Digital Public Infrastructure: Blueprint to a Sustainable Digital Economy

By Na’ankwat Dariem

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Since the beginning of the 21st Century, when the world was awakened by the millennium bug, the race between nations for the lead in the digital revolution has been an unrelenting one. Historically, the nation with the fastest and most capable hardware has been at the forefront of the endeavor. However, today, the future can only be determined and shaped by those with the highest digital skills and software applications.

Industries like broadcasting, which used to be hardware-driven, are now generally software-driven. The need for massive physical infrastructure is giving way to more streamlined, efficient, intelligent, and upgradeable equipment.

World systems, such as governance, have been on a trajectory of digitalization in a bid to foster a more efficient and all-encompassing ecosystem.

While physical structures like roads, railways, and power-generating infrastructure are highly essential for the daily running of society, a new concept is fast becoming a reality and cannot be ignored. And that is digital public infrastructure, DPI.

This DPI concept, in today’s world, is as real as physical infrastructure. However, DPI exists in cyberspace, supported by minimal physical infrastructure. Essentially, DPI is the foundation on which digital activities and transformation are built.

Following the G20 Leaders Declaration in 2023, DPI has been identified as a key breakthrough that gives the momentum needed to change course and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, across all 17 SDG targets.

With this in mind, the Nigerian government is following a long-term development blueprint to harness digital technological capabilities to diversify the economy and reduce dependency on hydrocarbon revenues with sector-specific strategies and roadmaps being designed to boost ICT infrastructure.

The role of the Nigerian government and business leaders cannot be overstated in the drive for digital transformation. Investments and policy formulation aimed at enhancing digital infrastructure, promoting digital literacy, fostering a culture of innovation, and encouraging digital skills development of the citizenry are the building blocks necessary to build and sustain a digital economy.

Unlike most sectors of the Nigerian economy, ICT underwent solid growth during the covid-19 pandemic. The demand for continued public services only increased, requiring a transfer from traditional methods to more innovative platforms. This was evident in education, commerce, jobs, retail, and healthcare services.

Though society has moved past the era of the pandemic, there were positive takeaways as the public and private providers of services are now keen to take advantage of the discovered digital ecosystem as a catalyst for deepening digital transformation.

Stakeholders in the Information and Communication Technology sector are concerned over issues that may obstruct the projected growth and efficiency of the digital economy and require the government to pay attention to ICT infrastructure, as this will reflect on the socioeconomic and technological development of a digital economy.

Nigeria is already on the path to developing and leveraging this fact with the upgrading of Galaxy Backbone Ltd, Nigeria’s focal agency for digital infrastructure development and shared services, domiciled in the Ministry of Communications, Innovation and Digital Economy. This agency manages the IT operations of the Federal Government of Nigeria while advancing ministries, departments, and agencies towards becoming fully digitized. Today, Galaxy Backbone has expanded its services to include private businesses and institutions. This is in a bid to maximize the potential of a fully digitized Nigerian economy.

With that in place, effective regulatory policies are needed to guide and focus the digital industry to maximize the gains and benefits. This is where the Nigerian communications commission, NCC becomes strategically relevant.

The President Bola Tinubu administration has shown commitment to improve on the achievements of the previous administration of former president Muhammadu Buhari in promoting the growth of the digital economy for the shared prosperity of all Nigerians as an avenue for wealth creation.

For Nigerians, efficient digital public infrastructure enables better service delivery; enhances possibilities for cost-savings, and time management, and streamlines processes for access to government and other services.

One example of an integrated digital public infrastructure, which has proven invaluable, is the National Identity Number, NIN.

The NIN is instrumental to the activities and database of various service providers such as the Nigerian Immigration Service, and the banking sector which also incorporates the Bank Verification Number, BVN, the Federal Road Safety Corps, and FRSC, among others.

This DPI is the backbone for digital identity verification, data exchange, and online transactions.

Recently, the Minister of Communications, Innovation and Digital Economy, Dr. Bosun Tijani unveiled a five-pillar blueprint that highlights the ministry’s plans for the transformative power of digital technology and innovation to strengthen the nation’s economy.

However, to achieve this, certain steps must be taken as well as investments made. Chief among these is the planned execution of ninety-five thousand kilometers of fiber optic cables across the country and the setting up of a comprehensive digital public infrastructure, which will be supported by the introduction of the 1gov.ng concept that provides access to digital government services streamlined into a single platform.

The Nigerian postal service would become a frontline driver of digital services to enhance the digital transformation drive, while also driving up capacity utilization of the Nigerian Communications Satellite NIGCOMSAT to cater to local and international clients.

As more Nigerians get on board the digital transformation drive, the government must take a holistic approach to investments in this endeavor by building digital capacity to sustain the benefits of DPI.

Long-term plans to absorb the growing number of clients and services available on digital platforms must be considered for future accelerated management of the successes in the telecommunication sector.

Also, physical infrastructure must be upgraded to adjust to changing technologies, while digital talents and skills must be nurtured and honed.

Other issues that must be looked into are inclusivity and awareness campaigns in rural and underserved areas. Added to this is the need for the establishment of a roadmap for continuity and sustainability.

This will position Nigeria and Nigerians on the right pedestal to enjoy and sustain the benefits that digital transformation promises for the accelerated development of the most populous nation and the largest economy in Africa.