Cloud Computing

Cloud: The Road to African Innovation

For years, Africa has lagged behind in the global race to get on the cloud. This is mostly because we have lacked the necessary ingredients for a successful cloud environment to run, including not having enough reliable connectivity as well as the apparent lack of established IT firms to provide cloud service.

But times are changing, and in true African fashion, cloud is now becoming the most logical tool to allow the continent to continue its innovation streak as it presents a new opportunity to use technology to leapfrog development challenges and deploy solutions more efficiently.

For more and more African leaders, the true value of cloud computing lies in its unparalleled effectiveness as a platform for rapid, game-changing, and global innovation. The cloud offers Africa’s burgeoning communities of innovators – from developers to entrepreneurs and researchers – the opportunity to build and test their solutions faster and more cost-effectively than ever before. By deploying their “big ideas” to the cloud, these forward-thinking individuals and enterprises can not only design solutions more effectively, but quickly and efficiently scale them to match demand – a critical factor if African innovations are to take prominence on the world stage.

In both Africa and around the world, the cloud has put us on the cusp of a massive shift in how we work, communicate, and solve the big problems, which also constitute the biggest market opportunities. Research by IDC suggests that revenues from cloud could top $107 billion by 2017. And by vastly lowering the entry-level barriers to enterprise-grade computing power, the cloud has also opened up immense opportunities to developers in the developing world. Nobody can predict exactly what form these innovations will take, but what will be certain is that the cloud will be instrumental for African start-ups and enterprises looking to establish a global footing.

Most viable product

The cloud’s core attributes make it uniquely suited to supporting all manner of innovations. By providing cost-effective computing power that’s fast, simple to provision, and doesn’t rely on fixed servers or other traditional IT assets, the cloud gives innovative individuals and organisations a platform which can adapt to their ideas as they evolve and expand. The “distributed computing” model which the cloud relies on is, in fact, ideal for start-ups, developers, and other small-scale entrepreneurship communities: it offers them access to the best in IT infrastructure, and allows them to iteratively adjust and improve their solutions in real time, without having to commit to similarly large capital costs and other expenditures. That’s particularly relevant to Africa’s fast-growing entrepreneurial clusters, many of which currently lack the same levels of access to funding or physical IT infrastructure as their counterparts situated elsewhere in the world.

Only by harnessing the cloud can Africa’s innovation communities hope to achieve the critical mass and prominence on the same level as Silicon Valley and other established hubs worldwide. Developers need to embrace the cloud as the “platform of platforms,” which underpins mobile computing, social media, Big Data, and other technologies that are already dramatically shaping the continent’s commercial and social landscape.

Mobile-based innovations like M-PESA, for example, rely on the cloud to deliver their highly disruptive potential to end users’ devices: M-PESA saw 8 million customers – the equivalent to over 40% of Kenya’s adult population – sign up last year alone. Entrepreneurs must recognise it as a means by which to not only create solutions “for the cloud” but also “in the cloud”: the analysis of Big Data, which the cloud makes commercially viable, for example, can inform the design of more efficient physical products and networks.

Hosted on the public open-standard cloud in IBM’s newly-opened Africa Research Lab is a solution called Twende Twende (or “Let’s Go” in Swahili), which runs deep analytics and algorithms in the cloud to parse and extrapolate traffic flows using visual data from Nairobi’s 36 CCTV cameras. The processor-intensive mathematical routines which underpin Twende Twende would not be commercially viable on a dedicated piece of IT infrastructure; nor would the delivery of the resulting traffic insights to both citizens’ traditional and smart mobile devices in real-time. And when Twende Twende’s founders decide to roll out the solution to more cities – both across Africa and the globe – they can rapidly scale the cloud to meet their growing demand, without requiring extensive renovations to their business model or otherwise jeopardising their operations.

Innovation’s next iteration

Africa’s developers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders have unprecedented opportunities for innovation as a result of the cloud. But to make the most of them – and ensure the sustainability of emerging communities of “disruptors” and entrepreneurs – we need to clearly define what we want the continent’s cloud to be in terms of its accessibility, security, and collaborative potential.

The cloud needs to be open – to cross-border and cross-platform development – if it is to be a truly effective platform for innovation. Supporting common standards like OpenStack, a free and open-source system for building clouds, needs to be a priority for both innovators and the organisations that sponsor them.

The interoperability between different clouds and solutions that standards like OpenStack offer is critical for developers and entrepreneurs alike. It allows them to develop bespoke clouds, which best cater to their needs, and host and access these clouds from different geographies and infrastructures as the need arises.  This is particularly relevant for African entrepreneurs whose social and technological networks cross borders in a manner far more fluid than in most other innovation clusters. Perhaps most importantly, it gives developers a “common language” through which to collaborate on projects and deploy them with full compatibility on the global scale.

Without this interoperability, the cloud will lose the flexibility that innovators need from their technology resources.

The cloud also needs to be secure – in terms of not just pure cyber-security, but also around certainty over the sovereignty of data and the legislations that govern innovators’ intellectual property. The vast differences in judicial systems and rights across Africa mean that entrepreneurs and established organisations alike must work together to make the location of data – and its legal implications – as transparent as possible in every instance.

What’s next on the horizon?

Just like with the Web in the 1980s, today’s businesses and governments have only just begun to scratch the surface of what the cloud can do. Africa’s entrepreneurial communities are nimble enough to quickly and decisively take advantage of these opportunities, which span not just pure business but also socio-economic challenges: mobile apps on the cloud, for example, can be widely deployed to end users without struggling with intermittent power or other infrastructural weaknesses that have traditionally hindered Africa’s adoption of new technologies.

The exact shape of these innovations is hard to predict. On the African continent they will almost certainly harness the proliferation of mobile devices for rapid service delivery; some will take advantage of Big Data and emerging fields like cognitive computing to make transformative advances at the institutional and national levels. Almost all, however, will rely on the cloud as a springboard to not just become commercially viable, but to scale to the global stage – but only if they act now to stay at the vanguard of the global start-up community and its already-aggressive stance on cloud-based innovation. Investing immediately in open-standard clouds with regulatory transparency is critical to ensuring that the future of Africa’s ambitious innovation culture will be a bright one.


By Nik Nesbitt, General Manager, IBM East Africa


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