Unleashing innovation and entrepreneurial potential in Africa through IoT

By Never Ncube

The advancement of Internet of Things (IoT) has transformed our personal and business environments, as it has enabled seamless integration of physical things with technology. In Africa we are forced to move forward or risk being obsolete. In this article, I will explore various avenues that can be used to unleash the potential of IoT in Africa.

IoT consists of a network of physical objects, devices, vehicles, buildings and other items which are embedded with electronics, software, sensors and network connectivity, which enables these objects to collect and exchange data. IoT platforms can help organizations reduce costs through improved process efficiency, asset utilization and productivity. We are truly in the midst of a new revolution which is the Fourth Industrial Revolution where the physical world meets the digital world in every aspect of our social and working lives.

When we are talking about Africa, we are referring to a continent that is home to over 1.3 billion people,  which constitutes about 16.6% of the world’s population. Research indicates that Africa’s population is set to increase from around 1.3 billion in 2018 to 1.7 billion by 2030. Entrepreneurs can accelerate much-needed industrialisation on the continent, provided that the accompanying regulations and policies support sustainable inclusive growth. BI Intelligence predicts that the number of agricultural IoT device installations will hit 75 million by 2020, growing 20% annually. Gartner, an analyst firm confirms that by 2020 there will be over 26 billion connected devices or things globally.

Angela Lusigi, Director of UNDP Africa once highlighted that as Africans we must move away from necessity-based entrepreneurship to opportunity-based entrepreneurship”. IoT platforms can facilitate opportunities in diverse sectors such as agribusiness, tradeable services and renewable energy. As a nation in Zimbabwe, we need to move towards encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation. In 2017, the national telecoms regulator, POTRAZ, unveiled a $25 million ICT innovation fund to support innovators and tech start-ups in Zimbabwe. The creation and funding of entrepreneurial technology hubs at a government level and through the private sector will go a long way in ensuring that Africa is able to address challenges through IoT.

One of the biggest opportunities of IoT is in “agritech” and conservation. According to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), 65% of Africa’s labour force is engaged in agriculture. Agriculture is what drives the African economy and its growth and expansion has largely been proliferated by technological advancements. IoT has enabled smart farming practices, as farmers can make data-driven decisions regarding crop rotation, planting and harvesting times, as well as soil management and weather prediction. Wireless sensors can now track crop growth, soil moisture, water tank levels, temperature and humidity. Use of livestock smart cards which store information relating to livestock is also an upcoming trend. The use of drones as part of conservation efforts in National Parks in Tanzania, Malawi and Zimbabwe is now common.

Right here in Zimbabwe, a startup called Hurukuro uses IoT to protect endangered species and livestock by using sensors to track movement and location. Hurukuro also uses Radio frequency identification (RFID) in animal tracking which prevents stock theft. The position of the animals can be visualized on a map in a control centre.

The question is how can all these brilliant ideas be unleashed? There is need for leadership to embrace IoT. As industry leaders, we need to actively invest in the development of IoT focused entrepreneurs. In 2017, internet-of-things (IoT) network operator SqwidNet, which is part of Dark Fibre Africa, launched an entrepreneurship programme, called (IoT) E to “empower entrepreneurs who would like to develop their skills and knowledge to become established players in the IoT ecosystem. Innovation has to be backed up with financial muscle from industry leaders who can support “techpreneurs”.

Another question raised is: where will the innovation come from? Innovation will be unleashed by looking at our immediate communities and discovering what major problems they are facing. We could ask ourselves – what can make their lives better and what can make them improve efficiencies? The success of an idea is often its ability to simplify processes. One such innovation is Lumkani, a South African based technology start-up responsible for an early-warning fire detection system geared for informal settlements.

We need to develop conducive environments, stimulate, encourage and nurture ideas. We need to identify solutions for Africa’s challenges. The success of IoT in Africa hinges on close collaboration between enterprises, telecoms providers, vendors, systems integrators, tech innovators and developers, which is the whole ICT ecosystem.

Never Ncube is the Chief Executive Officer for Dandemutande Investments, which is a licensed Internet Access Provider. He has more than 24 years’ experience in corporate strategy, corporate governance and secretarial duties, financial accounting and reporting, as well as treasury and internal audit. Never has held senior positions in various companies including Delta, Innscor and Spar Zambia Limited.

This the first part of a series of articles on IoT. In the second part I will explore IoT opportunities in other sectors.