IoT infograph

Is the Internet of Things relevant in South Africa?

“Intelligent” objects connected to each other and the internet form what is known as the Internet of Things. Packed full of wireless sensors and monitoring technology these things track, monitor and analyse large amounts of data about their usage, delivering additional services and applications to their users.

Anecdotally the Internet of Things is usually associated with smart household appliances: fridges that can tell you if you need more ice, PVRs you can switch to record via your smartphone and wearables: just this week Google and Levi’s launched a denim jacket that connects to the Internet. However, with improvements in bandwidth and wireless internet connectivity, and the miniaturisation and advancement in sensor technology, the power and potential of the Internet of Things has only begun to be realised.

Companies that once “only” manufactured “things” are now able to shift gears and move into the service industry, providing consumers with seamless integration between their lives, and the things in them. The automobile sector is the most illustrative in terms of how manufacturers are turning simple car-ownership into a tech-enhanced transportation service. Already, cars come packed with wireless sensors, and on-board computers permanently connected to the Cloud. Car manufacturers are finding a myriad of ways to enhance the driving and ownership experience by supplying owners with map, location, usage, traffic and weather data, not to mention a host of streaming media for passengers. The natural progression of this technological enhancement is the development of self-driving cars – that some optimists see appearing on the retail market as early as 2030. In South Africa, we would probably have to wait a bit longer: self-driving cars would require bandwidth of 5G plus and vast tracks of smart infrastructure (lampposts, traffic lights etc.)

However, the IoT has a far greater capacity beyond enhancing the objects we use in the everyday. The ability to connect objects across vast networks, and to collect data in large quantities, also has the potential to change the world for not just a couple of hundred thousand consumers, but for billions of people. Developing economies like South Africa have arguably the most to gain.

Food

According to a recent New York Times article by 2050, the global population is projected to reach nine billion, up from 7.3 billion today. The developing world relies still on sustainable and small-scale farming to meet their nutritional needs. IoT, using cheap sensors, cell phone technology and satellite weather mapping could be the bridge to divide what is increasingly becoming a yawning gap between food demand and production. Although current Africa-based programmes like iCow, M-Farm and WeFarm are less about actual crop and weather monitoring and more about sharing information, as smartphones penetrate these markets, it is inevitable that comprehensive IoT technology (or “precision farming” as IBM calls it) will become a ubiquitous part of small-scale farming.

Health

One of the benefits of RFID tags and other wireless sensors is that it makes data input a non-personnel function. No longer does someone have to be allocated to input data about warehouse inventory, the RFID tag on each item is automatically picked up by a sensor, and its location transmitted to the network, where bespoke software organises it into an accessible, cloud-based platform. The same holds true in healthcare, amongst the plethora of opportunities IoT presents in the healthcare realm, one is data capture and management. It is therefore now possible for patient data, via wearables and home sensors, to be broadcast their vital signs, and other relevant medical indicators to a central hub, where doctors, who previously would have needed to visit the patient to get that information, can track and analyse it. From a primary healthcare perspective, and in a South African context, a wireless network of sensors across our healthcare system would assist with everything from tracking pharmaceutical stocks, patient numbers and visits, ARV and other medication compliance (are patients talking the drugs correctly?) to providing essential statistics and insight to better manage our catastrophically high HIV and TB rates.

What began as an Internet of Computers (the World Wide Web), evolved into an Internet of People (Social Media) is now moving into ultimate, permanent connectivity with the Internet of Things. It is an exciting, burgeoning field, with eye-watering numbers: The industry will be worth $3.7B by 2020 (McKinsey), investment in the industry will be upward of $60T (General Electric) and connected devices will grow to 75 billion by 2025 (IHS).

The fundamentals of the South African economy (resource extraction, agriculture, financial services and retail) as well as the host of social issues (drought, under-resourced health and education sectors and safety) create an ideal state for IoT to make a significant positive impact. We need more thinking on IoT, more homegrown IoT technologies, and much greater synthesis with existing structures and systems.