Pursuant to its drive to link universities across the country to the information and communication technology (ICT) world, SocketWorks Limited has signed a $2.5 million (about NGN350 million) agreement with International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group.

The first such initiative in Nigeria's higher education sector, the facility is to support SocketWorks' rollout of CollegePortal into select Nigerian universities. CollegePortal is a package of information and communication technologies that will provide students with the tools to become fully computer literate.

IFC's loan will also enable SocketWorks to develop software and purchase computers and other hardware for Nigeria's universities. University students, faculty, and administrators will have access to a full suite of online management systems and study tools, including offshore libraries and other information sources.

The agreement was signed in Lagos by Mr. Lars Thunell, IFC's executive vice president, during his first official visit to Nigeria, and by Dr. Aloy Chife, president and CEO of SocketWorks.

Speaking at the signing ceremony, Chife announced his company's dream of taking Nigeria to the level India has attained in IT and outsourcing.

He put the rapidly expanding global technology market for IT services at about US$800 billion (up from US$349bn in 1999), and the market for business process outsourcing (BPO) done offshore at $11.3 billion in 2003. He said the figures which have been rising steadily, are global economic facts that are creating opportunities for the strategically savvy, well prepared and aggressive entrepreneurs and firms such as Indian IT and outsourcing companies like Tata, Infosys, Wipro and HCL Technology Group. These enterprises are forecast to capture 7 percent of global IT services market share by 2006, he noted.

"At SocketWorks, we believe that taking advantage of these opportunities requires the systematic creation of a globally competitive solution offering," Chife said. "The Indian achievements captured above represent feats that Nigerian companies are yet to emulate; yet we are capable of replicating the success if the right strategy is put in place and executed. We are therefore systematically positioning ourselves as a global player by pursuing a strategy based on learning the lessons of the best players and subsequently innovating beyond such lessons."

Another reason for being optimistic, he said, is "We also believe the future of Nigeria will be driven by technology and we envision our planned Lekki Phase 1 campus employing over 1,000 young Nigerians engaged in software development and back-office and transactions-processing activities in the medium term."

He said the education project which the International Finance Corporation (IFC) is supporting will help to lay a strong educational foundation and arrest the declining standards of Nigerian educational system since Information and Communications Technology (ICT) clearly represents the best opportunity to help these institutions to pull together their current assets, to minimize internal handicaps, to layer on new sources of intelligence, optimize their resources, maximize their potential and increase the value of education they provide.

- Chife disclosed that by October, working with the Minister of Education in an initiative called, "Digital Bridge for Nigerian Schools" SocketWorks intends to introduce all Federal Government-owned schools to a thriving digital culture by deploying a bundled ICT solution that includes software, access devices, power systems, connectivity, multimedia resources and digital content.

- He thanked the IFC for believing in SocketWorks right from the start, even when most Nigerians would not. He urged the IFC to do more as it is only through supporting enterprises like this that the World Bank's goal of promoting prosperity in Africa could be achieved.

- On his part an obviously delighted Thunell noted, "I am very pleased that the first investment agreement I am signing after joining IFC last month is to support a project in Africa's education sector. It will help implement a plan begun in 2003 when IFC began working with SocketWorks to identify Nigeria's information and communication technology needs in higher education and develop a sustainable plan to service those needs. This is an excellent example of how hard working and determined entrepreneurs-in partnership with IFC-can expand opportunities for Africans."

The implementation of CollegePortal has been shown to reduce the administrative burden faced by staff and students significantly. As part of its investment, IFC has an option to take an equity stake in SocketWorks. IFC has been providing technical assistance to SocketWorks since 2003.

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