By: Engr. Prof. Mohammed Ajiya

The entire world is currently in the throes of a deadly pandemic. So far, there have been over 2.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, resulting in more than 170,000 deaths, many of whom, incidentally, were critical human resources whose knowledge and expertise the world may initially struggle to replace.

As a result, an unprecedented global lockdown is in place, with restrictions imposed by majority of governments on both international and local travel as well as on intra-city movement by their citizens.

This has led to the temporary closure of all but essential businesses and services, forcing many of those businesses, as well as the governments that imposed the lockdowns, to embrace the new reality of having their staff work from home for an extended and indeterminable period of time.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have lasting economic repercussions long after it has been vanquished, with a global recession certain to follow. According to the Asian Development Bank, the pandemic is projected to cause a global loss in GDP of up to $4.1 Trillion before it is over.

One critical factor in this is the fact that the pandemic descended upon a world that was essentially unprepared for it.

Whether or not there was adequate medical planning globally for a pandemic of this scale is up for debate, and many points can be made both for and against.

What is indisputable, however, is that most businesses, governments and other organisations were largely unprepared for the prospect of their entire workforce suddenly unable to show up for work, and their customers no longer able to come physically to them – for the foreseeable future.

One of the legacies of the COVID-19 pandemic, therefore, should be that we are never caught unawares again, at least in terms of preparedness for necessary social distancing. ICT planning is the optimal way to ensure this, with special focus on the concepts of e-commerce, e-government, remote work, and e-Learning.

E-commerce:  E-commerce refers to the buying and selling of goods and services electronically (over the Internet). E-commerce is thriving under the conditions of the current pandemic as consumers are forced to shop mainly from home.

According to Forbes, the wealthiest person in the world is currently Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of e-commerce behemoth Amazon.

While the pandemic has resulted in several of his fellow billionaires losing large chunks of their net worth, Bezos’ net worth is actually increasing due to the pandemic. His company Amazon is currently hiring 100,000 new full and part-time workers to help meet increased demand from consumers staying home and shopping online.

Locally, e-commerce giants Konga and Jumia are also poised to benefit from the lockdown imposed by the Federal Government, as traditional shopping outlets are largely unavailable to consumers or, when available, may be counterproductive to the objective of social distancing.

Konga has already confirmed “a significant increase in shopping activity, especially for groceries and other essentials” during the ongoing pandemic.

Both Konga and Jumia carry their own products in addition to providing a platform for business owners to sell their goods online without having to set up their own e-commerce sites.

So, what has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about commerce? Traditional retailers without the option of conducting their commercial activities online will lose business at times like this, while businesses that engage in both traditional and e-commerce will continue to thrive.

Post COVID-19, businesses not wanting to be caught out again in similar situations will need to plan for including e-commerce capabilities in their business model as a matter of urgency.

E-government: E-government is defined as government’s use of technology, particularly web-based Internet applications to enhance the access to and delivery of government information and services to citizens, business partners, employees, other agencies, and government entities.

The deployment of e-Government solutions has been known to accelerate government decision-making processes, provide additional employment, aid youth empowerment, and even spur gender inclusiveness. E-Government is also a key factor for sustainable development and wealth creation.

With the current lockdown, all but essential government offices in Nigeria are shut down, meaning that many government services are currently unavailable to citizens and other stakeholders. While this is unavoidable due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessity for social distancing, it highlights the urgent need for alternate means of work and productivity in our government.

For example, Estonia, a small country in Northern Europe, possesses by far the most digitally advanced government in the world. In addition to the fact that all government activity is entirely paperless, 99% of government public services are also available online 24/7. This includes voting, ID issuance, e-signature (all documents can be signed electronically), taxes, police services, healthcare, notary services, census, education, company registration, the justice system, immigration, public transport ticketing, and much more. The only government services not currently available online are marriage, divorce, and real estate transactions.

Even with a lockdown in place, Estonia’s citizens and residents will clearly still be able to access public services seamlessly from their government.

Estonia, by the way, is not a particularly wealthy country. Its estimated GDP for 2020 is $32.742 Billion; for comparison, Nigeria’s is $504.57Billion. Estonia shows what is achievable with proper digital capacity building, planning and execution. Public services do not have to become unavailable to Nigerians in the event of a similar situation reoccurring. Citizens should not have to wait for a lockdown to be over if they have urgent government transactions to conclude. In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, Nigeria needs to urgently re-examine its strategies for work and productivity, and its attitude to e-government.

Remote Work: On 23rd March 2020, one week before the Federal Government declared a full lockdown in FCT, Lagos, and Ogun State in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19, a circular was passed ordering all non-essential public servants on grade level 12 and below to work from home until further notice. While a small percentage of workers have managed to discharge some of their duties from home starting from then and during the subsequent lockdown, the unfortunate reality is that majority of staff supposedly “working from home” have not been properly equipped with the required digital skills and tools, and are therefore, unable to accomplish any meaningful work during this time.

This loss in productivity has affected both the public and private sectors and looks set to continue for as long as lockdown measures remain in place. The economic consequences of this are yet to be quantified but will continue to be felt nationwide long after things return to a semblance of normality. Could it have been different if the tools, capacity, and infrastructure for effective remote working were in place and pervasive? The answer is a definite yes.

Majority of today’s work tasks can be performed using information and communications technology in addition to the more traditional methods. There are technology solutions for tasks ranging from meetings and collaborative work to data analysis, marketing, and customer relationship management. Remote working software solutions can be deployed by employer organisations to enable their employees remotely and securely connect to the organisations’ servers, edge-computing or cloud via Virtual Private Networks, and access documents, files, services and tools pertaining to their job roles just as if they were sitting in their offices within the organisations’ premises. These are the tools required for modern work tasks, both on-site and remotely.

However, for a workforce to be effective at using these tools, they need to possess a certain level of digital literacy as well as proficiencies specific to their job roles and tools required for those roles. This is where capacity comes in. The final piece of the puzzle is infrastructure. This encompasses widespread availability, reliability, and affordability of broadband Internet resources across the country, reliable voice communications networks, and reliable power supply. With these three factors securely in place, any organisation can theoretically continue to function at close to full productivity regardless of any lockdowns or similar situations. Any required meetings would be conducted using video and web conferencing solutions, staff would continue to deliver on their assigned tasks, and collaboration among teams would be seamless regardless of the geographical locations of team members.

Capacity building in post-pandemic Nigeria: In recognition of the fact that majority of organisations (both public and private) were largely unprepared for the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have explored avenues for better preparedness going forward, via e-commerce, e-government, and remote work.There is, however, an underlying capacity building requirement to all three concepts, the absence of which would make it impossible to attain the level of future preparedness sought.

SMEs engaged in commercial activities (buying and selling) who do not currently have digital skills and e-commerce capabilities may simply have no idea where to begin.

Coordinated and comprehensive capacity building on e-commerce should be made available to SMEs post-COVID-19 to provide them with the required knowledge and available options for adding e-commerce to their current business model.

E-government is another core area where massive capacity building is required, in the light of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Decision makers in MDAs need to understand how e-government solutions can be applied to the delivery of their organisations’ mandates; their IT departments need to learn how to implement, deploy and maintain those solutions; while their key staff need capacity building on the operation and administration of the platforms.

Finally, for remote work to be viable and sustainable, a certain level of digital literacy is required in staff of both public and private organisations, with additional digital proficiencies required according to their specific job functions. This is essential if the staff are to effectively complete their job functions mainly using digital tools from remote locations. Also, due to the highly dynamic nature of information and communications technology, regular retraining and upskilling is necessary even for directors, management and staff that are already digitally literate. In addition, digital security matters. It has now become mandatory for organisations to design and deploy their own ICT Security Policy. IT departments in these organisations must learn how to select, deploy, integrate and maintain secure remote working platforms that are suitable for their organisations’ specific needs. These organisations must seek the capacity building that is required for their staff, if they are to be immunised from loss of productivity during any subsequent lockdowns or similar situations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that nothing is beyond the realms of possibility. Scientists, as well as various works of fiction, have long predicted a scenario like the one we currently face, but the truth is that most of us never thought it would actually happen.

Now that we know otherwise, it is imperative that we ensure that the loss in productivity and economic effect of this pandemic is mitigated for any similar future events. The current pandemic has shone a spotlight on the ways in which we were unprepared for the situation and provides us with the opportunity to plug those gaps in case of any future reoccurrences. We must seize that opportunity with both hands and run with it.

Digitally retooling the workforce and enthroning the mastery of digital knowledge and capability is the ultimate roadmap and gateway to national development and survivability for Nigeria and Africa.

Digital Bridge Institute (DBI), established by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), is Nigeria’s foremost Centre of Excellence in Information & Communications Technology training and education with campuses in Abuja, Lagos and Kano, and three further campuses upcoming in Yola, Enugu, and Asaba.

DBI’s mandate is to build skilled digital capacities for Nigeria at all levels, making it uniquely placed to help the nation tackle the issues discussed above. DBI offers digital capacity building in areas ranging from Digital Literacy to Cybersecurity, Networking, Network Security, Office and Productivity Tools, Software Development, AI, IoT, Robotics, 3D, VR, Blockchain, etc. In addition to traditional learning methods, DBI offers comprehensive e-learning capabilities, enabling the Institute to deliver world-class capacity building programmes both on-site and remotely.

Engr. Prof. Mohammed Ajiya is President/CEO Digital Bridge Institute – DBI