Can’t ignore the emerging economy of the Internet-of-Things in Africa

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article that featured in the October/November 2020 edition of Forbes Africa Magazine.

More recently, on the 28 August 2020 to be precise, the South African born, Silicon Valley-based engineer Elon Musk unveiled a brain implant that measures the activities of the brain and sends the information to a central database where it can be analyzed. The implications of this on the health of individuals are far-reaching. With this data from the brain, we can track blood sugar levels, epileptic activities, high blood pressure, Alzheimer and many others. This is, in essence, the Internet-of-Things (IoT).

IoT involves the following steps: sensing, distribution, analysis and action. Data must be sensed, and in the case of Musk’s company Neuralink, an implant is used to gather the data. Then such data must be transferred wirelessly to a central place, e.g. smartphone, where it is analyzed using data analytics tools such as artificial intelligence. Then the knowledge that is extracted from the data analysis process is used for decision making. For example, if the application is in health, and the data analysis reveals that there is something wrong with the person from whom data was gathered, the information is relayed to a doctor, and an appointment is automatically made. The applications of IoT are vast and include air pollution monitoring, forest fire detection, water monitoring and monitoring of buildings.

We now find ourselves in this new era, where there is a shift towards embracing digital technologies. The confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) have sped this up significantly. Recently, I was appointed as the Chairman of the International Advisory Board of the African Center of Excellence in Internet of Things (ACE-IoT) at the University of Rwanda. The ACE-IoT is a testament to this 4IR shift. As Rwandan President Paul Kagame put it, “Africa’s story has been written by others; we need to own our problems and solutions and write our story”. As we define our own path in the 4IR, institutions such as the ACE-IoT are crucial to writing our story.

It is a tradition, especially in the world of academia, for institutions such as ACE-IoT to be termed as Centers. Centres enable deep inward, and outbound knowledge production, development, and dissemination and are populated by researchers, who may be permanent or visiting staff as well as students usually studying for advanced degrees. These centres should be linked to industry, government and venture capitalists.

For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the globe propelled into a threatening environment. Here we can apply IoT to monitor the movement of people and contain the spread of this pandemic. This requires scientists, economists, financial experts, sociologists and myriad others to work collaboratively.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has observed that the 4IR would pave the way for new jobs, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering, data analysis, computer science and the social sciences. In this context, we need to adapt our education system to one that adequately equips students for a fundamental shift in paradigm. IoT is at the heart of innovation, and it can power automated systems, wearable electronics such as Fitbits or Apple Watches and even smart fridges. The value chain of IoT is wide enough for us to insert ourselves. For example, we could analyze all these data gathered using wireless sensor networks using AI expertise that is available in Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya. According to an Ericsson IoT forecast report, it is predicted that there will be around 29 billion connected devices by 2022 – 18 million of which will be IoT-related.

A report from Verified Market Research estimated that the global IoT market was valued at $212.1billion in 2018 and is expected to see a growth of 25.68% between 2019 and 2026, reaching $1,3trillion. The economic impact of IoT applications is expected to range from $3.9 trillion to $11.1 trillion per year by 2025. The economic stakes are too high for us to ignore the emerging economy of IoT. As the Executive Chairman of the WEF, Klaus Schwab, wrote in the foreword of our book, Disruptive fourth industrial revolution, “Will the Fourth Industrial Revolution be an opportunity for countries in Africa and elsewhere to “leapfrog”, or will it only exacerbate existing development inequalities?” If we invest in technologies such as IoT, we can leapfrog to the new era of prosperity.

Professor Marwala is the author of the book: Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa. He can be followed on twitter at @txm1971.

* The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.



prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg
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