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Wale Owoeye is the managing director and chief executive of Cedarview Communications Limited, a major play in Nigeria’s broadband technology space, as well as an IT consultancy. In this exclusive interview with a Business A.M.’s senior team of journalists, during a whistle-stop visit to this newspaper’s corporate headquarters in Lagos, the thoroughbred and versatile IT expert speaks on the technology industry and its future in Nigeria; security, as well as his company’s plans for the future, among other issues. It is an incisive and deeply engaging interview. Excerpts.
Let’s pick your brain on the technology space in Nigeria. Covid-19 has been around globally since November/December 2019, and then all of 2020 Nigeria got the full blown effect of it. How has the technology space in Nigeria, which your company plays in, been impacted?
Very good question and I appreciate it. Sum total, it has been a positive one for us. Reason been that because of Covid, a lot more people were home; and because we provide internet service to homes and corporate entities. There has been a positive increase, net effect. Net effect because on the corporate side, there was a bit of decline because people were not coming to offices, but on the residential arm in which we supply to estates, there has been a rise in that space. But net effect, it’s been positive.
On the other hand, where we deploy Value Added Services (VAS) to telecom service providers, like contact centres and the likes, this has been massive, with close to 10 per cent increase in traffic and concomitant with revenue. So, with one of our clients, which is a big multi-national bank, we have seen many transactions go over that channel. Because people are now doing more transactions on their mobile devices and issues can happen, they need to make more calls to the contact centre. So, net effect for that space it has been positive.
Finally, yet importantly, generally, from reports that we have, I think, it is just technology and health that have had growth indicators or metrics while others have suffered a bit like hospitality, tourism etcetera. Therefore, we are pretty much reflective of where the industry is now.
Looking ahead, what do you think will be the next push in the technology industry given that Covid is gradually dying down even though India, Turkey and few other countries, according to latest report on the spread, appear to be witnessing an upsurge?
For that, what we have realised is that technology can enable, so we are enablers. Put technology behind any process of the industry, you see the ability to allow that industry to innovate, because of the effect of disruption and by the advantages of technology in that space, in terms of process improvement.
For the health sector, the major ones being the pharmaceutical companies, vaccine production we know a lot of technology is behind the efforts where they are trying to do sequencing of genes and a lot of artificial intelligence goes into that space. I am also glad that there is a company in Ogbomoso, run by Nigerians, that is also playing in that space.
So, in the future, with the growth in big data, the growth in artificial intelligence and a lot of pattern recognitions that machine learning affords the industry, there should be many benefits that will be derived in there. If you drive it a bit home, we’ve seen a rise in digital health, and so with the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), a lot of things are happening in that space. And you know for instance, the health industry in Nigeria still lacks quite a lot. The doctor-to-patient ratio is still high, higher than WHO’s standards. So, I think we can leverage on technology to do that.
Interestingly, one of our clients is disrupting that space with an app whereby people can call in for a doctor’s consultation without the physical effect. So, if there is no need to come to see a doctor, you can call in through an app and have your consultation done. That is another thing that we would see a rise in it happening.
Moreover, the uptake in the numbers has been phenomenal. I see a lot more of that happening as we go on by and by, and with or without Covid. I think we are going to live without Covid but much more than that, it is certain we cannot go back to pre-Covid days. The world will keep on and there will be new things to keep on catching up with.
For Cedarview specifically, we saw you try to push your conferencing app. How did that go in the market and what should the market generally be expecting from you?
Thank you so much for that. It’s a bit emotional for us. We tried to see what we could offer in the space of Covid. No one could have predicted, no one saw it coming by any means. When that happened and we felt what we could bring to the market, we sped up the process of that app that we had. But the market take of it was not too encouraging. The numbers did not add up, but we took learning out of it. We found one way of not doing it.
What we discovered was that more people still have internet issues with Zoom. We are coming back to the market with a local number that would allow you join a Zoom conference. With it you can still participate in a Zoom conference; irrespective of the challenges, you have to carry on.
The second thing working for us is that, we have also taken some learnings out of it, and we are coming out with another interesting solution into the market. We believe it might be a huge disruptor because of the advantage that technology brings. So, we are going to come back in the no distant future. We are currently testing that feature and essentially, it will get your customers to subscribe from anywhere in the world and at a very ridiculously affordable price because of a breakthrough idea that we got and we are testing it.
When you talk of artificial intelligence, machine learning in the insurance space, how do you think we can use these technological capabilities to better the insurance industry?
You know the insurance industry in Nigeria is an exception to the rule. The few times I have been to Ghana, the numbers are a bit higher. It means that people are taking on themselves unnecessary risks; it is until it happens that people will say God is my insurance. Is God telling you not to be wise? Absolutely not the case. The good book says, a wise man sees evil coming and he hides himself. You take cover and that’s what insurance does.
But I think it’s also up to us, it might, quote and unquote, be a failure of technology companies or a lack of focus of technology companies to enable that industry and ultimately improve the business outcomes that come in there. Say, for instance now, in agriculture, there is a lot of risks in there based on what we have now, such as banditry, kidnapping, robbery, herdsmen, etcetera, that is going to have that effect that is still currently lagging because, would a farmer want to go back again to his farm? He most likely would be looking at other things like Okada transportation because there is a failure of us as a people to back them up.
If they have some form of compensation, I’m sure they will still want to keep that trade going. I think in the nearest future, there will be some ideas to deploy tech. A few people I know are doing one or two things to bring in things in terms of access, in terms of affordability and, much more than that, creating awareness for people to address the right insurance tech product.
How are you deepening your operations as regards the transportation sector?
Well we provide technological solutions to problems. Interestingly, when we tried to form a company many years ago, it was around the traffic problem in Lagos. That was a real issue for us and that was about some 20 years ago. Actually, when I see apps like Google maps, which by the way, I used before coming here, and I saw that it was free, it was interesting. So, that space is something, we are going to try to do and currently, one way of doing that, is trying to provide the right information.
In Lagos, for instance, when there is a traffic jam or some broken down trailer, Goggle maps will show you, red; it cannot fully estimate. The algorithm will fail at that point because its built on certain data that will not work appropriately, but when you hear from the Lagos Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) or traffic FM that, there is something at a particular place, you can plan yourself. So, a bit of some improvement will be seen in that space.
Another one we are looking at is in aviation. For some time, I try to get to the airport but I can’t meet-up and I have a flight to take, so to change a check in and all of those things, I believe is not easy to do. We are looking at that and sometime in the future we will deploy something in that space.
With the increase in Internet usage, the issue of security comes to the fore. How do you think Nigerians can best protect themselves online?
Thank you for that question. I saw something somewhere; that you are the key to your own security. Therefore, each person must take responsibility for himself. Once you do that first, then you can start to think about others. In addition, how do you do that? Install anti-viruses, update your knowledge, keep on updating the things that you have and ultimately, I am sure at some point, there should be some form of insurance growth, because even in the advanced countries, even with all of the security measures taken, something still goes wrong. In fact, it is a question of when will it go wrong, and not if It will go wrong.
So, at that point, you need to know, if you then are hacked eventually, how do you get back on your feet and running. But before you get to that point, you can make it harder for them to come in, secure yourself, get more knowledge and do all that you can do.
What do you think are the measures that can be put in place to beat down the cost of data from what it is presently?
I can’t quote the numbers correctly now, but our dear Minister, Isa Pantami, has put a target, I think around N390 thereabout. So, that is fine, government should show direction. That is what leadership is about. You set the pace, you show direction and allow people to fall in line especially if it’s on the positive. And I think that is right. Once you do that, though the market factors that come into play is there, making it a bit tough to achieve, but not impossible.
One of the things that I think would also aid us a bit is that, our government itself should lower some of the charges. There is a right of way charge that is huge and humongous, that should be lowered. Some states have started adopting the unified cost for that, and Lagos State is doing some things that are interesting. And we also believe that cost of access to foreign exchange be worked on, because as the naira is going down, it puts a huge toll on us because some of the equipment are imported.
It is not an easy one and I am not trying to say it’s easy, but we have to keep on trying to go in that direction as much as we can.
Why should I leave other service providers to come to your own? What are the unique services you offer that are different from others?
One very thing that is always gotten from us [Cedarview] that is difficult to get elsewhere is ‘integrity’. We tell you what it is. One of the things that we do and give out to customers is that you are able to come on the portal and see what you are using at hand.
We do not make promises about providing services and offers and fail. When there are challenges and glitches, we make our customers aware of it and how we are going about fixing it. We also offer rewards and compensations and you will always get the value of the service you paid. I think that our customers are also appreciative of what we have been doing so far and they keep coming back, knowing they will always get the truth from us.
On Cedarviews’ growth trajectory; you talked about 20 years ago. That is a long time in business. What are the plans you have in terms of growth and hopefully with more people joining in terms of investors?
We are at that stage where we need to take more equity coming in. We have plans to be listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange and some other stock exchanges around the world. We are going to raise capital very soon (private capital). We are already doing our valuations. The plans are there. We see that what we are doing has a huge appeal in the market and we have to break into something major. We are looking towards an upward swing and become one of the known names providing solutions and taking Nigeria to the world.
When people go out to raise capital, they do that because they want expansion and are looking to get into some spaces. What exactly will you be raising capital for? Where are the areas of expansion or growth that you are looking at?
We have been seeing that there is a huge market. Our products appeal to the middle class and upper class in terms of internet services. You need that and will always want more of it because a lot of things are being done online. Currently, we are looking at the smaller areas in Lekki, part of the Mainland and up to the Redeemed Expressway and we are going to cover a lot more.
Presently, we have plans of operating in six big cities including, Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Uyo, Port-Harcourt and Ibadan, and are going to expand nationally. We are already putting that up with the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) for operational license. Secondly, in terms of our voice solutions, there is going to be a huge appeal there. We have already seen that the infrastructure is to be expanded. That is the area we are going to focus on and a bit more on marketing, which will be a slow one. The numbers have been very good for us and those are the areas of focus.
What are some of the challenges and obstacles you have encountered so far in your business?
Some of them have been huge interest payments, which have resulted in the loss of some businesses because you have to allow that business pass because you do not have enough capital to run them. We have gotten into some estate sites to run our service but the cost of running infrastructure is a challenge and we keep telling them to hold on, but they cannot keep holding on for so long.
Some did wait and at the last testing we turned up, they had to wait for about six months and we were doing it gradually. That has been one of the most limiting factors because we lose track of companies, and trying to offset bank debts and loans has been a tussle for us to tick off so that we can run quite faster. But then, the appeal is there and the marketers are out there.
How is Cedarview positioned to tap into the large market share in the tech space, within and outside Nigeria? In addition, with the ongoing scenario where the Nigerian government is trying to clamp down on the use of tech in the area of digital assets, crypto-currency exchange, how is Cedarview positioned to help Nigerians overcome these challenges?
For us, we position ourselves where the problems lie and that has always been the case. When we see the problems, we always try to apply ourselves there. Before now, what we did was bear the back-up with the bigger companies. We are able to source for them a better product at lower prices. Now, that we are going B to C, it still falls back to the question of raising capital and increasing our potential and route to market. In terms of positioning, we are moving from B to C and essentially trying to get into the faces of people and one of the things we are trying to do here is tell them that we do exist and whenever they have a problem, we try to help them solve it using technology.
The fintech space has overtime helped businesses; and just a look at the recent data released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and the banking sector data, showed that there was about 8.4 per cent layoffs in the banking sector and one of the reasons for this is the rising use of technology in banking, which means technology has been having a negative impact leading to unemployment. What are the tech companies in Nigeria now doing to create more jobs to help reduce the rate of unemployment?
If you look at it on a long run, what technology does is that, it improves the lives of people. Definitely, there will be job losses here, but there are a greater number of jobs created by technology. When you sum it up, the job opportunities and value chain created in tech creates an increase in employment levels despite some people losing their jobs at that moment. Net effect is always positive. There has been a rise in the fintech space such as Flutterwave and Paystack in recent times and the attraction and achievements they have done is Pan-African.
They have created job opportunities directly and indirectly. There might be some losses but more direct and indirect achievements are made during that period and that is what technology does. We have to look at it end-to-end to see that more jobs and opportunities are created when technology comes into any sector.
Looking at Cedarview five to ten years from now, what are your projections for the company?
We should be among the top five ICT solution companies in Africa, providing convenient services and solutions. We should be established in all the continents of the world as an African-global brand providing technology solutions and the journey is already cast before us. By then, we would have been quoted on the Nigerian Stock Exchange and possibly on the New York Stock Exchange, doing this around the world, providing solutions to humans primarily around connectivity, communication and collaboration.
There has been a recent argument about open data. Many people want data to be open. For instance, in the insurance industry, it is believed that when data is open it will enable fast and seamless customer experience. At the same time, there are people who are against open data due to some negative impacts. What is your take on this?
I think there should be a check and balance. Make it more open and transparent so that more people can build services on top of that, but you also regulate knowing that if you open it up, some people abuse the opportunity to use it for improper activities like identity theft. The Nigerian Data Protection Regulation (NDPR) is one of the steps in the right direction. If you are going to open up data, then you should be responsible enough to make sure that it is protected. There has to be responsibilities to ensure that there is a balance.