Backing African-baked innovation

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Dr Fisseha Mekuria
Dr Fisseha Mekuria

In 1993, a seed was planted in Dr Fisseha Mekuria’s mind. The Ethiopia-born researcher was finishing up his Ph.D in Sweden when he heard Nelson Mandela’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Mandela called on Africans to make the region a ‘living example of what all people of conscience would like the world to be’. We must devote what remains of our lives to showcasing ‘that the normal condition for human existence is democracy, justice, peace, non-racism, non-sexism, prosperity for everybody, a healthy environment and equality and solidarity among the peoples’. Merkuria was instantly inspired to return to his African roots. But it would take several years before he made the move and took up a role at one of Africa’s leading scientific and technology research, development and implementation organisations – the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research or CSIR.

YES to youth empowerment and NO to youth employment

According to Statistics SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the fourth quarter of 2019, 40.1% (about eight million) of the 20.4 million South Africans aged 15 to 34 are unemployed and not in some form of education or training. Keen to alleviate this issue, the CSIR partnered with the Youth Employment Service (YES) initiative at the end of April this year to help young South Africans gain the critical ICT skills they need for the future and prepare young people for the workplace. A partnership run for one year will see 66 job opportunities being offered by the CSIR for youth and will see these individuals taking up various roles, like mathematics and science teaching assistants, IT assistants in digital learning laboratories and computer coding facilitators. Says CSIR CEO Dr Thulani Dlamini: “Young people are the future. Therefore, we need to ensure they are given opportunities to make a meaningful contribution to society and commerce. It’s in the CSIR's best interest that we invest in the development of the youth in our society.”

Currently working as chief researcher in the CSIR Next Generation Enterprises and Institutions Cluster, Mekuria is heeding Mandela’s call to support African evolution by supporting mobile development across the continent. His research focuses on broadband communication and wireless spectrum development. “We’re developing technologies to make broadband more affordable so that we can connect rural and underserved communities,” he says. In Africa, and in other emerging economies, more and more of the connectivity technologies are wireless. “But spectrum is a superhighway. And, much like a regular highway, when the number of users increases, you get congestion.”

Plugging holes

He and his research team are exploring how to utilise spectrum more efficiently. What they’ve found is that much of the spectrum that is traditionally only used by broadcasters and TV stations is lying idle.

Working closely with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to solve spectrum underutilisation, the CSIR was able to develop a system to spot and reallocate idle spectrum. The system they created identifies ’spectrum frequency holes’ that can be used to deliver broadband communication services. It identifies where the spectrum areas are free, thus ensuring that new broadband service providers don’t interfere with existing TV stations. “By allocating this idle spectrum to mobile broadband network providers, we can now increase the availability of affordable broadband to marginalised communities.” From a business perspective, the CSIR’s spectrum innovation technologies also aid economic development and job creation by a smart allocation of this spectrum to small and medium-sized broadband businesses.

Spectrum is a superhighway. And, much like a highway, when the number of users increases, you get congestion.

Dr Fisseha Mekuria

Digital inclusion is lacking across many emerging economies, he notes. “During this Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of advice and information is being shared via the internet. This is successful if you have network connectivity, but a lot of communities don’t have connectivity so they’re put at a further disadvantage simply because they can’t access the insights around how to keep themselves safe.”

Preparing for the revolution

Emerging technologies are already having a profound effect on all sectors of society, says Dr Daniel Visser, group manager for Planning and Knowledge Management at the CSIR. Consider how digital technologies have enabled shared service platforms like Uber and Airbnb, or how the retail and logistics industries transformed thanks to brands like Amazon and Alibaba. The CSIR has been developing capabilities and assisting government and the private sector to implement innovations in biotechnology, nanotechnology, blockchain, the Internet of Things, satellite technologies, artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, human enhancement technologies and advanced manufacturing. Currently, says Visser, the hurdles to implementation of 4IR technologies vary globally. Ethical considerations around the implementation of AI and advanced robotics (like driverless cars) are being widely debated internationally. These conversations unpack the nature and completeness of the data being used to train AI systems (for example, including African faces in training of facial recognition programs). For South Africa, infrastructure, skills, access to technology and digital literacy will be the most significant hurdles to the success of 4IR.

Before setting his sights on solving SA’s spectrum stumbling blocks, Mekuria spent much of the 1990s using his mental muscle to develop mobile digital signal processing platforms, at Ericsson research in Sweden. As such, he’s been working at the digital coalface throughout mobile technology’s journey from 2G (text and speech) to 3G (data and high-quality voice) to 4G (video and streaming) and eventually to 5G. “5G holds massive potential, but, as I said before, the spectrum highway is already congested and the kind of high-bandwidth services that are enabled by 5G only make the situation worse.”

This predicament highlights the importance of what Mekuria describes as one of the key characteristics of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – the efficient utilisation of resources. The 4IR is being driven by a need to address the challenges of today and tomorrow, he adds. From a technology perspective, we see industry frantically developing new technologies to meet the challenges of the future.

“Innovation is important for evolution. It’s about solving the challenges that we face now and helping us to plan for what we might face in the future,” he says. “In my field, we’ve seen a massive shift in consumer demand over the last decade or two. Today, people want to be able to transact, search for information and entertain themselves anywhere and at any time. This rise in demand for connectivity challenges us, as researchers, to come up with innovative ways to use spectrum more effectively and to create an environment where businesses can be launched and jobs created because of new consumer requirements,” he adds. “As society changes, and the challenges that we face as a society change, technologies need to adapt so that they can meet the requirements of society.”

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