The new Chief Operating Officer, Nigeria Internet Registration Association (NIRA), the multi-stakeholder group responsible for the management of the country code top level domain (ccTLD), the dot ng (.ng), Ope Odusan, is worried over the relative lack of in-country awareness of the potentials of what is popularly consider the nation’s prime cyber real estate.
He shares his views on the emergent internet domain name business in Nigeria, its promises for driving innovation, job creation and economic growth across diverse sectors of the economy and initiatives underway to popularize the .ng, in an interview with Olubunmi Adeniyi
Q: What were you involved in before becoming the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of NIRA?
A: Before now, I was actually in the U.S. working with mostly pharmaceutical companies doing a lot of IT-related projects for them and also in the area of Laboratory Information Management, which involves quite a number of large scale applications, data base and things like that.
So, I would say I have been involved in the IT area but strictly focused on the pharmaceutical business. I have been in the U.S. for 21 years and all my work has been in that area. I got my Masters, two years ago, in Information Management from the University of Maryland, USA. So, that’s kind of helped with my understanding of the internet area as well. So, that is pretty much what I have been doing before I got to NIRA.
Q: It is some kind of call to service and your coming on board is also at the very crucial stage in which the multi stakeholder group is trying to popularize the uptake and the adoption of the .ng domain name. What has been your overview of the evolution of the domain name since NIRA threw it open to the public space by appointing registrars?
A: Before I actually became the COO, I was a registrar myself. My company, Ghotek Technologies, was one of the pioneer registrars. But I was based in the U.S. then trying to register the domain names. I am familiar with the problems. I attended one of the first stakeholders meeting in 1996 when Randy Bush was still managing the .ng. So, since then, I have had seen a lot of interest in the space. I can see as an outsider the challenges they were facing and I also witnessed a lot of evolution of the current NIRA as it is today.
Most of the challenges are multifaceted and the biggest one is perception. Perception as you know can become reality over time if it is not corrected, one of them being that Nigeria domain was not as relevant as .com; that if you are a business person you are better off having .com than to have an .ng and part of that is the image of the fraudulent association of Nigerians with 419. My understanding talking to people since I have been back here is that they feel why should they have the .ng when they can easily get a dot com address. That is one big challenge.
The other challenge is really from the government as well. The government officials should sees this .ng as their call and not actually using dot ng themselves, they are beginning to adapt now, but for many years it has still been a struggle. For somebody like me and also for the registrars as well, those are some of the big challenges.
There are also other perception issues with hosting. People feel that the registrar is hosted in the U.S., anyway so what is the point? Randy Bush has always been the person hosting it but that has changed since over five years now or more than that actually.
The primary DNS (domain name server) is actually located here in Nigeria physically and most people don’t know that. What we have done is created a lot of distributed servers around the world so that even if the one in Nigeria goes down, there are other ones that can back it up. That is the nature of the DNS itself. Coming back to the question about what we are doing, I started in June this year and one of the things that has been ongoing before I started the campaign, is first to take it to the government arena; to let the government be aware that this is a national resource in the sense that we are not taking advantage of what we have got.
Part of what I have been pushing is the realization that every year they are actually losing about N100 million to foreign-based domain registrars. How did I come up with that? If you look at the number of companies, individuals and government agencies that are using .org, .com, they are at least over 100,000 and Nigerians that are outside that are using .com. When you look at that, they are charging N1000 per domain. So, you do the math because the nature of domain is you have to renew it every year. So, you have about N100 million going outside our economy whether we like it or not. It is important we begin to realise that this is an important resource for Nigerians and we should reverse that. It is very simple to reverse it.
First thing we need to get is government agencies and parastatals on board. Once they are on board, then we have to cascade it down to all the businesses and individuals. There is nothing wrong with .ng. It is very stable. It gives you a lot of advantages that .com cannot give you, one of them being that if you really need to target your products to Nigerians, you can actually easily do that by using the .ng brand because people identify you as being a Nigerian.
As you may have noticed, if you go to google.com, they will redirect you back to google.com.ng where they are now using the .ng as a way to target local content. So if you do a search on google.com, if you look at the first series of contents that come up, they are local contents. That is really important for us to get the local content out first, you can target outside of the country as well.
What we are doing first of all is to go and start with the government. The government has to buy into it. I always use this example: the Nigerian government does not transact business using dollars. It uses Naira. It is the same thing. So, what we are doing now is basically using .com which is a global TLD (top level domain) for our transactions, which is tantamount to using +1 area code for our phone or Dollar for our exchange of transactions. The .ng is our internet space and we have been approved by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), to use the .ng for business and email and all other communications. It is important that we stress that. So, what we are doing is of course we are going to the government with the help of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NIDTA). We are starting a major campaign to promote .ng throughout the six geopolitical zones in the country. We are hoping to start the first campaign in September in Lagos and then we take it to other parts of the country.
In addition to that, we are working with registrars to make sure that they are aware of some of the infrastructural development that we are doing so that they feel much comfortable with getting people to switch over. There is a campaign coming up, it is called Switchto.ng. It is going to be a website and the website will be full of information relating to how you can switch from your current domain, if you have one, to switch to .ng-related domain, and if you don’t have one, how you can create a new one. We have quite a number of registrars, they are business people and all of them are Nigerians. We have foreign registrars as well. In a way, we are trying to get the information out and then start to promote the business.
Q: If we do an overview of some of the organisations or entities that have registered premium .ng names today, Google is one of them, Microsoft is another and a number of the big global brands. Is there something they see that Nigerians don’t see because relative to the major global brands, we haven’t seen a movement in that direction by Nigeria’s top brands? What is in the domain name business that the foreign brands see that the local brands don’t see?
A: That is an excellent question. One of the things that they see and we don’t see is what I said earlier about targeting local content. In the case of Microsoft, it just happens to be good advantage for Nigeria because the domain name ends with ng. They have a trademark search engine called Bing. So, for them bi.ng is easier for them. So, they want to protect that in case somebody tries to get an idea and try to use it.
Sometimes people don’t realize that the domain name business is like a real estate. Once you have that real estate you can do a lot with it. They see that one thing and Nigeria being a huge market in Africa. We have over 150 million people in Nigeria. So, they see it that they could create custom content towards the African market especially Nigerian market. We are very active on the internet, so they see Nigeria as a very key market. In the case of Google, like I mentioned, Google needed to target their content, their new apps and their software services, so they created a service called Get Africa Business Online (GABO). Now, that to them is the key initiative that they want to use to penetrate the market.
So they see Nigeria as a key market, because obviously, we are the largest country in Africa in terms of population. Other things they do see is that they also like the fact that there are names that already have been taken on the .com side that are still available on .ng like there are very few Country Code Top level Domains (ccTLDs) where you can do words like fishing. So, instead of trying fishing.com, they just want fishi.ng. We are in the lead position because we have that .ng. So, anything that can end with .ng you can actually use that.
So, a lot of the uptakes that we have seen in the premium domains and top levels have come from those people that realize the potential of that real estate on the internet. So, they are taking advantage of it.
Coming back home too, we are beginning to see some uptakes as well. There are registrars now working with the major banks and some of these telecoms operators to actually pick up the .ng brand. But again, like I said earlier, it’s a real estate and I could remember in the old gold rush, people got there first and then they market it to other people. I am hoping that people will realize that and start to adopt those strategies in their businesses.
But I have to caution that we are not encouraging people to try to use their knowledge to take over trademark names. We don’t support that and our policies are very clear on that. If you don’t have a trademark or name and you get there first, even if you get there first, you may at a later time be required to put a disclaimer. We are not going to say that you can’t do it as that will be going to the level of policing everything. But if it comes up later that you don’t have a trademark right over the name, we would just simply require that you either give it up or put a disclaimer on your website saying that there is no affiliation between your company and the trademark owner. Because I don’t want to get into a situation, and I don’t think NIRA should get into the situation, where we become the referee and the umpire for dispute. That is why we have a very strong dispute resolution policy.
So, I hope you understand what the people are saying. There is a new real estate out there and people have the opportunity to create their business in Nigeria targeting the Nigerian market with the .ng. They also know that at some point, because they have seen this happen in other countries where the government now requires that, if you want to do business with a government agency, you cannot use public free emails like Yahoo!, Google and all that. That could happen in Nigeria.
It will get to a stage when the government would say, “we don’t want free email anymore. We want to know who you are” and if you are using Yahoo.com or gmail.com it could be anybody. So, those are some of the things that encourage those foreigners to come and take up .ng.
Q: You mentioned in passing the issue of trademark involving the domain name business. Have there been cases in the past where NIRA in the enforcement of its dispute resolution policy has had to step into a situation like that?
A: Yes. There have been some. I don’t want to go into details. There are ongoing cases now between a very popular brand in Nigeria where they failed to register different variations of their own trademark and someone took advantage of that. I don’t want to give out the company. For example, you have an English word that is also your company name. So you registered .com of it but you didn’t register .net of it or you didn’t register another extension of it. Somebody now took advantage of that and register that.
Even though it would be resolved, my advice is that if you can make strong claim, which in this case they do have a strong claim of being the registered owner of the trademark and they have used it over many years. Sometimes you can get right to use it based on the fact that you’ve used it for many years even though you may not have registered the trademark but people are used to your company, there are legal precedence where you can claim right of use and in this case they have right to it. And what we advise is for a person who is registering to give it up to the rightful owner and luckily for us, the domain itself has actually expired. So, during the time of registration we were able to catch it.
The advice from that case is that brand owners should take advantage of the open system and find registrars that can help them and protect different variation of their brands. It is important to do that. One of the things that we are trying to do on our end is to incorporate programs at the registry level that would prevent non-copyright owners to actually register. But that requires the cooperation of the trademark owners, the registry and the trademark office.
So we have to take all the trademarks, put it into the database, make sure that the people that owns it are the right owners so that we have to maintain that in the registry software that we use. It is called CHIP program that will allow them to store, for example, somebody might decide to register bi.ng by saying that their company name is Business Information Nigeria Limited. They have the right to it but Microsoft also has the right to it. If Microsoft gets there late, there is not much we can do than to say, “okay, put a disclaimer on your website which says this is not associated with Microsoft.” But we are not going to say give it up to Microsoft. In that particular case, there is a trademark, so you may give it up. I’m just using this as an example. So the bottom line here is that the copyright owner should try to use the opportunity available to register different variations of their name. There are other cases where people are complaining that somebody registered their name without their consent. A very big one that we handled is Chevron. Chevron is a well known world brand and they registered Chevron.com but they didn’t register
Chevron.com.ng and somebody else registered that. But now Chevron wants to take it over. In that particular case, what we do is to refer them to some arbitration so they can resolve it and if the case is not being resolved, it is the owner that has it. In our policy, it is first come, first serve. We can try to arbitrate and tell them to resolve it but if it comes to a point where it is not resolved, what I am proposing is that the owner of the Chevron.com.ng has to put a disclaimer on their website that this has no business with Chevron Nigeria. That is a fair way to approach it. If they refuse to take that, then we will take actions because that means they are violating our own policy of internal dispute resolution.
I always give example of Nissan.com. Nissan is a well known brand and Nissan.com is not actually owned by Nissan Motors. If you go to Nissan.com, you will see that it is owned by a person called Uzi Nissan. He has a right to it because it’s his last name. So Nissan had to go and find a way to do whatever they need to do. Pay up or whatever to get that Nissan if they actually want to maintain that but they have decided probably to ignore it or just register Nissanmotors.com. There are so many cases like that, like McDonald.com, a 14 year-old registered it and McDonald had to pay a lot of money to get it back.
As a registry, we should not be getting involved in all those. We should let them sort it out. But we are saying that if you register somebody’s trademark, we can ask you to give it up and we can at the very least tell you to put a disclaimer on your website. So, that is what we are doing to resolve these issues because that is going to be a big issue in Nigeria. Partly because a lot of companies are not even aware of internet domain names to begin with. We are trying to work at the very beginning of registration with CAC (Corporate Affairs Commission) to get people to register their domain by the time they are registering their company. So, that is important and the more we get people to do that the better for us.
Q: Let’s return to something interesting that you hinted at in passing and that is the fact that the Nigerian domain name is a relatively new or late entrant in the internet name business. That opens up challenges just like it also opens up huge world of opportunities. One of them is in sale of internet names, whether common or premium, that it opens for businesses. If you take a broad overview coming down to the Nigerian domain, how do you advise Nigerian entrepreneurs to take advantage of the business in a legitimate manner?
A: This more of the reasons to be creative without infringing on somebody’s trademark. Let say you have an idea to do e-commerce website and you don’t have the funds to get started, you could start out by doing a domain name real estate agents and what I mean by that is that if you come up with a name and you register it, as long as it is nobody’s company name.
Let me give an example: buysell or Naija girls. So, if you register that thinking that somebody might want to use that in the future for promotion, so you register it and try to market it to other people that may have the concept of targeting Nigerian girls. So naijagirls.com.ng, when you have that registered, you pay a nominal fee of N1000 or N2000 naira depending on the level of registrar that you use. Let’s say you paid N2500 for a year, now you could turn around, find a company as a branding company that wants to use Naija girls as a promo and then you sell it to them, there is nothing wrong with that. If you can do 10 or 20 of that, you can make money. It becomes a portfolio of names. So your creativity is what you are really selling and being a bit ahead of the game.
I will give you an example of 1996, when I was in the U.S.; I registered a name a domain called Africanmusic .com because at that time I wanted to start an African online music distribution for a company. I didn’t have the money to build the website. I kept paying every year and it is very difficult to raise funds and all that. About 2002, somebody approached me and said, “Hey! I want this domain.”
I wanted to create this website. So, I first of all wanted to know what it is about. Anyway, the long and short is that I paid $20 every year to renew it and they offered me $7,500 if I wanted to give it up. Guess what? The decision was very easy. I could use $7500 to do anything I wanted. I gave it up. I sold it. If you look at the appreciation within four to five years from the $20 that I pay every year to keep it going, that is the opportunity that is there today.
Young people that are looking for job are very creative. I have seen a lot of coined words that people are doing. If you register that as a domain, golive.com.ng or anything, just keep looking at what are the names but stay away from trademark names, then it becomes a business. It is a real estate in the cyberspace and that is the way people should look at it.
Q: One other opportunity area is local content development and having seen the internet evolve, where are those opportunities for local content development in Nigeria?
A: One of the good things that ICANN has done very well is that you can actually use local languages now. You can have the website completely in Yoruba language. There are keyboards out there. Our people are literate but not all of them are English literate. Some people can read Yoruba Bible very clearly without any problem. You can create contents that are targeted towards Yoruba community. You can do that. It takes some effort but it can be done.
Nigerians are very unique in terms of what we consume. Look at Facebook for instance. Facebook has more Nigerians every day and we can actually create a local version with the right collaboration with Facebook that will target Nigerians and it is a great marketing tool because on Facebook, they actually segment Nigerians. So local content producers can use Facebook.com or facebooki.ng to buy the right to Facebook and then target Nigeria.
Let me take some time to appeal if you are not on the right track, on a regular local content people, we have churches, we have mosques, we have other religious organisations, their market is Nigeria. You can create contents using the .ng brands to target those establishments.
And also when it comes to the programming level, the mobile phones are becoming a huge thing. Nigeria is one of the fastest growing mobile markets in the world. You can create apps that use your location to distribute contents to people.
Google is doing a lot of work on that and that is part of their initiative. You know about the Get African Business Online (GABO), we have to be very proactive. We can partner with them or we can actually develop home-grown companies that use the infrastructure like Google Map. Google Map is everywhere. So, one of the areas is that. You can create a website and you want to target somebody on their phone; don’t forget that your phone is linked to a cell tower. If you are sending an SMS message, once you’ve registered it, you can actually know where they are. You cannot target a Nigerian in the United States if he is physically in New York at that time and you know it. You cannot just tell walk into the store and ask him to buy this today, it is not possible but if you are sure he is walking on the street, once he’s registered and he’s interested, you can actually use that. That is the future of marketing.
At Google advertising, Google is very aggressive. They know what they are doing and that is why they are using the local content initiative. We need to tap into that. For local content providers, one of my favorite areas is the Nollywood market. Now, Nollywood is going to be a huge revenue earner for Nigeria, once the bandwidth improves. What stops the Nigerian movie producers from actually streaming their videos online instead of making CDs? The advantage for us is that let them get associated with the .ng, the money, the job creation that will come from that is huge because now you have to hire local content producers, people that understand what it is that you want to put out there. The market needs to understand this instead of having your website developed overseas and then target towards people in Nigeria. It is an avenue to create more jobs for Nigerians as well.
Q: Let’s quickly look at the numbers, how many domain names has NIRA registered through its partnership with the domain name registrars?
A: So far, as at the time I started we’ve moved close to 40,000 names. We have a long way to go but we are running a promotion now with our registrar. We are doing our register of the month and I have seen a great uptake in the promotion. So, we are targeting at the end of the year as well, to have probably close to 100,000 names in our database and that is far far cry away from where we really ought to be. So to answer your question directly, we presently have about 40000 names now in our database.
Q: What about the premium domain names?
A: The premium domain names are probably about 25 to 30 names. We have been lucky. We got some good incomes from the premium domain names.
Q: Averagely what does the premium domains go for?
A: For trademark names, it goes for N3million; for non-trademark names, you can either do the buy-it-now, which goes for N6 million or go to auction and then the highest bidder would get it.
Q: Finally, what is the way ahead for NIRA?
A: Basically, one of the things I am trying to focus on is to grow organically. I don’t want us to build NIRA on premium domains. We want to build organically because premium domains are very expensive and because it targets some particular niche. I want to grow organically, get every church, every mosque, and every religious organisation and get individuals to adopt .name.ng, get NGOs, and get universities and government to be on .ng.
So, growing organically means that we actually target the N20,00 naira domain registration every year because that is the masse. I want to go to Alaba get the guys selling computers to have their own websites that is in Nigeria.
I want them to get their email in Nigeria, get their websites done in Nigeria as much as possible. So growing organically and the other things that we are trying to do is to make sure the system is stable and then we have made a lot of progress in that area because we have stabilised the DNS system. We have very good partnerships with local Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) that we are using right now to stabilize our system.
The key thing for us to grow is awareness. Get people out to be aware of what we do; get more out of our registrar by helping them to promote their business. A lot of them are not getting enough registrations like they would, so we are going to do a lot of workshops and promotion with them across the six-geo political zones so that we can get the word out there and we just watch and see what happens.
We are also considering some partnership with Google. It is not finalized yet but hopefully by the time we are ready to go with that I think we should have more information for the press.
We also want to take advantage of the collaboration with NIDTA to promote the .ng around Nigeria. I think for us the workshop is coming up in the next few months.