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Africa's digital future

HP’s CTO Shane Wall maps out a vision for Africa’s future.

'Imagine a world where you design a product anywhere in the world, then you digitally transmit the file to wherever you want.' (123RF)

By the end of the century, 40% of the global population will live in Africa. By 2030, there will be more African kids under ten than the entire US population. And, by 2035, the largest working age population in the world will be in Africa.

This ever-growing population will increasingly be moving into high density megacities – three of the biggest 15 cities in the world will be in Africa by 2025.
This is the demographic reality that Shane Wall, CTO and Head of HP Labs, believes will face the continent in the coming years. This presents some serious challenges for African governments to contend with, such as infrastructure, education and food security, along with employment opportunities and growing the underlying economy, to support these booming populations. But, he also believes it presents opportunities.  

Wall says that sheer necessity and the less onerous regulatory environments in Africa can lead to innovation taking place faster than in more developed markets. He refers to the growth in mobile payments across the continent and Rwanda’s drone delivery service for blood as examples of accelerated local innovation. The slow and often impossible rollout of fixed-line internet is another example of how Africa has adapted and leapfrogged technologies. “Today more than 340 million Africans are connected to the internet, and 99% of internet subscriptions are accessed through handheld devices,” he says.

Virtual becomes physical

Following the split of HP into two separate companies – HP Inc and Hewlett Packard Enterprise – HP Inc is now focused on client side and user devices, so Wall’s vision for the future is packaged neatly into areas that complement these. One area he sees as having particular relevance to the African context is digital manufacturing, powered by 3D printers.

Shane Wall, HP Labs Shane Wall, HP Labs
“Imagine a world where you design a product anywhere in the world, then you digitally transmit the file to wherever you want, it's localised in that part of the world and 3D printed or manufactured on demand. Africa has some unique opportunities in this space. There's not a lot of manufacturing in scale, yet there's a large need for products. The system that will develop manufacturing is not centralised in large countries in the East or Asia, but distributed manufacturing that's digital in nature.”

HP Inc.’s MD for South Africa and Africa, David Rozzio says: “Today, the manufacturing economy of scale from China can't be competed with in Africa. The only way to move forward is to say 'how can we get a local supply chain through technology, such as 3D printing?’. This should create jobs and an economy around it. To get adoption of this technology, you need entrepreneurs to take the lead on this.”

Wall sketches out the vision for how the approach would work on the ground, and potentially the opportunities for some entrepreneurs. “I think it will start in places like Lagos or Johannesburg, with a supersized ‘maker community centre’, which is an area with a 3D printer, and laser and plasma cutters, but all of that's managed as a shared service. That shared service is open to anyone who wants to bring jobs in,” says Wall.

It means that prototypes can be created, and then final copies can be printed in ones, tens or hundreds, through the shared resource. “It doesn't need to be sent to Asia to be manufactured. There's no worry about the supply chain that takes forever to get parts through,” he says.

Taking stock

Beyond the reduced reliance on literally ‘shipping’ parts from abroad and all the time and costs incurred, locally produced 3D printed parts can also help suppliers reduce inventory. “Imagine a world where auto suppliers don't have to hold ten years’ inventory, taking up warehouse space and sitting on their balance sheet. When a car part breaks the required file is digitally sent to that place and printed on demand at that locale,” says Wall. He adds this is happening today in parts of the aerospace and auto industry.

Two other technology areas, Wall believes could benefit Africa are healthcare and Internet of Things.  

“Healthcare is a huge opportunity around the world,” he says. HP has been looking at taking its core print technology, microfluidics, and applying it in areas such as mobile diagnostics and tests for communicable diseases, malaria and cancer. Microfluidics is at the heart of HP’s inkjet printer and is the ability to move fluids in an incredibly precise manner, repeatedly. “We think the lead for some of this (innovation) may well be on the African continent, because there's lower regulation, there’s a hunger for inexpensive solutions and a want to deploy them quickly,” he says.

The hunger for inexpensive solutions could also provide a good hunting ground for Internet of Things development. “We think some of the biggest opportunities will come in the simplest solutions that can be deployed in ways to solve basic problems. Maybe it's low power compute, with low bandwidth network,” he says.

While the prospects of IoT, 3D printing and microfluidics-driven healthcare provide good opportunities for Africa, and potentially go some way to solving the major challenges, education and skills development need to evolve. Otherwise, the largest working age population in 2035, won’t have any skills to use, and no work to do.

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