Imagine a fridge that keeps track of your groceries and sends a message to your phone, notifying you that you’re running low on your stock.
These are futuristic scenarios triggered by the phrase “Internet of Things”(IoT)— smart homes, smart cars, smart devices that use the Internet to connect and communicate to each other making our daily lives simpler.
For most Africans, including Kenyans, these possibilities are still far-removed from their daily lives. Basic Internet connectivity remains a challenge.
However, assuming that IoT has no place in contemporary Africa would be wrong. Research is increasingly showing that it is making headway in the continent, albeit in unique ways that differ from what has been seen in the West.
“The technology is beginning to show signs of its worth in areas such as utilities, agriculture and animal conservation,” writes Internet Service Provider (ISP) Liquid Telecom in a September study of the IoT market in Africa.
So what if instead of smart fridges IoT technology could be used to create sensors that monitor water levels in boreholes and communicate this information to a mobile device? These are some of the applications that could be relevant for countries like Kenya.
In May, telecommunications firm Safaricom launched a Sh200 million research lab meant to fast-track the development of new innovations. One of the key focus areas for the lab, Safaricom said, will be trialing IoT-enabled devices such as water meters.
The GSM Association (GSMA), a global trade body for the telecommunication industry, is already supporting projects in Kenya that incorporate IoT and Machine to Machine (M2M) communication into service delivery.
One of the projects is a partnership between Upande and the Kericho Water and Sanitation Company to develop a real-time sensor for monitoring water level and the piping system to reduce revenue losses.
In June, SensorInsight, an American firm, announced that it would provide IoT solutions meant to help communities in arid and semi-Arid areas to keep track of water levels in boreholes through Android devices. “Whereas IoT and its applications are more related to quality of life improvements in developed markets, they can also help bring critical services to emerging markets, especially underserved segments by enabling remote monitoring and control of machines and infrastructure,” wrote the GSMA in a 2016 report on the use of mobile devices for development.
If one stretches their view beyond Kenya and into Africa, there seems to be a bevy of new companies building themselves niches in the IoT space. In January, International Data Corporation, which provides market intelligence, noted that spending on IoT would rise 19.6 per cent in 2017 in the Middle East and Africa.
In its report titled African IoT 2017, Liquid notes that companies with IoT as a central plank of their business model have received tens of millions of dollars in investment over the last five years.
In South Africa, IoT is being used in load lighting smart meters that are helping to warn residents of imminent outages. In Rwanda, a start-up called Sweetsense installed 200 sensors in rural water pumps, which helped reduce breakages and repair intervals.
IoT has also come in handy in the fight against poaching and environmental conservation.
Technology giant IBM and telco MTN are at the heart of a project in which IoT is being used to track herds of animals in a bid to protect endangered rhinos in South Africa.
IoT has also infiltrated the agriculture sector with wireless sensors now used to track crop growth, soil moisture and water tank levels.
Liquid chief executive Ben Roberts, however, notes that the speed at which Africa adopts will be dependent on rise of cloud services.
“The true value of IoT comes from the huge volumes of data an application generates over time. All that data can be used by businesses and consumers to provide insight and intelligence that saves money and drives efficiency, but first it must go somewhere to be analysed. And increasingly that data is heading to the cloud,” he says.
Further, George Kalebaila, Director of Telecoms and IoT at IDC, warns Africa against a “me too” approach to adopting IoT.