Nigeria Needs To Invest In AI To Catapult Growth- Ezirim


FG Needs To Invest In National Al Centres To Catapult Growth- Ezirim

Co-Founder/CEO Teens Can Code, Damian Isaac Ezirim, who recently is among the Queen’s Young Leaders Program winners  said that Nigeria should invest in national artificial intelligence centers to beef up growth.
He disclosed that by this effort and others, the country would not only prepare the workforce for the AI economy, she would also develop AI based solutions to tackle real-local problems.
In an exclusive chat with Gtechnews, Ezirim disclosed that AI is the future and “Has the potential to dramatically transform our economy”.

Can you explain your nomination and honour of the Queen’s Young Leaders Program?

I am incredibly delighted to be chosen as a Queens Young Leader, along with other amazing young people who are making lasting changes in their communities from across Commonwealth countries .
This means that I will be representing Nigeria along side Hauwa Ojeifo and Kennedy Ekezie for the final ever cohort of the Queen’s Young Leaders Program. This is big for us and especially for the communities we serve.  I will be receiving the award from Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace in 2018, and will also participate in a year long training program at University of Cambridge. I am so excited about this and the opportunity it presents.
The little consistent efforts we have put in to help teens in under-served communities has brought us to a global stage.


The future of tech is tilting towards artificial intelligence (AI), as a techie how can Nigeria tap into this?

Yes, artificial intelligence is the future, not only for techies but for all humankind, and it has the potential to dramatically transform our economy as well as the society for the best. AI is at a crucial developmental stage and our government has a unique opportunity to shape its future. The tech companies already knows this and are investing, some have already launched AI enabled products here, but the government is in a better position than technology companies to invest in AI applications aimed at addressing societal challenges. The field of AI is growing exponentially and it’s important for our government to study these things now and then see how we can address major challenges that affect both the society and industry. Again, we must invest in deep capabilities to catch the next wave of scientific innovation, and finally, grow AI innovation.
If the scalable power of technology can be leveraged in an inclusive manner, it has the potential to accelerate progress across sectors. By inclusive, I meant tapping into already existing local tech communities in Nigeria, through networking events, hackathons, and providing shared resources and facilities including software tools, open source frameworks, anonymized datasets and other Al high-performance computing resources.  This will mean huge funding with clear strategic plans to increase the number of new or outstanding artificial intelligence researchers in Nigeria, develop thought leaders on the ethical and legal implications of advances in AI, lastly, we can set up national artificial intelligence centers in our regions to beef up support for AI.  By these efforts ,we will not only prepare our workforce for the AI economy, we would also develop AI based solutions to tackle real-local problems.
I think the government should become the bigger player in the field of AI, AI is going to affect the lives of all of us no matter what. I think it’s important that the people who have a say in how it affects us represent all of us .

The issue of startups despite their ingenuity have always been lack of funding, kindly explain how government can turn around the situation. Although National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) and National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (Notap) have always laid claim to support, but how financially supportive have they been?

Startups may be small companies but they can play a significant role in economic growth. They create more jobs which means more employment, and more employment means an improved economy, and I think the government has a responsibility to help startups thrive, either by providing friendly policies, which Nigerian startups could get a major boost or further create better employment opportunities for the youth of the nation.
The government at all tiers should enable easy availability of loans to startups across the country. I think Lagos State is doing that through the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF) and I think LSETF is doing an amazing job, that can be replicated in other states.
Startups can have a more tax-friendly norms to sustain the pressure which sometimes adds to their cost.
Government can help build a culture of entrepreneurship. The biggest challenge holding back a thriving startup community is not regulation, funding, or market, but a cultural prejudice against both failure and success.  For instance “what if I invest my money in this business and it fails? Is there any security? What can I fall back on?” These are the biggest hold backs. Even parents will advise to get a paying job than starting a business, however, the government can play a critical role in shaping the country’s culture and creating an entrepreneurial environment where both failures and successes are celebrated, and where people are encouraged to better oneself economically through hard work and risk taking. At the end, entrepreneurship is a state of mind.
Indigenous startups will not only make the lives of the people easier through their affordable and convenient services but will also act as a major booster for the development and the progress of the Nigerian economy.

What is teen can code conference all about?
The Teens Code Conference is one of the activities of Teens Can Code. Teens Can Code is an organization helping to expand access to computer programming classes for teenagers living in under-served communities.  The Teens Code Conference is a large scale technology event that is organized in different communities, the aim is to use coding as the catalyst that can take teenagers from low-income areas and turn them to technology leaders who build positive societies. The conference includes talks from renowned tech leaders, workshop, exhibition and competition. The event gathers over 1,000 delegate students from each host community. During the conference up to 50 students are selected for an intensive free coding training spanning between one to three months, selected students are trained on HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Python programming. Through the conference ,we have reached over 3,000 teenagers in different communities, and we have trained up to 200 teenagers on software development, with support of Andela and Python Software.
Our teenagers are on their way to becoming world class developers, a few teenagers teamed up to build a classroom community called ‘efiwe” These are teenagers from low-income homes, and this innovation has proven that every child is a genius. They only lack opportunities, and that is the puzzle Teens Can Code is helping to solve. We are providing opportunities for every child to learn about technology, no matter the status of their parents or where they live. And not only do we train them on the skills, they are trained to use those skills for social good, we like to think that, we are raising the next technology rock-star.

How do you plan to sustain it?
Several plans, though some are still long term. Our teenagers are our greatest assets, they can handle software development jobs, so we are planning to create like a poll of tech talents to service both small and big enterprise. But for now, we are seeking organizations whose vision aligns with our activities to partner with us in raising tech talents in Nigeria.

Isaac Damian Ezirim

As a digital native, what do you think could be done differently to ensure more hubs stay alive, from the point view of the dead idea hub.

I think there should be a clear funding part, people who run incubators are often professional fund-raisers, and how they continue to raise the funds must be clear from the beginning. I also think some of the hubs have too many companies and too many companies will mean too much capital, and only a few of these companies incubated are solving very compelling problems. They can have lesser companies and execute more ideas, they shouldn’t spin a company out without traction, if the entrepreneur can find traction, then they can spin out a company and fund it.

In your view, are other hubs stabilised?
Looking from the outside, I will say they are stabilized. Co Creation Hub is Nigeria’s first incubation hub and its waxing stronger. The ecosystem has seen a rising number of successful startups being churned out and some have also exited, showing signs of a maturing ecosystem.

Do you see Nigeria becoming a Silicon valley soon?
What makes Silicon Valley is that it has the most reputable tech cluster in the world, and like any cluster, you need infrastructure and investment in big enough, befitting structures. If we can fix infrastructure problem, we can build our own tech cluster, and then we have our own Silicon Valley.
Although, there has been much talks initiated about Yaba, Lagos being the next Silicon Valley especially since it holds innate advantages of diversity, housing a significant number of businesses and startups, but recently there has been doubts if Yaba can still be the tech hub. Again, is the issue of infrastructure.

What is the future plan for the oncoming generation?

My hope is that our efforts at Teens Can Code can prepare each student for the future, which is becoming more and more dependent on technology.
We have Code Clubs running in a few schools and we want to expand to more schools so every child can learn about technology.
We are planning to set up teens’ hubs in three states, which will serve as an innovation center for teenagers. We already have some of our teenagers who are building products that are solving some local challenges, we recently launched the work of some of our teens called “Efiwe” – is a learning platform and a classroom community, that empowers students to share questions, files, ideas and collaborate on solution with ease, it accommodates every subject in Nigeria’s educational curriculum. We want to have more teenagers come up with technology solutions. We not only teach them to code, we also have demo days when our teenagers come to talk about problems in their communities and possible solutions.
In addition to our Teens Code Conferences, we are also planning a Teens Hackathon, we already have over 200 teenagers trained under the Teens Can Code program, and we want to challenge them.
A lot of activities on the pipeline, and of course our focus is on teenagers living in low-social economic areas, who knows? We may be raising the next Mark Zuckerberg.