PRASANNA NANA: Internet of Things can boost food security and access to healthcare
While farmers can benefit from real-time data, Covid-19 has accelerated digitalisation of medical services
In Africa, the Internet of Things (IoT) plays an important role in sectors such as agriculture and healthcare. Traditionally the provider of voice, data connectivity and mobile payments solutions, the telecommunication sector is now using technology to build an entire ecosystem around the individual consumer.
Ultra-modern technologies and applications that leverage our hyper-connected lives are being piloted as commerce, the full range of financial services, social media and entertainment are conducted and consumed on one platform.
In the developed world this enables smart cities, homes, manufacturing and a range of other connected industries and services. In developing Africa it is enhancing livelihood security and access to basic healthcare services.
Agriculture in Africa is being affected by climate change and water shortages, yet there is a growing population in need of sustainable food security and greater financial inclusion. The World Bank and African Development Bank report there are 650-million mobile users in Africa, surpassing the number in the US and Europe.
This draws upon the fact that many African countries have extremely high cellphone penetration — a key condition in driving digital inclusion across the continent. Though the cost of data can still be high, the agency adds that some African countries have more access to a mobile phone than to clean water, a bank account or electricity.
Due to these high levels of connectivity and cellphone penetration farmers can benefit from real-time data. This can materially enhance crop yields, soil quality analysis, resource management, tracking of livestock, farm security management, sustainable pest control and reduction of postharvest wastage.
To leverage the power of the IoT, MTN, present in 19 African countries, has partnered with Aotoso Technology in a proof-of-concept process to provide connected collars for cattle in the Sudanese cattle market. Using SIM cards on the collar, farmers can use their cellphones to get vital information about the cattle, which they can use to inform feeding and breeding strategies as well as prevention of cattle theft, even in rural areas.
Orange, present in 16 countries in Africa, has co-developed Wazihub, an IoT innovation project that helps mainly informal sector farmers with monitoring their livestock and crop monitoring for better disease detection and irrigation strategies.
Vodacom, present in seven countries in Africa, has MyFarmWeb, which collects data from multiple IoT sensors across the farm. The data is collated centrally on an app and can be used to make crucial decisions. Rooted 77 Farms in the eastern Free State uses MyFarmWeb and its precision farming technology to gather data in farming corn, soybeans sugar beans. This is done by placing sensors across the farming lands measuring soil quality, weather forecasts and yield data. These solutions have been rolled out over 3,600 farming operations in Africa.
Similarly, in Kenya the founders of AgriTech innovator UjuziKilimo have combined the IoT to enhance farming operations by using fast, informed and data-driven decisions. Sensors can be used to measure soil pH and nutrient levels. This allows farmers to plant the right crops in the right soil and ultimately produce higher quality produce.
This kind of innovation was particularly important in Kenya in 2020/2021 as it was not only navigating Covid-19 challenges but had also been heavily affected by a locust invasion that destroyed crops. The ability to use technology to improve decision-making for small-scale farmers was critical.
Another area where the IoT can have profound impacts in Africa is healthcare. Covid-19 accelerated digitalisation across all industries, none more so than healthcare. Vodacom’s technology subsidiary, IoT.nxt, developed a thermal camera to help businesses track and manage the spread of Covid-19. Another Vodacom company, Mezzanine, developed mVacciNation solution, an electronic health record solution that supports vaccination coverage; and SA’s national health department uses mVacciNation to support its Covid-19 vaccination programme.
Mezzanine, through the IoT, also helps track movements and stock levels of personal protective equipment and other vital healthcare materials. In SA regulations were relaxed for virtual consultations and now allow virtual medicine prescriptions. Discovery reported a 1,000% increase in online consultations last year.
Hospital group Netcare notes a trend of participatory health and care where patients are shifting towards wellbeing, wellness, convenience and integrated personalised healthcare. The IoT serves as an important enabler of this trend. This technology can literally save lives while democratising access to quality healthcare services and support. MTN has a strategic partnership with Quro Medical, which operates a telemedicine service in SA.
Connected by MTN’s IoT suite of products, Quro has created a platform that enables the remote monitoring of patients’ vital signs. Patients wear light, compact biosensors that collect vital signs and connect to a smartphone. This information can be tracked by a team of healthcare professionals and healthcare can be delivered without patients having to travel long distances to and from clinics and hospitals. It also alleviates pressure on hospitals and creates greater convenience for patients.
The IoT is not without its challenges. Given the sheer volume of personal and business data being collected, analysed and stored, cybersecurity as well as protection of personal information becomes paramount. Scepticism and lack of full understanding of the IoT could result in slower adoption.
In Africa, high unemployment also plays into the decision on whether to fast track adoption.
The IoT will become part of the fabric of society, though the pace of adoption remains to be seen.
• Nana is head of telecommunications, media & technology at Absa Corporate and Investment Banking.
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