Africa is primed for a wave of digital innovation. Submarine communication cables now flank both of the continent’s edges, studding the African coastline with a number of fibre termination points. Wireless, copper and fibre last-mile connections are keeping an ever-greater number of African consumers and enterprises online and in touch.
Africa may be playing catch-up, yet it is becoming clear that a lack of legacy IT infrastructure needn’t hinder the continent’s digital development. Youthful, mobile-first (and mobile device-saturated) consumer bases are providing the push, as are the continent’s businesses. The result has been the creation of digital majors such as M-Pesa, Konga, Jumia, OLX and others, as well as deeper reconfigurations of how enterprises on the continent are run.
The catalyst for much of Africa’s digital potential has been the cloud. From the creation of consumer-facing apps to enterprise-level deployments, increasing numbers of African businesses are looking to leverage the technology in the hopes of creating Africa’s next tech unicorns.
Of the as-a-service gamut spanned by cloud technology, Africa has so far seen the greatest uptake of software-as-a-service (SaaS), the technology that powers end-user experience. On the consumer front, youthful, mobile-centric populations have made for huge consumer-driven appetite for SaaS-powered social media, chat, e-commerce and tourism applications, among others. Though still small-scale, other cloud-based apps focusing on education and efficient farming hold great promise for a continent in need of both.
At the enterprise level too, SaaS is powering growth. Yet platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) are also gaining momentum. The recent announcements of major partnerships provide proof of the trend. In March 2017 for example, Vodacom, Gijima and IBM unveiled a massive South African facility offering both IaaS and PaaS focused on running SAP workloads. This comes in addition to a partnership announced in April between Huawei and T-Systems South Africa, which will look to bring Open Telekom Cloud (OTC), an open stack public cloud platform, to South African shores.
At the platform level, applications deployed by businesses on PaaS environments are often large ERP, CRM or core line-of-business applications. Before deployment however, African enterprises want clarity. Issues around sovereignty, security, privacy and data repatriation begin to come to the fore in such instances, requiring expert guidance.
Regulated industries may face additional challenges. Much of this is due to a lack of clarity on legislation. In South Africa, for example, it’s arguable that legislation around POPI and intellectual property has not yet been fully synthesised by enterprise. To this end, early cloud adopters become pioneers. For those unwilling to be the first to take the leap, it becomes a wait-and-see game.
At the deepest cloud layer – that of infrastructure-as-a-service – we have not yet seen many large ‘lift and shift’ replatformings on the continent. Instead, what we are witnessing is a gradual evolution. Many businesses are moving their traditional managed service contracts to system integrators who have begun to build their own custom-made private cloud offerings. Enterprises may opt for this step-wise approach in order to take advantages of the benefits of cloud without the requirement of moving to full hyperscale, public cloud consumption.
We’ve seen numerous developments already. Yet, the cloud continues to evolve. For example: from a network perspective in terms of IaaS, point-to-point connectivity remains a viable and stable option. There are, however, other newer technologies such as software-defined-WAN that are starting to create other cost-effective ways for people to consume cloud services without having to layer on point-to-point connectivity infrastructure – by leveraging the internet.
To refocus on cloud in the African context, the tech makes a lot of sense. Firstly, it lowers barriers to entry. The cost differential between building a standalone IT environment versus consuming as-a-service makes innovation more attractive. Secondly, through a digital platform, it becomes possible to rapidly scale and innovate more rapidly.
While regional differences across the continent in terms of both architecture and availability of skilled resources mean that the benefits and efficiencies that each region can derive from leveraging cloud technologies varies, all regions are poised for increasing adoption going forward.
With Microsoft’s announcement that it will create the first hyperscale environment on the continent, we see an acknowledgement of the potential of the cloud in Africa. Moves like these will only add to the continent’s digital momentum as more global hyperscale cloud service providers will follow in establishing continental cloud presence.
By Kabelo Makwane, Managing Director of Accenture South Africa’s Cloud First business