Some time ago I did extensive research into the African ICT market. So how does it compare to the rest of the world? Let’s focus on Africa’s weakness and transform that into a strength. The lack of basic telco and grid infrastructure across its 55 countries is probably the continent’s biggest weakness. Just as roads, airports and harbours stimulate the flow of goods and services, so does the digital infrastructure of cable networks and Data Centres enable growth in ICT services. Summarised, Africa does not have legacy infrastructure on which to grow the digital transformation.
But this ‘legacy infrastructure’ is now hampering the rest of the world. It is old and expensive to maintain. Worse, it prevents investment in new systems that would be both more environmentally friendly and provide better capacity. Also the old world model of selling boxes and licenses is so ingrained in company habits that a shift to grouping data and applications in a Data Centre (the Cloud) versus each company operating its own Data Centre is still hard to contemplate.
So Africa’s weakness suddenly is a strength. Just as Africa leapfrogged expensive landlines towards mobile phones, it now has a similar opportunity to jump expensive servers, licenses, maintenance and energy by thinking smartly about centralising software applications in hyper scale Data Centres and ensuring wireless networks deliver Software-as-a-Service to all market segments. Not only would it be less expensive, but also better for the environment. These African hyper scale Data Centres could be located near deserts, powered by solar or wind. Humid and warm equatorial climates are tough on hardware, so mini Edge Data Centres could be connected to Hub Data Centres, always taking into account that grouping applications and services will be more efficient in cost and in environmental impact.
Sure, both Data Centres and Mobile Towers need grid power, and in many places across Africa grid power is unreliable or unavailable. But there are small, nimble companies working on solutions to reduce the costly diesel generator, and even replacing it by solar energy. The demand for reduced maintenance cost is there, so the technology to displace diesel will follow. And in the meantime it would be wise to stop acquiring expensive servers and software licenses, and consider African hyper scale Data Centres where multi-tenant applications could serve users efficiently at lower economic and environmental costs.
Site location and climatological impact would need to be thoroughly assessed, as is network connectivity, both from the huge data pipes that land on Africa’s coast to the inland spider web of Mobile Towers. This is not for the faint hearted, but since this is Africa the prize will be equally rewarding. Mobile Network Operators should do what they are good at, and build and maintain the cloud infrastructure and application vendors can then provide their services through these networks for a fee. The telco’s billing system is equally adapted to ensure the client is charged for services used, so everybody wins.
There is also an economic reality behind Mobile Network Operators driving Africa’s green cloud business. I would hate to see the big hyper scale players like Microsoft, Amazon or Google take the lead in Africa, because they siphon value out of Africa instead of back in. Africa needs them to put their services on locally owned and operated Mobile Networks so the African engineers and technicians learn, benefit and pump value back into the local economy. This will also spark local cloud content creation, be it African Health Clouds – Enforcement Clouds or – Government Clouds, with specific African content run by African Mobile Network Operators. Intelligent MNO’s will run this content on efficient, lean infrastructure, benefiting from partnerships with infrastructure vendors who wish to test and trial their new servers in low resource conditions. Limited bandwidth, scarce power supply and extreme heat and humidity are perfect conditions for suppliers to test and prove resilient and efficient Data Centres.
The Mobile Network Operators bring their knowledge of local regulations, customs and other challenges so the value gets created on both sides. And last but not least, sharing experience, knowledge and best practices sharing through an objective platform would be fantastic. An example is The Green Grid, but there are others too. The underlying philosophy should be that when Cloud Computing can thrive in the most resource scarce environment, Africa, the whole world can benefit from this experience and learn to do more with less. Africa would lead the way in driving a less destructive and more sustainable future for humanity. The vision for Africa is thus to leap frog expensive and unsustainable ICT legacy systems, lean and green into the Cloud. Hopefully the rest of the world will follow.