Nigerian entrepreneur Bola Akindele is finally taming the unruly monster of Nigeria’s vehicle registration and licensing system by the intelligent application of technology. Anver Versi tells the story of an outstanding business achievement.
The best business ideas are always those that provide simple solutions to seemingly complex problems. Once the solution arrives, the reaction is often “Of course! Why didn’t we think of that before!”.
While the solutions may appear simple – like the invention of the light switch or cat’s-eyes on the road – the thinking behind the solution and processes involved can be complex and often require a flash of inspiration or even genius.
Take the matter of registering, licensing and insuring vehicles in a country like Nigeria. On the surface, it should be a straightforward matter as long as all the various components necessary for the procedure are aligned and in synch.
That is theory. In practice, as any Nigerian will tell you, it has been a mess. It used to cost an enormous amount of time, energy and shredded nerves and at the end of it all, you could end up with the wrong type of licence or a forged document not worth the paper it is printed on. Ditto for insurance.
The system, run by the local city councils, was always rickety but when vehicle numbers crossed the three-million mark in Lagos alone, it was overwhelmed. An urgent solution was desperately needed.
Enter Bola Akindele. He is one of those restless businessmen brimming with ideas and bursting with energy and enthusiasm to see good ideas through. I met him in London in company with a powerful delegation exploring how the Olympics in London this summer can be leveraged in favour of African and Caribbean enterprises.
Given the fact that all eyes will be on London – including those of thousands of international journalists – Em Ekong, Director of the African and Caribbean Business Experience, saw this as a golden opportunity to present a positive case for more investment and trade for the two regions. The aim is to create a major expo and a business-to-business event at the Grosvenor House Hotel during the Olympics. This would bring companies from around the world together with African and Caribbean entrepreneurs, which could be the start of very exciting developments in the future.
While in Nigeria on a trip to sell the idea, she met Bola Akindele, the managing director and CEO of Courteville Business Solutions Plc. “We hit it off instantly,” says Ekong. “His vision tallied perfectly with our vision.” Akindele’s company, Courteville, will sponsor the event, removing a huge financial load off Ekong’s shoulders.
“My business is finding solutions,” says Akindele. “Our companies need to reach out to the world – we have a great deal to offer. The London event during the Olympics will provide the perfect opportunity.”
Intelligent deployment of IT
It was this same passion to find answers that inspired Akindele’s now historic solution to the quagmire surrounding vehicle licensing and insurance back home in Nigeria.
“It was clear to me that the solution lay in the intelligent deployment of IT. What was needed was a large enough database and an automated system. If we could bypass all the bureaucratic nonsense, the dilapidated filing systems and the handwritten chits then in use, we could deliver the same service far more rapidly, efficiently, securely, verifiably and profitably. Everybody would win – the vehicle owners, the councils, the insurers.”
While many others in his position would have looked abroad for the management of the database, Akindele turned to the large pool of talented technocrats
“Everything about this business is home-grown,” he says proudly. “We did not buy any proprietary software. We design, develop and deliver everything locally.”
The penchant for Africans to turn to foreign ‘experts’ at the first chance is one of the things that irks him most. “I get calls from some states asking who our promoters are and if we are representing foreign firms because they cannot believe that what we do can be done solely by Nigerians. This shows the extent of disbelief in our own capabilities.”
There is a gold mine of young IT specialists “right here in this country,” he adds. “They are very innovative. With a little help from government, we could be exporting our expertise – much as India is now doing – and probably earn more, with far less investment, than from oil,” he says.
In 2007, after reaching agreement with the Lagos state government, Akindele launched the country’s first digital and fully automated Motor Vehicle Administration Documentation Solution, called AutoReg.
The first task was to bring order to the chaos then existing over vehicle registration and collate all the different documentation – ownership, usage, licence status, engine and chassis numbers, and insurance policies into one master document on a central database.
“It was a difficult process – we had to wait for owners to come to renew their annual licences to start inputting the data. Once the initial information had been installed, other items fell into place. Our database continued to grow rapidly. We have records of over 15m motorists in Nigeria and in each file you have at least 10 entries. I believe we have the largest database in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Once the digital system was in place, registration was no longer confined to the 36 outlets in Lagos that existed previously. “We now have over a 1,000 processing centres in Lagos and over 4,500 nationwide,” says Akindele. Motorists can now go to any outlet connected to the central database and register and insure their vehicles and purchase new licences. “It now takes only a maximum of five minutes instead of days as before,” says Akindele.
In a country notorious for fake insurance policies, the Courteville system provides additional comfort. “Within half an hour after you receive your policy,” he explains, “you will be able to confirm online that the policy is genuine. If you are stopped by the police or other law enforcement agencies, they can verify the validity of all your documentation against the data we have supplied them by connecting through the AutoReg Inspector equipment, which is a remote verification solution deployed on a simple mobile phone.”
The success of AutoReg has spawned a number of related databases – AutoReg Inspector, AutoReg Franchise, NIA insurance schemes and a host of other programmes.
Vehicle theft a thing of the past?
Akindele’s system also collects dues, mostly in cash, and enforces payment when this is necessary. “By outsourcing this service to us, the government has relieved itself of a burden and is earning considerably more now than it did before.”
So far 18 states have adopted the system but Akindele believes his coverage will extend to 36 states by the end of this year. Akindele wants to extend the system beyond
Nigeria’s borders. It is already operational in Sierra Leone and likely to be taken up by most other West African states.
“Once the system takes hold all over West Africa, vehicle theft, which is rife at the moment, may become a thing of the past,” Akindele says. “Details of every vehicle in the region will be available to law enforcement agencies – so forging number plates or documentation will not get you far.”
Courteville was listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange four years ago. “We wanted to raise a billion naira,” he says, “and we did so in double-quick time.” Shareholders have received dividends every year since the company listed and it has turned a healthy profit.
Akindele, who holds a master’s degree in banking and finance, is equally passionate about the lack of confidence many government show in the capacities of their own people. He has spoken out strongly against the fact that tenders for Nigeria’s National Identity Card management and the registration of voters have been awarded to foreign firms.
“I am not saying that we should have been awarded the contract but what I am saying is that Nigerian firms could have handled the job better. We know all the local challenges; we know what to do. Foreigners don’t know what we face here.”
Thousands of entrepreneurs all over the continent will be saying “Amen” to those sentiments. Bola Akindele and his team are showing the way forward – government, please note.