The increasing pervasiveness of Internet of Things in Africa

Even before Kigali joined the global ‘pedestrianisation movement’ last year and dedicated a car-free day once every month, it was not unusual to see gadgets strapped on arms of joggers to monitor their exertions as they consciously trotted or biked along the freed highways.

Even before Kigali joined the global ‘pedestrianisation movement’ last year and dedicated a car-free day once every month, it was not unusual to see gadgets strapped on arms of joggers to monitor their exertions as they consciously trotted or biked along the freed highways.

The small gadgets and pricey smart-watches were the more obvious sign that the Internet of Things was taking root, and were quickly becoming commonplace.

 

And yet the idea of IoT has been pervasive in more life transforming ways – for instance, the vendor transacting through mobile money, the solar power equipment procured on loan in the village and being remotely monitored by the lender to ensure timely payments, or the pregnant woman or newborn being tracked through the “RapidSMS” and “mUbuzima” technology by the community health worker.

 

These are examples of how IoT is permeating life, not just in Rwanda, but across the region and continent.

 

It has become something to expect and demand for not merely as a convenience, but as a right. It was, therefore, not surprising to read a recent media report of irked Kigali commuters and their demand for reconnection to Wi-Fi on public buses, that has been unreliable or off for many months now.

In any case, the Wi-Fi is not for free, attracting a small amount catered for in the bus fare as determined by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority.

The enforced availability at a small cost goes a long way in ensuring that a maximum number of commuters access the facility.

This contrasts to similar connectivity in a city such as Nairobi where the pimped buses seeking an edge in a cutthroat competition offer “free” Wi-Fi together with live TV to attract customers.

Either way, it speaks of how the continent has leapfrogged the developed world to connect its people, places and things.

As the likes of Google and Facebook’s Free Basics lay their foundations to make up for the previous lack of legacy infrastructure, but ride on the back of the local data providers – MTN, Tigo, Airtel or Safaricom, etc – the issues wracking many minds in the West are yet to be fully appreciated by the local consumers.

Other than affordability and deeper rural penetration of internet services, those locally enjoying the digital revolution don’t appear particularly interested in the polemics of whether by adopting IoT we are setting ourselves up for invasion of our privacy and subsequent manipulation by the telecoms and the social media giants. The thing, at least for the time being, is the utility value technology is affording the common mwananchi.

This is not to say that the regulatory authorities are not on top of this with the policy frameworks already in place or currently being worked on across the continent and the world to keep any untoward intentions in check – either by the providers’ usurious manipulations for profit or the a mwananchi bent on fomenting trouble.

One only need take the example of violent online propaganda by homegrown terrorists communicating with each other to cause havoc. We, in the East African Community, are only too aware of the price we have had to pay on account of misused media and the near daily reports of terrorist attacks somewhere in the region.

Attention is, therefore, increasingly being turned on the social media enablers for the ease with which terrorists communicate among themselves outside of intelligence services.

This, nevertheless, has proved a knotty problem that is being grappled with not only locally, but globally in a delicate balance between security prerogatives and the freedoms that must be protected.

A common ground with a sustainable solution continues to be sought between the regulators and providers to stamp out the vice, with The Economist recently reminding us that “as with car accidents or cyber-attacks, perfect security is unattainable. But an approach based on ‘defence in depth’, combining technology, policy, education and human oversight, can minimise risk and harm.”

In the meantime, Africans of every stripe must, with enlightened caution against cybercrime, continue to entrench the conveniences of IoT technology, from the cashless point of sale transactions to the healthcare providers tracking the health of outpatients and utility companies using connected metres to check usage.

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