The World Bank Group's report on Nigeria's Digital Economy was published earlier this week. It focusses of 5 key pillars for success - digitised infrastructure, digitised platforms, digitised financial services, digitised skills and digitised entrepreneurship. I got as fas as page 27 before being overwhelmed by a flood of questions on the practicalities of successfully implementing these pillars. The report was written for the DE4A Initiative which forms part of the World Bank Group's support for the African Union’s Digital Transformation Initiative for Africa, which wants to see every African individual, business and government be digitally enabled by 2030.

Whilst the report was commissioned and compiled long before the current economic situation we find ourselves in, digitisation is a term that has being thrown around like it's some sort of panacea to most businesses woes during the current pandemic. From supply chains to customer on-boarding, cashless banking to eCommence, digitisation is the magic pill that will save all businesses. But far from being a plaster you can put over a wound, it's more akin to full reconstructive surgery.

In the early days of Facebook and Twitter, both platforms were often viewed as mere PR channels that you just used to shout about company developments and updates. It took a fair amount of pain and hard lessons learnt before companies came to realise that they not only had to become integral parts of their marketing and communications strategy but they were also Sales and Customer Services channels. This required a whole digital transformation exercise that impacted internal and external operations. It would take time, money and patience. Everyone was learning on the job.

At least business productivity systems and apps have been around for a while. Others have paid the price for learning and have provided valuable lessons along the way. We can just plug and play, right! No, not exactly. Let me present a scenario - a potato chips farmer in Kaduna State introduces an order management system or app to his factory. Some considerations he now has to deal will go something like this:

  • As a farmer who sources over half his supply from an aggregation of smaller potato farmers, does he completely phase out paper orders from those farmers. Most of them are illiterate, only have access to a feature phone and do not own or have ever used a computer
  • The farmer sells direct to retail, food outlets, hotels and restaurants. Some have order management systems, some still use Excel and a small number simply call in or WhatsApp their order. How will these different processes be integrated into the farmers' order management system without replicating processes, someone in the Finance department having to fill in the order received
  • Some roles may be made redundant internally, most likely in the Finance department. Some new ones may be created
  • More customer support will definitely be needed and the level of knowledge of the business required at this level will likely increase
  • New or increased digital skills are a must
  • More laptops will be necessary for those accessing the system or smart phones if it is an app
  • If it is an app, should he invest in WiFi

As for business processes, these will also have to be re-thought. Doing anyhow just won't cut it:

  • When the orders come in, who receives them?
  • Does this mean the factory floor or warehouse team will also be using the system?
  • How will it affect other departments' processes?
  • How will it be linked to stock control which is currently a manual process?
  • Will the orders for supply be automatically generated once the stock of potatoes are down to a certain level? If so, where does that information come from? Or will it be left to human judgement?
  • Will it be integrated into the accounting software to issue invoices or make sure incoming invoices are paid, if one exists?
  • What if the accounting system is still Excel?
  • Who is responsible for what at each stage?

The questions go on and on. Even if who does what remains the same, how and what they use to do it will change. It may also be necessary to invest in other digital tools to reap the full benefits of the system. But if there are to be a mix of paper and digital processes, where does digitisation end and paper begin or visa versa?

Inevitably, there will be resistance to change from internal and external stakeholders. People, in general, don't like change. It means taking them out of their comfort zone which makes them feel vulnerable. This resistance needs to be anticipated and planned for. Giving stakeholders, particularly internal ones, a sense of ownership over the change and the space to make mistakes are good starting points. Unfortunately, these are not the strongest of Nigerian virtues.

Whilst digitisaiton is a must to ensure African businesses do not get left behind, the time and cost of the digitisation process is often totally underestimated. Unsurprisingly, far too many digitisation processes fail for this reason with blame falling on the tool rather poor integration planning and lack of behavioural change. Or tools are just used with poor or broken practises.

Perhaps one thing the World Group could help facilitate through a each one, teach one programme is to match businesses of a similar size in the same sector that have successfully gone through the digitisation process with those that are about to embark on the same journey. One hour a week will suffice and will enforce time discipline (Nigerians can talk now, kai!). The familiarity with the unique challenges and limitations of these businesses could help business owners overcome the mindset hurdle that acts a barrier to getting things done, fill their knowledge gap and provide valuable expertise that they would otherwise have to pay for.

Digitisation is not a quick fix, it certainly won't fix a business that's already broken. It is a cultural as well as operational strategy. Taking the proper time and investment to get things right with clear governance processes will eventually yield the desired results and major cost savings but this must start with a full commitment to change.

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