African IT expert Comments on African IT Challenges, Value of the Cloud and Virtualization

This post features the insights of Walter Kwami, an infotech expert and entrepreneur.  Walter has spent several years supplying computer hardware and accessories in the developing world. He currently owns an internet cafe in Accra, Ghana. Walter’s comments are part of an ongoing dialogue we’ve had on the state of computing in Africa. This is real food for thought for anyone interested in developing human capital, seeking investment opportunities and improving African economies’ access to global supply chains.

English: Diagram showing three main types of c...

English: Diagram showing three main types of cloud computing (public/external, hybrid, private/internal) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You hit the nail on the head – training is by far the weakest link in the chain. It is the single most important reason that previous efforts at computer education hasn’t lived up to expectation. Case in point – a primary school in our neighborhood would rather avail themselves to the resources at our cafe than use their own computer lab. When I asked why, the teacher told me the students were the ones that brought the school’s attention to the fact that their lab was practically useless compared to what they are able to do in our cafe. The requisite knowledge to train, maintain, upgrade and update the school’s computers was simply lacking. 
 
Cloud computing and virtualization is already upon us, the average African user is already heavily invested in the cloud in one way or the other. The main issue facing providers is bandwidth, but that is also changing. Take a look at this map: http://manypossibilities.net/african-undersea-cables/. Less than a decade ago the entire country of Ghana was sharing a 340Gb undersea cable with other West African countries. Today two new undersea cables with bandwidths of 1920Gb and 2500Gb have gone live (see map). Of course the challenge remains the last mile. Once that last mile access improves, bringing down the cost of bandwidth, cloud and virtualization will really take off in the enterprise and institutions. 
 
Imagine a company that currently depends on its internal IT to host servers, applications, support users, manage and update their systems, protect against intrusions, all in an environment where the infrastructure is unreliable – i.e. frequent power cuts, requiring further investment in expensive generators. In many instances their IT personnel have limited expertise and lack the requisite technical skills. With cloud and virtualization such an organization can host their applications such as email, Office 365 http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/office365/compare-plans.aspx), in the cloud and simply access them through their browser. Not to mention data backups to the cloud. Power cuts wouldn’t be as disruptive since they can use laptops, tablets, and mobile gadgets to access their applications and productivity tools. Such an organization could even employ a well qualified IT person in the US who would work with the local IT personnel to support the organization. 
 
I am currently doing something similar for a company in Ghana, and since the bandwidth is reasonably reliable, I’m pretty much always online with the guys in Ghana through my iPhone, Skype, Google+, etc. We share ideas, and train on new technologies as they become available  Often times some of them bring new technologies to my attention before I even know about it. The key here is access to, a) expertise/mentoring, which is made possible by b) reliable bandwidth. Recall the distance education product we discussed about 5 years ago? Slow bandwidth was the bane of distance education. Distance education will explode with improved bandwidth (this is already happening to some extent).
 
I once asked a class I was training how many people knew how to use computers. A few hands went up. But when I asked how many people have a Facebook account almost everyone raised their hands. How were they accessing Facebook?  You guessed it, every single person in the class had a handheld. Folks have Yahoo and Gmail accounts, store their photos taken with mobiles phones in the cloud, chat, email, text, watch YouTube, etc, all from their handhelds. Google recognized this major trend a few years ago, which is why they debuted Google Trader in Ghana and Uganda (they have since expanded to Nigeria). http://www.google.com.gh/local/trader
 
Basically, anyone with a mobile phone or computer (the vast majority of users are accessing the service on the mobile phones) can advertise and/or browse what’s for sale on Google Trader and transact business. The service has caught on quite well and will continue to grow in leaps and bounds. Bear in mind that accessing the cloud on a mobile phone is as simple as topping up your device – you buy credits, load it to your device and start browsing, whereas accessing the cloud through traditional computers is a lot more complicated. The ease and simplicity with which mobile devices enable access to the cloud is what drives adoption, as well as being largely immune to those frequent power cuts (most folks have multiple batteries for their mobile device). Services such as TxtNpay http://txtnpay.net/ even make it easy to load your device by purchasing and distributing phone credits through that very device. 
 
Without question cloud computing and virtualization will enable Ghanaian companies compete globally, maximizing their IT investments, while cutting costs. I believe their IT employees stand to gain more as they will be able to focus on improving their technology skills and supporting the organization as opposed to being distracted by infrastructure issues unrelated to their job. 
 
As to how best to solve the training issue, my bet is any initiative should consider access to reliable bandwidth as a critical component of the overall strategy. I believe there will be no shortage of volunteers from developed countries willing to share and collaborate with those in the developing world if they can easily do so in the cloud.
 

Best regards,

Walter
Panorama of central Accra

Panorama of central Accra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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