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“At 23:56 on 23rd October 1963, Zambians rose in reverence of the Union Jack, the de facto national flag of the United Kingdom, for the last time as it lowered, signifying the end of British rule in Zambia.”

― Precious Mwansa-Chisa

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The unbridled potential of the IoT ecosystem

Connected Things

Now that communication has shifted from voice-dominant to data-dominant, with traffic generated by IP applications and Internetized Over-The-Top (OTT) services, connectivity sits at the heart of interaction. The gathering momentum of IoT has stimulated a sustainable ecosystem of united connections hinging on innovation, value, and experience.

IoT focuses on embedding connectivity and intelligence in devices, enabling people to collect vast volumes of data in near real-time. Analysing this data presents new levels of information and intelligence for businesses, which they can use to drive efficiencies, reinvent business models and transform customer experience.

Industry captains prophesied that 2017 would be the breakthrough year for IoT following the global launch of NB-IoT standards in June 2016 and the availability of US$1 dollar IoT chips in the US. Analyst firm, Gartner found that there were already an estimated 8.4 billion connected things in use worldwide in 2017, which is set to reach an astonishing 20.4 billion by 2020. It is anticipated that IoT will reach mainstream adoption in the next two to five years in Africa, where it is expected to have a “transformational impact” on local businesses. The untapped potential stretches far beyond a connected home, connected car or even a connected dustbin.

IoT has captured consumer imagination with its vision of a futuristic world in which intelligent devices interact with their daily lives. Global market intelligence firm IDC forecasts that the IoT market opportunity in Africa is poised to grow by 17% from $837.9 million in 2016 to $1.8 billion by 2020.

IoT Utilities

For example, over 630 million people in Africa live without access to electricity, while an estimated 40 billion hours a year are spent fetching water in the sub-Saharan region. Conventional utility providers are simply struggling to serve the continent’s population. IoT can be a huge help in addressing the challenges facing Africa’s utility providers. Smart meters are gaining popularity and traction globally, and the technology has a compelling business case across the continent.

IoT Agriculture

Another case in point is agriculture. It is a vital yet struggling industry. An estimated 95% of agriculture across sub-Saharan Africa relies on rainfall for water, leaving communities vulnerable to food insecurity. Enter IoT. While traditional farming practices are still widely used, new technologies are beginning to infiltrate the sector. Wireless sensors can track crop growth, soil moisture and water tank levels. The potential for these and more advanced solutions to revolutionise the farming sector is immense because the valuable data sets they produce can help farmers make more informed farming decisions.

IoT Health

It is heartbreaking when healthcare systems across Africa are consistently ranked among the lowest in the world. Therefore, it is particularly pertinent to Africa to exploit the potential for IoT and maximise efficiencies in the healthcare setting where resources are typically thinly stretched potential for IoT. From strengthening application and end-user management at hospitals and clinics to enhancing home monitoring and remote care, IoT has the potential to transform patient engagement. However, at the same time, it has the potential to be the most sensitive when it comes to data collection. While the next-generation of healthcare providers across Africa will likely experience major benefits from a more digitised environment, they will also face greater security risks.

IoT Transport

On a continent with the highest rate of road traffic fatalities in the world, IoT can also be used to improve road safety. Cost remains a potential roadblock for IoT adoption in the transport sector, despite hardware prices continuously falling. A company in Kenya called SafeMotos provides a safer Uber-style service for Africa’s popular motorbike taxis. The solution equips motorbike drivers with smartphone based sensors, from which data is pulled to gauge acceleration, braking and speed. The data is then inputted into a risk model, ensuring customers are only paired to drivers above a certain threshold on this risk model.

The role of IoT in the collection of accurate data will really come into life as the cost of data sensor devices lowers, and the ease of connecting them to the network increases. Machine learning and big data analytics, mostly running in the cloud, will be able to use this data to solve business and social problems.

IoT Challenges and Mitigation

The issue of cost when it comes to IoT is multifaceted. Not only does the cost of hardware and network access need to come down for African businesses to afford IoT applications, but the cheaper cost of labour in Africa means there isn’t such a strong driver for replacing the workforce with automation. This must force businesses to carefully evaluate where there are real opportunities to deploy IoT. The technology is beginning to show signs of its worth in areas such as utilities, agriculture and animal conservation, but elsewhere it may be a case of IoT finding its own niche.

While IoT presents exciting new opportunities for businesses, there are also significant challenges to overcome. Cybersecurity has taken on new significance to businesses and consumers as high-profile attacks have dominated headlines worldwide, raising awareness and fear of data breaches. The increase in connected devices potentially offers more entry points for hackers. While consumers are experiencing significant benefits from smart home applications – such as reduced energy consumption and a lower electricity bill – it can also create new security risks.

A great example of just how much vulnerability a connected home can easily be exposed to was highlighted in Season 2 of a popular TV show called Mr. Robot. The hacker group F-Society remotely takes over the smart home of Evil Corp’s Chief Legal officer by simply manipulating the thermostat and security system effectively making it inhabitable only with a few lines of code.

One technology that could solve a piece of the IoT security puzzle is blockchain. In a nutshell, blockchain works by using a network of computers, all of which must approve a transaction in a chain of computer code. Details of the transfer are then recorded on a public ledger for anyone on the network to see. Blockchain is currently being explored by businesses as a mechanism to lower the cost, simplify and secure remittance payments for guest workers in various countries. Remittances to developing countries are expected to grow to $444 billion in 2017, according to World Bank. But blockchain could also eventually be used in an IoT environment for microservices payments.

With 4G LTE networks becoming widespread, the IoT ecosystem is a great idea away. In Zambia, all the three mobile network operators are on 4G albeit characterised by intermittent connectivity and inconsistent quality of service. A raging price battle ensued at the heels of Airtel launching their 4G service in Lusaka leading people to question whether they have been overpaying for Internet since its introduction. Zamtel and MTN followed Airtel’s data price reduction by slashing data offers by as much as eighty-two per cent. If you ask me, it means there’s a glaring light at the end of the tunnel.

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