Will Africa take the lead in the Internet of Things?

Will Africa take the lead in the Internet of Things?

The emergence of connected hardware, from mobile phones to cars, could take off in African societies looking to make more efficient use of resources and money, but the technology will need to become more secure and more reliable before there is widespread adoption, writes Finbarr Toesland.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has become one of the most talked about technological trends in recent history. It can seem complex but is simply the concept of connecting many devices to the internet – from washing machines and lights to wearable devices and coffee makers – that previously operated as stand-alone units with no interconnectivity. These devices can then communicate with each other and share relevant data.

As a key feature is sharing of content to relevant platforms, concern has been raised over how secure this data will be and the risks of hacking. Major investment must be made in the security of cloud-based data, so that no private information can be compromised.

Africa’s most economically developed country, South Africa, has much of the infrastructure in place to lead the market. It recently installed smart meters to measure household utility usage in Johannesburg. Elsewhere, Rwanda is connecting SIM cards to POS terminals in isolated areas to allow for the acceptance of credit card payments. Market analysts Gartner forecast the global IoT market to total more than 26bn devices by 2020. Analysts believe the key driver is “the nexus of low-cost sensors, cloud computing, advanced data analytics and mobility,” says Andrew Milroy, Vice President, ICT Practice, Frost & Sullivan Asia Pacific.

Practical applications
The practical applications are virtually endless. One innovative IoT solution is connecting endangered black rhinoceroses in eastern and central Africa to this global network. Each is given an ankle collar that relays movement and exact geo-location data back to anti-poaching teams that can quickly act if poaching is suspected.

With an internet penetration rate of 16% and eight out of the 10 countries with the world’s lowest internet access rates, there are major barriers to the adoption of the IoT. However, there is clear growth potential. Consulting firm McKinsey estimates that by 2025 Africa will have tripled internet penetration to over 50%, or around 600m people, and as it does not have the same extensive infrastructure as Western countries, it can adapt its cities for IoT solutions more easily.

African businesses and individuals are expected to be impacted heavily. Full-scale integration of IoT could, for example, revolutionise medical care. A small chip could be implanted into hospital patients, allowing their vital signs to be monitored more accurately and easily than in any current system. Everyday applications of IoT connectivity in households could save Africans money, as the pooling of data from individual devices is shared and translated into information, which can regulate the usage of home applications and increase their energy efficiency.

Social benefits
The promise of IoT enhancing life for individuals and society has been shown in small-scale projects, such as the addition of GM OnStar to GM’s cars. This automatically detects when the car has been in a collision, calls for assistance and provides the emergency services with the location.

Many industries can adopt IoT to better track assets, control inventory and limit inefficiencies. A simple yet highly effective usage of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is in vending machines. Connected to the internet, they can share data to enable stock control, and alert the need for maintenance.

The association of mobile operators, GSMA, sees the future of M2M connections in the developing world: “In Africa sometimes you can leapfrog and go to the latest in innovation and technology at the same time.” This belief is not unfounded, as the number of IoT connections in the developing world will total 128m by the end of 2014, or 52% of worldwide connections. IoT’s real value is in the connection of as many devices as possible, as then small improvements collectively will see major cost savings.

Embracing IoT will give companies a competitive edge in an ever-changing global marketplace and it can only go from strength to strength as the level of ICT literacy in Africa rises and the cost-benefit analysis of investment in IoT solutions becomes more heavily weighted in favour of the benefits. Africa is a continent of innovators with an entrepreneurial spirit, one of the many reasons why IoT can expect to play a powerful role in Africa’s economic development for the foreseeable future.

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Written by Finbarr Toesland

Finbarr Toesland is a London-based journalist specialising in business, technology and economic issues. He has previously been published in The Times, The Sunday Times, Financial Times’ publications, Huffington Post, Africa Report, The European and World Politics Review.

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