Nigeria, a nation brimming with youthful energy and entrepreneurial spirit, holds immense potential to emerge as a global hub for innovation and problem-solving. Recognizing this potential Khalil Halilu, a seasoned technology entrepreneur is determined to ignite a spark of innovation and problem-solving among Nigeria’s youth.
Khalil knows the power of technology all too well. Growing up in Kaduna, Khalil gained first-hand exposure to production, marketing, and distribution catering to local demand through his family’s manufacturing business. In 2017, he founded and became CEO of ShapShap, a tech-enabled delivery platform that revolutionized last-mile logistics in Nigeria. In September, he was appointed as the Executive Vice Chairman/CEO of the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI).
Halilu’s vision for Nigeria is bold. He plans to unleash the potential of its youth and women as innovators and problem-solvers. His experiences have enabled him to identify unmet needs and gaps from a consumer perspective. With a keen understanding of the unique needs and aspirations of Nigeria’s young generation, Halilu envisions a future where they are not merely consumers of technology but active participants in its creation and application.
In this interview, Khalil Halilu shares his insights on how fostering an innovation and problem-solving mindset among the youth in Nigeria can transform the nation into a global hub for innovation. Halilu also shares why this is key to driving sustainable growth and development for the country.
Ventures Africa (VA): What sparked your motivation to develop innovative solutions specifically tailored to address the challenges faced by the African continent?
Khalil Halilu (KH): I think Africa has many challenges that require unconventional approaches. There is a big gap between the problems and the solutions. You can not just apply the usual methods. I see technology as a tool to help bridge these gaps faster and more effectively.
Before I started Shap Shap, I had lived in other parts of the world, where I experienced how easy and convenient it is to do deliveries in those places. When I returned home, I found that it was not the same, even though most of our businesses are small and medium enterprises that depend on logistics for survival. The sector is very tough and full of inefficiencies despite the high demand. I believe(d) technology could help bridge these gaps. That was what motivated me to start this venture.
VA: Congratulations on being appointed the CEO of NASENI. How has your experience in the private sector shaped your vision for the agency?
KH: We often hear people in the private sector complain that the government is not doing enough to address the issues that affect them. The president challenged us to join the government and see what it is like for ourselves. It’s not as bad as we think.
Around the world, you see people trying to bring a private sector mentality to government. We want to foster more collaboration between the private and public sectors and leverage the resources and opportunities available on both sides. Having been on the other side of the table, I better understand some of the needs and challenges the private sector faces. They require the government to foster collaboration and to make their business happen at ease. So I’ll try my best not to disappoint my former colleagues from the private sector. And avoid repeating the same mistakes that we used to complain about. I want to be a positive change agent in the system.
VA – Would you say a collaboration between the private and public sectors was a significant gap that was missing in the Nigerian tech ecosystem?
KH– There used to be a gap between the private and public sectors, but I think that has changed. It is clear that both parties need each other, and there are many examples of successful collaborations in various fields. This is a welcome development. Previously, everyone felt they could do it all alone. I think now there is clarity, that we need to work together. Just thinking about a place like NASENI, although it is a government organization, it is designed to operate somewhat like a private organization. We have a bit of flexibility. I’m trying to see how we can take advantage of that to do something everyone benefits from.
VA – Can you elaborate on the specific needs of the Nigerian consumer market and why home-initiated and home-sustained innovation is essential?
KH – Nigerian consumers are always looking for value. They want to get more out of what they have and enjoy more of what they like. That is where innovation comes in. We begin to think, how can we offer more with less? Or how can we give more of what they are already enjoying? It is as simple as that. Nigerian consumers do not sleep. They do not hide their feelings. They voice their opinions and expectations, both to the government and the private sector. But I do not see it as a bad thing. It keeps everyone on their toes. I have seen some countries where people are not okay with the status quo, but instead of voicing out, they just accept it and manage it.
VA– What are the most significant challenges you have observed since assuming your role? Are there specific challenges you identified working in the private sector that you aim to prioritize?
KH – I will not call it a significant challenge. It is a small challenge. And it involves trying to change our mindset. I am trying to encourage more collaboration and partnership with other institutions or parties to achieve our goals. I come from the private sector, so I have a different approach than the government’s conventional approach. Naturally, things like that take a bit of time. It requires some time and effort to sell a new vision.
I’m more of a positive person than a concerned person. If there is a problem, I look at how we can solve it. I do not dwell on it being a problem. I try to focus on finding the solution around it. The typical entrepreneur will tell you every problem is an opportunity. So, I am not too worried about the situation. I believe Nigeria will overcome its challenges and prosper.
VA: Brain drain has been a persistent challenge in the Nigerian tech sector. How would you approach attracting, retaining, and fostering top talent?
KH: Well, yes, you are right. Brain drain is an issue. But in my opinion, the technology world is flat. What do I mean by flat? When I worked in the private sector, many people I worked with were not physically in the same location as me. I was collaborating with people from other countries and regions. So, in a way, I was also contributing to the brain drain of other places.
I think the main thing for me is to do something of world-class quality that can attract the right kind of talent. I know brain drain is a problem, especially for physical workers. But for our industry, which operates mostly virtually, I like to think it is not so much of an issue.
VA: How will you ensure that everyone in Nigeria, including people in rural areas, take part and benefit from new technology?
KH: One of my goals is to promote more openness, private-sector thinking, and collaboration with other parties. But the most important thing for me is technology transfer. We have developed a framework for that. We are testing it to see how it works. If it is successful, we will scale it up. We do not want to reinvent the wheel but to adopt and adapt the best practices from other countries, especially in Africa, and make them work for us. We want to speed up our development and save time and resources.
Another thing we are doing is a complete HR overhaul. We need the best team to achieve our vision, and we value our staff. We are reviewing our HR processes and policies, and we want to improve our efficiency and effectiveness. We have just finished rebranding. We have a new hashtag called New Nase. So we are working on doing a complete overhaul, from better employment benefits to better processes to building a better organization.
One of the projects we want to launch is a tech hub where people can connect with AI and other innovative tools. We also want to set up a mini campus where young people can learn and grow their ideas. Having an idea is one thing, but bringing it to the market and making it successful is another. That is why it is necessary to provide a platform and network for young people to turn their ideas into reality. It would involve building a network of workshops, conferences, mentorship, and funding opportunities to help them achieve their goals. We hope to start from our headquarters and then expand to other regions. This is our way of saying to people, if you have an idea, come, and let us help you work with experts to refine it and take full advantage of it.
VA: Speaking of rebranding, in a recent interview, you expressed frustration with the endless cycle of research and prototyping that often leads to promising solutions gathering dust on shelves. Can you elaborate on this concern and your vision to move beyond endless cycles of prototyping?
KH – Before I came on board, I was involved in plenty of research projects. However, I noticed that most successful research projects here are not utilized or commercialized. What I am trying to do differently is, if something works, we should also commercialize it because part of our responsibility is that we are allowed to commercialize our research. So I want to emphasize that. After all, the essence of doing research lies in its potential to impact the economy profoundly. So why should we research something good or build a prototype and then keep it on the shelf? I have been very keen about how we commercialize what we have. Technology is the route to our dreamland. We have so many problems as I mentioned earlier. I believe technology is the entry point back to development. It is something you can’t turn away from.