Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab (02 June 2017)
CAPE TOWN - There was one signal from the ANC conference that there’s a great future for technology in Africa and that sign was the fact that the ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa used an iPad to read his acceptance speech. 

This is partly because his predecessor was reading his last speech as the president of the ANC on a printed page. Using technology from San Francisco will, however, not be enough to create the Digital Africa. The continent needs leaders with the digital mindset who will lead it into the 4th Industrial Age.

There has never been a better time for the continent to establish its own technology infrastructure. 2018 should serve as the beginning for creating an African continent that is dependent on its own technology platforms. As the starting point the continent should focus on creating the following platforms starting with a data platform.

Data

Currently Africa has no control over its own data, partly because most technology infrastructure used on the continent has databases located outside the continent. The absence of African data on the continent will have a negative impact and keep it on the back seat of technology revolution. Uber is an important case study in this regard, when one considers that traffic data collected by Uber does not reside on the continent.

In future when roads are all filled by autonomous cars which will be based on traffic data collected over years, Uber will have control over how African traffic moves.

The leaders on the continent will have to flex their muscles to regain control of the continent's data as this will impact on the economic future of the continent. One action that is required is to ensure that everything that has anything to do with the continent is stored on local databases. One way of doing this would be not to force tech multinationals operating on the continent, such as Uber to have local databases to store their data as that has zero chances of happening.

This situation should inspire a creation of locally based technology platforms that will locate their data within the continent.

Data in transport is one area of vulnerability for the African continent, however, there are more areas that will require similar intervention such as education.

Education

South Africa is grappling with the question of access to education and the reality is that solutions to this challenge cannot be solved by yesteryear solutions. Now that free education is being rolled out, the other reality is that academic institutions in their current brick and mortar form cannot provide space for every qualifying young person.

This is one of the reasons why technology can serve as an enabler for access to education since it is not limited in the same way as brick and mortar institutions.

The challenge, however, is that each academic institution is trying to create its own technology platform and this approach is not working. The recent challenge with online registrations have proven that technology infrastructure in academic institutions is not robust enough to meet the increased demand. Students have also complained about the extent to which poor students can have access to internet in order to register online.

All these issues highlight the need for an innovative approach to tech and education. Such an approach should not replicate the brick and mortar model of education, which is less collaboration and more individualism (eg every institution owning its own resources).

South Africa needs a single technology education platform to be shared by all institutions. Universities have tried this approach with their internet infrastructure when they created the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (Tenet). Currently Tenet provides Internet and related services to some 170 campuses of 55 institutions. The same approach is required for online services for universities.

Health

Apple has realised that health data has great value. Its Apple Watch product and the health app are key arsenals in this regard for the company. Efforts to improve health through data by companies such as Apple have to be commended, however, leaders on the continent should understand that it is ideal for the continent to own its health data.

The ability of the continent to use Artificial Intelligence for health will be limited if there’s less access to health data. Health technology in African health institutions should have locally based data-centres. As health information is accessible more online there will also be an increased need for online security.

Security

2017 was plagued by serious security breaches online that had negative consequences for businesses and individuals. Online security will continue to be a major challenge from 2018 going forward. The nature of security threats will also be fuelled by countries where major technology providers are located. The current situation with online security should move the African continent to create its own security systems and lessen its dependence on security software created elsewhere as this sometimes is used for ulterior motives.

In 2017, the United Kingdom government banned Karpersky Lab software which was used for security as it was suspected of being used for spying. The choice of technology used by governments will become more important as more and more governments use technology for service delivery.

Government services

The Home Affairs Department in South Africa together with South African Revenue Services e-filing have shown what is possible when technology is applied for government services.

There’s, however, a need for more government services to use more technology to enable citizens to have better access to government services. It should be the goal of each African country to do away with queues. It should be possible for people in rural areas to access government services within their communities. It should not be necessary for people to travel long distances to access basic government services.

The Infonomist will be on the lookout for African governments that are pioneering e-government services especially those that use technology for deciding its leadership during election periods.

Elections

Elections on the African continent have been the source of conflict for many years. This has been partly because of poor election systems that are used. Even in South Africa the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has recently faced challenges. There’s a common factor in all areas where challenges are experienced, technology has been the main weak-point.

Recently even countries beyond the African continent have faced interference by other countries. The continent should work towards creating its own electoral technology systems to avoid potential conflicts and interferences. Technology will not only be required for serious governance matters but also for enabling economic development in areas such as music and fashion.

Music

Nigeria has demonstrated that it is possible to create an economy out of local art through the Nollywood concept. Currently the African continent lacks a music platform with the same power as iTunes and other music platforms for local music.

This is an area that requires serious attention to enable local musicians to have a platform for economic development and to showcase their art. Music is not the only art form that requires technology intervention, but African fashion is ripe for technology intervention.

Fashion

There’s a convergence between technology and fashion that is currently under way. The missing part to this development is the infusion of African fashion. There’s a need for African fashion designers to infuse technology into their art by creating wearables that embrace African technology.

Transport

The African continent has a vibrant and strong transport economy largely led by the minibus taxi industry. This industry can learn a lot from the Uber approach to transportation. More importantly there’s also a need for the minibus taxi industry to take ownership of the technology that will power transportation on the African continent. Currently there’s a big gap in this space.

People

The people of Africa are the most important of all resources that will make it possible for the African continent to take the front seat during the 4th Industrial Age. Currently, most young people lack the necessary skills required to create the kind of digital future that Africa needs.

The current lack of such resources should lead a massive campaign towards training young people in real digital skills that truly matter. In this regard the African leaders should be careful of being confused by digital skills programmes led by entities such as Google that appear to be solving the skills problem on the continent. The African continent needs its Institute of Technology that will create leaders in the African technology space.

Twenty years down the line African leaders should look back to 2018 as the year that began a technology revolution on the continent. It should become a period in which Africa began to create its own technology solutions to its challenges.

The Infonomist will throughout the year 2018 document important technology developments on the continent through its own online information platform on - www.infonomist.co

Wesley Diphoko is the founder of Kaya Labs and the chief executive for Infonomist - a data platform designed to provide information that makes a difference. To access more information shared in this column visit: www.infonomist.co

- BUSINESS REPORT