Africa should join Internet of Things race or lag behind

Cigdem Ertem, the Intel regional director for the Middle East, Turkey and Africa. PHOTO | COURTESY
Cigdem Ertem, the Intel regional director for the Middle East, Turkey and Africa. PHOTO | COURTESY 

A decade ago, Africa lagged behind when it came to technology and IT related business. But the continent as a whole and Kenya in particular has become a hotbed of technological innovation and digital business.

Who would have thought that the simple innovation of transferring money through mobile phones, which began in Kenya nine years ago, would grow to one billion mobile money transactions and 134 million active users by December 2015?

The technology scene has been changing from devices to networks and even mega infrastructure such as the upcoming Konza technopolis -- touted to be Kenya’s Silicon Valley — to the Internet of Things. Every where one looks, technological innovation is happening.

There are, however, companies and business leaders at the centre of it all and with the capability of joining the dots. Cigdem Ertem, the Intel regional director for the Middle East, Turkey and Africa is one such leader who sat down with the Business Daily to share insight into the trends that are driving the ongoing technological shift and its impact on Africa.

What would you say are the emerging technology trends in 2016 and their possible impact globally?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is now one of the world’s biggest technology trends. The trend is that devices that were once not connected like refrigerators or security cameras are connecting to each other and enriching our lives.

The whole world is preparing for the IoT. It has really changed small business by creating newer business models. New companies will however continue to be created even in this age as has happened with companies like Google and Facebook.

Healthcare should also harness the power of the cloud to become personal. Last year we saw the industry go through a level of transformation looking at technology to tap into the rich data and use it to drive research and better treatment for patients.

Technology and wearable devices in particular, are painting a clearer picture of a person’s health and providing a level of insight and control not possible without the power of technology.

This drive in innovation is made possible through the power of the cloud: healthcare will increasingly be defined by how efficiently data is not only stored, but also processed, analysed, shared and acted on – in real time.

As more devices become connected to the IOT wouldn’t this pose new and bigger security threats?

With connectivity comes the threat of security but I think as this trend continues, especially for the emerging markets it will be one of the major concerns even as it works as an enabler of innovation.

More people should be expected to come up with solutions that address the vulnerability of systems to hackers.

More governments should be expected to come up with new standards and policies that will ensure basic security for their citizens even as they encourage developers to come up with innovative solutions.

We have been working with developers throughout Kenya, the rest of East Africa and Nigeria to bring in the best practices worldwide. Part of the job involves training developers so that when they write the code for the applications they do it in a more secure way.

How are global technological trends affecting sub-Saharan Africa?

Getting into the IoT domain and all other emerging technologies is very important for Africa because it will ensure they are not left behind in the innovation space. IOT will really change and create efficiencies for companies and governments.

Gartner Inc., a technology research firm, says companies that are going to be successful are not yet born.

The fact is that the majority of the newer business models are going to be hinged on IOT making it imperative that the relevant innovations come out of our local space not just from major markets like the US. That is why Intel is working with the Kenyan ecosystem to innovate.

For instance, technology provides an opportunity to increase access to healthcare in the remotest parts of the world where medical officers and health workers have limited reach.

Technology has greatly impacted on Africa in key places such as the emergence of new business ecosystems such as online shopping.

There is now widespread acceptance of the importance of telecoms infrastructure in driving socio-economic development, and governments across the continent continue to play an increasingly important role in this respect.

Financial inclusion, public sector service delivery, have all benefited from technological innovation. The idea of smart cities is a great example of how different things could be integrated through the Internet of Things to create a good experience for city dwellers.

What is the motivation behind the She Will Connect campaign you launched in Africa?

Unfortunately, women are left behind when it comes to accessing technology and the gap is even higher in Africa. While the worldwide gender gap is 25 per cent in Africa it stands at 43 per cent. Women need to access data to effectively run business.

Not being aware of the Internet potential and not having the skills to use it have contributed to this divide whose impact is to prevent women from getting good jobs or thrive in entrepreneurship.

Imparting ICT skills makes women more competent, employable and most importantly enabling their children, who make the next generation grow technologically adept.

Despite growth in technology across sub-Saharan Africa, a lot of Internet connectivity is concentrated in urban centres, how can penetration be increased to the majority who are still living in rural areas?

Developing countries continue to struggle for affordable and sustainable ways of widening access to digital devices and broadband connections, especially in rural and remote areas. That calls for increased investment in connectivity to allow more businesses to expand their networks.

A number of countries are addressing this challenge with the help of Universal Service Funds that play an important role in transitioning developing countries to becoming fully broadband-enabled societies.

The main challenge currently is that companies are doing connectivity as a business venture and will not go into an area that doesn’t make sense with the cost.

There is however salvation in the upward trajectory of smartphone penetration which is enabling more and more people to access the Internet as the infrastructure expands.

How do you view Kenya’s technological potential?

There is a great dynamism in the market and I think the potential has already proved itself by creating some of the biggest innovations out of Africa like M-Pesa, which shows how limitations can create an innovation.

Innovation is something that needs to come from the grassroots that is where people understand the local challenges and working with the developers and giving them skills can help nurture talents to come up with even better innovations.

What is your opinion on the Silicon Valley kind of establishment Konza city whose construction is ongoing?

Konza will bring the right companies and more dynamism to the already vibrant innovation spirit.

The government has made considerable investments towards connectivity and now needs to remain more focused in terms of programmes being implemented to make Konza a reality through private investments.

In Kenya, there is need to address the impact of Value Added Tax in the sector, which has led to a decline in adoption of ICT by making it less affordable yet we need to increase accessibility to support growth of the economy.

In terms of making Konza a reality, entrepreneurship is very important and the government needs to support entrepreneurial mindsets.

If such a place is to become just a real estate hub it will not bring in the right kind of impact. Konza needs to be made into a place that has something for everyone to be part of so that the startups can easily come up.

Does Intel have plans to invest in Konza city?

This is not yet in our plan but we are continuously exploring ways to collaborate with companies looking to invest there and support other government initiatives.

For example we have in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and KICD trained over 100 senior trainers and 15,000 teachers providing professional development in the past three years.

We also collaborated with the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology (JKUAT) in their recent launch of locally assembled Intel based Taifa Laptop.