A silver lining: COVID-19 and the acceleration of digital transformation in Nigeria
A silver lining: COVID-19 and the acceleration of digital transformation in Nigeria

By Valentine Chime, MD, inq.Digital Nigeria

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in April 2021, I handed my debit card to a cashier at the Victoria Island outlet of a large multinational supermarket chain in Lagos, Nigeria, as I attempted to pay for items in my shopping cart and, to my surprise, the cashier refused to accept the card, asking instead, that I tap the card against the POS machine to make the payment. I did as the cashier instructed and within seconds, received payment confirmation. It turned out that there was an ongoing trial of contactless payments technology at the outlet, and I had unwittingly become a participant in the pilot. There was no need to insert the card in the machine as usual, have the cashier pull it out after payment and hand back to me – a lot of unnecessary contacts were avoided through digital innovation.

I have used contactless technology in other countries, and it is not new in Nigeria either (some tollgates accept tap-to-pay) but its deployment in retail and other broader use cases in Nigeria epitomizes the acceleration of digital transformation in the country since the onset of COVID-19. Some of you may wonder what digital transformation is. In simple terms, digital transformation is the replacement of manual/physical processes with digital technology and processes. A good example is when you pay for an item online rather than paying in cash at a store.

While COVID-19 has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on businesses in Nigeria and indeed globally, the acceleration of digital transformation in Nigeria since the arrival of the pandemic in the country, has been a silver lining in an otherwise dark pandemic cloud. COVID-19 was (and probably remains) an existential threat to most businesses in Nigeria but digitization came to the rescue. This survey by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) found that businesses in Nigeria which were able to quickly transition to digital fared better and in some cases, experienced growth, in contrast to those who were unable to. We continue to see examples of digital acceleration occurring around us daily in Nigeria; digital payments are increasingly being preferred to cash, virtual meetings are replacing in-person engagements, virtual church services and school classes are the norm and even our elections have enjoyed a digital upgrade as seen in the use of advanced digital validation (BVAS machines) in the recently concluded Anambra State elections.

The bump in digitization attributable to COVID-19 in Nigeria is not mere conjecture as there is empirical evidence of the explosion of digital between 2020 and 2021. For example, this report published by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) highlights the surge in internet traffic in Nigeria from 147,537.52TB to 196,163.42TB in just the first 9 months of the pandemic, i.e. from March to November 2020. What did Nigerians do more digitally? The answer: a broad range of activities including online classes, remote work, virtual medical consultations, and perhaps most notably, online payment transactions.  Nigerian Interbank Settlement System (NIBSS) data shows that online real-time payment transactions increased by an unprecedented 90% y-o-y between Q3 2019 and Q3 2020, while online payment transactions grew by a whopping 47% in just one quarter (Q2-Q3 2020) as more and more businesses moved online.

The acceleration of digital transformation in Nigeria holds immense benefits for individuals, businesses, and the government. From my interactions with fellow businesses leaders in Nigeria, there appears to be a consensus that increased digitization has resulted in increased efficiency which translates to better Cost Revenue Ratios (CRR) and enhanced service delivery. Nigerian businesses at the forefront of digital transformation have enjoyed remarkable successes during the pandemic with recent foreign investments in Nigerian fintech symbolizing this boom. For individuals, digital transformation is increasing customer engagement and satisfaction while for the government, it is helping to narrow the gap between government services and citizens.

inq.Digital Nigeria is proud to be at the forefront of digital transformation in Nigeria. We are catalyzing Nigeria’s digitization through our broad range of services including cloud solutions, Intelligent Connectivity, IoT and other digital solutions, which helped our customers seamlessly and quickly transition from manual to digital processes during the pandemic. Our customers relied on us to guide them through the murky, uncharted waters of operating during a global pandemic and I remain incredibly proud of our work to enable our customers not only survive but thrive during the most turbulent phase of the pandemic.

Will digital acceleration slow down in Nigeria as life gradually returns to normal? I lay no claims to clairvoyance but can unequivocally say that Nigeria is going inexorably digital, even if digital transformation slows down post-COVID. Citizens, businesses, and the government must be deliberate about digitization if we are to sustain the current pace of digital transformation. A key step in this regard is the expansion of broadband infrastructure which is the backbone of digitization. We must also review our educational curriculum to promote digital literacy. I particularly like and support the idea of technological hubs, which have become rather popular in Nigeria recently and have contributed in no small measure to digital skills development in the country. On a policy level, the Strategic Economic Roadmap and Action Plan 2021-2024, contained in the Nigerian National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy, is an important enabler of digitization as it sets out a clear roadmap for the critical digitization levers of developmental regulation, digital literacy, digital Innovation and entrepreneurship, cybersecurity, and emerging technologies.

In conclusion, it is undeniable that COVID-19 was beneficial to digitization in Nigeria, although most of us, me included, would undoubtedly have preferred a less pernicious catalyst for accelerated digitization in Nigeria. While I am glad to see the gradual return to normalcy across the country, it is my hope that digital transformation continues unabated in Nigeria, given its immense benefits to individuals, businesses, and the government.

 

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