Tech-Economic Lessons From Our Card Readers


During the election, Twitter was inundated with news of card readers malfunctioning because INEC officials reportedly failed to remove the protective seal on the fingerprint scanners. A number of these card readers worked after the INEC officials took off the plastic protective covers. This incident bore several lessons.

First, tech deployment is far trickier in practice than in theory. Second, the lesser the number of incidents, the greater the chance of adoption, and the lesser the chance for election malpractice. Third, the incident served as an analogy of Nigeria’s tech conditions at a macroeconomic level – Nigeria’s tech is only as good as its human capital. (Note that tech and technology are used interchangeably throughout the article)

I’ll explain, but first, let’s start with a basic Cobb-Douglas production function that tells us how the relationship between inputs like Physical Capital (K) and Labor (L) contribute to the overall economic output (Y).

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Apart from Capital (K) and Labor (L)’s contribution to the economy lies that of Total Factor Productivity (A). This is the intangible portion that ranges from technology to knowledge of worker (human capital). It is often seen as the real driver of growth within an economy and according to Easterly, Levine (2001), possibly accounts for up to 60% of growth within economies. In other words, the contribution of human capital and technology should not be underestimated.

Also, take a closer look at the two core components of TFP: human capital and technology, and note how the interaction between both becomes obvious. Human capital improves technology as much as technology improves human capital. The smarter one is, the more likely one can achieve technological advances. The better technology gets, the better one can improve human capital through more efficient learning methods offered by tech.

However, tech is only as good as those using it. One’s usage of a laptop might be limited to playing solitaire or watching movies, while another might be adept at creating multi-million dollar software with the same laptop. The laptop doesn’t change, the skill (human capital value) of those using it does. The power of tech lies in its ability to increase productivity, but that ability can only be harnessed by trained and competent people, otherwise it becomes a source of frustration.

The ramification of this observation is that having the same technology as developed countries does not guarantee similar output if the commensurate human capital is lacking. Hence, the importance of practical and functional education that encourages initiative and creativity. 

Here’s where we hit a snag. The quality of education in Nigeria is frankly…dismal. Employers in Nigeria frequently complain of the poor quality of labor. Even with Foreign Direct Investments (FDI), most of the crucial jobs go to the expatriates, with lower administrative roles left to Nigerians. Consequently, knowledge transfer is stymied.

We don’t have a concerted policy approach that delineates our national or global role in tech. Nigeria still battles with the task of providing quality basic education – incorporating ICT into it will be a much arduous task. Asides educational drawbacks, Nigeria’s epileptic power sector also hinders the progress of ICT, turning most devices into deadweights. The success of the Opon Imo initiative -which provided 150,000 e-learning tablets for Senior Secondary Schools in Osun- remains debatable. One suspects both attenuating factors might be responsible for the initiative’s lackluster outcome.

Other countries are fully aware of the need to synergise technology into their education system. In 1997, Lee Kuan Yew explained the need to transform Singapore’s education system into one that will prepare and build the workforce of the future. One initiative was the ICT in Education Master Plans, which focused on developing human capital by incorporating ICT in education and developing local Information Technology (IT) companies in creating new and innovative software, content and services.

Rwanda has something similar in their Policy and Implementation plan, which involves the expansion of ICT infrastructure to improve access and equity; developing capacity to integrate ICT in education practice; and developing quality digital content.

Nigeria has seen progress, but at a slow pace. The resilient Nigerian private sector fills certain supply-side holes. Startups like Andela train youths in software coding, while incubators like CCHub provide assistance to promising tech startups – Budgit being a success story. However, these exist in spite of the environment, not because of it. Benefits of tech in Nigeria abound, but these are low-hanging fruits. Nigeria needs to reach the point where its citizens not only find more nuanced creative ways to apply tech to our issues, but are able to scale these solutions.

Without concerted policy decisions by both public and private sector, Nigeria risks being dependent on foreign advances of tech rather than influencing the future of tech. Like the card readers, bringing in the FDI, purchasing the latest industrial equipment, or giving out tablets to students is only the easy part. For technological advances to truly work in Nigeria, we need polices that encourage infrastructural growth and pull down the barriers to learning using ICT  – now that’s much harder than ripping off plastic protective covers.