Making Liberia’s Case for Cyberspace and the Digital Economy at Global Conferences on ICTs

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Darren Wilkins, CEO, Libtelco

A Focus on the GCCS ‘2017 in India and the WIC ‘2017, in China

By: Dr. Darren Wilkins, Managing Director/CEO, Liberia Telecommunications Corporation (LIBTELCO)

It has been almost a year since I last penned an article for this paper. After almost ten years writing the Science and Technology column for this newspaper, I took a break from making my weekly contribution, because I had been given a new national responsibility through my appointment as Managing Director of LIBTELCO, by Her Excellency President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. This appointment, I was honored, humbled and excited to accept. And, knowing the gravity of the task given to me, my passion for and desire to see ICT grow in Liberia, I thought giving my fullest attention to my new responsibility was absolutely necessary.

But after attending two global conferences (Global Conference on Cyber Space 2017 held in New Dehli, India, and the World Internet Conference, held in Wuzhen, China) on cyberspace in recent times, I thought it was necessary to write this article. to share my experiences from both conferences. Please consider this a continued effort to inform the people of Liberia and the world over, about Liberia’s role and efforts to not just join cyberspace, but to compete and be actively engaged in the growing digital economy. Lastly, as you read along, you will notice that I divert briefly to mention some of the activities and achievements of LIBTELCO to make my point. Of course, this is by no means an attempt to brag about LIBTELCOs recent achievements.

Anyway, oftentimes when you attend ICT-related conferences or conferences on cyberspace, you hear stories of innovation and new technologies from developed countries, and sometimes a few developing countries such as Kenya, South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria. Nothing is mentioned about Liberia or other developing countries in sub-Sahara region Africa. In fact, at most of the conferences that I have had to attend, I have had to take the initiative of informing the audience that Liberia is a country in West Africa that is also making gains in terms establishing a presence in cyberspace.

In New Delhi, India, during one of the sessions at the GCCS ‘2017, a discussion on innovation, new technologies and the digital economy saw participant’s from different countries tell stories about their achievements. When it came to Liberia, the moderator began my introduction by stating that not much is heard about Liberia as far as cyberspace is concerned. He concluded by saying that Liberia is only known for three things: a prolonged civil war, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female African President and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and George Oppong Weah, winner of World’s best Player award. And then, he asked: “what is Liberia doing to participate in cyberspace and the digital economy?”

At the risk of sounding like I was selling my book, I began by asking the audience if they had read a copy of my book which was written seven years ago. I bragged that seven years ago, Liberia made significant achievements in the field of ICT. One could only expect more to be achieved seven years after. Indeed, much has been achieved that the world and even some Liberians are totally oblivious to.  For me, this was the perfect moment to make the world (room full of folks from almost 40 countries) know that Liberia joined cyberspace a long time ago, even though its role has not been as noticeable as China, Kenya, or other major players of the digital economy.

I began by talking about the presence of affordable high-speed internet in Liberia; a result of the GoL bringing the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine optical fiber cable to Liberia. I went on to provide insight into the progress made in creating the legal and regulatory environment for technological advancements; our focus on capacity building, the automation of processes using innovative technologies and now our efforts to participate in the digital economy through e-commerce. I mentioned systems like IFMIS, CMIS, AMIS, E-Liberia, GovNet, Banjour.Com, Cookshop.Biz, news outlets like the Liberian Observer, Frontpage Africa, and now, our efforts toward cyber security. I then used the opportunity to talk about the success story of the Liberia Telecommunications Corporation, LIBTELCO. I told the audience that LIBTELCO had been hit hard as were all other Government of Liberia institutions. But the Corporation managed to revive by first doing some administrative restructuring, subsequently joining the ACE consortium to bring high-speed internet to Liberia; extending its network using both terrestrial and aerial cabling and more. For several years the Corporation operated within Monrovia because it lacked the resources to move outside of Monrovia. In recent times, leveraging advancements in modern technologies, the Corporation’s hardworking and innovative engineers were able to expand its network to Grand Bassa County, which will be it its first commercial presence beyond of Margibi county since pre-war times.

Indeed, Liberia ICT sector has not matured enough to engage in big data analytics, cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, nanotechnology, quantum computing or all the advanced areas related to ICT and computer science that dominate the research labs of developed nations. But we have begun building the framework on which these new technologies can be explored and leveraged. We will continue working toward building our capacity to reach levels that previously seemed impossible. We will leapfrog some technologies to achieve the level of modernity other countries including our brothers (Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal) have achieved over the years. This is one of the reasons LIBTELCO continues to invest in the younger generation. Our engineering department includes young men and women who are very energetic, innovative, dynamic early adapters of new technologies and eager to make Liberia a better place through innovation. These young men and women who we  continue to nurture today are the ones who will lead the new digital generation that will use technology to achieve sustainable economic growth in Liberia.

At the World Internet Conference 2017 in China, Foreign Minister Marjon Kamara put it succinctly that, even though Liberia cannot boast of major and advanced achievements in modern technologies, the nation has made strides that have led to its footprint in Cyberspace.” Minister Kamara went on to say that Liberia as a nation has been working diligently to provide the much needed infrastructure and human capacity to leverage modern technologies and engage Cyberspace for sustainable economic growth. But, according to the Minister, the lack of resources including financial and human capacity to achieve this goal remains the nation’s major challenge. She clearly stated that Liberia has the potential to leverage cyberspace to achieve sustainable economic growth. Referencing our youthful population and our wager in education to make her case, Minister Kamara said; “ Liberia will need help from developed countries like China, which is one of the world’s major contributors and user of modern technological breakthroughs, and which has vast human capacity, in its quest and efforts to leverage cyberspace for economic development and growth.” Frankly speaking, Minister Kamara could not have said it any better. Well done Madam Minister!

Let me conclude this article by saying that we (LIBTELCO) have been very blessed to have a supportive President, supportive board of directors, a very diligent and hardworking staff, a supportive ICT sector stakeholders, and loyal and dedicated customers. Much still needs to be done in areas of capacity building and there is a need for infrastructural development but the wherewithal is there and Liberians have seen and embraced the impact of modern technology and cyberspace. They have seen how disruptive technology is and what impact it has on economic development. Liberia cannot be known by the world for only three things; we need to be known as a nation that has the potential to transform like other nations that have success stories today. What we need, is for the world to give us a shot at making that transformation by exploring ways of collaboration to identify opportunities for economic growth through cyberspace.

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