Over the past few years, Africa has been playing catchup with the world in terms of connectivity and even though it is now nearly on a pr, there are still many African countries being left behind, writes ANTÓNIO NUNES, CEO, Angola Cables.
In 1994, there were more telephone lines in New York City than there were in the entire continent of Africa. Over the next two decades, digital transformation in Africa dramatically picked up speed. Today, the continent is teeming with pioneers building ‘digital bridges’ within and between villages, countries and continents, as well as connecting Africa to the global economy and research communities. Inasmuch as this may be true, many parts of Africa continue to play catch-up with the rest of the world in terms of the control and directness of subsea fibre optic connectivity.
This challenge appears to be a colonial artefact of the global growth of the Internet as the continent has arguably faced more geographic, political and economic barriers to its development than other regions. Fortunately, this is about to change; representing a symbolic ‘Africa first’ shift for the continent in terms of its self-determination and autonomy in the telecommunications arena. For countries in sub-Saharan Africa, it presents a massive opportunity to leapfrog other countries. For regions outside of the continent, it will also offer a more efficient, alternative route for burgeoning Internet traffic across the world’s largest continent.
Currently, the West Africa Cable System (WACS) is the most important conduit for data for the West Coast of the continent. Managed by a 12-member consortium, it provides carrier-level services to operators in Sub-Saharan Africa across a dozen countries, including 12 landing points in Africa and three in Europe (Canary Islands, Portugal and England). Running more than 14,000 km – starting in Yzerfontein (South Africa) to London (UK) – WACS is an essential artery for the digital connectivity and economic development of countries connecting to the cable.
But in order for Internet traffic to travel between Africa and the Americas (the largest centre for the production and aggregation of digital content and services), it must first go through Europe, a rather inefficient route, and one might even say unnecessary if needing to cross the Atlantic ocean.
Three continents interconnected
With the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS) – expected to be completed in 2018 – the first direct link between Africa and South America will be created. A subsea cable extending more than 6,500 km between Brazil and Angola, SACS will be 100% owned and managed by an African company, Angola Cables. Combined with Monet*, a cable system to be completed this year and operated by Angola Cables, Algar Telecom, ANTEL and Google, SACS represents a paradigm shift for Africa and the Americas in terms of connectivity and collaboration.
Currently, the latency, or the time lag between a data packet being sent and received, on subsea fibre optic cables systems between Angola and Brazil is 350 milliseconds, due to the trafficking of Internet via Europe. With SACS, this will be reduced fivefold to approximately 63 milliseconds. In effect, this will create a ‘continental shift’ in terms of Internet access to and from Africa, bypassing Europe. Once operational, an African company will be fully responsible for the digital exchange between Africa and the Americas.
Together with growing terrestrial fibre optic systems, mobile technologies and satellite services, such a direct connection between will also improve other countries’ (in the Middle East and Asia, for example), access more parts of the world, either as sources of content or investment destinations for Africa-based data and communications services. Hubs for telecommunications innovation have blossomed on the continent, and with the completion of SACS and Monet, further expansion of data centres and Internet Exchanges Points (IXPs) in Africa is expected.
Telecommunications and digitalisation are some of the most powerful tools for empowering countries and economies. If one looks at mobile telephony, it has spread further and faster in Africa than any other part of the world. According to GSMA, a global organisation representing nearly 800 mobile operators and hundreds of mobile technology companies, the doubling of mobile data usage increases annual growth in GDP per person by half a percentage point. Consider some of the following facts about the mobile market in Sub-Saharan Africa:
- 420 million unique mobile subscribers exist in the region, with an average penetration rate of 43% as of the end of 2016.
- By 2020, the number of mobile broadband connections will more than double to reach half a billion, nearly two-thirds of the region’s total connections.
- Smartphone connections have doubled over the past two years to nearly 200 million, accounting for a quarter of mobile connections.
- Mobile data traffic is forecast to grow twelvefold across Africa as a whole over the next five years.
Sub-Saharan Africa now accounts for nearly a tenth of the global mobile subscriber base and is expected to grow faster than any other region over the next five years. With an improved connection between the Americas and Africa, complemented by a strong mobile industry on the continent, the social and economic development of the regions is expected to improve in line with such growth. Today, mobile connectivity has become the main platform for innovation and the driving force for greater inclusion, with about 270 million people in the region accessing the Internet through mobile devices. Last year, mobile technologies and services generated $110 billion of economic value in Sub-Saharan Africa, equivalent to 7.7% of GDP. As local and global connectivity continue to improve, mobile’s contribution to GDP is expected to increase to $142 billion, equivalent to 8.6% of GDP, by 2020.
Research and Education
The telecoms / mobile ecosystem in the region is attracting talent and investment to African tech companies, as well as linking up academic institutions and research and education (R&E) organisations in other parts of the world. As trans-Atlantic connectivity improves with the completion of SACS and Monet, universities and other learning communities in African, North American and Latin American countries are increasingly collaborating to improve knowledge sharing and research. Examples include the Florida International University’s Center for Internet Augmented Research and Assessment (CIARA) that recently expanded its development of a next-generation Internet network to include Africa.
With a project called the AmLight Consortium – a multi-institutional project composed of NPOs, universities and regional R&E networks – CIARA promotes the development of advanced network applications, content, and services between the Americas and Africa. Over the next 10 years, the Amlight Consortium will dramatically increase the use of Americas-Africa cable systems for research and education applications, including establishment of a high-performance network link between the AMPATH IXP in Miami, and Angonix, an IXP in Luanda, Angola (owned by Angola Cables). This infrastructure will connect with the Atlantic Wave-Software Defined Exchange in Sao Paulo, Miami, Boca Raton, and Atlanta. The collaboration aims to provide efficient peering between national R&E Networks and communities of interest through a distributed open software define exchange model.
The ongoing development of Africa depends on the degree to which it can globally integrate with the digital economy. With a growing appetite for data and mobile devices requiring broadband connectivity (supported by next-generation international networks), the continent requires investment in its telecommunications capacity in order to support socio-economic advancement. With the imminent launch of a trans-Atlantic cable system between Angola and Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa is poised for a paradigm shift in connectivity. It will also be a profound and symbolic step toward the continent taking the driver’s seat in expanding the region’s economic opportunities and determining its digital destiny.
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.
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.
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.
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.