The Lunch Hour, Aliyu Aboki, Executive Secretary, West African Telecommunications Regulators Assembly

In a common telecommunications market, you solve a problem once and not 10 or 15 times in different countries, and you can take the same solutions to 10 or 15 markets at the same time because there are no regulatory barriers. It is a great incentive to invest”.

Aliyu Yusuf Aboki is the Executive Secretary of the West Africa Telecommunications Regulators Assembly (WATRA). He is a telecommunications engineer and policymaker with over 22 years of experience working in Nigeria, Ghana and Indonesia with Ericsson and MTN. Aliyu has advanced degrees and training in Communication Engineering, Business Administration and Artificial Intelligence from the University of Manchester, University of Warwick and MIT. He also has a University of Cambridge Certificate in Economics & Policy (Evidence Analysis and Decision Making in Policy). He speaks in this interview on WATRA’s role in harmonising telecommunications regulation in West Africa and the importance of digital infrastructure in driving economic growth in the region.

University, Science or Arts?

I studied Electrical Engineering at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria. My father felt ABU would be a good place for me. It was a cosmopolitan university with lecturers and students from all over the country. I attended Federal Government College, Kaduna, a unity school. I had friends from different parts of the country and even some from other parts of the world. It was a great experience.  I easily mix with people of different backgrounds and adapt to different environments. I put this down to my experience in Federal Government, Kaduna.

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My father and eldest brother also felt that Electrical/Electronic Engineering was one of the science courses that would become very important in Nigeria. Hence, the choice of what to study came out of conversations with my dad and brother. My eldest brother studied Quantity Surveying while my dad studied Maths and Physics. He became a prominent educationist. My dad urged us to study professional courses.

What’s the biggest lesson you left the university with?

The biggest lesson that I learned is that hard work does pay.  If you are quite focused and try as much as possible to be in the midst of serious-minded and highly motivated people, you stand to gain a lot and even outdo what you set out to achieve. University imbibed a competitive spirit in me.   I am willing to take on challenges without having a second thought.

Do you have any fond memories of Manchester?

I encountered a bit of cultural shock when I first arrived in Manchester. Even though I had interacted with people from different parts of the world when I was in Nigeria, it felt a bit different. The individualism, the sort of absolute independence that I encountered, was a bit strange to me. It was a big departure from what I was used to. I also had to adjust to the weather. But I later acclimatized. I  had a good experience in the city and the exposure is still an influence.

Are there any teachers you remember very well for being an influence on you?

I do have a couple.  From primary school, I remember a Ghanaian teacher called Mr Boateng. He was a disciplinarian and he put a lot of effort into ensuring that we got used to and love Mathematics. Part of the reason why I am comfortable with Maths and Engineering is because I had that early foundation from this teacher. In secondary school, one of the teachers that identified something in me and tried to push me as much as possible was my Chemistry teacher. Once during a Chemistry examination, I was fumbling about, writing and crossing out my answers. Our Chemistry teacher noticed and gave me a knock, saying, “Be yourself and do it!”. I had to quickly buoy myself and do it as I have been ordered. The experience has had a lasting impact. Whenever I struggle with something, I just tell myself, be yourself, you can do it.

Who would you describe as a bigger influence on you between your Mum and your Dad?

They both influenced me in different ways, but I would probably say my dad has been the greater influence. He was a prominent educationist and as much as possible, he gave his children a lot of attention when it came to academics. To some extent, he was my private teacher. I can recall incidents when my friends came around to see me at home and they would see my dad giving me some tips and tricks in Mathematics. And they would say “Oh, that’s why you are always ahead of us in school”. And he was very particular about being honourable, maintaining one’s dignity and being independent. Some of these values I have maintained for a long period were from my dad. My mum, she gave me that push to be tenacious, to be prayerful, to be determined, and not to be a coward and to be able to stand firm on things I believe in.

When did you leave home for good and what’s the biggest lesson you took away with you from home?

I left home for good pretty much when I went to the university. I had very peaceful and caring parents, I learned to be compassionate, and I also learned to uphold values of honour and integrity. I learned to value my reputation. My parents were kind and they dotted on us but they also imposed discipline and has no-go-areas. So, when I left home, I used all this as a compass to navigate the world.

What are the lessons from your first job?

My first proper job was as a communications consultant at Intercity Bank. I got the job after finishing my Master’s Degree in Communications Engineering. I was highly driven and determined to excel. But I also quickly figured out that it is very important to work very well with other people. So I learned the value of teamwork. This includes helping a boss achieve his or her objectives and being content that you have made a genuine contribution to making them successful. It may also mean devoting time to helping a colleague or someone who reports to you who may be struggling. You may set quite high standards of performance but this is no use if you are a lone ranger.

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What advantage has that degree in Communications Engineering been to your career?

A lot. It really gave me a huge leverage when I began my career. I had been able to step up and learn a lot of things in telecommunications. It was quite a detailed and thorough course from a reputable university. It gave me that mileage when I went to work because I was able to do things that my peers couldn’t do quite easily. It opened my mind, and it had a positive impact on my creativity and analytical thinking. It still does. It gave me a huge leverage from the onset of my career.

What are the two or three things you learned in your career that they don’t teach in MBA programmes?

First and foremost, how you deal with people in the corporate environment is one. There are a lot of things you would not be taught an MBA until you experience it- how you navigate some of the pitfalls in business, office politics, how you maintain focus, and also how you take your self-development without having someone to guide you. You need to take destiny into your own hands. There will be so many situations in one’s career that none of the things you were taught in your MBA class will not apply. I guess this is the point of thinking and learning continuously, having emotional intelligence, being quick to scan the environment and understanding how business and interpersonal relationships are evolving.

What kind of books do you like to read and what have you been reading recently?

I am more interested in non-fiction. I read business, finance, and technology books, and I also read a lot of autobiographies. I believe that how you improve yourself is not just by reading books that teach you XYZ but by learning from people that have first-hand experience, and understanding how they were able to overcome obstacles and achieve whatever they set out to do. I read biographies and autobiographies of business leaders, political leaders, athletes and others. One gets really useful insights into life and business from reading such a genre.

How would you describe the biggest advantage of having a single telecommunications market in West Africa?

The biggest advantage is that wider markets are big incentives for investors-they serve a greater number of people with more or less the same level of investment in infrastructure. We still have huge variations in telecommunications regulations and policies in West Africa that rob investors of the benefits of economies of scale. Investment in the telecommunications sector would rise significantly if more countries in the region harmonise regulations and policies. This would also make services more affordable. If you look at the telecommunications markets in West African countries, the market is concentrated in capital cities. It is a great incentive to investment when policies and regulations allow operators to function seamlessly across these capital cities. In a common telecommunications market, you solve a problem once and not 10 or 15 times in different countries, and you can take the same solutions to 10 or 15 markets at the same time because there are no regulatory barriers. It is a great incentive to invest.

Can you please give a single example of the way governments can promote the use of ICT products or improve ICT skills?

Everyone in the country deals with the government either through the thousands of public schools, hospitals, local governments etc, or through the scores of permits, tax returns, licenses, etc. we all have to obtain from the government.  Government can stimulate demand for ICT products and expand and deepen ICT skills by delivering services and engaging citizens online i.e., on the Internet and on apps. The possibilities are endless; applying for passports, processing customs clearance, the delivery of knowledge to farmers, i.e., agricultural extension service, etc. Even monitoring and curbing traffic violations. Now in some parts of Lagos, when you violate a traffic rule, no one runs after you. Cameras record the offence and the system links your fine to your vehicle particulars. It saves everyone time and increases transparency. Governments can hasten this digital revolution by encouraging ICT “local content” e.g. apps on initiatives that make it very easy for people who are not really literate to go online and use public services or do business. For instance, state governments can set up online stores where people making high-quality traditional products e.g. pots, clothing etc. This is something Ministries of Commerce can look into. Of course, there will be a lot of backend work on product quality, logistics etc.  Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers would also acquire ICT skills.

What’s the best use of money for you?

The best use of money for me is to have a positive impact on people’s lives. I derive pleasure, I derive satisfaction in having the means to make people around me comfortable, and also be able to have a good life. I have the urge to see people uplifted in any way, shape, or form.

What’s the favourite place you like to spend your holiday?

Wherever I can spend quality time with my family. Sometimes I don’t mind even spending my holiday at home with my family. But if I have to choose a location, I would choose the Mediterranean basin. I like the scenery and I do not like cold places.

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Can you envision the digital economy in West Africa in the next ten years?

I would like to see a West Africa where all citizens have access to basic services such as healthcare, and education online. I would like to see “ordinary” citizens participating actively in the digital economy and improving their lives

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