of India plans to spend over three billion over the next three years to computerize government services. Brazil, South Africa and Sri Lanka are said to be closely watching the progress of e-governance in India as a model for their own countries.

Digital technology can deliver information -- information the rural poor desperately need -- about crop conditions, fertilizer prices, health care, and more. Reliable information can help India's poor stretch their resources -- to plant the right crops, deal with bureaucrats more effectively, operate on a level playing field with customers and merchants. The digital revolution in India is largely an information revolution.

India is looking at its rural poor as a market rather than as a burden and could spur a fresh growth of ideas from government to entrepreneurs in trying to reach this huge potential market.  The second generation of opportunity creators in India is the multi national western-based companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Apple and SAP that all have a regional centre or campus in India.

When this revolution is cascaded down, it reaches places like Ulagupitchanpatti and touches the lives of people like Sukanya Sakkarai and the farmers and children her small PC kiosk services. Directly and indirectly, it is estimated that India’s IT revolution is responsible in moving nearly three hundred million Indians above the poverty line in less than ten years. It is also the only reason why India is not fazed by the phenomenal economic miracle happening next door in China.  It is an acceptable statement of fact that while China can copy India can create. While this is truer in the area of intellectual property and IT, it still remains the reason why the growth of these two Asian powers is seen to be complimentary and will act as a purveyor of rapid development of the Asian continent. It is also the reason why Indian IT practitioners are sought after even by countries turning back immigrants such as UK and Germany.

Not by Accident: India’s Conscious Efforts to Develop a Knowledge Economy

One might ask; at what point exactly did India know that the future is in information technology and what did they do since then to position their nation and its people to reap such unimaginable dividends from this future. Was it a clairvoyant savant sitting in a Hindu temple that saw a vision or was it a mystic tarot reader that read the future for India? Or was it leadership foresight that gave birth to a well thought-out master plan executed brilliantly by self-less bureaucrats. It is more likely to be the latter and not the former. India’s emergence as a technological super-power was no accident.

Back in the late seventies and early eighties most of the secondary school science and maths tutors in my native Sokoto State of Nigeria were Asians from the Indian subcontinent. Right from there one can see that that region had abundant manpower in this area to be a mass exporter of knowledge. I can recall reading it somewhere in later  years where an Indian intellectual was quoted as saying that because of the solid grounding Indian youngsters have in Mathematics and the sciences, the country is well-positioned for take-off in the area of computing in particular and the digital economy in general.

The Role of Government – Independence to Pre-Digital Revolution
When the Indian constitution was written in 1949 it included in Article 45, a commitment that the state, “shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years”.

So from the first development plan laid out at India’s Independence (1950-55) it was recognized and documented that “the provision of a certain minimum of education to all citizenry within a reasonably short period of time is an essential pre-requisite, next only to food, for the successful implementation of development programme and survival of democracy in India.” It was also stated that the citizenry’s keenness on matters relating to education must be harnessed in such a way that the contributions in cash, kind, labour or land for creating the necessary facilities is encouraged. The idea was to make the school the focus for the joint endeavour of the community and the hub of the community’s social, cultural and economic life. This approach can take different forms from putting up a building, supplying furniture and equipment, making contribution in cash or kind at the time of the harvest or labour in the off-season, to taking up responsibility for running the school as their own. This elevated the status of teachers and formed the basis of disciplined citizenry that is aware of not only their rights but their responsibility to the community.

In the same plan period the existence of the National Physical Laboratory in Delhi and the National Chemical Laboratory at Poona and nine other scientific research institutes was complimented with the creation of the Radio and Electronics Research Institute, the Mechanical Engineering Institute and the Salt Research Institute.

By 1961, ten years after the inception of the first development plan, school enrolment in India rose by nearly one-hundred percent from 23.5 million students to 43.5 million students in all levels of schooling. It is imperative to say here, that all attendant problems faced by the educational sector in Nigeria were present in India during that era, from lack of access to facilities by rural dwellers and the so-called “lower class” individuals to low funding and low girl-child enrolment. India’s modest success in this is a clear proof that when there is a will and the determination to understand and face underlying obstacles, everything is achievable.

An important milestone was the creation of the Indian Institute of Technology, IIT in the first development plan and the designation of “an important national institution” conferred on it by an act of parliament in 1957. IIT is now one of the most renowned technical colleges in the world.

These actions, undertaken at the inception of India’s nationhood lay the foundation of their current successes. Today it is estimated that nearly 120 million children, almost equal to the entire population of Nigeria, between the ages of 6-14 years old are enrolled in schools in India. This is about two-thirds of all Indian children in that age group. About three quarters of the total population of that age-group are being educated one-way or the other.  After a deferment of about sixty years, the Indian authorities are now committed and have the resources to ensure that the promise of providing free education to 100% of their children between the ages of six and fourteen years by the year 2010 is achieved. Currently only 55% of all Indians are literate. In the urban areas the percentage is 70% while in the slums and rural areas it is 64% and 49% respectively.

If India is able to achieve its current technological emergence with an average literacy rate of 55%, one wonders what can be achieved beyond 2010 when the first products of the 100% literate society emerge.

In the last parliamentary election campaign in Britain, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s clarion call to his countrymen was to be aware of how India and China are producing science and technology graduates that are almost more than the entire population of Great Britain.

As I have stated above, the birth of the vision and infrastructure of India’s technological take-off was neither an accident nor error of commission. It was a result of vision and planning on the part of the leadership.

With the creation of a full ministry in 2005 charged with the mission of turning India into an IT super-power by this year (2008), the same level of foresight has been brought to bear on the successes gained. The Department of Information Technology created was under the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and was headed by the then 39-year-old Honourable Minister of Information Technology, Thiru Dayanidhi Maran.

The department was charged with the realization of a simple three-fold vision; Creation of Wealth, Employment Generation and IT led Economic Growth. To achieve that the department will be expected to be a pro-active facilitator, pro-active motivator, pro-active promoter, to spread IT to masses and to ensure speedy IT-led development. These few sentences highlighting the vision and implementation strategy are distilled from a policy document of several volumes.

The minster was quoted as saying, “India cannot hope to aspire to become a great IT nation without adequate level of R&D work. Towards this, our National R&D institutions would be given encouragement to invest in R&D and bring about world-class technologies.” These are the same R&D institutions that were created at independence which I mentioned in earlier paragraphs of this write-up. By so doing Indian biotech, crop research institutes and the likes are brought to the heart of this digital revolution. This is clearly evident in the inflow of capital into India for the development of many technologies from biofuels to embryonic research.

With a clear vision, unambiguous role and a steadfast mission from the helm, the ministry has now become the tread that weaves through and binds all aspects on India’s foray into the digital economy. Ambitious programmes such as State-Wide Area Networks (SWAN), e-Governance, e-Learning and the Information Security and Awareness programme are just few of the of the items currently in the department’s sights. The department is currently funding over 700 R & D projects in conjunction with various companies and institution all over India and the world.

Discordant Signals from Nigeria

When I sat down to articulate the foregoing thoughts two years ago and presented them as an article in one Nigeria’s national dailies, I was hoping at most to create a national discourse on what the country hopes to achieve with all the noise about IT development coming from the past government. In the very least I was hoping to bring the attention of my audience of the immense opportunities that exist in IT and the government’s role in the provision of the infrastructure and the enabling environment for the take-off and the flourishing of this sector. Believing strongly that with a predominantly young population imbedded in over forty universities, we have more than sufficient foot soldiers that can drive an IT revolution in Nigeria.

I am heartened by a personal observation I made. On a trip to Nigeria in 1998, I used my Toshiba laptop that has an email client software to explain to my friends who were young science professionals in medicine and engineering how emails work. And they were awed by the simplicity and ingenuity of it. Almost all of them believed that such a technology will take at least a generation to reach our shores. Less than decade later, almost every Nigeria that knows how to read and write has an email address or, at the very least, knows what having one means. This is not only a testimony of the insidious nature of information technology but also of the nature of the average Nigerian to be quick on the take on trends.

Nigeria, by our sheer number and the literacy and demographic advantage stated above, is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this revolution. Having said that, we know that most entrepreneurs and companies can plan for, and cope with failing and non-existent infrastructure as it impacts on their service delivery. The effect of such failings will manifest itself in the quality of the service provided. What no company can cope with are incongruous policy positions that tend to show an unsteady and shifting pattern in the government’s vision for a given sector of interest.

A personal case in point, I developed a small program that use a CBL (Computer Based Learning) module to assist senior secondary students in their preparation for SSCE exams. The simple multimedia program, which I planned to donate to my town, uses graphics and animations to explain scientific concepts to kids and also tests them on their understanding of these concepts. The aim, once installed was to include in it hundreds of past SSCE/WASC exam questions the students can practice on to test their understanding of their subject matter. I was promised a donation of twenty used Pentium III computers from a local school here in the UK which I hoped to transport to Nigeria to set up the lab as my own contribution to education and computer literacy. To my amazement, the donating school’s IT director forwarded to me an email that said the Nigerian government has banned the importation of used computers into the country. That was how that effort fell through!

Now, we can discuss the merits or otherwise of used IT equipment finding their way to Nigeria till the cows come home, but the fundamental truth remains that Nigeria does not have the capacity to be self-sufficient in IT hardware for now. It is also self-evident that IT entrepreneurship, from content creation to service provision, depends on the ready accessibility to a computer terminal by the creators, providers and end-users. It is also there for all to see that used equipment can be used to create fresh and original work because the hardware is only complimentary to the creative mind of the talented Nigerians who will use the equipment.

The blanket use of the word “used” makes it difficult for one to discern at what point the IT hardware becomes an agent of cancer. Of the three computers I use only my laptop was bought last year. The oldest of the three is a Pentium II bought nine years ago in 1999 and it still serves me well. One is constrained to think that this is a self-serving policy proposed by an individual or group in whose interest it is to build or import new IT equipment even when the price is prohibitive to the average Nigerian user. To say that taking this as a national policy will limit how many Nigerians will be able to have access to computers is a gross understatement.

Another case in point is the lethargic approach to the development of an IT village in Abuja. Tagged the Abuja Technology Village, this facility is to be a hub of technological creativity and development with its location closer to the country’s seat of power. It is designed, so I heard, to isolate the users from the epileptic nature of our utilities especially power and internet access. I applauded the federal administration in the initiation of this long-overdue facility. The first time I read about it, my mind wandered away to a dream scenario in which at least ten of similar “villages” are created and strategically positioned in various parts of the country. Years later, Abuja Technology Village is still a blueprint pinned on someone’s wall. This is a facility that, with careful nurturing, will remove thousands of young people off the street. It will also place Nigeria on the map of technological and creative innovation. We already have industries these “villages” will service; from entertainment to agriculture to manufacturing.

Considering that it is much cheaper to link all Nigerian villages digitally with the internet than it is to link the same villages with roads and other type of transport network, we have, through this e-revolution, a platform that will open up massive under-accessed segments of the country. It will economically empower people, enlighten them and make it much easier for the government to access them. While, for people in Abuja, Lagos and Kaduna having a live video chat with a friend in Mexico City in real-time is a reality, contacting an unwell relation in the village fifty kilometres away is, in some cases, still almost as arduous as sending a probe to Mars. This is one of the reasons why the said technology village is necessary. Someone in Nigeria, innovating for Nigeria should be able to define and design ways of leveraging technology for the benefit of all. To leave this to chance and believe it will somehow happen, unplanned and unregulated is akin to believing that a proliferation of road side car mechanics will one day give us a home made spacecraft.

I look into the future and see the development of a standardized IT literacy certification, similar to Europe’s ECDL (European Computer Driving License) that becomes the entry requirement of anyone who wants to be employed in these technology villages whatever their discipline. Those who are able to get in, (and many will be able to, because, lets face it, an average Nigeria with a basic education speaks English and can use a computer if trained), will form the manpower required to provide services such as back-office support, call centres, outsourced code programming and Computer-Aided Design.

By so doing, creativity will flourish and we may even have our own brand of incubators and venture capitalists that will place their stakes on ideas that are groundbreaking and have a chance of making it in the global market place. By the time we develop an army of geeks, Nigeria will be exporting innovation and expertise. Many a young Indian and Chinese school leaver has graduated from similar centres in their country into California’s Silicon Valley.

In this write-up I have discussed the rate at which this revolution is changing ordinary lives in India. I have also highlighted the deliberate role played by government, IT professionals and venture capitalists alike in the transformation of the Indian IT playing field. I have also attempted to highlight the historical grounding Indian students get through a deliberate mass education effort as a preamble and lifting pad to their current successes. I have also used two case examples to highlight why our country needs to be active and coherent in its approach to the development of a digital economy that will benefit untold number of people in all levels of society.

In conclusion and on a more personal note, about eleven years ago I was privileged to live and work in India for nearly a year. I was stationed in the cities of Chennai and Mumbai while my oilfield operations were in the Bay of Bengal. I was hit more with the vibrant colours of the country and its many social contradictions than with its blossoming IT industry. The IT industry then was like an active volcano rumbling in the distance waiting for me to leave the subcontinent before it erupted. But even then, the tell-tale signs were there. Many of the support staff I worked with were young, IT savvy, Indian kids just out of school. They introduced me to hotmail and eBay. I opened my first web-based e-mail account and executed my first online auction in India.

I once tasked one of my young clerical officers to keep a definite list of all our site equipment and their movement. He came back to me with a small database programme based on Microsoft Access that tracks and simplifies our entire logistics chain. It was like this young chap (or his country) was telling me (or the world) that “I am ready, challenge me!”

Of all the four BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) countries racing to attain economic superpower status, India presents a much better developmental model for Nigeria to emulate. It has a near similar population density, similar age demographics, speaks English and with a greater number of its population in rural areas. The IT route they have taken presents a much lower developmental and environmental footprint to set up and much lower time scale to achieve. It is also scalable and can be surgically directed to areas where it is required.

We Nigerians come with unbelievable intelligence and a can-do attitude that has been honed by the peculiarities of living in our country. Information Technology becomes one of the tools capable of unleashing our creativity and channelling our inventiveness into more sane, productive and, dare I say, legal outlets.