Earlier this year, 17 African countries presented their progress on reaching the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, at the United Nations. There was some good news and progress. But it’s clear that radical interventions are still required if countries on the continent are to achieve these ambitious global development goals.
Technology will be key in any such interventions. Doubling agricultural productivity (Goal 2), halving road deaths (Goal 3), increasing water efficiency (Goal 6), doubling the rate of improvement in energy (Goal 7), and halving food waste (Goal 12), among others, seem impossible without game-changing innovations and dramatic improvements in efficiency.
Cloud computing – the delivery of sophisticated information technology capabilities over the internet – could play a crucial role in both innovation and efficiency.
What’s especially useful about cloud computing is that companies or organisations don’t need to own computing infrastructure or data centres. Instead, they can rent access to storage and applications, among other things, from a cloud service provider. This allows them to get access to sophisticated capabilities on demand. And they don’t have to spend a great deal of money building and maintaining IT infrastructure on site.
But unlocking the developmental potential of cloud computing won’t happen automatically. In a recent publication by the South African SDG Hub at the University of Pretoria I argue that four fundamentals must be in place before cloud computing can really be harnessed to help drive development.
These four are skills development; proper policies; safeguards to keep data private and secure; and effective infrastructure. If African countries can get these fundamentals right, cloud computing could become a powerful ally in the push for sustainable development. But this will require navigating a range of complex issues, from data privacy regulation to reliable electricity supply.
Cloud computing in action
Computing capabilities delivered over the cloud are already being used in some parts of the world in ways that dovetail with the SDGs’ requirements.
For example, IBM’s Watson Decision Platform is helping farmers in Brazil and India to make more informed decisions about what to plant and when with data that predicts crop yields. Through Health Map, information delivered over the cloud is also making it possible to monitor and respond to disease outbreaks. LifeQ is using the cloud to harness data to drive healthier lifestyles across Africa.
In the banking sector, banks such as HSCB are using the cloud to detect money laundering, which aligns with Goal 16. In Nigeria, Interswitch is using the cloud to help small businesses access project financing more quickly, which is a key part of Goal 17. JUMO is using the cloud to increase access to mobile money across Africa.
There are already several cloud computing projects underway on the African continent that are being used to nudge countries towards attaining some goals. A recent report by Microsoft showcases a project by MTN Uganda that uses voice biometric software to handle PIN resets.
Tencent Africa is using the cloud to overcome its own infrastructure constraints, and in this way is able to improve the speed of its services.
The groundwork is already being laid for cloud computing services to become ubiquitous in some parts of Africa.
One example is the recent opening of the continent’s first cloud computing data centres in two South African cities by Microsoft. Another is that Amazon Web Services plans to open a data centre in Cape Town in 2020. The location of data centres influences how efficiently data moves across networks. Data centres located in Africa will significantly improve the speed with which the cloud’s capabilities can be accessed.
Cloud computing services delivered by global companies also exist in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, among others.
But physical data centres alone will not be enough. Some thorough planning and policy realignment is crucial, too.
These are the four fundamentals that must be in place for cloud computing to really play a valuable role in driving sustainable development in African countries.
- skills development: investment is required that improves employees’ existing skills or completely reskill those whose job descriptions will change because of the introduction of cloud computing services. Africa’s largely under-utilised training and vocational college sector is ideally positioned to do so.
These skills are typically described as “digital skills”, a rather fuzzy term that covers everything from operating and maintaining cloud infrastructure to integrating the cloud with existing IT infrastructure and using the cloud to innovate.
- policy: there must be an integration of science, technology and innovation throughout the policy planning cycle. How? The African Union’s science, technology and innovation strategy provides useful guidance. Put simply: policies should enable rather than restricting the development and adoption of new technology.
- safeguards that guarantee the privacy and security of all data: Cloud computing largely depends on the free yet regulated flow of data. But the free flow of data is only viable if its privacy and security are guaranteed.
Argentina, along with many other countries, only allows cross-border data transfers of personal data to countries with similar data protection laws. However, the law was passed in 2000 and much has advanced since then. It is unclear, for example, whether the law is applicable to servers based outside Argentina. Under Spain’s data protection law, servers based in Spain but located outside its borders need to be registered in Spain and are subject to Spanish law. African countries must grapple with such nuances.
- infrastructure that ensures affordable and reliable access to internet and electricity. Universal and affordable internet and energy access are prioritised in the SDGs. Without the necessary infrastructure investments, the impact of science, technology and innovation is unlikely to be transformative. Most African countries lag behind in this regard, so intervention is required.