IoT Transforming African Industries

Second L: EvanThomas, SweetSense, M: Elizabeth Mwashuma Philips, R: Jess Bollinger, Arable at the M360 Africa

EXECUTIVES from the utilities, healthcare and agriculture sector in a panel discussion at the on-going Mobile World Congress in Shangai, China have highlighted how IoT is transforming their operations across Africa.
Taking the first shot at this discussion, Evan Thomas, CEO of SweetSense, a company developing low-cost remote sensors, highlighted a problem with many development initiatives which can be solved by machine-to-machine technology.
“Money comes in from a national government, or a foreign aid agency, to put in technologies – things like water pumps, latrines and water filters – designed to have a positive impact on households and communities. But in many cases this impact is short lived – about half of the water sanitation programmes installed every year with foreign aid are broken within 18 months, and they don’t get repaired,” he said.
By monitoring the performance of such sites remotely, it is possible to dispatch engineers to the right sites, when they are needed – making the most of money spent on projects.
Thomas also suggested a potential application of machine learning, to anticipate when a pump will fail and dispatch maintenance staff beforehand.
Elizabeth Mwashuma, research scientist for Philips, talked of a similar opportunity in the healthcare space: “We see a lot of equipment breaking down, we have at least 40 per cent of medical equipment that is constantly out of service, the leading causes being poor management, inadequate infrastructure and training.”
A key issue is the failure of equipment at primary healthcare level – “the ones that interact with communities”.
Working with health authorities, Mwashuma talked of the opportunity to tie-in information on equipment availability with patient outcomes “so we can show that by having the scan at the facility, and having the scanner available, how much costs have been reduced or healthcare provision improved”.
“How do we make sure these investments are efficient? How do we make sure what we are doing in remote areas are monitored? The need for data to support decision-making is key. And that shows how much IoT has a place in healthcare.”
Hands-off systems are an important factor, Mwashuma said: “We don’t want the doctor to think about the patient, and at the same time think about the equipment.”
The need for low-intervention technology was echoed by Jess Bollinger, head of special projects at crop management technology company Arable.
“Before, when you were looking at crops, it was one more thing to do at the end of the day. It’s more paperwork, it’s walking around in the fields, it’s super labour-intensive, it’s hard to correlate the data on a regular basis. IoT just changes the game for that.”
With mobile operators well represented among the audience, it was unsurprising connectivity was on the agenda.
Thomas said: “The challenge is scale. They are dealing with millions of subscribers, and we are dealing with hundreds of water points. We’re not quite on their radar.”
Coverage is critical, because “satellite data is very, very, very expensive,” he said, adding: “It’s a limitation for us – GSM is very cost effective, but it isn’t necessarily operating everywhere we want to be.”
By Maureen Akello, East Africa


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