The Internet of Things has already made an impact on Africa as the emergence of connected hardware takes off. Every area of life stands to benefit from the innovations and efficiencies possible in a fully connected world.

“The IoT is a reality that cannot be ignored,” says Matthew Blewett, Chief Investment Officer at Business Connexion. “It’s changing the way companies operate, forcing them to redefine their business processes to keep up with their competitors.”

Furthermore, it will force many businesses to completely redefine their traditional value chains. “By making traditionally physical and disconnected processes digital and connected, products and services can be processed and delivered in completely new ways. This means that traditional value chains are being totally redefined.”

Andy Brauer, Chief Technology Officer at Business Connexion cites Uber as a good example of a business that recognised how an IoT world allowed them to offer a service in a completely new and optimised way. “Uber saw the gap in the personal public transport space. In a connected world with mobile applications, geo-location and GPS systems they imagined a new value chain to deliver what was before a physical linear connected transaction.”

Brauer went on to mention that the IoT is poised to disrupt just about every conceivable industry business model. Industries most impacted to date, he says, are the energy and mining sectors which are already using sensors to continuously monitor and detect dangerous methane levels in mines to improve workplace safety; power and utilities which are using using internet-connected smart meters to measure power usage every 15 minutes and provide feedback to the power consumer – sometimes automatically adjusting the system’s parameters.

The automotive industry is using sensors and beacons embedded in the road working together with car based sensors are being used for hands-free driving, traffic optimisation and accident avoidance.

Within the industrial sector, a manufacturing plant distributes plant monitoring and optimisation tasks across several remote, interconnected control points. In the past, specialists were required to maintain, service and optimise distributed plant operations but these days they’re no longer required to be physically present at the plant location, providing economies of scale are in place.

Within the hospitality sector, electronic doorbells silently scan hotel rooms with infrared sensors to detect body heat so that staff know when to clean rooms. In the healthcare sector EKG sensors work together with patients’ smartphones to monitor and transmit patient physical environment and vital signs to a central cloud-based system.

In the retail sector, product and shelf sensors collect data throughout the entire supply chain. Predictive analytics applications process this data and optimise the supply chain.

The IoT is already making its presence felt on the African continent by addressing a host of issues around security, water control, energy, health monitoring and medication, mining and traffic congestion, to name but a few. “The challenge is to define the problem before you rush in with a solution,” cautions Brauer. “Africa has uniquely African problems and an American or European solution may not be the best fit for the local environment. “From an IoT perspective, our challenge is to first identify and define the problem before we devise a solution.”

Africa embraces IoT

Many African countries have already taken advantage of IoT technologies; from utility service providers using connected meters to track usage and pre-empt surges in demand or faults to allowing healthcare providers to track the health of outpatients. In fact, without an infrastructural legacy in place, Africa is able to leapfrog in a number of areas that more developed countries would find difficult.

IoT initiatives were initially primarily used in vehicle tracking – think of the tracking technologies used by Tracker and Matrix, for example – but quickly moved into mobile payments and even smart cities.

South Africa has taken the lead in rolling out Internet-connected devices to the extent of rolling out smart meters to measure household utility usage in Johannesburg. The mining sector is using this new connected technology and is using sensors to detect methane and rock movement. Fuel pipelines have been fitted with sensors to monitor leaks. The retail sector has also embraced the IoT through the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. RFID is a tracking system that uses intelligent bar codes to track items in a retail environment.

“We’re also starting to see the use of monitoring data being used for various forms of analytics such as predictive and prescriptive analytics – which in turn assists businesses with rapid decision making,” reveals Brauer. “Areas where we are likely to see an increased adoption of the IoT include smart watches, health monitoring and automobile controls.”

South Africa may be taking the lead in terms of adopting the IoT but other African countries are also embracing these technologies: Rwanda is using SIM cards to connect point of sale terminals in remote areas enabling merchants to accept credit or debit card payments. Endangered black rhino in eastern and central Africa are being give an ankle collar that is connected to the global IoT network and which relays movement and exact geo-location data back to anti-poaching teams.

By the end of 2014 the number of cellular machine-to-machine connections – also known as the Internet of Things – in the developing world totalled 128 million, or 52% of the global numbers, estimated global industry body GSMA. They predict that this figure will rise to nearly 60% – or 575 million – by 2020. Ann Bouverot, GSMA’s Director General was quoted by Reuters as saying that in Africa it’s sometimes possible to leapfrog and go to the latest innovation and technology at the same time.

Barriers to adoption

With low internet penetration rates in some African countries and some of the world’s lowest internet access rates, it’s not all smooth sailing – in fact, there are some significant barriers to adoption of the IoT. However, internet penetration is growing – McKinsey predicts that by 2025 Africa will have tripled its internet penetration to over 50%.

A key feature of the IoT is the sharing of content and data across multiple platforms. There is some concern about how secure this data is and the extent to which private information can be compromised. Before there is widespread adoption of the IoT in Africa, there needs to be more security and reliability.

“Security is already an issue when it comes to cloud,” agrees Blewett. “That risk is going to grow exponentially in an IoT world. Enterprises therefore need to be far more vigilant in the security of the networks they choose.”

Connectivity is another major challenge: in order for IoT to work effectively it relies on high speed internet connections. In order for IoT to fly it also relies on good telecommunication coverage and power, Brauer points out.

Potential applications

The IoT poses enormous potential for a number of innovations. In the energy and power generation sector, it can assist with smart metering and distribution as well as measuring and predicting demand and generation; in agriculture it could be used to improve yields; it could help to streamline industrial processes and help mining operations to do more with less. The integration of the IoT could potentially revolutionise healthcare – a small chip in hospital patients could allow their vital signs to be much more effectively monitored, for instance.

Ultimately, the IoT could have a significant impact on Africa, in spite of barriers, and go some way to solving uniquely African challenges.