By: Antony Cook, Associate General Counsel, Corporate, External and Legal Affairs lead, Microsoft Middle East and Africa
Cloud computing is the disruptive technology powering the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. The combination of affordable cost, flexibility and scale provides the opportunity for individuals and enterprises, small and large, to address some of the most pressing issues facing Africans.
Many countries across the continent have young and rapidly growing populations. This challenges existing approaches to education, healthcare and the delivery of citizens’ services. It also necessitates new approaches to building and utilising infrastructure, demanding innovative public-private partnerships and government leadership.
Cloud computing offers the potential to provide new solutions to these economic and social issues.
A lack of power acts as a significant handbrake on development in Africa.
In Nigeria, The Economist estimates that only half of the country's 180 million citizens have access to electricity - many for just a few hours a day. This lack of reliable power poses huge challenges for Nigeria's education system. Children are prevented from using essential equipment, including computers, and have limited ability to study at home at night. Medical care is compromised as unstable access to power hampers treatment and threatens the lives of patients.
The French energy company Schneider Electric has partnered with the Lagos State Electricity Board to use the cloud to deliver clean, renewable and reliable power to rural schools and healthcare centres that aren't connected to the public grid. The system uses batteries charged by solar panels and cloud based monitoring and analytics to track performance, predict maintenance requirements and manage efficiency.
Today, the project provides 24-hour electricity for 11 medical facilities and 172 schools. By 2020, it is expected to provide power for 190,000 students and nearly five million patients. (See here for further details).
This combination of bold leadership, an innovative business model, and cloud technology provides a solution to what has been a chronic problem across the continent.
Defining New Connections
For Africans to truly harness cloud computing to solve big challenges, everyone needs access to the Internet. Nearly 3.5 billion people across the planet lack affordable access to an Internet service and if people on the continent are to seize the cloud opportunity, innovative solutions to connectivity challenges are needed.
A local Internet service provider in Nanyuki, Kenya, called Mawingu, uses technology to take advantage of underutilised television broadcast spectrum known as TV white spaces providing internet access to communities in the surrounding countryside at rates as low as three US dollars per month.
The availability of affordable Internet access has had a dramatic impact. At Gakawa Secondary School, one of five schools connected via the project, student scores on the Kenya national exam improved for every subject. Connected medical clinics and government offices have increased access to healthcare and public services. The success of the project has attracted additional funding aimed at providing affordable, solar powered, wireless internet to the communities throughout rural Kenya.
Unlocking the promise
Creative solutions to problems such as power shortage and connectivity will only be developed and sustained in Africa if the right enabling environment for the cloud is created. This will involve government working hand-in-hand with industry and civil society - but there should be no doubt that government needs to play a leadership role.
If Governments in Africa are going to harness the power of the cloud to transform the lives of their citizens they need to both enable the capabilities of the cloud to drive economic progress, as well as address the potential for disruption which the cloud can create.
This is no easy task.
Governments must strike the right balance between public safety and the right to privacy. They must consider how to recognise national sovereignty without restricting the efficient flow of information across borders. They must ensure the benefits of the cloud are broadly and equitably shared and provide entrepreneurs and innovators the necessary freedom to create and disrupt.
At Microsoft, we believe that building a cloud for global good requires Governments to craft a framework, subject to the rule of law, centred on three key principles: trust, responsibility, and inclusion. In our recent publication, A Cloud for Global Good, we offer a set of policy recommendations for implementing a new generation of laws. These help enable the benefits of cloud computing, while managing the challenges.
We don't know all the answers, but we do know that bold Government action will accelerate the economic and social dividend promised by the cloud.
The task of addressing these fundamental questions is daunting but the time to do so is now.