Digital: The New Code of Wealth by Japhet J. Omojuwa
My boss, Jim Boomgard, President and CEO of DAI Global recently said to me: “Joe, you have almost a quarter of a million followers on Twitter. Have you figured out how to make money from that stuff?” I told him that I just tweet my mind and have never thought about making money from it. I said I have occasionally used the following that I have to promote people’s businesses but have never charged any money for doing so. However, quite a number of people have given me gifts and when I publicly thank them, they say they have got more business. I also told him that one of Africa’s best-known authorities on the subject, J.J. Omojuwa, has just written a book on the subject and that I will order a copy for him. As I was reflecting further on Jim’s question, J.J. himself then asked me if I could find time to review the book for him. Apart from being proud to have been given this honour, accepting to review the book is perhaps the best way of ensuring that I actually read it.
The foreword to the book was written by my friend, the brilliant Dr Aloy Chife whom I attended the University of Calabar with. Together with Reuben Abati, we were three of the youngest in our year at UniCal. Both Aloy and Reuben made First Class degrees, while I just managed to make a 2:2. My well-worn excuse is that it was because I read Law. You need a higher JAMB score to be admitted to read Law and the course is infinitely more difficult than Theatre Arts which Reuben read or History, which I think Aloy read. To buttress my point, I suspect that I am one of only a few people that was able to read Aloy’s Foreword to Omojuwa’s book without checking the meaning of any word in the dictionary. Moving on from UniCal, Me, Aloy and Reuben all now have PhDs. As we say on Naija social media, “We die here!”
The Introductory chapter sets out the book’s raison detre. For me as a development practitioner, these 4 pages represent the kernel of the book. Very early on, it puts its finger right on the problem of Africa. However, in the rush to get to the meat of the book about how to make money from all this digital stuff, the reader is likely to miss it. As the author points out in only the third paragraph of the book, Africa’s problem is the inability to take good things to scale. This resonates immediately with me because the question of how to take good things to scale in difficult operating environments has been my life’s work. It is why the topic of my PhD dissertation is “Strong Organisations in Weak States: Atypical Public Sector Performance in Dysfunctional Environments.” It is why I accepted the call to serve Nigeria as Director-General of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms between 2013 and 2017, and why I left after one term. It is also why I have written on ‘Pockets of Effectiveness in Nigerian Public Service and Lessons for Accelerating National Development.’ In the same vein, I have additionally written an article called ‘Africa Has Too Many Pilots, None of Them Taking Off.’ Of course, I was not talking about aircraft pilots, but our usual penchant for undertaking experiments, often within the sterile laboratory of donor processes and the cushion of donor funding, which we then fail or are unable to take to scale given our political economy. I have made the point that Africa cannot pilot itself out of poverty and that we must, instead, focus on the levers that can accelerate our development and prosperity. One of the most important of those levers is digital technology, the subject of Omojuwa’s book.
Chapter 1 plots the author’s digital journey, from basic computer awareness, to his own website, to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others. It also starts to speak to the beginnings of the activism that the author is also known for, ranging from charitable courses, to demanding to be treated well as a paying customer, to demanding better government. My own digital journey, particularly on Twitter, came out of need. I was leading a Federal Government agency that had very little funding. I could not afford to sponsor slots on television and radio, like some “juicy” agencies do, but needed to get my story out there and to engage with the public.
As the author says in the book, “If you are strategic with your use of social media and other digital platforms, your journey will not only be more interesting, you will achieve your goals a lot faster.” I can testify that social media certainly helped the profile of the agency I was running and helped the public to see government officials as normal human beings, rather than empty-headed aliens who do no work and are solely preoccupied with stealing government funds. Being the first ever government official to defend my budget on social media earned me perhaps the ultimate accolade a government official can get on social media :”He’s alright.”
I can also testify that the journey has certainly been interesting. I started reading Law at a very young age, so through studying Criminal Law, I was exposed to how hatred, jealousy, anger and greed could condition human behaviour. In Criminal Law though, unless the person is a psychopath, you could always see a motive for criminal behaviour. The usual motives are money, power or sex. However, until I came on social media, I didn’t realise that someone you didn’t know and have never engaged with could just hate you for no reason at all. I didn’t realise that people can confess that “I just hate that guy. I don’t know why”, and yet obsess about you daily, opening new accounts every time you block them, just to continue seeing what you write, so that they can continue to rain abuse on you daily. I didn’t realise that people could proactively block you so that you don’t get to see the nasty things they say about you. I was blissfully ignorant and naïve. I didn’t realise that, as we say in Nigeria, many people are not well.
The author talks about the need to do education differently. He laments, rightly, that “Our schools are essentially providing answers to old questions when the economy is asking new questions.” As the author said in the introductory chapter, “Access to education can be scaled by disrupting the pathways to access education.” My friend Chichi Aniagolu-Okoye helped to pioneer ‘Radio School’, a means through which people could take school classes on radio while waiting for customers in their shops or working in their farms. DAI’s Women for Health programme that works in northern Nigeria has put technical information on phones for health workers, using the open source learning platform, Moodle. It does not require internet access and has seen a dramatic rise in the accuracy of diagnosis and the appropriateness of treatment.
Chapter 1 concludes by encouraging people to take the leap without waiting for government. Many people do not know that the Indian technology phenomenon started outside government and that government came into the mix much, much later. We are seeing a similar movement in many tech hubs in Nigeria today. The Indians were targeting Silicone Valley. Andela, Semicolon and others are doing something similar in Nigeria. As the author says, we need to start thinking about Education in a different way. Education not for the sake of certificates but for the sake of useful and usable knowledge. Just like the author, my social media experience has driven me to the study of behavioural science. I am learning Behavioural Science, Philosophy and Psychology on my own and for my own personal development, not for the purpose of my CV. I probably should remember to include in my CV that I was awarded a certificate in Behavioural Science in 2017 by Harvard University, a fact I often forget. We need to move beyond certificates.
Chapter 2 discusses ‘Becoming a Person of Influence.’ It contains very interesting topics like ‘Using Social Media to Influence and Persuade’, ‘How to Build an Online Following’, and how to create popular content. It also talks about ‘Leveraging Digital for Social Good’ and dealing with “trolls’, usually faceless people hiding behind anonymous handles whose sole purpose in life appears to be to look for ways to get you angry. I think the author shares some nuggets of gold in this chapter that will help anyone desirous of becoming a person of influence and surviving the jungle that is social media.
Chapter 3 covers Digital Activism and Advocacy. I found this interesting, especially as I do not consider myself at all an activist. Like the author though, I too have had a run-in with Arik. Our 5pm flight from Lagos to Abuja did not take off until 1am the next day. There was no explanation and no refreshments for passengers. I wrote a formal complaint to the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, took it up with the Ministry of Transport, started an online petition to force the Chief Executive of the airline to step down, and trended the hashtag #DontFlyArik for one week until it was picked
up and published by an international aviation magazine. All I wanted was an apology and some compensation. I got both. The chapter covers the activities of many people I respect, like Bukky Shonibare and many advocacy activities that I am supportive of, like the Not-too-young-to-run campaign. The chapter amply demonstrates how social media can be a force for positive social change.
Chapter 4 focuses on Digital Government, an area of interest for me. It demonstrates how countries like Mauritius and Kenya have leveraged egovernment to accelerate their development. It recognises the benefits of egovernment in Nigeria in areas such as the management of the Federal Government payroll to remove more than 80,000 ghost workers, saving billions of Naira. Linking the payroll system to the Bank Verification Number (BVN) through matching fingerprints has exposed another 40,000 or so multiple payees. These are not ghost workers. These are existing government workers collecting more than one salary. In one case, one government official was collecting 20 salaries! The link with the BVN means that, for the first time, government can tell who is collecting the cash from the creation of ghost workers and prosecute them.
Chapter 5 deals with Digital Business and tells, in a very accessible way, the stories of many people that have started or accelerated their businesses using digital technology and access. From Linda Ikeji, to Akin Alabi of Nairabet, to Sterling Bank and many others. There is something to learn in how each person or organisation has benefited from Digital Business. It should give any aspiring entrepreneur a lot to think about. I am certainly thinking about it for the future.
Chapter 6 focuses on Communicating Faith in a Digital World. It talks about how several faith-based organisations have leveraged digital technology to advance their objectives. Interestingly, it has a section titled “The Bible Is a Thread” and highlights the way that churches like the Daystar Christian Centre have used technology to disseminate digital leadership lessons. Incidentally, I look forward to speaking at Daystar Christian Centre’s Excellence in Leadership Conference this November. The chapter also highlights the influence of the Zimbabwean Muslim scholar, Dr Ismail ibn Musa Menk, popularly known as Mufti Menk. I follow Mufti Menk and think he is extremely profound and quite interesting. I think his wisdom may not only be as a result of diligent study but may also be divinely inspired. He just says his mind and doesn’t argue with anybody or respond to anything they say.
His Twitter account has 4.6 million followers but for nearly 8 years, he was not following anyone back. The one person he has been following for about a year now is the President of his country Zimbabwe. The President of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, follows 93 people. Mufti Menk is not one of them. Life!
Chapter 7 discusses Contemporary Culture and Music Business in a Data-driven World, including how artists and musical outfits have leveraged digital technology to advance their art. Chapter 8 focuses on Cybersecurity, Data Protection and Threats in a Digital World. I commenced the process of deleting my Direct Messages on Twitter, the day I learnt that the account of Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, had been hacked.
Chapter 9 on The Digital Economy and the Future of Africa is an area that I have great interest in. From start-ups in “Yabacon Valley”, to mobile money and digital financial inclusion, the chapter sets out the opportunities for wealth creation and growth in Africa. The book ends with a challenge to us all but retains the spirit of optimism that is palpable throughout the text:
“We know what to do, generations unborn will not forgive us if we do nothing, they will think us people of little ambition if we barely scratch the
surface but they will have our names written in gold if we unleash the prosperity and opportunities we know we can.”
Overall, I think that the author has done justice to a very wide-ranging topic. The writing style is engaging and deploys a mixture of excellent personal storytelling, rigorous research and prudent analysis. Throughout the book, there are persuasive examples of how digital technology has enhanced personal development, facilitated activism, enhanced good governance, created new businesses and wealth, and affected contemporary culture and even the communication of faith.
At the end of the book’s 9 chapters though, my mind went back to the question that had appeared within the first three paragraphs of the book: How can we take things to scale in Africa? You can see why I had said that this early question is the kernel of the book. The interviews with a number of interesting digital innovators at the back of the book provide some glimpses of hope.
In the long list of persons acknowledged in the book, I was proud to find my name on Page 314. This should convince you, if you needed further convincing, that I read the whole book with rapt attention. However, there is a section in Chapter 2 that is titled ‘How to Not Trend in a Sensational Way.’ In plain social media parlance, it means “How to not get dragged.” Rather than read this section along with the rest of the book, I thought it would be best to get Omojuwa to read that section out loud to me one day and then I will read it back to him too…slowly!