He left the shores of this country as a naive young man and largely unsung. But today, Dr. Charles Iheagwara is on of the sort of ICT experts in Europe and America where he has won several awards. He spoke with Roland OGbonnaya on his exploits in the information technology sector, and how it was growing up in a suburb in Jos, Plateau State.
Dr. Charles Iheagwara, is the founder of Unatek Incorporated, a US Government information technology contractor located in Bethesda, Maryland and Intruiononline Inc., a cyber security online media and analyst service firm. He obviously does not come through the minds of most Nigerians as the likes of Prof. Wole Soyinka, Prof. Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie of the literary world.
But like the old adage of a prophet not being valued in his home, he is being celebrated in the United States of America (USA). Life for him, started in Jos, North central Nigeria, where he was born and partly raised alongside nine other siblings, one of whom died during the Biafra war. That incident was far from being enough to deter him, as he has since then acquired various degrees from prestigious institutions across the world.
Narrating how it was growing up in Nigeria, Iheagwara said, "Growing up in Nigeria was fun and very fulfilling. In the schools, discipline was upper most in our minds and the school curriculum." According to him, culture was well cherished and religion practiced as best as it could be.
"Jos provided a good environment to be a boy and a young man. Those days, it was de-triabalised and we had fun with people of all ethnic groups and religions not knowing the differences," he told THISDAY online in an emotional reminiscence of his growing up days.
Life has been good for the then young kid who experienced the war, but would later strive to become a licensed professional engineer and an internationally known technology researcher whose work is widely quoted. "Since I left Nigeria, I have attended seven undergraduate and post-graduate institutions (including MIT and Harvard) in Moscow, Russia, Wales, UK and the US," he disclosed.
Worthy of note is that Iheagwara studied management and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s Sloan School of Management and School Engineering, where he received a Master of Science (SM) degree in Management and Engineering. He also attended Harvard Business School where he completed several MBA courses in satisfaction of the MIT degree requirements.
He holds a Ph.D. degree in Computer Science from the University of Glamorgan, Wales, UK, a Master of Science degree in Minerals Engineering from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, a Certificate in Environmental Management from George Washington University, and Bachelor/Master of Science degrees in Metallurgical Engineering from the National University of Science and Technology, Moscow, Russia.
In 2007, he was awarded the Maryland-India Business Roundtable's "Business Innovator of the Year" Award and is a member of the Microsoft IT Advisory Council. In July 2011, he was invited and testified before the US Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship on the "Role of Small Businesses in Strengthening Cyber Security Efforts in the US." He has also held different career positions at KPMG, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Edgar Online, Inc, and other firms.
These accomplishments, however, have not taken the humility out of Iheagwara, who would always give credit to his Nigerian upbringing. "I grew up with the generation that valued knowledge, respected parents and elders and most importantly, worship God to the true meaning of it," he said.
Speaking about his family and early education, he said, "my parents had 10 children and one died during the civil war as an infant. I had my elementary school at Fatima Primary School, Jos and went to the elite Mbaise Boys Secondary School in the eastern part of the country. The rest of my siblings had both their primary and secondary school education in Jos except for my senior sister who attended Mbaise Girls Secondary School."
At MSS, he held three prefectship positions including the Regulator in form 3 and 4, the Furniture Prefect and Scaristian (religious prefect) in form 4.
These provided the foundation for him, as he said "Nothing could have prepared me better for the life ahead. In particular, the Regulatorship was quite demanding, as I was the first to wake up and carrying the school all day and night and being the last to go to bed. In the two years, I was the first to report back to school from vacation and the last to leave for vacation."
Iheagwara also told THISDAY how he took the delivery of Unatek. "Unatek Inc. (www.unatek.com) was founded in June 1996 in the State of Maryland, USA," he said while chronicling the birth of his ICT firm. "Originally, it was founded as UTV Environmental and Engineering Company. Later, we added another business line - information technology - and renamed it Unatek, Inc. UTV Environmental (www.unitedenvironmental.net) is now an operating business unit," he further disclosed.
Incidentally, Unatek, he said is structured to provide services in major information technology areas. "Unatek is primarily a US federal government contractor with multiple contract vehicles including the US Navy Seaport e, US GSA Schedule, State of Maryland CATS II, Metropolitan Southern California, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority."
Unatek has continued to carve a niche as a Cyber security firm. In 2011 it won a State-wide award as the "Homeland Security Company of the Year."
Speaking on ICT in Nigeria, Iheagwara said, "ICT is still very young in Nigeria. It has not been supported to the extent that society and businesses derive the maximum benefits from it. With a vast amount of human capital in the country, it should have been more advanced by now to the extent of generating revenue for the government and businesses. It is very conceivable to replicate Bangalore, Mumbai and Chennai here given the abundant human capital."
According to him, Nigeria should be making trillions from the vast array of available ICT resources.
"Looking around, you can't see data centres, software development centres or any meaningful business process outsourcing. Nigeria should be making trillions and not billions from ICT exports if the infrastructure is developed," he said.
On how this could be harnessed, he said, "At the very minimum, you need excellent power supply that is uninterrupted at all times in designated development centres that will form the nucleus of any serious ICT development for export. The banks and government should extend credits to concerns that wants to do business in this area on a global scale."
Once this is in place, he said companies could provide platforms for others to leverage. "Unatek can come in to build two to four data centres and several other IT concerns that can drive development in this area. But, we must be sure of constant power provision and access to additional capital," he explained.
Speaking on ICT in United States, he said, "It has grown beyond the imagination of the inventors/creators/developers. Productivity is at an all-time high. My Alma mater-MIT-has led world-wide development in this area," he added. ICT, according to him, has given the world a new economy that cuts across all parts of the globe giving rise to globalisation and the lift-off from poverty of many nations like India, China, the Philippines amongst others.
He said ICT is an enabler of growth and a key driver for development, adding, that, "it is my hope that my native Nigeria will join the ranks of ICT exporters sooner than later."
He said ICT could be effectively deployed to tame oil theft, corruption and insecurity that are rife across the country now. "Nigeria is not yet there and can't claim to. With resource commitment, it is conceivable that artificial intelligence with the other ICT programmes can be put to use in Nigeria for a variety of useful purposes," he emphasised.