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With rapidly expanding infrastructure and a sudden shift to remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic, Africa can leapfrog first world countries with SaaS innovation and mobile technology. We speak with Kabelo Makwane (Managing Executive, Cloud and Hosting Vodacom Business) about the challenges and opportunities facing the Africa continent in 2020.
What, in its simplest definition is cloud computing?
Without being too technical, cloud computing brings together a shared pool of IT resources that can be consumed on a ‘pay as you go’ type of service provision. This is as opposed to the traditional distributed computing model where everyone – whether it’s a small home office or a large enterprise – was building their own ‘IT shops’. The benefits come from aggregating these important resources and making them available on a mass scale in a flexible way, just like we consume utilities today. Thanks to the second industrial revolution, with the discovery of electricity and mass production, you can flick a switch and have electricity come to your home. We are in that era from a computing perspective and you can think of cloud computing in the same way.
What’s happening in the cloud computing space?
If you look at the last half a decade or so, there’s been significant investment in building connectivity infrastructure, both submarine, inland, and at termination points. This has brought increased connectivity on mobile platforms, which has been growing across Africa, as well as fixed line with fibre to businesses and homes. The telecommunications service providers have also played a crucial role in building out more base station infrastructure. What’s important to highlight is that the African continent, which by and large missed the first and second industrial revolutions, now has a fantastic opportunity to be cloud first and mobile first.
What’s driving the progress?
If you think about the present landscape, a lot of the services that that people have been taking advantage of during COVID-19 circumstances (and even leading up to that lockdown period) have been largely driven by applications. Companies in the ecommerce space have taken off and we are seeing good growth in online shopping in general as a result of more pervasive mobile connectivity and also thanks to the growing buildouts of fixed line infrastructure. This will also make sure that we have high speed connectivity and enable more of these cloud services to become possible. Right now we are in the era of LTE (4G) and in some cases – let’s be honest – even 3G and 2G. But the big wave is around 5G rollouts, which will increase mobile speeds three to five times. So the more we see regulatory reform, the better it will be for the consumer. There are also a myriad of use cases and opportunities for enterprises that can innovate with high speed connectivity.
How will this be valuable?
One example that we’ve seen recently with some of the initial spectrum licenses that have been issued in South Africa is an application around geofencing. We have a big challenge with poaching of endangered species in our national parks. And companies have come up with interesting innovations using IoT [Internet of Things] technology and high speed mobile networks, combined with CCTV surveillance to provide GIS [Geographic Information System] mapping that will enable and empower the field forces to respond to potential poaching threats. That’s just one use case. With COVID-19, we’ve also seen track and trace technologies that enable us to get real-time data around infection rates using mobile applications. This has proven invaluable in helping governments manage the spread of the pandemic and is another benefit of what technology and cloud based services can deliver.
How can companies better use cloud computing?
Part of what people need to think about as they leverage cloud technology is experience design. Linked to that is design thinking and linked to design thinking are agile methodologies that can enable you to deliver incremental innovations quickly in a sort of ‘fail fast fail forward’ approach. So the agile methodologies that are used today to accelerate innovation find resonance with SaaS and cloud computing simply because the platforms enable for more accelerated and more flexible innovation, as opposed to in the past where you had to procure infrastructure, set it up, and have a sort of monolithic ‘waterfall’ approach to innovation. Today you can do it much faster. But in the end, it’s about the efficiency of the service and providing a better user experience. If, for example, users have to do more than three clicks to access a service, they’ll more than likely abandon it and move on to something else. So we have to make sure that we meet that standard of user expectations.
Why is cloud computing a reason for excitement?
There’s a big opportunity in the African context, both at a macro level when you when you think about industry convergence and around disruption. Small start-ups can position themselves as big players by leveraging ecosystems to create macro systems, especially when you think about things like gig economics and anything as a service. All these things signify a gradual shift from the days when you needed big bucks to build a big corporate to now when you can start small with innovation that solves people’s problems and then replicate that at a global scale. Just looking at the tech giants, which dominate stock markets as opposed to manufacturing and industrial companies, makes it clear that there’s an opportunity for start-ups to make a dent in the global economic space.
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