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VR gets real across Africa

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Virtual Reality became mainstream in several African countries including Nigeria last year. RUSSELL SOUTHWOOD spoke to the founder of Nigerian based Imisi 3D, JUDITH OKONKWO, about what she’s doing and the prospects for this technology.

Virtual Reality (VR) as a technology seemed to arrive last year in several different African countries, including Nigeria and South Africa. The innovators who are working on it believe that because the field is currently wide open, there’s the opportunity to get in at the front of the queue this time around. Russell Southwood spoke to the founder of Imisi 3D, Judith Okonkwo about what she’s doing and the prospects for this technology.

Imisi 3D’s founder Judith Okonkwo came back to Lagos from the UK in 2014:”I was energized by the entrepreneurship scene and tech start-ups. I worked for Andela where I saw a lot of talented young people on its programme perform really well over 4-6 months. I thought there was a lot of potential.”

“VR was coming down in price. The Oculus Rift ands Google Cardboard changed the game. it was suddenly wide open to get into, particularly here in Nigeria. We had an opportunity to define how the tech was going to be used.”

She started in July 2016 with her first event, working with Lagos Hub and ccHub to create a showcase based on 50 people. She involved a VR consultant on Skype to provide advice and mentoring on the use of the 360 degree cameras:”One thing we committed to do was to build a community of content creators in Nigeria.”

“The resources (to create VR) are expensive but we bridge that gap with things like equipment and books and so on. The CEO of ccHub was a mentor and was very enthusiastic. He said ‘You need to attract people to Yaba to see what’s going on with the technology’. We had 100 people through the doors in the first week.  We want to create a community of people building VR content. We want to become known at being good at creating VR solutions in Nigeria.”

It held its first VR hackathon in Nigeria in November 2016 looking at areas like healthcare, education and tourism. The winners combined use of Samsung’s Gear VR with Leap Motion, which allowed hand motions and gestures for control.:”It was about using these (programmes) to teach people how to code and getting Gear and Leap Motion to work together.”

One of the runners up produced a gamified version of conception where the player acted like the sperm:”It was very exciting and addictive and the team intends to add a lot more content to it.” Another team created an app called Go There that allows the user to virtually visit Nigerian tourist destinations and then be able to go on and book a holiday.

So how well developed is VR in Nigeria?:”You come across people who’ve bought Google Cardboard and Gear VR. At an event in September last year I noticed a young man playing with his phone and a VR app. He didn’t have a VR headset. I tapped him on the shoulder and said come down to Yaba. I’ve even seen people attempt to make Google Cardboard themselves.”

“But VR is quite limited here. What they can do and local content available is limited but that will change. There are VR cockpit chairs in malls in Lagos that are probably Oculus-driven. The people we’re attracting are interested in creating local content. In terms of equipment, it depends on what you want. Samsung Gear VR, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Generic VR headsets, you can buy on Jumia and Konga….In terms of makers, there are the teams who won the hackathon, another guy who does VR for architecture and real estate and film-makers looking at 360 film-making.”

This initial initiative is now leading on to other activities. It now has a VR for Schools project for education at the bottom of the pyramid, involving local schools:”We’re turning assumptions (about what can be done) on their head… I’m quite passionate about VR for education. We’re running a pilot with content that exists but it would be better with locally created content”.

“We need to build up the skills for worlds class VR content. People are already asking me are there VR developers here. We’re planning to support the teams that took part in the hackathon to put their apps up on the Oculus store. The market is in its infancy but it’s ready to grow. We’re looking for R & D opportunities. It’s not enough just to explore what was happening last year. I want to look at the convergence between VR and Artificial Intelligence.”

So what’s the business model for what she’s been doing?:”It’s been a mix so far. We’ve bootstrapped with support from Facebook and equipment vendors and we’re exploring different models, primarily income from the services we provide. We think there opportunities for collaborating with people across the continent with specialist skills developing in different regions.’

* Russell Southwood is editor of Smart Monkey TV.  To subscribe to its web TV channel, visit http://www.youtube.com/user/SmartMonkeyTV/videos

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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