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Keynote Speech by Jelani Aliyu – Nigeria, We are Not Ordinary

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eNigeria 2014 Keynote Speech
Jelani Aliyu, MFR

In the realm of advanced living organisms, consciousness is the thread that binds all
together and dictates realities, likewise with the ever growing sophistication of modern
technology, ICT is the force that unifies and energizes all the various concepts and systems,
creating the efficacy and synergy for the success of humanity as a civilization.
We are now at a very exciting and decisive moment in our nation’s history, and the
importance of the National Information Technology Development Agency in charting and
enabling this encompassing catalyst that is so necessary for the enlightenment,
empowerment and development of all our societies is immeasurable.
It is my hope that this conference, eNigeria 2014, is remembered as one of the key events
that have enabled and signified an exciting era when we as Nigerians decided to usher in a
bold and better future for ourselves.

We must never underestimate the amazing power of human imagination, the ability to envision a
dramatically positive and dynamic future. Every great city, every monument, every historic feat, as it
stands for all the world to see, was once pure thought, pure imagination acted upon and brought into
reality. To imagine is to dream, to dream is to tune in to the ever amazing possibilities of the future. And
when we do dream, it must be big, because to dream small is to totally underestimate the amazing
capabilities that lie within each and every one of us.

Our own country, Nigeria, from the Atlantic shoreline in the South, through the grasslands of the Middle-
Belt, all the way to the rolling hills and bright blue skies of the North, Nigeria is truly a magnificent and
blessed country. Yes, we have crude oil, yes, we have natural gas and a wide variety of raw materials, and
yes, we have fertile soil that could be cultivated to feed hundreds of millions, but above all, what we have
is our humanity, that magical inner spirit that glows from within, that magical inner spirit that makes us
an integral and crucial part of the human civilization. And so, we must see ourselves not just as Nigerians,
but as members of a global community, sharing constructive ideas, sharing inspirations, and together
coming up with solutions for the betterment of humanity worldwide.
We as Nigerians must not be afraid of success, but we must face the future with courage, we must
individually and collectively focus on progressive opportunities and solutions. Those powerful
capabilities that reside within each and every one of us must be reawakened, and it all starts in the mind,
if you can imagine it and clearly see it in your mind then you are half way there, you can then easily
strategize, jump into action and bring it into reality. 2 | Page

We must not be defined by our current problems, they are not who we are, we are bigger than them, we
must be defined by our dreams and aspirations, we must be defined by what we can achieve, we must be
defined by a better tomorrow. Nothing is impossible, there are no impossibilities; there is only a better
Nigeria to build.
Our great country, Nigeria,
Land of the Niger crocodile,
Land of the Baobab tree,
Where smiles are free,
Like the bright blue sky,
And the beautiful stars of the night.

I grew up in Sokoto, land of the midday sun. My parents came from Dogondaji, which is a town about an
hour southwest of Sokoto. Growing up was a fascinating experience, the wide open spaces, the bright
blue skies and the very closely knit family. They were very exciting times. I attended Capital School and
FGC Sokoto, where I met a lot of friends and teachers from many parts of Nigeria, and from Asia, and
I have always been fascinated by automobiles and decided to be a car designer very early on.
While growing up we had a lot of books, magazines and select educational TV shows that opened up
our world beyond Sokoto and beyond Nigeria. Through all that content and with information from
our dad and elder brother who travelled a lot, we learnt of how big the world is and of all the
incredible potential and opportunity out there. Our father had a library where we read about great
inventions, ideas and amazing places, I drew a lot and saw art as a language, through which one can
conceptualize and develop ideas. I got a lot of support and encouragement from my family and a
family friend. I found imagination especially fascinating as I often engaged in it to envision
futuristic products, systems and positive scenarios.

After FGC Sokoto, I had a number of admissions and the opportunity to study at a number of
universities in the country, but I chose to study Architecture at the Birnin-Kebbi Polytechnic,
because my priority was to immediately engage in hands on practical design, which the polytechnic
offered, and to prepare myself for Automotive Design. At Birnin-Kebbi I did studies in sustainable
home designs that were in tune with the Nigerian climate, buildings that passively kept cool without
the need for air conditioners or other external energy sources.

After Birnin-Kebbi I concentrated on going into Automotive Design itself. I got a book from a
cousin of mine that listed all the American colleges and universities, in there I learnt of the Collage
for Creative Studies in Michigan. I sent them the portfolio of designs I had done and secured
admission. Sokoto State Scholarship Board offered me a full scholarship to study at the college.

Automotive design is part of Industrial design, which is a fascinating field, in its purest and most
useful form it is a tool for survival and economic growth, dealing with the challenges that people
face every day and coming up with solutions to them, which are for the most part physical products
or systems that empower people and make life easier, they also enhance relationships and
interactions within humanity and between humanity and the environment.
I strongly believe that no other man made product that is so attainable by billions of people has as
much magic and enchantment as the automobile. 3 | Page

In its most basic form it is a phenomenon that accentuates and amplifies human strength and
capabilities, automobiles have become an integral part of modern life and are for the most part taken
for granted, but technically and philosophically what they have done is made us a civilization of
super humans, with the freedom to individually go anywhere at speed cocooned in our own
microclimate. Automobiles in a way also give you an exo-skeleton that is not only physically
protective but can be emotionally assertive and captivating. Altogether, an excellent automobile is
physically indispensable and emotionally irresistible. And now with ICT, the automobile is evolving
to be an even more exciting machine with untethered connectivity, autonomy and Artificial
Intelligence, it is transforming into a new transportation genre: without the need for a driver, whole
passengers would soon be able to do whatever they want while in transit, working, surfing the
internet, cooking or sleeping.

After graduation I got a job with General Motors, after about three years in Detroit I went on an
international assignment to Germany for about two years to design Opels. When I came back to the
Tech Center I worked on the Pontiac G6, then I transferred to the company’s Advanced Design
Studio, there I developed the design concept of the Chevrolet Volt Electric Car, the vehicle would
go on to usher in a new era not just for GM but for the whole industry and world in general.
The Chevrolet Volt project started with a brief by the then Vice President of product development
on the need to develop a highly advanced vehicle concept that would take the company forward into
the future. Three advanced studios were engaged in the competition, the one in California, one in the
United Kingdom and the Michigan Advanced Studio where I was. Together there were hundreds of
Out of those hundreds, five were chosen for the final round. At the final selection my proposal was
chosen to go forward as the Volt. I conceptualized the design of the Volt to be very advanced and to
capture the spirit of the African wilderness and also that of the magnificence of the marine life off
the African Atlantic shores: like a cheetah poised for an attack, like a shark swimming with powerful
grace and focus.

There are two incredible creatures, one mythical, one real that will forever be associated with the
history, culture and achievements of Asia, these creatures are the dragon and the tiger.
Whereas in old Europe dragons were believed to be fire breathing flying monsters that needed to be
hunted down, in Asia the dragon is a symbol of power, leadership, and new beginnings. Although
mythical, it occupies a position of strength in the minds of Asia, so does the tiger.
Which in itself is an unbelievably powerful creature, the perfect balance of brute force and flexibility,
calm and ferocity, when it hunts it does so with calculated strategy, utter focus and unyielding tenacity.
These are also the exemplary characteristics of four unique Asian countries which have exhibited so much
achievement that they have now come to be called the ‘Asian Tigers’, these are the countries of Hong
Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. Four countries that have created nothing short of a miracle:
within a relatively short period of about thirty years, from the mid-sixties to the nineties, they would
transform themselves from underdeveloped economies into some of the world’s most advanced nations,
moving their populations from a life of hardship to that of prosperity. 4 | Page

How did they do this? They employed a number of strategies, key amongst which were intensive
education that led to the development of a highly skilled work force, free enterprise and the aggressive
manufacturing of goods exported to the West.
They had a concerted effort to make primary and lower secondary school education compulsory. A strong
curriculum was put together, teaching was made an important profession and the best graduates were
encouraged to go into that field. They were trained to create highly competent and enthusiastic faculties
at all schools. Salaries of teachers was made competitive with other contemporary professions.
The governments of the Asian Tiger countries supported major corporations and public initiatives to
establish strong ICT solutions that were deployed directly within the country, enabling the successful
establishment of the new systems on a massive scale before further scaling up globally.
In the case of Taiwan, the country moved from a virtual nonexistent ICT sector in 1960 to a powerful
global player by the 90s, and it has continued to be in that league. The government created two mega
companies in the heyday of the country’s ICT development, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing
Company, Limited (TSMC), the world’s first dedicated semiconductor foundry, and United
Microelectronics Corporation (UMC), with such momentum the country became the research and
development hub of the Asia-Pacific region.
With South Korea, their technology initiative led to the development of one of the world’s most
successful and actually the first 100-percent electronic customs e-government information systems in the
world, The Korea Customs Service’s Universal Pass, known as ‘UNI-PASS’. It has since been exported to a
number of countries around the world. South Korea also gave priority to Industrial design, the concept of
creating new products that are solutions for everyday applications and economic growth, this enabled a
strong industry that designed, manufactured and exported these solutions overseas, especially to the
United States.
The Asian Tigers moved from just manufacturers of ICT products to pervasive nationwide users of it,
integrating the technology in all aspects of government and social life. They developed a highly skilled
workforce which in turn fostered strong innovation and entrepreneurship, bringing unprecedented
progress to their populations.
Can we emulate this miracle of the Asian Tigers as they did with their leap from poverty to
prosperity, can we also emulate their success as high caliber ICT global innovators and exporters?
We, as Nigerians, are now at an exciting moment in our country’s history, we have never been ordinary,
we may have had challenges, but we have never lost our zeal. It is now our turn to muster and leverage all
our capabilities and usher in a new era of advanced progress and abundance, in effect, to bring back the
greatness of our people, to recapture the magic and prosperity of our histories, cultures, kingdoms and
empires. To bring back the era when our societies engaged the authentic capabilities of all citizens and
And so the answer is yes, just as the Asian Tigers transformed their economies and became crucial
players in the global ICT sector, we too can do the same, and must be done in an even shorter period. 5 | Page

Our greatest enabler is Intelligent Technology, technology that is in tune with Africa, technology in
tune with our culture, histories, climate and geography. And the encompassing phenomenon to bring
about this transformation is a nationwide development and adoption of the most advanced ICT.
So, who are we? Who are the Nigerians? Environmental consciousness has become an integral part of
global development, nature is now once again no longer seen as a force to conquer, but rather, it is seen as
a medium from which to learn, efficiently draw energy from and live in harmony with.
And when we do observe nature, we see that we live on a truly magical planet, a gigantic orb of life
hurtling through space, everywhere we look around us, we are surrounded by wonders of our natural
world, from the tiny leaf only fractions of a millimetre thick and yet a highly efficient factory to the
amazing sea rays that glide within the deep waters of the Atlantic, planet earth is a perfect balance of
beauty and practicality.
And so in these days of environmental consciousness, sustainability and renewability, who more
environmental than the African, who more sustainable than the Nigerian? Who better to understand this
global movement and position themselves as high calibre creators of world class solutions than Nigerian
Africa is a unique continent, with extreme climates and geographies, extreme heat and rough terrain, but
these are not problems, they are not negatives, these are what Africa is. They are the beauty of Africa, and
are the magic and the characteristics that have for millennia engaged a people and crafted them with
immeasurable wisdom, virtue and prowess, characteristics that have fashioned a continent full of wonder,
awe and adventure, and given us the magnificent Obudu hills, Serengeti and Ngoro Ngoro, the incredible
Zambezi River, and the beautiful landscapes of the Sahel.
Yes, there are challenges in infrastructure, energy supply, transportation, and education. But that is just
what they are, challenges, they are not us, we are bigger than them.
Having the right technology is crucial in any society or locality. A major reason for the failure of a lot of
infrastructure and systems in our nation is because they were not fundamentally designed for our
applications, they do not fall within the critical physical and mental patterns that are natural for Africa,
and so they don’t fail because of an inherent lack of local human support. It is no surprise that our
physical environment is absolutely different from the conceptual birth place of a lot of the technology that
finds itself transplanted into Africa. From time immemorial, Africans have had tools, systems and
technologies that have assisted them in their daily lives. These technologies had been developed and
evolved over time to be the most conducive for our people and environment. For example, most of Africa
is hot, and historically homes have been built to be comfortable with local natural materials and passive
cooling technologies without the need for added energy. In the last couple of decades we have equated
progress with completely disregarding and forgetting a lot of our local and very effective technologies.
This is not right, we must not dismiss them, but rather we must build on them, so as we progress, we must
leverage advanced product development and intelligent Information Technology, coupled with our honed
inherited understanding of extreme circumstances, to create advanced new systems that best suit our
terrain, climate, psyche and histories. Therein will lie the secret to the success of our ICT products
and services, making them authentically African for the unparalleled extreme African solution and
hence effective for the world. 6 | Page

And so, imagine integrating these advanced effective solutions into our cities, infrastructure, institutions
and patterns of life, making them the pride and jewels of modernity while upholding the very core values
of our heritage and our respect for the magnificent natural world around us, for example:
1) Based on our cultures and ways of living, we have millions of children spread all across the
country who cannot come to a traditional classroom because they are an integral part of their
family’s vocation, some are not even in their towns or settlements but out there farming,
herding, fishing and hunting, so how do we take education to these kids wherever they
maybe? How do develop a self-adapting and un-tethered educational system, with intelligent
networks, specialized sustainable hardware and software that would reach and engage these
students while they are out there farming, hunting and fishing?

2) A majority of our citizens live in rural areas with no access to public or modern private
services. Delivery of medicine, goods and needed supplies is a challenge over inhospitable
terrain, across unbridged rivers and impenetrable forests. How do we provide intelligent
logistics systems that can autonomously and safely service every town, village and
settlement, making irrelevant the lack of roads to any of those places, to operate either by air
or by land, perhaps autonomous delivery drones or self-driving off-road solutions with the
capability of efficiently and expediently traversing any natural terrain and leaving it pristine
and undisturbed?

The two examples mentioned above are but a window to the advanced future of Nigeria and
Africa, without expensive roads crisscrossing and destroying natural habitats we can reach
every citizen of this country with essential goods and services, without building a physical
school in every village and settlement we can give world class education to each and every
Nigerian child. While maintaining the natural environments of Africa we can, through
leveraging strategic ICT solutions, create advanced nations where our people will once again
live in harmony with nature, in abundance, peace and prosperity.

Once we pioneer and develop these types of advanced and highly applicable ICT solutions, we can very
easily scale them up and provide them to the world. And so, what are some of the enablers to creating
these Africa conducive ICT solutions?
 First and foremost is the acknowledgment of the miracle that we have all around us: the
magic that is Africa that must be preserved.

 Establishing Industrial Design courses and making the profession an integral factor of
ICT and general technological development, through its discipline of creative hardware
innovation and development. To set up departments at tertiary institutions, and integrate
the course in the curriculum of secondary schools.

 Establishment of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence courses right from secondary school
to degree courses at universities, polytechnics and specialized schools.
7 | Page

 Engaging Nigerian professionals in the diaspora in collaborative initiatives and projects,
to merge their collective international experiences and contacts with Nigerian based
experts and opportunities.

a) Engage in collaborative advanced Research and Development, and
b) Organize exciting local challenges and competitions to expose our local talent to
the international community.

It is an exciting new world, and we must be strong valuable members of it, we must go for the seemingly
impossible and make it reality. We must brave new paths with no fear, we must all come together and
courageously strive towards the achievement of all that which will positively and most dynamically
impact multiple facets of the Nigerian human experience.

Jelani Aliyu, MFR,
Automotive/Industrial Designer and Developer,
Architectural Strategy

Ike Amadi

Author of the book Do Something! I am an advocate of all things #fresh. I want to see you become a #dosomethingperson.