Visitors walk past the Chinese company ZTE pavilion at the Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona, north-eastern Spain. Picture: EPA

The global proliferation of the Internet of things (IoT) is definitely a trend to watch. However, for many, the term “the IoT” is nothing more than a whizzy buzzword with vague meaning, when in fact, the phrase simply describes the plethora of networked physical devices such as mobile phones, watches, vehicles, buildings, as well as many other items humans use or interact with day to day.

The IoT basically refers to any object that allows for network connectivity through embedded electronics, software, sensors, or actuators. Such gadgets are often dubbed “connected devices” or “smart devices”.

In theory, these objects are designed and deployed by well-meaning, progressive users to gather and exchange data that helps achieve improved efficiencies and economic benefits, increase the accuracy of data collection, deliver unprecedented levels of convenience and generally improve the quality of life overall.

Evidence of a growing enthusiasm towards the development of various applications spawned by the IoT is all around us. What with the widespread assembly of smart grids, virtual power plants, smart homes, intelligent transportation and even the growing obsession with the formation of smart cities. All these things are made possible as the IoT enables the integration of physical objects into computer-driven systems. Sounds exciting, right? Well, it is, but there are rubs, which I will touch on a little later.

In a recent interview for the African­, I spoke to Jacques de Vos. De Vos is the managing director of Vodacom’s IoT subsidiary, Mezzanine, and he is one of the continent’s leading practitioners within the IoT space. His firm helps companies all over Africa, in sectors spanning agriculture, health, education and logistics, gear up to exploit the untold potential of the IoT.

Mobile-first world

Given Mezzanine’s affiliation to Vodacom, it’s unsurprising that they claim on their website to have a strategic leaning towards delivering “mobile-enabled business solutions as a managed service for a mobile-first world”.

I asked De Vos to explain what he thought might be driving the space race to build IoT networks in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent - a rally that has not only drawn in mobile telco incumbents like MTN and Vodacom, but also newer fibre network players such as Liquid Telecom and Dark Fibre Africa.

Read also: Internet of Things gathering steam in SA

Well, it turns out that all these contenders are betting that there are big bucks to be made in providing corporations with IoT infrastructure that will allow them to operate more efficiently and profitably.

According to De Vos, one of the most exciting features of the IoT trend is the ongoing discovery of previously unimagined commercial and non-commercial use cases.

Economic case

There is undoubtedly a compelling economic case to be made for the adoption of the IoT. To demonstrate, a supermarket group might harness the IoT to eliminate shrinkage due to theft or minimise losses incurred whenever perishable goods are spoiled due to inefficient logistics or stock management.

Imagine a world where all the grocery items in every single shipment, warehouse and retail shelf, have built-in network capabilities that not only allow for real-time stock tracking, but also the real-time processing of data like what chemical state the product is in, the temperature of the space surrounding environment, or even checks on whether safety seals are broken or not. Now imagine similar technological innovations being applied to all the world’s leading commercial, industrial and humanitarian undertakings. Yes. Ching, ching!

While the developed world maintains an ongoing fascination with headline-grabbing IoT applications such as self-driving cars and smart homes, and while corporate interests scramble to find new ways to exploit IoT tech to maximise shareholder value, I believe that in Africa, the most compelling reasons to be excited about the IoT trend are linked to the potential of addressing the glaring inefficiencies that exist in the continent’s agricultural and healthcare sectors.

IoT technologies have the potential to engender greater levels of transparency and accountability in the delivery of public healthcare, for instance, or even help small-holder farmers maximise the use of their meagre resources, thus optimising yields and helping them to participate more meaningfully in the global agro-economy.

However, despite all this exciting inherent potential, the IoT does pose some serious threats to security, not just online, but also in the real world. In October 2016, the world’s largest publicised distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack famously took place.

Knocked out

The co-ordinated strike led to Twitter, Spotify, Amazon, Reddit, Yelp, Netflix, and The New York Times either slowing to a snail’s pace or being knocked out altogether.

Researchers at security intelligence firm, Flashpoint, established that a Mirai botnet attacked Dyn, a major DNS host (which is an intermediary sometimes described as an Internet address book).

Alarmingly, it is believed that a significant proportion of the DDoS attack traffic that targeted Dyn was sourced from compromised IoT-enabled cameras that participated in Mirai botnets.

This is just one of the many ways data drawn from IoT devices can be hijacked by unsavoury elements to devastating effect. With regulation efforts falling way behind innovation, and with commercial interests keen to leverage new technologies for economic gain, it’s easy to see how the average African citizen might be vulnerable to exploitation and oblivious to the hazards that accompany the adoption of the IoT.

When I put this to De Vos, he admitted that while there are many positives that the IoT might yield, we must brace for the dangers that lurk in the uncertain IoT-driven future that we are all sailing into.

He hastened to say he believes the upside potential of IoT adoption far outweighs the risks, adding that lawmakers would do well to adopt a wait-and-see approach to regulating the roll-out of the IoT - rather than zealously enacting policies aimed at pre-empting as yet unknown negative outcomes.

De Vos reckons that every effort must be made to prevent unnecessarily conservative legislation from stifling innovations that could lead to vast improvements in the standard of living for all world citizens.

Andile Masuku is an entrepreneur and broadcaster based in Johannesburg. He is the executive producer at Follow Andile on Twitter @MasukuAndile and the African Tech Round-up @africanroundup.