nairobi
Business Management

Africa needs better application of 'Smart City' tech

A new way of making everyday life efficient through technology, largely known as Smart Cities is gaining traction is some African countries.

According to Business Dictionary, a Smart City is defined as a developed urban area that creates sustainable economic development and high quality of life by excelling in multiple key areas; economy, mobility, environment, people, living, and government. Excelling in these key areas can be done so through strong human capital, social capital, and/or ICT infrastructure.

Kigali, in Rwanda, and Nairobi, in Kenya, have been the focus of such initiatives in East Africa and according to experts, 2016 will see more movement towards this trend.

Such innovations could include developing an efficient transport system that is guided by the use of data and technology. For instance, IBM has been piloting a system where it could map out the roads in Nairobi, fit them with CCTV cameras, and conduct an analysis of traffic trends.

Or it could take the form of smart metering. Kenya Power, for example, plans to offer home metres that could let consumers know which of their electronic devices is eating up the most fuel. Kenya Power also plans to have censors on its power lines, to automatically detect problems.

During a recent event by IDC, Smart Cities and digital transformation were highlighted as key trends for the East African region for this year.

Onesmus Mbogo, country manager for IDC in East Africa said that even though many critics are sceptical about the idea, the government and the private sector are already pushing this development in the region.

“We have intelligent buildings where companies are coming up with solid IT strategies when they are putting up the structures,” Mbogo said. “This forms a part of the ecosystem of building a Smart City.”

Such innovation will also push up the IT spend in many countries as predicted by IDC. Kenya’s IT expenditure is expected to grow marginally in 2016 to US$2.2 billion. While Nigeria and South Africa will have the biggest IT spend in Sub-Saharan Africa with US$5 billion and US$13 billion respectively.

“We are already on the road and we expect more of this to happen in the future,” Mbogo predicted.

 

Government incentives for private participation

According to IDC public private partnership is key in pushing these IT initiatives in Africa and it will form part of the 2016 trends in East Africa.

“This is expected to boost how technology is used,” Mbogo said. “Technology here will be the glue that will bring out development and possibilities.”

He gave an example of how telecoms companies in East Africa came together, with the good will of the various governments to lower roaming costs under the One Area Network Initiative. It is now cheaper to call from one East African country to the next.

Rwanda’s consistent drive to use ICT for development has put it on the African map. Recently, the country was named as the home of the Smart City initiative in Africa, making it a model for duplication across the continent.

According to their Smart Rwanda master plan (PDF), the country aims to cultivate public private partnerships.

“Our strategy will be to rely on the much needed private sector resources and capabilities. Unlike previously where programs of this type have been driven and sustained by the government, the SMART Rwanda program will be private sector-driven to avoid the risk of them turning out to be white elephants,” Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Rwanda’s Minister of Youth and ICT said in a statement.

In Kenya, Nairobi was recognised as one of the 20 most progressive cities alongside San Jose, San Francisco and Boston. This was according to City Momentum Index (CMI) [PDF], complied by professional services and investment management company, Jones Lang LaSalle.

The Nairobi County government’s e-payment of parking fees, land rate fees and many more also catapulted the city to be named one of the top 21 intelligent cities in the world by the Intelligent Community Forum in January 2015.

 

Legislation and innovation

Having legislation for Smart City initiatives can help regulate the use of technology. Many innovations need to operate within the scope of a country’s legislation, but appropriate legislation itself can spur innovation.

In October 2015, the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) made huge strides by passing a bill that will enable people living in East Africa to make use of digital signatures. This will ensure that e-signatures can be accepted throughout industries and made admissible in court proceedings.

Such a progressive laws, will help companies and businesses enable digital transformation and smoothen business processes.

Having a master plan for ICT investments by various government ICT arms can help to chart a way forward in terms of legislation, to ensure appropriate use of technology.

As the Rwandan ICT plan is expected to take root by the year 2020, Kenya’s ICT master plan has also been hailed as progressive in East Africa.

One of pillar of the Kenya ICT master plan is to provide e-government services.

“The second pillar is ICT as a Driver of Industry, which aims at transforming key Vision 2030 2nd MTP economic sectors to significantly enhance productivity, global competitiveness and growth; and the third pillar is Developing ICT Businesses that can produce and or provide exportable quality products and services that are comparable to the best in the world,” the plan stated.

 

Taking note of threats

In December last year, the Central Bank of Kenya, issued a statement [PDF] saying that it does not support the operation of Bitcoins in the country. According to the regulator, Bitcoin is not regulated and so can be a danger to those who trade in it.

It is a given that technology has to operate within a certain realm of legislation, but limiting innovation through government bureaucracy could also curtail the innovation being encouraged.

Technology is well known to be disruptive. What governments in Africa need to do is to form a common bond with some of the innovation hubs and proactively give their input on the ideas being created.

In 2014, the Kenyan transport e-payments plan did not succeed due to lack of education. This meant there was little uptake by either passengers or transport operators.

The National Transport and Safety Authority did not get it right the first time while pushing the e-payment system. Those plans are now gathering dust with no sign of implementation.

Technology offers a big opportunity to change the way we live in cities and in due time throughout the country and the continent. However, public and private sector partnerships combined and an open mind to change, might be the real key to rapid development.

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Vincent Matinde

Vincent Matinde is an international IT Journalist highlighting African innovations in the technology scene.

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