How SA can tap into cloud to meet development ambitions

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Across Africa, cloud computing is already accelerating progress towards attaining the SDGs.
Across Africa, cloud computing is already accelerating progress towards attaining the SDGs.

Cloud computing has the potential to accelerate achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in SA, as well as the rest of Africa.

This is according to the South African SDG Hub at the University of Pretoria, which has released a policy brief that explores the relationship between science, technology and innovation, and the SDGs.

Authored by professor Willem Fourie, the brief argues that cloud computing will enable cost-effective access to cutting-edge technologies.

Such technologies can improve the efficiency of existing systems, Fourie says, adding that they contribute to an “enabling environment for game-changing innovation”.

In 2015, the global community adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 SDGs.

In many respects, the SDGs are the most ambitious set of development goals yet. They cover targets ranging from doubling agricultural productivity, to doubling the rate of improvement in energy-efficiency.

Access to information

Fourie says this is why the SDGs emphasise the importance of technology in achieving targets.

He adds the importance of using technology to accelerate development is echoed in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, SA’s National Development Plan, as well as in the African Union’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024) and SA’s White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation.

“Cloud computing provides organisations with flexible access to sophisticated information technology (IT) capabilities by delivering a range of computing services over the Internet,” says Fourie.

“These capabilities include servers, storage, databases, software, analytics and intelligence. In many cases, cloud computing is associated with lower IT costs, a reduction in IT security risks, improved efficiency and more innovation.”

SA is experiencing significant investments by providers of cloud computing. This year, Microsoft opened Africa’s first cloud computing data centres in Africa in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Huawei has also launched a data centre, and Amazon Web Services plans to open a data centre in Cape Town in 2020.

The location of data centres influences how efficiently data moves across networks, says Fourie. Data centres located in Africa will significantly improve the speed with which the cloud’s capabilities can be accessed, he notes.

“This seems like a vote of confidence in both the South African policy environment and political leadership.”

However, he points out that SA – like most other governments – has not yet even scratched the surface of the benefits of cloud computing.

“In my view, some of the most significant benefits lie in improving the efficiency with which existing systems are run.”

The report notes artificial intelligence (AI) is a crucial capability delivered through cloud computing.

It points out that a recent global survey on AI in the private sector found that the top three benefits of AI are perceived to be enhancing current products, optimising internal operations, and better decision-making. AI frees workers to be more creative and create better products.

“In SA, companies have spent R2.4 billion between 2008 and 2018 on AI. 80% of companies consider AI an important issue. 89% of companies regard AI’s most important contribution as optimising operations, with 71% expecting AI to drive the creation of new products and services.

“Altogether, 88% of companies expect AI to have a significant or a high impact on their operations. Yet most South African companies (46%) are still in the ‘piloting’ phase, with no companies self-reporting that they have reached the ‘advanced’ stage,” the report says.

Professor Willem Fourie of the South African SDG Hub at the University of Pretoria.
Professor Willem Fourie of the South African SDG Hub at the University of Pretoria.

Use cases in Africa

Across Africa, cloud computing is already accelerating progress towards attaining the SDGs, the report says.

It points out that AI delivered through the cloud is helping farmers make more informed crop decisions by predicting crop yields.

Cloud computing capabilities are helping health insurance companies to provide personalised health goals and identify members at risk of chronic illnesses or readmission to hospital.

Data analytics delivered through the cloud are making it possible to monitor and respond to disease outbreaks.

The cloud has created the environment for building a comprehensive digital employment platform for African youths.

Intelligent data analytics is making it possible to analyse the business potential of the formal and informal sectors in Africa.

Cloud computing is creating the environment for developing an app to register road damage in a major metropolitan area.

An African telecommunications company is using data analytics to improve its call centre efficiency.

The capabilities of cloud-based software are being used to assess animal populations more efficiently by, among other things, being able to recognise individual animals.

The AI capabilities of cloud computing are being used to detect poachers in real-time.

Banks are using AI to spot and stop money laundering and other corrupt activities.

A local municipality has used the cloud to create an app that allows citizens to communicate directly with the relevant departments.

The cloud is being used to streamline supply chain financing by helping large and small businesses get quicker access to project financing.

Policy environment

However, the report says cloud computing’s potential to accelerate the attainment of the SDGs will only be unlocked if the fundamentals are in place.

These fundamentals cover the policy environment, safeguards, infrastructure and skills development.

“Policies that integrate science, technology and innovation throughout the development planning process of science, technology and innovation are cross-cutting enablers of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and should be incorporated into all the phases of the development planning process,” Fourie explains.

“The challenge is to concretise this policy intention. Against the backdrop of significant investments in data centres in South Africa, cloud computing provides one avenue for producing tangible results over the short- and medium-term.

“Enabling the free flow of data cloud computing is based on the assumption that data can flow freely between users and the providers of storage, software, analytics and intelligence services. Policies that enable the free flow of data while adhering to South Africa’s data protection legislation are, therefore, central to capitalising on the potential of cloud computing.”

Fourie says the importance of the free flow of data can be understood with reference to water (SDG 6) and energy (SDG 7).

“Data is increasingly important for meeting citizens’ basic needs, as are water and energy. Yet, as with the provision of water and energy, access to data cannot be provided free of charge, as the storage and provision of data require significant investments. The analogy stretches further than the nature of these goods: water and electricity are also often generated or stored beyond the borders of a particular country, necessitating cross-border agreements.”

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