This piece first appeared in Open Africa, a custom digital publication by Ornico that features interviews, insights and business lessons from some of Africa’s leading CEOs, innovators and decision makers.
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The IoT revolution has not gone unnoticed by Africa’s rising technology mavens; the next wave of tech growth will, to a large degree, be in this space. The ever-increasing coverage by mobile networks, cheaper hardware and improving connectivity are providing the opportunities to create solutions that will improve lives.
Kees Snijders of Flickswitch speaks to Open Africa about the practical aspects of IoT in action, having provided services for over 400 clients in various sectors, including retail, agriculture, vehicle tracking, water and energy.
Since bootstrapping Flickswitch back in 2007, the SIM management company is today recording R22-million in annual turnover, generating R1-million in profit.
#OpenAfricaMag: What is the IoT?
Kees Snijders: Simply put, it’s a web of connected everyday devices communicating via the internet. Said connectivity, at least in the developing world, is provided almost exclusively by mobile network operators (MNOs).
The IoT has been around since the advent of the internet. Most of what’s connected to the internet doesn’t have a human at the end of it. Software and hardware vendors are talking up big data and IoT, as [these] means investment is required in their products. MNOs are talking up their M2M/IoT offerings as this hopefully staves off their becoming dumb pipes in the face of over-the-top (OTT) services eroding their traditional revenue streams.
But now, more than ever, the factors enabling new innovative IoT solutions in Africa are there.
MNOs are expanding their coverage. Connectivity costs are dropping. Hardware sophistication is increasing, while costs are also declining. The skills to build IoT solutions to business problems are increasingly locally available. The opportunity to solve problems with technology solutions are plenty.
#OpenAfricaMag: How will the IoT transform the way we live and do business?
Kees Snijders: I’d say “augment” rather than transform. Quality-of-life improvements on an individual basis will only happen once reliable, affordable broadband is readily available, and we’re not there yet. I believe that we’ll see most of the benefits in the business environment — IoT is bringing the real world online in ways that weren’t possible before.
Having real-time insight into what is important to a business decision-maker and being equipped with tools to act on these insights is the promise IoT holds today.
#OpenAfricaMag: How will the IoT unfold in Africa, given that Africa is a mobile-first continent?
Kees Snijders: Time will tell, but IoT fills a vacuum in Africa. The absence of legacy infrastructure means it is not necessary to transition from older infrastructure to modern replacements. Deploying tech where none has been before can lead to a leapfrog effect as we’ve seen with the launch of M-Pesa in Kenya.
#OpenAfricaMag: What do brands seeking growth in Africa need to know about the IoT?
Kees Snijders: Doing business in Africa is hard. IoT promises to alleviate some of the heavy lifting, but it’s not a magic bullet. You still need to invest in people, systems and infrastructure to be successful. Patience is required!
#OpenAfricaMag: Which sectors will drive the adoption of the IoT in Africa?
Kees Snijders: 1) Security: The high incidence of crime, terror and corruption requires solutions that can mitigate the inevitable security risks. IoT solutions forged in a high-risk environment can lead to robust, sophisticated products that could work anywhere in the world.
2) Agriculture: IoT solutions can support global food security, allow for deeper insight into water scarcity, highlight where more-efficient production is required and where better use of resources results in less wastage.
3) Energy: IoT solutions influence better management of consumption and can be tailored to the needs of the off-grid population utilising alternative energy sources.
4) Warehousing and logistics: Efficiently moving goods from A to B to C.
#OpenAfricaMag: Which geographies will lead? Are there any entrepreneurial hotspots or innovation hotspots in terms of the IoT in Africa?
Kees Snijders: Necessity is the mother of all invention, and necessity abounds in Africa. Where problems are most keenly felt, there entrepreneurs will innovate. Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa are the hotspots for innovation.
#OpenAfricaMag: Let’s talk sectors. What will the IoT mean for retailers? What will it mean for consumer electronics? What will it mean for the transport industry?
Kees Snijders: IoT will enable retailers to monitor their operations much more closely than they were able to. Notwithstanding Africa’s challenges, a more-efficient cold chain, better logistics and more-accurate real-time operational data delivered via IoT will enable retailers of the future to tailor their offering to each geographic market and quickly adapt to changes in the environment.
Interconnecting disparate consumer electronic devices, coupled with increased distributed computing power, will enable new applications that we can’t even conceive of at present.
For the transport sector, IoT means no more siloed systems. Traditional tracking solutions, coupled with cold-chain monitoring incorporating real-time weather and traffic information, deliver much more comprehensive solutions to real-world problems.
#OpenAfricaMag: What about smart homes, smart buildings and smart cities? What will the experience of living in a ‘smart’ environment be like?
Kees Snijders: These are first-world concepts, not so relevant in Africa. A ‘smart’ home that automatically sets a thermostat, plays some mood music and fires up the kettle when you arrive at home is solving problems for the middle-to-upper class family, while the needs for Africa’s majority are more basic.
From clean water, reliable and cheap electricity to fast internet connectivity, utilities that can efficiently deliver services to as many of their constituents as possible make for a pretty smart city.
#OpenAfricaMag: Where is Africa now in terms of the IoT? Please offer examples from SA, Kenya and Nigeria?
Kees Snijders: IoT is in its infancy. Our experience is mostly confined to SA and Kenya. SA has a sophisticated IoT landscape with lots of roleplayers.
Some examples: Mix Telematics and Key Telematics are world leaders in fleet management solutions; in instrumentation and control and Scada systems, it’s Adroit Technologies; in cold-chain monitoring, beyond wireless, and in point-of-sale and retail solutions, Metacom, Flash, WiGroup and Xlink.
Kenya, through M-Pesa, has solved the problem of collecting micro-payments. This has been an enabler to solutions likeM-Kopa, solar-powered solutions for the off-grid population.
In agriculture, IBM is running the EZ-farm project in Kenya.
#OpenAfricaMag: What do businesses need to know about the IoT? How will it transform the way business will be done?
Kees Snijders: Businesses need real-time information to run more efficiently. IoT is one way to collect relevant real-time information from operations. Having said that, it is not a magic wand that fixes operational problems. What you do with the data is where the value lies, not in the data itself. Businesses need to know that IoT just adds another level of operational visibility — the ‘so-what’ part still needs to be applied.
#OpenAfricaMag: What do brands need to know about the IoT? How will it change the way brands speak to customers?
Kees Snijders: A 2012 McKinsey & Company report, entitled the ‘Rise of the African consumer’, notes that consumers in Africa are similar to urban consumers anywhere else in the world, from being both brand and quality conscious, seeking out the latest trends but watching their budget, and wanting a modern, attractive shopping environment. The first thing successful brands in Africa will say is that localisation is key, because targeting customers in 53 countries, speaking more than 2000 dialects, is not a ‘one-shoe-fits-all’ project.
That said, IoT has influenced the customer-service space on various levels purely because consumers have smart devices connected to the internet. Brands essentially need to understand how their customers in specific markets are using various devices and channels when communicating with them, or about them.
The 2015 Ericsson Mobility report for sub-Saharan Africa predicts that smartphone subscriptions will increase 25% from 170m to 690m by 2021. Brands on the African continent realise this and are consciously designing campaigns that connect with the customer via their mobile phones. IoT brings an omni-channel experience, allowing brands to be more creative than ever, provided it’s targeted.
Follow Kees Snijders of Flickswitch on Twitter: @ksnijders