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Friday, 20 February 2015


In the late 1990s the fastest way I communicated with my family was by waiting in line at my high school’s telephone booth. I always prayed that someone would pick my call on the other end. 

We have come a long way in two decades and a mobile revolution has broken down the barriers that kept us apart. The rapid urbanization we see today is as a result of better communication.  It is estimated that by 2016, 500 million Africans will be living in urban areas and the number of cities with more than a million people will increase to 65.  

In these cities traffic congestion, water and air pollution, cramped and littered living spaces will continue to be a constant reminder of strained resources.
While all this is happening a technology revolution is quietly taking shape. 

In 2014, Mozilla announced the intention of developing a $25 smartphone in a consortium with Indian phone-makers, Spice and Intex, and Chinese chipmaker, Spreadtrum Communications. Facebook, through the consortium is looking to bring online 5 billion people -who are unconnected- before 2020. Qualcomm, one of the partners in this consortium is investing in OneWeb, which is expected to bring high speed Internet to billions through a low-earth-orbit satellite constellation. 

The money is to be made in content, and the intention for these Over The Top (OTT) providers is to make it from these ‘new’ 5 billion people, who are mostly poor or lack the infrastructure to support connectivity. For OTT providers, Africa is a Greenfield mainly because of the inherent lack of policy and governance controls and also because they are not encumbered by red ocean competition.

The statistics are clear, 50% of Internet users in Africa are consummate users of Facebook and 80% of them connect on mobile devices. 

The innovation lies in reducing costs and increasing efficiencies in infrastructure. It also involves compression of data and making its access more efficient, to ensure that a person in a far flung village in Africa can have a comparable online experience to a person sitting in a café in New York.

On the other hand, there is a growing middle class in Africa that uses 3G and 4G connections offered by telecoms. The problem with these is that their data bundles are deceptively expensive.  For most, in this middle class, a broadband fiber termination to one’s house or business is a more cost efficient solution. 


Lets put this in perspective, in Nairobi, Kenya for a monthly $32 one gets a fiber connection with Internet, cable TV and phone. More people are acquiring these bundled offerings because they are perceived as not being elitist, while converging business and home needs.  To frame this market correctly, it is estimated that there are more than 129 million people above the 5K GDP per capita in Africa.

Africa's growing middle class
This middle class through the infrastructure it uses is facilitating the value creation pipeline for localized Internet based services that may allow Africa to leapfrog the challenges it currently faces.   

The ICT Development Index (IDI) gives an indication of where African countries are in order for them to become information societies. And there are three stages in this evolution.

ICT readiness is determined by the universal availability of infrastructure and its access in a country. This, combined with the relevant ICT skills, drives the intensity of ICT usage, which then results in outcomes that impact the society. On the African IDI, Mauritius leads and Central African Republic sits at the tail end. Seen in the diagram below.


The lack of qualified and skilled ICT professionals available to support organizations is a stumbling block to the advancement of Africa as an information society.

For a long time, multinationals, local blue chip companies and technology service providers hired the few qualified ICT professionals in the continent. And the larger small and medium sized enterprises (SME) market in need of quality cost efficient solutions were forced to settle for less than average solutions, which for the last two decades translated into mediocre adoption of technology, that is miles behind what is found in the western world.This is the primary reason why there is a slow and growing appeal for this SME market to adopt cloud based solutions.

The software market in Africa in the 90s and early 2000s was driven by exorbitantly priced software, as distributors placed high markups in selling software to a small niche market driven by blue chip and multinational organizations.Due to these high costs there was no business model for SMEs and pirated copies of software became commonplace, encouraged by toothless anti-piracy laws.

Post 2010, and cloud computing is slowly and steadily picking pace across Africa. The potential is immense in allowing SMEs utilize optimized up-to-date solutions in the cloud.

For most, an understanding of the immense catalog of cloud solutions available to them is essential to drive their uptake. Most due to inherent infrastructure limitations across Africa will chose to go straight to applications on the cloud, be they productivity-oriented or focused on a business function. 
Most SMEs prefer a freemium approach, this allows them to use a base product and increase functionality, as they need it. The eureka moment for them is when they discover that they can test and utilize the solution with little or no support from a third party; mainly due to the simplicity of the solution. Once they come to this realization, and also come to embrace online payment, their willingness to purchase a service or product from Google or Microsoft and a host of other cloud solution providers increases. However, this depends on cloud solution providers having a marketing strategy for Africa.

By and large the cloud solution providers that win in Africa will have to provide SMEs and their employees solutions that still function despite the power cuts in Nigeria, the high cost of bandwidth in Central Africa Republic and the high digital divide across Africa.

Saturday, 7 February 2015


A cursory observation of NASA’s missions as they lift off illustrates the deep desire for man to explore the uncharted space. What it fails to illustrate is the deluge of terabytes of data that such missions create on an hourly basis.

Big Data is a reality that can only be ignored at a cost. There is no industry today that does not need the right kind of data to sustain its strategic objectives.

“Big Data is an all-encompassing term for any collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand data management tools or traditional data processing applications.” Wikipedia

Over the last 20 years data has moved from the confines of the organization and exploded into the hands of billions of people interacting on the Internet. Today, individuals generate 70% of online data and this will increase as 3 billion more people come online by the end of this decade.
More ‘Things” are coming online be they devices, systems or services and as we aim to better control them remotely in more minute ways, we will have to contend with the high variety, velocity and volume of data they generate in short spans of time.

What differentiates Africa from the rest of the world is its lagging investment in Infrastructure despite the fact that it is larger that Argentina, China, India and Western Europe put together.

The laying of the undersea cables that link Africa to the rest of the world and the mobile phone revolution have essentially collapsed the collaborative and interactive barriers across Africa over the last decade.

Better inter and intra communications across the continent and cheaper mass market smartphones have created a virtual highway that is lighting up Africa and giving it a seat at the roundtable of global though shapers. 

Having said this, Africa is still predominantly poor, hungry, inaccessible and unlit. And in this lies the opportunity that Big Data is presented with to bring about a developmental revolution in Africa.

The first challenge it has to tackle is the inherent lack of complete, unbiased, accurate and relevant data about the citizens of Africa. Traditionally collection of this data is a task that governments undertake. But due to systemic corruption and decades of institutional failure this task has to be done again in most African countries.

A number of African governments have been able to achieve some successes in this area through e-government projects - Mauritius, Seychelles and South Africa -but most are struggling to overcome lack of functional literacy and infrastructural failures.

Culturally, African governments have to also undergo a mind shift before they start to perceive digitized data as a decision-making resource that can make them govern their constituents better. It is no surprise that Mauritius and South Africa lead Africa in global competitiveness ratings.

Most good quality data in Africa is closed, given the costs associated in acquiring this data. But this is changing with work done by organizations like Digital Data Divide Africa, which has digitized and brought online the Kenyan Law.
Source: Joel Gurin.  Intersection between Open Data, Big Data and Open Government

“Both big data and open data can transform business, government, and society – and a combination of the two is especially potent. Big data gives us unprecedented power to understand, analyze, and ultimately change the world we live in. Open data ensures that power will be shared – and that the world we change will, with luck, become a fairer and more democratic one .”

Nelson Sabogal said, “Innovation consists of facilitating the use of existing knowledge and new technologies in a domestic context”

The other way of driving data collection in Africa is to incentivize millions of Africans actively connected to mobile phones in generating quality data in an open and collaborative way. This was evidenced in the way data was collected in Sierra Leone, to fight against Ebola.  At the root of this approach is the understanding that the data is being used to benefit the community involved.

Having said that, there is already a lot of big data being collected as Africans are using better-featured mobile phones. Telecoms have the usage, location, billing information while Over-the-top (OTT) providers have the video, music, voice and other Internet user activity data. And while OTT providers are disrupting telecom services, there is a lot to agree on in terms of collaboration between these two industries, which are slowly merging.

Can the analysis of this data benefit businesses and governments? The answer is yes. The challenge is establishing data protection and privacy laws in a continent where enforcing the rule of law is an activity in futility.
The battle formation has been set with EU, UK and US regulators pushing for strict control on how private data is used to sell different products and services to users. African regulators will need to follow suit and support the effort of these regulators.

After all is said and done more Africans will have cheaper connectivity devices (read mobile phones) with higher quality displays, faster processing capabilities, enhanced featured sensors, longer lasting power, fully web centric and cloud-centric, increased sensory and context interaction and have better cognitive and contextual services based on Artificial Intelligence.

This could happen while we are still struggling to feed the continent or it could be the catalyst to transform the minds and the hearts of Africa and initiate the second wave of revolution that could catapult Africa into the first world.

So while we embrace big data and the innumerate benefits it can create in agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, education, finance, science & research, telecommunication, banking, and other industries, my question to you is how is big data helping you achieve your goals today?

Sunday, 1 February 2015


A few weeks ago I had a chat with Emmanuel Kweyu, the Operations Director at Strathmore i-Lab about their work on e-health in Kenya. I also started delving into the world of moon shots as depicted by Larry Page, who lives by a 10X mindset. Instead of aiming to improve something by 10%, like everyone else, make it 10 times better. This thousand percent improvement on the current situation is what we term as a moon shot. It requires rethinking problems entirely and exploring the edge of what is technically possible.

Using Peter Diamandis’  “six Ds of exponentials ”, which is a way of thinking about exponential technologies and how they are affecting our world today. I wanted to investigate their proposition for transforming healthcare in Africa. 

Why? Because when you look at Africa’s state of health care as a unit, the picture is one of a generally poor population, subject to diseases that have been eradicated or under control in other continents, under-served by governments and neglected by private healthcare providers, reliant on irregular help from abroad. 

There are only 2.3 health workers per 1,000 people in Africa, less than one tenth of the figure in Europe and less than half the figure in South-East Asia. The risk of a child dying before their fifth birthday is still highest in the WHO African Region (95 per 1000 live births) – eight times higher than that in the WHO European Region (12 per 1000 live births). Africans live 14 years less than the average world citizen, and 21 years less than the average European.

This has been the popular narrative about Africa and it seemed for a long time there was no solution in sight. Western governments, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, as a means to blunt the effects of their structural adjustments programmes, gave money to NGOs, which took the role of the retrenching states. Decades later with billions spent in aid the effect has been akin to a seal pushing against the Titanic.
For Africa to achieve the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) it has to innovate and also embrace exponentially advancing technologies.

“The continent consumer facing industries are expected to grow by $ 400 billion by 2020. Africa’s population, the youngest and fastest growing in the world, will be concentrated in urban areas.  This new class of consumers has a smaller family, is better educated and higher earning, and is digitally savvy. Africans are exceptionally optimistic about their economic future: 84 percent say they will be better off in two years

The continent has been the second-fastest- growing region in the world over the past decade (Exhibit E1)

The continent is poised to reap a demographic dividend, courtesy of its young and rapidly growing workforce and declining dependency ratio. Africa will add 122 million people to its labor force between 2010 and 2020. By 2035, the continent’s labor force will be larger than that of any nation, including China or India. Over the same period, the number of children and retired people that each worker supports will fall from the highest level in the world today to a level on a par with the United States and Europe in 2035. 


I believe the mobile phone and the infrastructure behind it played a large part in the compound annual growth rate experienced in Africa between 2000-2010. The ability to communicate and collaborate faster and more effectively with more people over the mobile phone has largely driven commerce and empowered Africa. This to me was the first wave of development that Africa experienced that was driven by exponentially advancing technologies.

“The future of Africa is not going to be based on a linear and easy to predict assertion. It is going to be exponential and explosive. “
The core of this statement lies in Peter Diamandis’ thoughts, that point to computing, medicine, manufacturing, robotics and artificial intelligence being transformed overnight.

3D printing has the potential to transform manufacturing given the ever-decreasing list of things it can’t produce. It drastically reduces waste and costs, and personalizes the manufacturing process.  And while there are hurdles to be crossed they are not insurmountable.  

The Internet of Things (IOT) is another technology that is literally digitizing the physical world. Imagine everything we see having an Internet address. Exponential progress in sensor technology is making this possible for pennies or less.

The same is true with drone technology, which has just recently gone mainstream with people being able to buy personal drones. The use of drones to transport cargo is likely to become feasible earlier in Africa, due to missing road networks, inaccessible terrain and lack of legal and political hurdles, as compared to western countries. Its value proposition is a moon shot in itself for most African countries.   

With all these exponentially advancing technologies, the thing you notice is the dropping price of the products or services they support, increasing computing power and the way they fundamentally disrupt society.

Humans are linear and local in thinking, this has been our reality for centuries, and only recently with the Internet, as we interact with people from all over the world at the speed of thought are we thus being forced to conform to a world that has become global and exponential. 

Will exponential trends in certain technologies require us to adopt or face the stress of disruption?  Here lies room for us to look at disruptions as opportunities to advance different causes for the sake of Africa. 
Source: Exponential Finance 2014 - Disruptive Stress/ Opportunity

Peter Diamandi’s framework of 6 “Ds” (Deceptive, Disruptive, Digitized, Dematerialized, Demonetized and Democratized) gives a roadmap on how these exponential growth processes in technology can be observed and harnessed to transform healthcare in Africa.

6Ds of Exponential Framework

Anything that can be digitized will essentially enter exponential growth. The following digitized technologies are essential in aligning healthcare with this framework: mobile connectivity, sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, big data, synthetic biology, material sciences and digital medicine.

The more important question is how can we consolidate the already digitized technologies to bring about new solutions. Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, set up a $10 million incentive to develop a mobile device that can diagnose patients as well as or better than a panel of board certified physicians. It should be able to scan, analyze and record a patient’s data. Already solutions like Scanadu promise to disrupt the medical profession and turn doctors into medical information analysts.

After a technology is digitized, it goes through a deceptively slow growth, which is linear at first, but then takes a knee and curves upward. This is true with 3D printing, which has been around for 30 years, but only just recently become well known and has started disrupting different industries.
In healthcare the above mentioned technologies  have already gone through deceptive growth.

Source:  Singularity University's Exponential Medicine Conference, Nov. 2013 - Linear Vs. Exponential Growth

Once a technology passes the knee of curve as noted above, it begins to disrupt established industries and systems.  


A technology becomes disruptive when it dematerializes other technologies. The smart phone has achieved this by replacing the VCR player, cassette player, video camera, radio, GSM phone, calculator, Dictaphone, speakers, record collection, GPS system and the list goes on.  All these technologies were dematerialized into apps in a smart phone.
Source: Exponential Thinking (Peter Diamandis) - Exponential Finance - Dematerialized by smart phone

What will these exponentially advancing technologies dematerialize in the healthcare sector in Africa? 

Structured healthcare data
Is it going to be the diagnosis process? Making the process highly accurate, irrespective of their proximity to world-class healthcare institutions.

Healthcare data categories
Will it be the information being analyzed to diagnose a disease? In the near future we may use proteomics to identify proteins associated with a disease and develop drugs that inactivate these proteins. 

Today, such analysis and drug development requires extensive tracts of data and mind numbing processing power only available in today’s supercomputers, which is expensive. But if you look at computing trends, today’s supercomputer capabilities will be in the hands of users in less than 10 years.  

Having exascale computing in the next decade could dematerialize how we perceive this process.   
In order to digitize the way healthcare information is sourced we will need to solve the following challenges:
  1. Cover the whole world with the Internet, currently 60% with 2014 estimates, remains uncovered. Google are using high-altitude balloons and OneWeb are pursing micro-satellite clusters.  The challenge is solvable in the next five years.
  2. Worldwide access to ultra high speed Internet with speeds of more than 100 Mbps. Currently being done in Japan to achieve telepathology using a WINDS satellite, which exceeds 155 Mbps. Can Google or OneWeb achieve this, or do we have other contenders
  3. Smartphones must achieve 5G connections. This will allow sensors, smart phones and other technologies to connect at greater speeds onto the Internet.   


Everything that is dematerialized essentially becomes free, and is thus demonetized. Cost of healthcare services and products will drop radically and astronomically, at least in theory due to exponentially advancing technologies like self-diagnostic medicine, 3D and molecular printing, autonomous transportation and off the grid energy. Many associated professions will thus become obsolete and redundant. 

Examples of demonetized industries

Will a sensor attached to a person’s body scan them, analyze their state of health, diagnose them with 100% accuracy, send the data across the Internet prompting a 3D printer to manufacture exact medication for the person then have a drone deliver the medication at their current GPS position in less than a day at no cost at all? 

When a technology really explodes and becomes available to everyone, it’s said to be democratized. A good example is the mobile phone in Africa and its associated applications in banking, money transfer and healthcare.

With this understanding, the possibilities become innumerate. The visual below gives a depiction of different technologies and when they will be commercialized. Their true test will be if and when they democratize for the masses. 
Source Frost & Sullivan technologies in healthcare

The 3 billion question
What will happen when more than 3 billion people join the Internet in this global and exponential world? What ideas will they bring to fore? And will they alter the very fabric of how we perceive healthcare in Africa? 

Source: Exponential Finance 2014: 3 billion question

As Africa grapples with pestilence, war, endemic poverty and other challenges, technology offers us the golden chance to advance out of this predicament. My hope is that most of us will realize the old, local and linear mindset will not serve us well, and will strive to think globally and exponentially.