Not pie in the sky—the ‘Internet of Things’ is already with us in sub-Saharan Africa. We think

MTN says it has seen a vision of the internet of things - and the possibilities are very interesting.

IMAGINE a Fulani or Maasai herdsman tracking the movement of his cattle real time, from the comfort of his hastily-erected hut, through his mobile phone. He then calls up a weather application, which gives him advice on where the best grazing area is, and where to water his livestock.

Miles away, agricultural officials huddle over a screen, tracking the movement of nomadic communities. A particular herding group is on course to run into another, and going by their history, there may be conflict over pasture, they sense. A quick call is then made to community elders, and the danger is averted.

This might very recently have come across as a distant development, but it is what the reality of the internet of things (IoT) might look for everyday Africa, MTN Group MTN Group Corporate Affairs executive, Chris Maroleng, told this writer in a recent interview in Cape Town. 

“This is not pie in the sky stuff, it is something we need to engage in and develop applications for,” he says. And Johannesburg-based MTN, Africa’s biggest mobile phone operator, is already developing internet of things “solutions” for Africa, Maroleng says.

” We are working on delivering applications such as security services where you will be able to remote-view your home, or others that switch on your lights and ‘talk’ to machines and appliances in your home,” he says, as he shows me a split-screen real time view on his smartphone of all the forks in his house, summoned on an LTE (4G) network.  

Hard to believe, but one of the things the internet of things does in Africa is reduce conflict between cattle-keeping nomadic communities. (Photo/Getty Images).

It still all looks tailored for its more well-heeled customers. Would it attain everyday use, say like M-Pesa, on a continent where agriculture still employs the vast majority of its inhabitants?

“In the rural areas, we know that there is the digital divide and it relates to the cost of delivering services,” Maroleng says, and notes that the telecoms firm is seeking to bridge the gulf. “But it must be done in a way the regulatory policies enable us to make such investments and benefit our subscribers and shareholders.”

The mobile boom in Africa has been well documented, and the question has been what next after SIM-card penetration nears 100%, but in a  Twitterthon with the Mail & Guardian Africa in May, Safaricom chief executive officer Bob Collymore said there was an unmet need for much cheaper devices.

 “After that, we have the internet of things.”

There remains little agreement, even in the West, on what this computing phrase actually represents. Scary Orwellian-like images of a surveillance state have been painted, all your possessions talk to you as notifications pop up all over, on the sofas, beds, umbrellas, trash bins, and even toys. 

Keep pregnancy away!

There is talk of intelligent benches that help strangers date, and of how you can even avoid falling pregnant by just looking at your smartphone, which would have captured your basal body temperature during your waking state.

In its simplest form, it represents a “smart” world that anticipates our basic needs, using data gathered from us and without our help. The inventor of the phrase, Kevin Ashton, said his  first usage of it back in 1999 referred to computers that are more in tune with the real world than depending on ideas generated by humans who are already too busy to capture data consistently.

“If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best,” he said.

Photo/Horst Jens/Flickr.

But the phrase has since then acquired a life of its own, taking on different meanings depending on the lens it is viewed through. Techies, artists and even philosophers all have their definition of it, which has meant that there has been little consensus on what it all means.

On the one side you have those who argue that the internet of things makes business and industry more efficient, or “sustainable” to use the in-vogue lexicon. For example street lights can be set to be mor efficient, halving the cost of the energy used to run them, a big deal in an energy-deficient continent like Africa. Even green power can be made cleaner and more efficient, with technology programmed to produce even more power, a sort of “more bang for your buck” thing.

Production could be on demand, eliminating the need for capital-sapping physical assets. Life around the house would be made more easier—sensors will know which room we are in, and turn on the lights, and switch off in the now empty ones. 

Communication will be routed to wherever we may be—switching on the bedroom television and powering off the one in the lounge you were. Refrigerators will let you known when you are short of groceries, your “smart” umbrella would let you know it would rain, and there will be more room for creativity.

 A lot of waste could do saved on street lighting. (Photo/Klaus Maier/Flickr).

On the other extreme are those who see a loss of privacy, worried about the security of the huge data that would be generated, and of the joy that cyber criminals will find in such a widened playing field. Regulation already struggles to keep up with innovation, they argue, what of in such a vastly-liberated new field? In addition, such data could be hijacked by totalitarian governments to keep real-time tabs on your movements.

Some jobs will go

To them, more efficient industry also means job losses. An IMF  study calculated that 90% of the 400 million jobs in low-income countries are in the informal sector—essentially agriculture and self-employment.

In May, Oxford University academics  found that the growing of cereals and fibre crops are near-certainties to be taken over by robots, the two occupations ranked among the least creative. Also at high risk were raising dairy cattle, sheep and goats.

To its opponents, the internet of things is just another front for mass consumerism. And already, technology has taken over our lives—picture the family that goes to visit grandpa but are constantly on their smartphones instead. 

 The future is here. (Photo/Intel Free Press/Flickr).

In the middle, a minority, are those who argue that what the world needs instead is “smart” people; those who can tap the ubiquity of technology to push for human rights and the rule of law, and for real relationships. Under this thinking people would instead control technology, tracking the use of data to fight for various causes.

The market is seemingly yet to warm to the trend—attempts such as Google Glass and wearable watches have received lukewarm responses—Apple  has been cagey on the uptake of its watch, even as it released billion-dollar profit results this week.

The economic case for the internet of things is clearer: inexpensive cloud computing and faster and smaller processors suggest it ticks the boxes. 

Information Technology research firm Gartner  says that there will be 4.9 billion connected “things” in use this year supporting about $70 billion in services, and rise to 25 billion by 2020, worth all of $263 billion, the majority of its being consumer applications and the automotive industry.

50 billion to 1 trillion

Technology giant Cisco, which has been running a counter of the “things” connecting since 2013, is more bullish,  forecasting anywhere between 50 billion and 1 trillion devices before this decade runs out, with an economic footprint of an eye-raising $14.4 trillion. 

Clearly the jury is still out on what it all means for everyone, but Africa, already running up the plaudits for technological innovation, and where mobile phone credit  is more prized than food, has shown it is eyeing this new ‘internet of everything’  horizon and will not be left behind.

And for its pressing jobs concern, it is not yet time to hit the panic stations.

“Crucially, there is nothing inevitable about the impact of automation on jobs and skills. In fact, history suggests that the impact of new technologies on employment has been very different in time and space,” the Oxford academics said, and cited several instances where technological advances favoured unskilled labour.

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