Nigerians as usual have joined the Internet bandwagon, but do we really understand the potential and benefit of the Internet? Just walk around a typical European city or watch an American movie, and you will realise that the western world will struggle without the Internet today, this is because they have figured out the power of the Internet, and its benefit to their daily life. In England today, you can do or find almost anything on the Internet: from booking that special holiday, to online banking, and to even shopping for groceries, all from the click of a mouse, and all from the comfort of your home.
Talking about browsing from the comfort of your home, Nigeria is still not quite there yet. Unless you can afford the relatively expensive dial up home use system offered by some Internet service providers (ISPs), or you work in a company where your bosses are kind enough to let you use the Internet, majority of us Internet users still have to rely on cyber cafés dotted around major cities in Nigeria. These cafes are opening and closing at an alarming rate, makes you wonder. Still haven’t meet a cyber café owner who is smiling to the bank, but then when you think of the running cost of a cyber café compared to other countries like England, it is obvious why breaking even is so difficult. Apart from the normal business overhead, you have the headache of dealing with irregular power supply, and we all know you can’t run your computers without power. So before you start dreaming of running a cyber café, be ready to invest in a good generator, and regular supply of diesel for the generator. Even when NEPA (sorry PHCN) decides to give you power, it is not always stable, so what do you do, invest more money into buying UPSs and stabilizers for your computers. Now imagine a country with uninterruptible power supply, no generator, no diesel expense, no UPS, no stabilizers. So like I said, how do you expect these guys to break even? Walk into a cyber café in the western world; computers are plugged directly to power sockets, no additional headache of generators, diesel cost, UPS, stabilizers.
Mind you, PCHN is not to blame completely for the difficulties faced by café owners, like GSM, I still believe the cost of Internet bandwidth is still excessive, although it is coming down a bit due to competition from bandwidth providers from round the world, obviously they are flocking into Nigeria because of the lucrative market. I am sure if we had the basic infrastructure from NITEL, we will not be spending so much money on satellite dishes (overkill), but let’s don’t bring NITEL into this, that’s another story all together.
When I first came back to Nigeria as an IT consultant four years ago, I told a friend that NITEL was a lost cause when it comes to bringing the Internet to homes and businesses; I still stand by that today. Ask me again in ten years time, I will give you the same answer. This is because the infrastructure for the cheap Internet access the west is enjoying today was put in place over 50 years ago. All the phone companies are doing today is upgrading their infrastructure as technology evolves. So I believe ten years from now, majority of us will still be visiting cyber cafes (or what is left of them) in order to gain access to the Internet.
The question now is what are we Nigerians using the Internet for? I went to find out. Over the past 3 years as part of my research, I visited many cyber cafés in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. Majority of people that visit these cafes are the 18-38yrs age group some use their time for online chatting, some for research such as looking for schools abroad, while a large majority are online purely to do what we do best, 419.
I was shocked to discover the amount of young men (haven’t meet a lady yet) into 419, these are young men who actually believe the Internet is a gift from God to fight the greedy white man, yeah right. These guys spend hours on end at cafés looking for victims, the most worrying part for me is that these guys don’t see anything wrong in what they are doing, for some it is almost like a 9-5 job.
What these guys don’t know is that there are many dot com millionaires round the world who have made their money through the Internet legitimately. Believe it or not, all you need is an idea, bit of inspiration and in most cases a little capital, but then tell that to an average Nigerian who is interested only in making a quick buck with little or no effort. Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think there is any western city that have not heard of Nigeria and their 419 email activity, but then I am not surprised, considering the fact that emails don’t have borders or boundaries, you should see these guys sending bulk emails at cyber cafés, in my eight years as an IT consultant, I haven’t seen some of the sophisticated email extractor software’s that these guys are using.
We can talk about this till next centaury, one thing is clear, this Internet 419 disease is not going to go away anytime soon, but the Government can start something like making café owners/Internet service providers a bit more accountable for what people are using their computers for instead of turning a blind eye. Accountability can only happen if there is some form of enforcement.
Lately there’s been an increase in Internet use by the corporate community, although I am not completely convinced that many companies in Nigeria are actually aware of the benefit of the Internet to their business, majority still believe that the Internet is just there for emails and the occasional browsing, resulting in a serious under use of the Internet facility, which is sad, considering the high cost of bringing the Internet to their offices.
Companies need to realise also that having a website is one thing, having a website that adds value to your business is another thing. I think corporate Nigeria needs to take example from Virgin Nigeria. Now this is a company that understands the benefit of a website for their business, with their online ticket reservation system. What the other airlines don’t know is that getting some passengers to make reservations online saves money, and for me as a potential passenger it’s nice to check availability and plan my journey before going to the airport.
A company website serves three main purposes: it its like a full page advert in the newspaper, it contains useful information about your business, and for me the best part of having a corporate website is it gives you a global reach. I have bought items from as far as Malaysia just by going online, the company gained a new customer from as far as England through the power of the Internet.
The first time I heard of online banking in Nigeria, I thought it meant I could go online and check my balance from home or the office. Online banking in Nigeria means all the branches are linked in real time, which is good, thanks to the Internet and VSAT technology, you no longer have to wait days for money paid into a branch in Warri to appear at the Lagos branch. Banks need to do more though, people should be able to log into their accounts via the bank website and check their balance, this can greatly reduce the queues at banking halls.
I think what Nigeria lacks is awareness; we need training on the benefits and usefulness of the Internet in our daily lives. Ten years ago, the United Kingdom Government started a radical program to provide free basic Internet training for anyone that was interested, today even the elderly and children understand some of the benefit of the Internet, and can actually use the Internet.
I wish our Government can do the same, it will really go a long way to empower our youths. I am not trying to defend the 419 gurus, but sometimes, it is a lack of direction and frustration that make some of these guys go into 419. Maybe if they are given hope that one day they can make money through the power of the Internet, then they might just channel their energy into finding ways to becoming dot com millionaires. We need to get Internet into more schools; it makes learning fun for school kids. I believe we can use the Internet to make Nigeria a better place. How? I hear you ask?