Contributing writer

How a CIO’s approach to cloud, AI and ML is transforming Nigeria’s Dangote Industries

Jul 27, 20226 mins
Artificial IntelligenceCloud ManagementMachine Learning

Prasanna Burri, group CIO for Nigerian multinational industrial conglomerate Dangote Industries, explains how the company’s IT arm evolved to adopt a 95% cloud strategy over the business, and how artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) boost projects across the group.

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Prasanna Burri began his career as a mechanical engineer in India but had a secret passion for IT. His endeavour to get into the technology space led him to learn about enterprise application platforms and he eventually started his ERP career at IBM. Later he joined SAP Labs in the US where he was immersed in product management for cloud technology. Since 2013 he’s been overseeing the Dangote Group’s IT operations across Africa.  

In a big group like Dangote, how challenging is it to manage IT in all parts of the company?

It’s a complex organisation with a lot of diversified business lines and regions. We embrace proven technologies like the Microsoft platform for endpoint management servers, active directory, email and endpoint protection. It was a modest start but today we spend almost 10 times more than in 2014 on the Azure Cloud subscriptions. Almost all our applications run in the cloud and I can say about 95% of our operations run in different cloud environments, whether SAP or Microsoft. We continue to expand to implement some near processes and go through continuous improvement cycles, and we’re a certified SAP Center of Excellence. We also have a very strong hybrid cloud infrastructure and a dedicated, in-house talent base that’s open to embracing newer technologies like AI and ML.

Can you describe the importance of cloud technologies across Africa today?

There’s an increasing appetite even though infrastructure scaling is time-consuming in terms of logistics bringing in equipment. A lot of good talent from Africa is migrating to greener pastures, especially in the last few years. With cloud technologies, though, companies can scale despite talent shortages in the region, and support tech talent can also be found anywhere in the world. We ultimately don’t need to suffer from the latency of acquisitions of equipment. It’s a big shot in the arm, especially in the environment we operate in where we can scale fast and where we have more visibility and control over what’s happening due to remote management options and features available with these platforms. It’s also necessary to have a hybrid system set up in case of any large-scale disruption even though they’re rare. Cloud is the way to go but it depends on the industry and the region.

With cloud technologies come the opportunity to implement AI and ML. How is the company taking advantage of this?

We have at least three use cases we’ve been working on: logistics, which is fleet management for our trucks; the master data management and data clean-up, which AI can do a better job; and where we can run optical character recognition (OCR) automatically on vendor invoices using Microsoft cloud Power Platform, along with ML services. We’re also trying to leverage the capabilities of AI and ML in security on the Azure platform, where Microsoft endpoint manager and Intune orchestrate security of servers and endpoints, as well as mobile devices, across the group from the cloud.

Prasanna Burri

Prasanna Burri

What is the state of connectivity that strings all these technologies together?

We don’t see as many disruptions and downtime for business solely due to network connectivity. It’s a lot less nowadays than maybe five years ago. There’s also a continuous growth in bandwidth. A lot of times, there are issues in the last mile. The trunk routes are generally okay, but there’s still always room for growth and optimisation, and there’s reasonable capacity, especially in urban regions with the advent of some newer technologies like Starlink. I expect that in a year or two, we’ll start seeing a greater prevalence of connectivity in the remote parts as well. 

What other challenges do you face when implementing these technologies in the company?

Technology in itself is never a problem. The hardest part is acquiring talent. Sometimes you don’t find engineering talent or the talent you have has matured, which may leave you short because they’ve found better opportunities in the West or Middle East, for instance. Then there’s user adoption and change management in processes and new technologies. Those are the two challenges that revolve around implementing new technologies.

How then do you find talent and screen them for suitability?

Most of the time, we hire people based on their attitude and knowledge, and in some cases also for their experience. We use recruiting tools for job board postings, and online assessment tools to pick qualified people based on the job specification. Then in some cases, they might even receive some additional assignments to ensure that the aptitude is there.

How big is the ICT team at Dangote Group?

We are close to 150 personnel and a good part of our team belongs to endpoint security and last-mile tech support. We have one of the leanest shops from that aspect, but we’re looking to hire more local talent and be more resilient due to the changing pressure of acquiring talent from the marketplace. We also have a constant flurry of training from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and subscriptions for LinkedIn Learning for the majority of our information work staff.

What would be your parting shot to other Africa-based enterprises looking to adopt cloud, AI and machine learning?

The primary goal is to sustain and enable businesses to operate efficiently with certain proven innovations. Also, the target is to expand the presence of the organisation in the market, and keep customers happy. IT experts should know the goal of the business before adopting technology. They can think through challenges like how to make sure the dispatch operations run without stopping, ensure there’s adequate disaster resilience, and that end users are being productive with such tools and services. Successful IT leaders have a consultancy and advisory approach. They understand the needs of the business and can conceive solutions and relay them in a way that gets the buy-in from the leadership.