As African Business catches the eye of global investors, one area that is likely to pull a surprise for governments and businesses in the continent is cloud computing- an iconic IT phenomenon that has cultivated employment opportunities for many as well as rendered many more jobless because their roles suddenly dissipated into the ‘cloud’. Take technicians for instance. Traditionally, they only played the role of deploying, provisioning and orchestrating. They also did repairs. Every now and then one could espy them trying to influence decision making. Perhaps their days have come now. In a couple of years, IT teams will have relegated the mentality of being mere technicians. Cloud provisioning will have fixed that static role. They will be bursting with novelty and decision–making skills. It might not even be any wonder to see an entity that runs entirely on IT minds without soliciting charismatic heads from other disciplines.
As the clock ticked towards 2013, the cloud was trending more towards rehabilitating IT departments into remote centers of activities. In fact 58% of Information Technology experts are now rallying towards resetting their work to embrace the transition into a tech-savvy future. There are in-house iterations, evaluations and experimentation that will help companies to provision their data in the right cloud environment. African governments will have no choice but rise up to the challenge of accepting technologies because even though global investors are coming to do business in Africa, they will demand an efficient, technology driven environment.
In the IBM report for Ghana’s capital Accra released March 2013, the tech giant presents an outline of the challenges as well as the opportunities existent in the city that Mastercard’s African Cities Growth Index ranks top in Africa in terms of economic potential over the next five years. This is the second report IBM is releasing on an African city. The first report covered Kenya’s capital Nairobi, a city beaming with ambition but with challenges in equal measure. As IBM moves to engage in other African countries including Nigeria and South Africa, it’s becoming more evident that the challenges in different cities may not be exactly the same. But the consequences of ignoring them will mean one thing-a slump in economies of the respective countries.
But no city need reach the disastrous point when the technologies of the day are within reach with dedicated effort as the only major requirement. IBM’s view of smarter cities is founded on the principle of urbanizing the world, where cities will gain significant control in a number of pertinent pillars topmost being development, economy and politics. IBM observes that cities around the world are suffering unique challenges. Whatever they are, from transport to sanitation, these challenges need holistic solutions.
A significant number of African business leaders have acknowledged the vital role of cloud as exemplified by Philip Sowah, MD, Airtel Ghana who hailed the IBM report while affirming that transportation is a leading challenge among African cities. “Accra is just like any other African city in many ways. We just need to take due advantage of the tools and techniques and knowledge base that this IBM report has provided and begin to use them to create positive change for Accra.”, Sowah commented in a brief sent to Bizrika.
Ghana’s fast growing urban population is sufficient testimony of a country right at the epicenter of economic vibrancy, a picture that analysts agree is replicated across several African countries despite the frequent political challenges the continent is currently handling. Ghana’s economic fortunes have already attracted the investment appetite of leading African companies. IBM gives the example of South Africa’s FirstRand Bank which recently netted 75% in Merchant Bank Ghana. This is one among several business deals that have been conducted by both foreign and African based corporations as part of the bigger interest in Ghana’s seemingly thriving economy.
When the investors knock on Ghanaian business doors, they are received by Accra which hosts a significant portion of Ghana’s business activities from industries to service firms not forgetting the active informal sector. It is in this vibrancy that technology finds a critical role and as Ghana IBM country Manager Joe Mensah notes in the report, “Accra is in a unique position to create a new standard for cities in Africa through the innovative use of technology”.
Ghana’s urbanization has been so rapid that important cities like Accra now find themselves in a state that IBM rightly describes as ‘unprepared’. Unprepared because the city is now feeling the weight of demand for essential offerings like housing and transport. Accra’s infrastructure belongs to the past. It cannot support the current demands of residents and businesses. Traffic congestion is a daily pain, electricity supply is on the red, other services like health and security are no longer matching the demand.
If these challenges are not met early enough, Ghana’s economic momentum will either crash at worst or change direction to a messy destination where businesses find themselves in one dark box with zero possibility of making reasonable profit or expanding in line with their ultimate vision.
According to IBM, the smarter city approach will provide the best holistic solution to Accra’s challenges. This is part of the company’s wider strategy to support governments in meeting critical challenges that must be overcome if efficient and sufficient service provision is to match the demands of rapid urbanization. As part of the comprehensive approach within the smarter cities project, IBM puts forward the following recommendations to Accra’s Municipal Services:
Using mobile payment systems to boost revenue collection. Big Data will play a role in identifying fraud as well as delinquent tax.
Employing cloud computing systems on municipal institutions involved in public service provision. Costs will reduce and information sharing be improved.
Smart technologies should be used to improve public awareness on important undertakings such as public sanitation.
Using smart technologies to enhance stakeholder engagement in public finances management.
Establishing smart communication channels to initiate progressive talks within Accra Municipal Authority departments as well as to businesses and community stakeholders.
Many leaders have cried foul over Accra’s transportation challenge including the late Professor John Evans Ata Mills, the country’s former president who once labeled traffic in the capital a headache, terming it one of the biggest problems that Accra faces.
A smarter congestion management would be necessary to solve the traffic nightmare in Accra. On this front, IBM recommends the following strategies:
A modern mass public transit system built in phases with the support of both domestic and foreign investors.
Smart, networked traffic lights to help ease traffic flow.
CCTV traffic monitoring equipment with effective links to a central control room.
Smart licensing and vehicle certification processes to help eliminate ineffective surveillance and information flow. IBM proposes building chips into driving licenses to assist the police in identifying and kicking rogue drivers off the roads.
Using smart technologies to map and analyze mobile phone signals and use the information to make decisions related to traffic flow.
Using taxes, tolls and license fees to discourage traffic congestion in parts of the city. Revenue from such initiatives can be directed to improving road networks.
Accra is just one among the 50 plus African capitals. The challenges are common and overwhelming across these cities. But a willingness to tackle them will solve the problem halfway especially considering that a significant number of interested stakeholders are willing to give support. The remarks of Pa Lamin Beyai, Economic Advisor, UNDP Ghana, are sufficient prove that bodies like the UN could lend a hand to governments that have shown willingness to implement technologies that will make their cities a better place to live and do business. Pa Lamin termed the IBM report a timely and relevant document, saying “the UN is happy to support any meaningful effort which will make Accra and by extension Ghana a more livable place…” He was representing Ruby Sandhu-Rojon, UN Resident Coordinator Ghana.
Accra Mayor Hon (Dr) Alfred Vanderpuije expressed gratitude for IBM and confirmed that Accra authorities have already begun to implement some of the recommendations especially on revenue collection. “We have really intensified our revenue collection efforts and will not hesitate to take legal action against offenders including state-run institutions.”, the mayor said.
Niche, cloud-based social networks are also emerging as tools that could help solve city challenges to some extent, especially traffic congestion. Traffix, a Lagos based start-up launching soon is keen on providing solutions to traffic congestion by enabling lagosians to update their friends on traffic status in different parts of the city. Sadiq Okocha the brain behind Traffix says social networks will gradually prove to be useful tools of easing traffic because the networks unite people on a common challenge. “The call to action at Traffix is keeping your fellow lagosians updated on the traffic situation in Lagos, Nigeria. This crowdsourcing method has the potential to provide detailed traffic coverage on Lagos streets and neighborhoods.” Sadiq explained to Bizrika.
Danger of ignoring the cloud
Indeed there is every signal that cloud computing will soon drive the business world to a platform where costs will ride on the lows and efficiency on the highs, with profitability carrying the day. But the cloud will also mean something more for governments, city authorities and all the institutions charged with public service provision. In a continent like Africa where capital cities are struggling under the weight of consistent multi-pronged challenges ranging from traffic to drainage, the buzz of Cloud Computing and Big Data is now emerging as a ‘kitchen’ for indispensable solutions. Some experts have gone ahead to warn that any business decision makers attempting to ignore the cloud will be making a suicidal mistake that students of business will one day use as a classroom case study when tackling the subject of ‘why Some Businesses Fail’.