James Paterson, co-founder and CEO, Aerobotics
Africa has not been spared from the impact of globalisation as the world’s economies and societies have become more and more integrated. There has however, been more movement of ideas, technology and goods into the continent than out. But if globalisation is to deliver its promised prosperity and benefits, bi-directional, mutually beneficial and cooperative engagement between Africa and the rest of the world is imperative. Today, African entrepreneurs are using their imagination to drive the next wave of globalisation, exporting innovative African-baked technology.
The challenges of doing business in Africa are widely known: weak infrastructure; immature capital markets; poor quality of education; low GDP per capita, which shrinks the disposable incomes of would-be consumers; and populations spread across staggering distances, which complicates delivery. These issues can blur Africa’s potential. But it is precisely the quantity and depth of these challenges that enable African entrepreneurs to appreciate problems and inefficiencies in a way that’s not possible when the challenges are not so serious.
Africa is in a position to solve its challenges using exponential technologies, and in doing so, it can leapfrog what exists in countries with higher gross national income (GNI). And because today’s solutions will use exponential technologies, African entrepreneurs can take those innovations to places around the world where the problem may be relatively smaller, but where valuable efficiencies could still be generated, using their ready-built and ready-to-scale solution. Here are some African companies already proving this.
The increasing appetite for Internet of Things (IoT) solutions has spurred a proliferation of startups and large corporates focusing on industry applications, data analytics and machine learning solutions to extract the value of the data that IoT makes available. IoT.nxt, based in South Africa, saw that big business in Africa faced a crippling problem. Inadequate infrastructure and basic equipment meant businesses simply weren’t ready to go digital, and companies were not willing to invest in unproven technologies.
IoT.nxt innovated around this customer friction, to bring lots of disparate end devices equipment online, onto a digital platform so that their clients could enter the digital age without replacing all their existing equipment. Unknowingly at the time, they built an advantage in connecting devices at the edge to enable the IoT.
Companies in higher GNI countries are facing the same equipment challenges and cost pressures in connecting devices at the edge. Accordingly, IoT.nxt is positioned within the global IoT landscape, with growing interest coming from the US and Germany. Dell is also now preinstalling IoT.nxt’s technology into their gateways as an “IoT in a box” solution.
With all the excitement around data analytics, delivering business value often gets lost. DataProphet has carved out a niche in artificial intelligence for eliminating defects in the manufacturing and automotive industries. Root-cause analysis as a traditional approach has worked really well when there hasn’t been too much data, where only two to three things were measured. But now, with the increase in data available, it is simply too difficult for a single process engineer to analyse every different data point. Through digitization, industrial plants are now armed with unprecedented amounts of data with no real guidance on how to use it. Artificial intelligence is well setup to easily establish an understanding of what leads to these defects by analysing the historical data.
DataProphet achieved exemplary results by using data that clients already have and giving good feedback to their operators. The company can now track where in the manufacturing process defects are arising and how; what caused them; and how to prevent them happening again. The net result is that DataProphet has now reduced defects in industrial plants from double digits to single digits, and even, in some case, to zero.
The occurrence of defects in manufacturing is a global issue, which the company has tackled successfully on home soil in South Africa, and has now begun exporting the solution to overseas markets.
Chronic food insecurity is a pertinent issue in Africa, where there will be 1.3 billion more people to feed by 2050. Aerobotics have built an analytics platform – probably the biggest in the world of analysed plants and crops – to help address this challenge. Farmers in developing countries are often not highly skilled; have weak access to information, finance and insurance; and can struggle to grow beyond subsistence farming. The main barrier to growth is a paucity of data about their land, farming practices and raw materials.
Aerobotics has captured vast amounts of data on arable land and crops using drones equipped with multispectral cameras that can detect the concentration of chlorophyll in the crops’ leaves, for example, or which plants or trees need more water or nutrients. Through their proprietary artificial intelligence software, Aerobotics’ platform can discover and analyse problems, pests and diseases affecting individual trees or vines on a farm. In addition to crop health, the software also measures size, height and canopy volume. Using the data collected and by leveraging machine learning, it can predict with greater reliability the yield in any given area, based on a photo and without intervention from the farmer. By the end of 2018, Aerobotics’ software had processed 13 million trees and vines. They are now exporting their services to the US.
These three examples illustrate the same pattern of innovation: build the solution where the customer friction is the highest, because there you can solve a real and crippling problem with a stronger business case. Once built, the solution can be evolved and exported to higher GNI markets. African entrepreneurs can use their heightened imagination and “experiential wisdom” to create solutions for problems that are not, at least initially, as noticed or as high priority in higher GNI countries.
This “noticeability” keeps African entrepreneurs ahead of the curve. Given the nature of exponential technologies, the solutions can then be used to disrupt other markets. This dynamic puts Africa in a more progressive position in the global economy, and will be key in driving a bi-directional, mutually beneficial approach to globalisation on the continent.
Rapelang Rabana is the founder and chairperson of Rekindle Learning. This article originally appeared on the website of the World Economic Forum and is part of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting. It has been adapted and shortened for publication here.