Hariri – Govt Can Harness ICT Sector Potential to Boost GDP [interview] (allAfrica.com)

In this interview with Eromosele Abiodun, Managing Director, AVAYA, Africa, Hatem Hariri, says the federal government can take advantage of the ICT sector to boost the country’s GDP, his company’s foray into Nigeria and other issues. Excerpts:
The Nigerian ICT sector has a huge potential. How can the federal government harness the potential of the ICT sector to enhance its contribution to the gross domestic products (GDP)?
You are very correct that the sector has a huge potential. We recognise this and we are working with the government because government play a significant role to prepare the ground for anybody. In the case of government of Nigerian in the area of technology, they have been helping. Also, we are working with some parastatal organisations to work with the government to provide them with latest technology and information and also we have many delegations from the government of Nigeria who visited our offices to enhance their know-how.
What government can also do to facilitate the life of the citizen by providing this type of technology that I was talking about, for example this smart engage solution.
For the SMEs willing to partner with us, one thing to know about our solutions is they are simple, very easy to configure, easy to use especially for the basic applications.
So if you are talking about office in a box solution for unified solution and IT Telephony, you can partner and in two days be certified to be able to do basic configurations and they can also train customers who will be able to manage its own equipment. We are working on cloud solutions with telecoms operators as well where they can provide our solution to end users.
What solutions do Avaya have that could give Nigeria the needed leverage, especially considering the high cost of broadband in the country and the fact that many operators just come into the country with a lot of one-jacket-fits-all solutions that may not really suit the peculiarities of our environment?
Now, in technology, the one jacket fits all approach will not really work. This is not what we are. We carefully looked at the Nigerian market and decided to open an office here and that is why our route to the market is through the people who know the market. Unlike other vendors who come here and try to take the technologies themselves, take the customers themselves, they do not transfer the knowledge to local people. For us what we are trying to do is to transfer knowledge to Nigerians who know the dynamics of the environment. For instance, we have a training coming up for our partners on latest technologies, so they know our technology, even when we are not here they can do it, they can integrated it, they can service it, they can spot it. We are not a fly-by-night company, we have a reputation in the market and cannot afford to burn our name by coming, selling few equipment and leaving. This is why we call it engage, because we want to engage with our customers. The different between us and the competition is that we are humble and willing to learn. We are looking for the guidance partner in Nigeria to guide us on ways to do it, having understood the environment itself. We used to do products before, now we don’t do that, we do solutions customised for the market. Many companies failed because they were doing products that don’t fit the market, or too early for the market. We are very flexible, willing to learn from our customers and partners on the solutions they need, because we are here to stay, we are here to transfer the knowledge to the new generation that will take it over for the future.
Your teleconferencing solution is very interesting especially the fact that it can be used on mobile phone, but you are not a mobile device maker or an operator, how is this teleconferencing going to be embedded on the mobile phone?
Our teleconferencing which is the Avaya Scopia works on any device, you just download for free from application stores and you connect either over Wi-Fi or 3G network. It will work with any operator. There is a configuration we do that with one number, I can have my conversations on any of my devices I want. Now, here is what separates us from competitions, some other vendors lock you to their protocol. When you take a video conferencing solution from them, it removes every sense of mobility which we believe video conferencing should be about. The good about our technology is that it is open protocol that you can operate with any service provider. It needs the internet and low bandwidth.
The problem with technologies like this is that they come into the mainstream and break it, what kind of security measures are you putting in place to ensure these technologies are totally safe from hackers?
If you think about it today, the enterprise communication is merging with the consumer application. The good thing about our technology is that you can integrate our instant messaging with Microsoft and other different platforms and it will work altogether. Now, security is very important. If you are bringing engaging solution like this, the least you want is for people to hack into sensitive information you have to share. Lots of companies can go bankrupt because of these security issues. We produced our solution in such a way that they are reliable, scalable, secure, and can serve the customer needs. For our solution, there are firewalls that come with them even though you download them, so that the communications you are having via those channels are secured. We also have what we call session border controller which we install for big corporate organisations which is to secure the multichannel. On the networking side, the core of our networking is layer 2. It is actually invisible, people cannot hack into it because we separate the network from the management, so anytime you deploy our solutions, the core of your networking is hidden. So Avaya ensures that at the communication and networking level, you are safe.
What are the challenges that could hinder your operations the way you have projected it and what have you done about it?
One big challenge is the geo-political situations in the regions – terrorism. Security for us is very important, especially for our teams and employees. To bring people who will transfer the knowledge is very challenging sometimes. And the problem really is when they talk about terrorism in Northern Nigeria, some people actually thing all of Nigeria is burning which is not the case. Another challenge lately is the oil and gas price that is dropping very quickly. This is impacting the investment of the government in many of the businesses and you know when government stops investing because of certain limitations like this, all the country will stop investing because they feel something is wrong and then the economy will move very slowly. This doesn’t mean we will stop investing, because when things pick again you need to be there, otherwise you will miss opportunities. The third challenge that is facing us is the currency devaluation which is big challenge for us and our partners. This can be very challenging; however, they are reacting very fine.
Could you please tell our readers who you are and what you do?
My name is Hatem Hariri, I am the Managing Director for Avaya in Africa, Based in Dubai, I’m from Lebanon, I am a French-Canadian. I used to work for Nortel. Lately I came back from Montreal to Saudi Arabia to manage Avaya for Saudi Arabia/Bahrain and from there, I moved to Dubai to manage Avaya in Africa around four years ago. I started in Africa almost alone about four years ago. We were serving Africa as Avaya and Nortel but from outside. Only four years ago, Avaya decided that this is the market; this is where we need to be. If we look at the overall market globally, you look at America, Europe, you see they are more saturated and there are recessions, economical issues. We looked at Africa, a great continent, young, aggressive, educated people, people who want to make a difference and are hungry for technology, so we decided this is the territory we need to focus on and we started giving compete focus to Africa about four years ago and today I am happy to say that we already have up to five offices and we are working on other three inside Africa. Nigeria is our headquarters for West Africa
Tell us about technologies to engage What we mean by engagement is to engage with the end users, with the customers. We are not here to sell product, we are here to engage with the customers and to provide them with solutions to their problems, as well as opportunities using technology to have mobility, to have unified communication, to have team engagement, to have customer engagement, and also to have better customer service because in Nigeria of today, you have many businesses and as such, what you need is a real customer experience. You know before, when you have a complain about a bank, you go talk to your wife and few friends, and that’s only probably about 7, 10 people, but today, if you have a problem, the following day, you will go on Twitter, put it on Facebook, and other social media and hundreds of thousands of people will know about the problem. This is why Avaya is coming with solutions that are the latest of technologies to do customer service, customer experience, where you can do proactive management of the social media, of your customer experience so as to make things easier for your customers and differentiate yourself from competition and also react to any problem and customer complaints very quickly and in the right way before it’s driven to the whole market.
There people out there who are not conversant with technological terms. please tell us the specific solutions Avaya provides?
Quite a number of competitors came into this market before Avaya. But what we discovered was that the market was looking for alternatives with good quality. Avaya has 130 years of history in telecommunications. We were the one who founded phone with Alexander Graham Bell. He was the one who founded Avaya. He is the founder of actually Bell Labs. Alexander Bell started this Bell Labs to do research on phones. This company became Norte in Canada and in the US, it became AT & T and after that AT & T because of competition spin off the customer base. They kept their R & D and their labs and everything with a company called Lucent. And after that, history repeated itself, Lucent spin off the enterprise activities and called it Avaya. Avaya at about 6 years ago bought Norte. So we separated at some point and we came back together to form the biggest telephony company in the world. We are number one in telephony across the world, we are number one in contact center solutions across the world, and we are number one in IT telephony and unified communication. Also, on the networking side, data networking, lately we came up with a very beautiful technology. You know there is a technology called SDN (software-defined networking) which our competition were putting this on the data center on the high level type of networking, we brought it to the mid-market, we brought it to the edge, we brought it to the SMB and now we are the only vendor who provides networking at the edge level using SDN technology, which is the latest and greatest of technologies in the market. For video conferencing, we acquired a company about three years ago called Radvision, which was producing all the video conferencing equipment for different vendors. We have end to end solutions on video conferencing that we integrate into out IP telephony and unified communication to provide useful solution. If, for example, I want to have a meeting with my team across Africa, I just send a link from my outlook. All they need to do is to click on this link on their different mobile devices or PC, and we come on the video conferencing altogether from different areas in the world having a meeting and presenting. Imagine how important and easy this kind of solution will be for a territory like Nigeria that is so verse, you don’t need to travel or go through traffic to have your meetings. So, what we are doing is bringing virtuality to reality. With all these: video conferencing, contact center, telephony, unified communication, and data networking, the beauty is we have differentiated ourselves from competitors, who work at the SMB level. We have built solutions, for example the IP office, which is an office in a box solution, that you can offer an end to end telecommunication for SMB. So whatever you need, contact center, video conferencing you can do on a small box and it starts from 2 users to 2,500 users. We are simplifying business and providing an end to end telecommunication networking equipment for our customers and partners. And we have very good quality price ratio compared to our competition and also our total costs of ownership from maintenance perspectives is a lot cheaper. Also electricity, on networking equipment, we save 7 times compared to competition. We know a lot people use generator and will want to save so much on electricity. Also, on our video conferencing, you need low bandwidth to have a very good video conferencing conversation.
What other sectors of the economy could benefit from your solutions apart from Telcos?
For the banking, we just launched in Dubai what we called the SmartEngage solution which is an end to end virtual bank, where you can come anytime to open an account, get debit card, credit card, print cheque book, do all the transactions that you are looking for. We are offering this solution as well for the government, for renewing driver’s license, for renewing visa, to print sim card, etc. So, this type of technology that we are bringing is engagement, it’s not like just selling phones or machine, it is more of solutions that business needs. We have deployed contact center solutions to different organisations, we are working with the government as well to have a centralized contact center solution for the whole country. For example, you can one number to call one ministry and you will be routed automatically. If you are from the north for example, the system will recognise that you are calling from the north and you will be routed to an agent that speaks same language with you.