Abdulkadir Suleiman, a 32-year-old engineer, is skilled in software development and visualisation. He has built a solution to automate administrative activities that have also reduced corrupt practices that come with collection of fees in tertiary schools in Niger State. In this interview, Suleiman narrates how the journey started.
Daily Trust Saturday: With specific examples, how have you been able to automate activities in Niger schools?
Abdulkadir Suleiman: Currently, our ed-tech solution eases administrative processes for schools that are using it. We have been able to reduce the problems that come with application-seeking processes, simplify issues with admission, where you have a large number of candidates to sort out qualifications and requirements, and ease stress for candidates and students. In addition, it reduces the number of days it takes to do registration in the higher education level; for instance, how students get the auto allocation of matriculation numbers. We have also made hostel allocation and collection of different fees easy for those schools.
An example of this is that prospective students had to travel long distances to apply for different schools or submit their required credentials, but now, from any part of the world they can do that.
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School administrators have also found it easier when it comes to sorting applications they have received. As a matter of fact, it automatically sorts candidates that are qualified for different programmes.
Regarding the payment of registration fees, our company was among the first that automated the collection, starting from the days of PIN issuance in banks to the current state where we have electronic payments onboard.
It is worth noting that we are about to launch the newest version of the product, which comes with more features, like its own wallet and artificial intelligence models. We have done this for schools such as the Niger State College of Education, Minna and colleges of nursing across the state. Also, we have helped the Ibrahim Babangida University, Lapai to set up the required technology framework for its Institute of eLearning and Continuous Education, and several other schools.
I recall that when we went to the college of education in Minna, there used to be queues of thousands of students trying to pay different fees in the college’s microfinance bank. But, today, we have decentralised the payment system and queues have disappeared. Students can now pay from any bank or in the comfort of their homes and the funds will still go into the designated accounts in any bank these schools want to receive their funds in.
DT: How many schools have you done this and how has your software helped to fight corruption in those schools?
Suleiman: We have rebuilt the product, which is coming out with more structures. And as a company that stands on its own, the tertiary version of the solution has about eight schools presently. The new version we are about to launch is for basic schools in semi-urban and urban areas.
We have about 30 schools waiting to use the basic schools’ version. And we are looking forward to pushing it to 100 schools in the next 12 months once we officially launch it across Africa.
In our programmes with the school solution, we introduced what we called “Block the revenue leakage initiative,” where we help schools that still collect fees manually close all the loopholes, such as issues of underpayment or where some students don’t pay at all. We also blocked other malpractices during the collection of fees through this initiative since we started.
We have helped schools collect close to $10million. The initiative has also helped some schools generate more funds because it comes with flexible payment features.
DT: Who are your mentors and how were you able to get to your current stage in software engineering?
Suleiman: I have mentors across the globe, but my father was my first mentor. He injected principles of hard work and dedication in me. My late brother, M. M. Lapai, a former Head of Service in Niger State, had always encouraged me. Other people who had mentored me are Alhaji Isah Abubakar, the chief executive officer of Sandabe; Abdullahi Umar, CBSO Bilaard Realty; Idowu Akinde, founder of Boolean Labs; Mustapha Ndajiwo, who founded the African Centre for Tax and Governance. I have also worked closely with Aminu S. Muhammed, a senior manager at Urban Shelter Limited, and many others.
How I got to this level as a software engineer goes back to the fact that I always wanted to solve problems and help the society. When I was growing up I wanted to be an architect, but as God would have it, I found myself in the creative sector. So, it was a coincidence that I found myself in tech and computing. I discovered my skills in tech and computing when I was 14 years old. I saw myself doing magic with codes and built what millions of people could end up interacting with.
I have grown and gained experience in software engineering and more. Today, I do more of product management and business development for companies. I founded JD Lab, and as a chief executive officer I see myself doing more on leadership and making managerial decisions than those days when I was more involved in coding and engineering.
DT: What is the story behind the establishment of JD Lab, and what were some of the hiccups you faced at the early stage of your career?
Suleiman: After having a short stint in public and private agencies, I realised that I could do more and faster with a befitting platform with the right resources. So I launched JD Lab to provide ourselves with the right resources for the challenges we were facing with power supply and internet connectivity, a platform that can fund our ideas, with focus on human capital development, as well as impact on our society in the area of digital technology through JD Lab.
So, we have birthed different companies, including a foreign-based one known as ed-tech, which we are about to launch. Four others are Nigeria-based – Netbuildr Africa, Rusticswish, Academy, and the innovation hub we are talking about now, the Labspace. So we have a platform that will help provide solutions in the educational sector, which we intend to expand to health and agriculture sectors in the future.
Unfortunately, in the early stages of my career, a lot of people, especially those close to me, didn’t understand my vision as a technology entrepreneur. So, I didn’t get the necessary support or a soft launch pad, but eventually, I was able to gather money with which I started JD Lab and at the same time sponsored my MBA programme, all geared towards getting the requisite background knowledge in running a company.
DT: You talked about organising a youth entrepreneurship hub. Is it focusing on information communication technology development? What does it seek to achieve?
Suleiman: It is not just for the youth. Our innovation hub is for all age brackets, but our target is more on the youth in the education sector. We want to help aspiring entrepreneurs and startup founders to do it right by helping them go through a structured learning process to enable them succeed. We will also connect some of their ideas to accelerator programmes for funding and global visibility.
We expect in the long run to further create jobs and help improve the gross domestic product of the country from the angle of digital economy. Again, as part of our support to emerging tech talents, especially in underserved communities in northern Nigeria, we created a co-working community in Minna, Niger State, providing resources the community can leverage on to thrive, be productive, network and tap into opportunities within the tech space.
This will open up an environment and a mindset where innovation can thrive. We plan to expand this to other underserved communities in Nigeria if we can get necessary support.
DT: What have been your challenges as a young software entrepreneur in Niger State?
Suleiman: I feel I am old for what I have done in these past 10 years. I will be 33 years old in April 2023. The last 10 years have been challenging. Those challenges emanated from epileptic power supply. In fact, early this year, we nearly closed down simply because of erratic power supply.
We have challenges with talent gaps because it is hard to find graduates that suit some of our job openings, or people with the right skills, especially from Niger State.
It is the reason we are doing a lot of training and development programmes in Niger State to help close these gaps.
Another big problem is lack of government’s support, although there have been a lot of intervention programmes for SMEs and startups. Such interventions that normally come in form of grants don’t always get to the right people and agencies; and these intervention funds are supposed to help these companies that provide jobs, just as a lot of us in this space have struggled with economic downturn since the COVID-19 period.
In the case of Niger State, I hope the state government would adopt the new Startup Act signed by President Muhammadu Buhari.
DT: As someone who has served as a mentor and judge for the Tony Elumelu Foundation, what is your assessment on Nigeria’s entrepreneurship capabilities, especially in the area of Fintech and others?
Suleiman: The prospects are there. Recently, I spoke at a youth summit that promoted economy, politics and technology. I reminded the audience that entrepreneurship and startups could foster economic growth and development by generating employment and fostering the growth of MSMEs in Nigeria, using Niger as an example.
Africa is the new destination for startups. Lagos is the home of startups and has about 88.5 per cent of the number of startups in Nigeria.
Nigeria has a gross domestic product of over $504billion, and of recent, startups have contributed significantly to it.
It takes the grace of God to be a successful entrepreneur in Nigeria. But despite the challenges, the advantages and prospects these startups come with are enormous. The specific benefits include job and wealth creation.