From smartphones to cargo drones, technology has the potential to transform the future of Africa. These 10 trends show how innovation can ripple through societies, boost economies and help the continent skip over development hurdles.
Because connectivity defines modern prosperity, and because Africa will not be able to build roads fast enough to manage its growth, the continent will be the first to adopt cargo drones at massive scale. But drones need somewhere to land. So in 2015 we will see the first concepts for droneports out of Africa. They will be clean-energy, open to sky and nature, and mix the civic quality of early Victorian railway stations with souks and the latest airport technology – in other words, the petrol station of the 21st century.
It’s not just flying robots that hold economic promise for Africa. The ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa has reinforced the lessons of Fukushima. In the kind of emergency where it’s dangerous for humans to be in contact with one another, robotics can help to screen for radiation or for infectious disease. Currently, there are not enough advanced robots to do the remote tasks we need them to do. It might seem counterintuitive to promote robotics in the context of high youth unemployment and pervasive poverty. But African economies will engineer efficiencies through automation that they would otherwise not be able to afford. Look to the Africa Robotics Network and research universities inside and outside Africa, which will spread robotics beyond humanitarian use into the production of robots. In particular, there will be more research into robotics for healthcare and search-and-rescue functions.
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) astronomy project in South Africa’s Kalahari desert promises to massively advance space science in Africa. The SKA’s goal is to map the early universe using radio telescopes, and the first phase of the project is capped at $740 million. The necessary computing architecture will be among most advanced on the planet. SKA will eventually produce more data than the rest of the world’s astronomy projects combined. In 2015, we will also see private space initiatives, including the South African investor Elon Musk’s Space X begin consideration of private launch sites in Africa, ahead of the many rocket launches expected to take place before NASA sends humans to Mars in 2035. Located on the equator and with plenty of space, Africa has the potential to be a major player in space exploration.
Voyager I has entered interstellar space. Fastened to it is a gold disc with the sounds of Earth recorded on it. Among them is a greeting in the Chewa language of central and southern Africa: “How are you, people of other planets?” Google Translate is now available in 10 African languages. However, Translators Without Borders points out that Africa has 2,000 languages. Only 242 of these are used in the media and just 63 are used in the judicial systems. That means the poorest and most vulnerable Africans struggle to make themselves understood. Creating living dictionaries for hundreds more African languages will be a significant undertaking in 2015, not just for heavyweights such as Google and IBM’s Project Watson, but for start-ups, too. It is cheap and profitable: Babel has never looked so promising in Africa.
5. Tech spaces
Tshimologong Pre cinct is a technology accelerator of Wits University in Johannesburg, which has the backing of companies such as IBM and Microsoft. As much as 40% of South Africa’s GDP is generated within a short drive of Tshimologong and many students live in the area, so reorienting the precinct around technology makes sense. Similarly, in Kenya, the Gearbox makerspace for design and rapid prototyping will move into the railway district in downtown Nairobi. The year 2015 will see similar initiatives from Dakar to Durban as city planners, property developers and technologists realize they can work together to produce jobs and vitality.
6. Augmented reality
This year may be too soon for augmented reality to hit the market in Africa, but it is not too soon to begin planning for it. How might an African second life, visited by commuters on crowded minibuses, differ from augmented realities in industrialized countries?
7. Wearable technologies
Africa is coming late to wearables because of the cost, but in 2015 will see them gain market share through cheap smart watches and health trackers. That will subtly challenge present behaviour for wealthier early adopters. Will 2,000 steps a day suffice for African city-dwellers? Will cholesterol tracking influence food choices?
A study by iPass, an American wi-fi provider, suggests that wi-fi hotspots will proliferate on the planet, but continue to lag in Africa. It predicts that in 2018 there will be a wi-fi beacon for every 20 people on Earth, but only one beacon for every 400 Africans. So, the year 2015 will see a more concerted push towards spreading wi-fi more equitably around Africa. Sub-orbital satellites using solar sailplane technology will close financing. These great and graceful craft always aloft in the stratosphere will usefully compete with high-altitude “loons”, white-space radio frequency and low-tech stratospheric repeaters. A related activity will be to make the most of the available bandwidth by installing the best available spam filters.
9. Smartphones again
The migration from dumb phones to smartphones is so obvious a trend that it can often be overlooked, but new guesstimates form Cisco underline the extent of the coming change. In South Africa, Cisco says, internet usage will grow from 710 megabytes a month to 7.2 gigabytes in 2019. Most of this will be on newly purchased smartphones and their related devices, such as wearables and augmented reality. And where South Africa goes, the larger African economies follow.
The year 2015 will see a move towards futurism among African intellectuals, with avant-garde artists and writers anticipating Africa’s forthcoming acceleration in their works. Concepts will include new technologies, the loss of wildlife species, the creation of cities and the longer view of transhumanism and interstellar travel. Wider discussions about technology will take place. A good example is South African film director Neill Blomkamp and his latest blockbuster, Chappie, set in Johannesburg: “Humanity’s last hope is not human.”
Author: Jonathan Ledgard is Director of a future Africa initiative at EPFL and a long-time Africa correspondent at the Economist. He leads a group that is building the world’s first droneport – in Africa. His last novel, Submergence, was a New York Times Book of the Year and is being adapted for the big screen.
Image: An illustrator works on a digital drawing board at the Kuluya Games office at Anthony district in Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos June 16, 2014. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye