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How Africa will connect to the digital economy

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BYRON CLATTERBUCK, CEO at SEACOM, says there are two major focuses for telecoms players for the next few years: improving links to landlocked countries that don’t have access to international bandwidth, and facilitating the hosting and creation of content.

Since 2009, the African telecoms industry has come a long way in connecting people and businesses to reliable, affordable and fast Internet services. The new submarine cables that started to land off the continent’s east and west coasts from 2009 onwards brought with them more affordable and plentiful international bandwidth. They now circle the continent, offering a reliable and resilient ring of connectivity at faster and faster speeds.

Meanwhile, telecoms players have also invested in connecting metropolitan areas in most major economies with fibre as well as in building national and regional fibre backbones to connect towns and cities to the Internet. We’re also seeing the industry make investments in more fibre to the home and business as well as LTE/4G in many of the larger cities. This offers telecoms users seamless and fast connectivity, as well as a more consistent quality of service.

The effect on many African economies and people has been nothing short of transformative. In many countries, connectivity costs have fallen by a factor of ten and the quality of the Internet experience has dramatically improved for people across the continent. The result is that organisations and consumers have been able to put the Internet to work in powerful ways that helps drive growth while reducing costs.

Two focuses for the future

Against that backdrop, there are two major focuses for telecoms players for the next few years: improving links to predominantly landlocked countries that don’t yet have access to affordable international bandwidth, and facilitating the hosting and creation of content at open and neutral data centres within African countries.

When it comes to the first point, we’ll see innovative partnerships between governments, the private sector and multilateral financing institutions to help the smaller and landlocked countries that risk falling behind the rest of the continent. According to the World Bank, there are many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with less than 2.5 Internet users per 100 people.

By contrast, Kenya has 43 Internet users per 100 people and South Africa has 49 per 100. Thus, the digital divide is no longer just between Africa and the wealthier economies off-continent, but also between the leading and lagging countries in terms of their access to quality connectivity.

Building terrestrial fibre networks to connect towns and cities with each other, as well as to neighbouring countries and undersea cables, is challenging because of the sheer cost and long payback period involved. The road forward is for governments to work with neighbouring countries, the telecoms industry, and multilateral financing institutions to pool resources and drive efficiency in how those resources get deployed.

Private telecoms operators, like SEACOM, have been driving expansion from the cable stations of key high-speed international subsea cables to more landlocked countries and to the borders of landlocked countries, where regulations often block new private operators from entry. The pace of this is accelerating as more governments recognise that liberalisation, clear regulations, and competition drive Internet growth and the benefits associated with access to quality high-speed Internet.

From consumers to creators

As for hosting more content in Africa, the growing choice of reliable, carrier-neutral, data centres, open peering exchanges, content data networks and cloud ICT infrastructure are quickly changing market dynamics. More and more multinational telcos and Internet companies are now providing their content from within Africa’s borders.

User-generated content and collaboration, especially video, are growing as people flock to Facebook, YouTube, Skype and so on, to share and communicate. As the end-user experience on the web improves, local content proliferates and people become content creators and drivers rather than mere consumers.

We’re also seeing a heavy emphasis on the enterprise market from hosting and cloud companies in Africa, all looking to host locally so as to improve the user experience of cloud-based applications for business users. African enterprises tend to want cloud services hosted in their own countries because laws and regulations in many countries demand that sensitive corporate data be stored within the nation’s borders rather than offshore, and because they want the best possible performance and lowest latency.

The future comes to fruition

We’ve been talking about the cloud, video-on-demand and many other concepts for years, but Africa didn’t have the infrastructure to support these services. Now it’s finally coming to fruition because market deregulation, growing competition and end-user demand in most parts of Africa have forced content, application and infrastructure providers to speed up the deployment of new offerings.

We can expect significant social and economic benefits to follow in the wake of closer digital integration across Africa. Businesses will be able to become more efficient and more integrated with the rest of the world, thanks to the cloud. Governments will be able to deliver richer electronic services – for example, health and education – to their citizens. And for consumers, social media, video streaming, and other rich media services will quickly become a part of everyday life.

Africa News

IoT’s answer for Africa

IoT and digitization enables us to efficiently, proactively and predictively address the sustainability challenges that are faced globally and on the African continent, RESHAAD SHA, CEO of Liquid Telecom.

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With Africa’s population set to increase from around 1.3-billion in 2018 to 1.7-billion in 2030, both challenges and opportunities are presented with regards managing issues including food production and security pose  as well the utilization of limited natural resources in a sustainable manner.

Water scarcity and quality for example are realities that negatively impact health, food production and security. Population growth rates and climatic changes place an exponential demand on this scarce and dwindling resource. These are just some of the sustainability challenges facing not just the African continent, but other developing nations and the world as a whole. In addition to this, the demand for the delivery of basic services as healthcare and sanitation also increases.

Against this background of African population growth lies the grim projection that Africa will account for more than 50% of child deaths (under 5) by 2030, while each day, nearly 1000 children die owing to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrheal diseases according to the UNICEF 2017 trends in child mortality report. It’s an alarming fact, given that while some 2.6-billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources since 1990, 663-million people still do not have access.

The department of Water Affairs and Forestry estimate that the agricultural sector accounts for more than 50% of water use in South Africa and experience water losses of between 30 and 40 per cent. Further, the department states that around 35% of irrigation system losses, often nutrient enriched and containing herbicides, pesticides, and other pollutants, return to rivers. These are just some of the ways in which reactive, inefficient, and manually driven processes have limited us in responding in an impactful manner and timeously mitigating these risks

It is for these reasons and other socio economic and environmental concerns that the United Nations has established its Sustainable Development Goals strategy, addressing the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, and environmental degradation.

We need to look at smarter ways that leverage technology in order to addressing these challenges. The situation requires a radical response that delivers a proactive, predictive and data driven approach to addressing these issues with exponentially growing levels of speed and impact.

The IoT ecosystem, comprising of sensors, connectivity, data analytics and workflow automation platforms, and applications are at the core of acquiring, analyzing and harnessing the insights that can be integrated into agriculture, service delivery, health and resource management processer – IoT is at the core of a digitization

One such sector which has benefited immensely from technology is in agriculture pest control, with the implementation of AI and IoT by Spanish startup AgroPestAlert. The innovation makes use of “smart” traps that capture insects and analyse their wing beats to identify their species and even their sex. Placed throughout the fields, the traps communicate with the system to predict an imminent invasion. The system will send alerts to phones, tablets and computers and use an easy-to-understand visual tool to cue farmers instantly.

Around 200-million Africans use approximately 1-million manual pumps across the continent to manually access clean drinking water.  IoT applications have been utilised in assuring the delivery of water through manual these pumps, According to estimates, at least one-third of those pumps will break down at least once in its lifecycle, and up to 70% will break in the second year of operation. The impact of not having access to clean drinking water is dehydration or water borne pandemics.

In the Kenyan Region of Kyusoa, Oxford University began a proof of concept project in 2013, which made use of motion sensors) to capture the movements of the pumps’ handle which was transmitted and analysed in real time. A decision support system based on real data was  used to predict pump malfunctions, allowing for a better planning and shortening the time needed to repair broken pumps, or avoiding malfunctions altogether, directly improving the access to clean drinking water for the rural population.

Liquid Telecom realise that the future of sustainability lies in technology and innovations such as IoT. We provide high speed fiber connectivity to interconnect as well as access platforms to build IoT solutions, in addition to access to Microsoft Azure suite of platforms for analytics and algorithm driven based processing and execution. Our Pan African network enables collaboration and cross border innovation and learning, fast well as the capability to efficiently scale out these solutions on Africa’s Liquid Cloud.

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Africa News

Africa start-up ecosystem can drive blockchain

Through nurturing and technical support, Africa’s tech start-up ecosystem can be a major driver of Blockchain-based innovation says BEN ROBERTS, Liquid Telecom’s Group Chief Technology and Innovation Officer.

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African communities have always come-up with inventive solutions to local problems. Take Somalia as an example. The country is said to have one of the largest diaspora populations in the world. It has few commercial banks and relations with international creditors remain fro­zen due to debts incurred in the late 1980s. 

So its population uses Hawala; an infor­mal value transfer system based on the per­formance and honour of a large network of money brokers. For example, it would mean a Somali based in the US would give money to a local branch agent, where it is sent to a cen­tral country clearing house, then onto a clear­ing house based in another country (typically somewhere in the Middle East). From there it goes to a Somali agent, before the funds are finally collected by an individual in Somalia.

Much like blockchain, the Hawala system is built on trust – but that’s where any similarities end. In fact, cryptocurrencies – many of which are blockchain-powered – may eventually be­come a replacement for Hawala and other exist­ing forms of international remittances. Cryptocur­rencies can enable people to exchange currency online without any middleman – even banks. 

International remittance is one of many compelling use cases for blockchain. The technology’s ability to digitise trust makes it a unique fit for many African countries, par­ticularly those where processes and supply chains remain poorly designed and susceptible to corruption.

At Liquid Telecom, we’re excited about the potential for blockchain technology across the region. Along with other emerging tech­nologies, we recognise this as another major new digital opportunity for businesses that utilises our network infrastructure and servic­es. The rise of blockchain innovation will rely on the skills and talent of the region’s soft­ware developers, who themselves rely on a high-speed internet connection and access to cloud-based tools. Our fibre footprint – which will soon stretch all the way from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt – is providing the foundations for digital innovation, while our partnership with Microsoft is enabling access to the cloud-based services and tools needed to create digital solutions for local problems.

Last year, with support from Microsoft, we set-up our Go Cloud initiative, which is helping to provide the region’s start-up communities with technical support, training and access to software. Using Azure Cloud, start-ups can cut development time and experiment easily with modular, preconfigured networks and infra­structure, enabling them to iterate and validate blockchain scenarios quickly by using built-in connections to Azure.

We’re starting to see the first crop of African start-ups experimenting with blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Take Rwandan start-up Up­lus, which is utilising blockchain to secure all transactions on its digital crowdfunding plat­form. The technology also allows the platform to take contributions from any country and covert it to the local currency.

A lot of existing applications in Africa tend to fall short when it comes to user experience, and blockchain could certainly help address some of these issues – be it by creating a new trusted way to make payments or verify user identification. During this early stage of block­chain experimentation and proof of concept, it will be crucial for start-ups and businesses to develop solutions that are relevant for Afri­can communities. Without that, the technology won’t gather momentum.

Regulation can nurture or constrict the tech­nology and will have a role to play in being a ‘make or break’ for blockchain. Living in Ken­ya, I’m proud to see how proactive the gov­ernment has been in seizing the blockchain opportunity. The creation by the President of a taskforce earlier this year dedicated to blockchain – led by the former permanent secretary for Ministry of Information and Com­munications, Dr. Bitange Ndemo (see page 7) – shows how committed the country is to being a leader in emerging technologies. As more African countries follow Kenya’s lead, blockchain should hopefully find itself reso­nating more powerfully with local businesses and consumers.

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