NITDA has a role in developing the software industry- Asawo

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Ibifuro Asawo is the young Nigerian Chief Executive of Cinfores, an indigenous software company. His story as a tech entrepreneur and the establishment of Cinfores contain all the ingredients of a typical Nigerian technol­ogy startup- bootstrapping for survival, lack of basic entre­preneurial skills, no access to institutional capital, etc. He is also an example of what con­sistency and perseverance can do to a dream.

TECH FUTURE believes that Asawo’s story would inspire other young innovators and en­trepreneurs. Indeed this week’s edition of TECH FUTURE has chosen to sacrifice the space for our weekly feature article on ICT Local Content for his story. In fact the interview is a good expose on local content, the struggle for its development and the role of government

We publish the full text of his interview with Inye Kemabon­ta, Editor TECH FUTURE.

Cinfores now ranks as one of the successful software companies in Nigeria. How and when was the company born?

Cinfores was born out of con­cern for a deteriorating education sector in the country. The April 2002 Academic Staff Union of Universities’ (ASUU) strike had hindered us from defending our final year project and as young men who seemingly had time, we sat to think and talk about what will become of us, immediately after our project defense; how to make the most of the strike, and the inadvertent extra months we would stay at home before our NYSC. While thinking of many things that could be done within the period, we strongly felt we could develop a solution that would help the falling stan­dard of education in the country. As at then, we saw examination malpractice as a menace that could portend a grave danger for the education sector and the rest of the economy, if not checked. From the sitting room of two of my partners’ father’s houses, we got the concept of BrainFriend; the mother of our solutions (now the country’s foremost e-learning and examination preparatory software).

We were very excited about providing answers and explana­tions to past WAEC and JAMB questions, not as everybody was doing it then, (through booklet) but through the use of the com­puter. As we all know, the PC pen­etration as at 2002 was very low in all parts of the country but we felt it was a shift from the norm; a useful tool against examination malpractice which had huge po­tential in terms of business.

With so much excitement, we swung into action to implement it. I was leading the technical team then as the only computer engineering student. I had to design the database structure, interface and a few other things along with our current Director of Technical who, as at then, was studying electrical engineering but was quite versed in program­ming (in fact he thought me basic programming in our remedial days). While this was ongoing, my other partners used our so­cial capital to gather friends who were the best in their courses to help us with the solving of as many past questions we could lay our hands on. We thought within two (2) weeks we would have ac­complished the task but after two (2) months we weren’t where we wanted to be. The strike was called off and we all went back to our academic work. Immediately after our project defense in June/ July of the same year, we swung back into action. As at this time, we clearly knew four of us were already co-founders of the orga­nization, as we continued sup­ through computer hardware reporting the vision with finances pairs, assembly and maintenance around schools, cybercafés and few homes in Port Harcourt. This is the genesis of the great vision.­

What then would you say inspired the founding of the company?

As earlier stated, we were in­spired by the sheer reality that jobs may not be lying in wait for us, so we needed to task our­selves to see a need that we could meet. Our concern for the edu­cation sector drove us towards the line of developing a software that would help curb examina­tion malpractice and ‘emerging’ high rate failure. I used the word emerging because, the failure rate wasn’t as alarming as it is today but we saw it coming; most teenagers at the time, were look­ing for other means to score high grades rather than studying hard.

Consequently, we got inspired by obvious reality that we may not be employed after gradua­tion, and the falling standard of education which we felt we could fix by using the solution – Brain­Friend at the secondary school level (which was our area of fo­cus, then).

You must have experienced challenges, teething and in­cidental. Can you talk about those challenges?

As for challenges, every stage of the journey had its own chal­lenge. While developing the first software, we were excited about our novel concept. Although most of our friends, and our par­ents, never believed in what we were doing or saying but we kept at it. They all felt we were using it to keep busy and that after our NYSC, we would give it up to se­cure good jobs, especially with the oil and gas companies or the servicing companies that littered Port Harcourt.

The first challenge came way back in March, 2003. Coinciden­tally, we were all dropped from the NYSC batch ‘A’ list. All my partners including some new ones that joined us with the pas­sage of time before March, 2003 didn’t go for service. We were saddened but took it in good fate believing “all things work out together for good to them that love God and are called accord­ing to His purpose” as stated in Romans 8:28. To digress a bit, we all met ourselves as friends from our remedial days but came to be partners when we started work­ing together as EXCO members of the Nigeria Fellowship of Evangelical Students (NIFES) also known as Christian Union (CU) in some campuses. Our love for God and service to humanity as we were trained prepared us for most of the challenges and guided us every inch of the way. So, after the NYSC setback, we continued neck-deep in our pur­suit and what we thought would be two weeks, turned to one year and still running.

We all went for NYSC when the time came. Though scattered, we still kept the dream alive and thereafter, came back to face the challenge of post NYSC life. At this time our parents felt it was time we picked up plum jobs with the oil and gas companies. Some of us actually gave in and accept­ed some job offers, to assist the larger family while others went for further studies. As a partner­ship, we faced the challenge of how to steer the ship of the com­pany. This for me was one of the most difficult times as it dawned on us that some of us would have to leave the team. The fear then was if they would still be passion­ate about our dreams and aspira­tions with their jobs at the Inter­national Oil Companies.

We started the development of the enterprise version when we noticed that many homes did not have PCs but for a few schools and cybercafés. We had power supply challenges in those days and we had to move from one area of Port Harcourt to another, in search power in order to continue our work.

We faced the challenge of fund­ing as all the banks we went to, rejected us. Our background as engineers without any formal managerial, administrative or even entrepreneurial training on basic book keeping skills, etc was also a major challenge.

It was difficult to get referrals because we realized that nobody wanted to be used as a guinea pig, even when you had a good solu­tion. You can imagine how other people would require referrals to give them comfort that you can deliver on a project. So the ques­tion was: as startups, who will

set off the stage to be our Guinea Pig? Big thanks to all those who gave us a stage even when we weren’t known. They sacrificed their reputation to give us a place to touch many more lives with our products and services. They are our heroes to whom we will forever be grateful.

At every phase of our growth and expansion, we have had chal­lenges; we are not done, yet. One thing is certain, that is what we are wired to overcome as entre­preneurs and solution providers.

How successful is Cinfores? What is your staff strength and turn over?

Success is relative and that isn’t our goal. For us, meeting the needs of our clients is what we see as success. The more we make them happy and meet their expectations, the more successful we feel. However, when success is tied to numbers such as staff strength and turn over we feel it is relative. What A may see as suc­cess will be below par for B. In our eleven years of existence, boot­strapping with a social capital in our first three years as friends literally volunteered and worked for free until we started paying stipends that evolved to salary, we would say we have tried a bit, edg­ing towards a successful compa­ny. Our staff strength is over 110 as at today, and we have been able to make an annual turnover of over N500m in the last two busi­ness years, respectively.

Cinfores BrainFriend is certified by NITDA. Has the company benefited from the certification? How well is the software doing?

Cinfores BrainFriend is Nige­ria’s best-selling and foremost e-learning and exam preparatory software. It has reached over 1 million users within and outside Nigeria. Every year unfolds a new dimension of the software. It has evolved from being senior secondary school software for exam preparation to a complete e-learning solution with e-notes for students, lesson notes and national curriculum for teachers and parents. It now covers over 60 subjects from primary 1 to Senior Secondary School 3 with other preps such as logical, verbal and quantitative reasoning, A’levels etc. It has also evolved from a PC to mobile and cloud based solution. It is the only software in the country that has covered the 3 major Nigerian languages (Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba) and vo­cational subjects with approval (certifications) from NERDC, FMoE and NITDA.

The NITDA certification has helped us a great deal in explor­ing quite a lot of opportunities. While the target group of the product recognizes NITDA as the number one IT development agency in the country, the certi­fication has helped to boost the confidence of users or the mar­ket in the product. Today, all the teachers in Cross Rivers State are using it; Anambra State gov­ernments, USPF, all 104 unity colleges, over 100 private schools and cafes and many thousands of homes across the country have adopted it.

The NITDA certification has indeed helped, to a large extent.

Do you have any expansion plans beyond the shores of Nigeria, and do you need any help from government?

Sure, but for the Ebola Virus Disease, we would have been in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana

and Gambia. They are part of the countries we had considered. In fact, we even had to develop an Ebola guide as a way of gain­ing access but the ban of travels to and fro Nigeria and some of those countries made us to slow down. But we have as part of our plan in 2015 to launch out to other West African countries – mind you some of them are part of the countries that make up the WAEC countries. We also have other MIS solutions for schools and tertiary institutions that they will find useful.

Government is to create the enabling environment for us to thrive as businesses. Improving the university content of com­puter science and engineering undergraduates and post gradu­ate students will help reduce the cost of retraining these people and reduce the turnaround time in building the teams.

Supporting the deployment of local solutions to meet local needs is one sure way of develop­ing local companies to play in the global market. Rather than im­porting solutions or outsourcing things that can be developed lo­cally, government should engage local organizations that have distinguished themselves in vari­ous sectors to address most of the nagging issues.

What is your advice to young entrepreneurs in technology?

Whenever I meet young en­trepreneurs in technology, I tell them to believe in their dreams and stand against all odds. Life is in phases, business itself is in phases, you cannot get to the top overnight; it takes focus and con­sistency to get there. Today, when you mention ICT for development in education, we are the first name that comes to mind, not because we are the oldest in the sector, but that we also, have been con­sistent. Since inception, we have gone from e-learning, and have developed a campus management information system – eCampus; a Nursery, Primary and Secondary school management informa­tion system – eSkool; scholarship MIS, electronic testing platform also known as the examiner, etc; it is all around education. There will be many distractions but you need to stay focused. Money and ‘’success’’ could also be distrac­tion, so watch out and remain on course – meeting the needs of cli­ents and customers.

What do you see as the role of government in developing the indigenous software in­dustry?

Government is meant to create enabling environment. Let there be power, ensure that our univer­sity system is working so that we can have well trained develop­ers. Engage local organizations to meet the needs of the country through constant engagement. We should work towards being self-reliance. The industry is an evolving one. Continuous prac­tice and engagement from gov­ernment will help local compa­nies effectively meet local needs and export such homegrown technologies outside the coun­try, just as the Western countries bring in solutions that most often require further customization.

Having in mind that our coun­try is complex, any solution which is home grown and effec­tive here, can easily be adapted in any part of the globe with little or no effort. This will make us an outsourcing destination like India and China. With our huge population, labor can be competi­tive as it is, in some of the out­sourcing destinations. If govern­ment draws up policies that will make all hospitals and schools to use MIS we will witness a tremen­dous difference in the sectors. NITDA should develop frame­works to guide all sectors of the economy in ways to adopt tech­nology for effective and efficient service delivery. Also, the regula­tion of ICT products and services imported in to the country would help a great deal to ensure that products and services that are sub-standard don’t come into the country. Today, people depend on ICT products and solutions to carry out their primary respon­sibilities. Architects, engineers, doctors, etc. all rely on ICT to do their work. Imagine if they use counterfeit products or solutions to provide their services.

We have seen the effect of cyber security in recent times. Wars are gradually shifting from physical weapons and ar­mory to the cyber space. How prepared are we? Do we have home grown protocols that we can rely on when the war becomes fierce and the inter­national protocols are invaded by intruders and hackers?

Government through NITDA, Galaxybackbone and NCC has a lot to do in ensuring that we emerge as strong before the end of this decade as ICT giants. This will not only solve the unemploy­ment issue for us as a nation, but also make us a major outsourcing nation that the rest of the world will respect and always seek to do business with.

 

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