Group Managing Director, Chams Plc, Mr. Femi Williams, in this interview with Akin Adewakun, shares some of the company’s exploits in the past few years, including its recently launched biometric identity card, while insisting that governance in Nigeria would have been less tasking if necessary data and statistics had been available. Excerpts:
You recently launched a biometric identity card in Osun State, in partnership with the state government. What do you hope to achieve with this innovation?
The card is about knowing the people that are in the state. You know, without knowing the people and having their statistics, there is no way the government can plan and manage the state’s resources, effectively. Don’t forget, there are two principal things that government manages: people and things. It is important that government understands that its primary and the most important asset remains the people. So, it’s an attempt to know the people that it’s managing, to enable it plan and provide for them and measure the effectiveness of the services it is delivering. Once you have such in place, it is then that government can begin to make strategic decision on what the people want. Before now, it was all guess game. If they wanted to plant a new school, they just looked for an influential politician and site such school in his village, no statistics. The same applied to roads and other infrastructure. But, this kind of data base would allow what we call data-driven intelligent solutions, not solutions of governance or government project and services that are just based on sentiments.
Once I connect to government one time, I already have a unique number and there is no need for government registering me again and again, because I have a unique number which can be used. This is the kind of thing that this would allow government to do. We did it with students and the impact was measured. We discovered that the cost of managing, sponsoring and promoting things around educational sector was optimized. Before then, it was going up and down because there were no statistics regarding the number of students in every school and class. So this is there now. From a touch of the button, government can know where every child is, what is their score this year? What is the percentage? If you get this kind of statistics, you will see that managing the citizens will be better and there can be measurable results over time.
What has been the response to this innovation among the people of Osun?
Tremendous. The turnout at the launch was another attestation to the fact that it was well-received. The labour leaders, religious leaders, traditional leaders were all there, because they can connect to why it should be done, especially in a state where resources are limited, where only little resources are available for the state to carry out the numerous things it has to do. It is important that resources are optimized in a scientific way. Now, you realize that processing salaries in the state and things around salaries are easily managed by government because they have statistics to support all the decisions they have taken. You know, governance is very difficult in this part of the globe because we don’t have data.
A lot of people out there would want to know if there was any foreign input in the new smart card you launched in Osun recently?
Like I said that is the core competence of Chams. We’ve been doing this for years and we know the job like the back of our hands, and we’ve done this successfully in many stages. So in terms of technology, we are system integrators. We take some technologies here and there and build the solutions out of it, because there is no foreign technology that can actually work for us here. So the solution we launched in Osun was built by us 100 per cent, and it’s managed by Nigerians, no foreign involvement. That’s our core area and we are very competent there.
One of the biggest plans of the company is to diverse into agriculture, how far is it to realizing this dream?
Our core focus is actually delivering intelligent business solutions. Though I wouldn’t know whether it is the right time to say it, but there are two major industries that we are going to dominate in the next two months: the agric and health sectors. In fact there is something happening in the health sector too that would constitute some tremendous disruptions very soon.
In spite of the presence of ICT companies, with very rich pedigrees, in Nigeria, various agencies of the state have not been able to harmonise their data, for instance, Immigration Service, FRSC and others. Is there no way we can have a centralized system that will make life a little bit better for the average Nigerian?
I will answer your question in two ways. There is technological answer, and there is also the political one. I can be authoritative on one, but will handle the other to the best of my knowledge. I don’t want to go into the history of all that has happened. But one thing that stands out is the fact that we all need to find a way to harmonise this data base together. It’s going to be challenging, but it is doable, if we all have a common purpose, because there is a huge repository of data in INEC, in FRSC, etc, even in states. So, whether we like it or not, harmonization must be the way. And it is not difficult, technology-wise and there are solutions and technology that can harmonise this effectively.
Now the other part of your question which is political, can be answered this way: there is what is called wisdom of government. Until the wisdom of government goes the direction of enforcing harmonization and breaking all the barriers to harmonization, we will still be going in circus. A lot of thoughts are going around harmonization, but we are not very serious about it. For us, as a company, we’ve given some proposals regarding how it could be done, but as I said, government has its own wisdom. And until the wisdom of government is serious towards harmonization, we will be where we are.
Despite the nation’s economy going in and out of recession, Chams, as a company, has been able to weather the storm. What are those things that you do differently?
Businesses have been transformed, and they are going to be transformed the more over time. There are new ways that are evolving. How people do things, the tastes of consumers are changing, there are now new infrastructure in the environment People have changed their level of trust from going to the market to go and check whether this TV is actually Sony to ordering online.
So for an ICT company, you cannot sit still, you have to be ready to innovate and transform your business from time to time. If you check our history, we started as a computer maintenance company, but after sometime we realized that the skill to do that business was getting too common and we moved on to networking.
Actually, we are the first indigenous company in that area. We were competing with NCR, Inlak and some foreign names then. We decided to move on to smart card technology and it was that effort that led to the formation of value card, the first successful payment card solution in Nigeria; it was out of the efforts of this innovation that we had made. After sometime also, we moved to identity management because we realized that the problem of this country would not disappear until I can know you and you cannot repudiate any transaction you do with me. Identity is like C of O for land. You know, land is not mobile, you cannot carry it around and that is why the idea of C of O was invented. C of O is a mere piece of paper, but anytime you see it, you can do transaction with that paper, believing that this paper is representing a land somewhere.
Hence, because I cannot be everywhere, I cannot go through network and computers, something must be given to me that when you deal with that number, when you deal with that entity, it must be representing a human being somewhere, and that human being cannot come back to say ‘no be me o’. Hence, we believe that this identity management is a viable and big business in Nigeria, and we chose to focus on it for like five to six years. We have since moved on now. We have a bunch of versatile, energetic, young and experienced people that are in our system, that have gone through maintenance, to networking to smart card business, to identity management, now intelligent business solution issue on top of that. That is what has kept us alive and that is what has been sustaining us over the years.
But in spite of the rich pedigree of Chams and some other IT companies in Nigeria, the ICT gap is still very obvious. What are you doing to bridge some of these gaps?
You know ICT is a jungle. For you to be successful, you have to be focused on something. You cannot do everything, or else you would just be Jack of all trades and master of none. So we’ve focused for five years on identity management. Now we are focusing on intelligent business solutions that are built on identity management. And that is what will propel us for a while. We don’t have to do e-commerce, we know how to do it, we can do it, but we chose not to. That is not our area of focus for now. We try and focus on an area we know and dominate it for some time.