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Cloud Computing in Africa? All Weather is Local

By Wayan Vota on November 5, 2009

Recently there’s been a good discussion about cloud computing in Africa, where Ken Banks asks if its “Inappropriate” appropriate technology? Ken starts by suggesting that:

If we take anything that uses “the cloud“, for example, then I’d argue that it’s largely “inappropriate” unless you’re working in predominantly urban areas or in predominantly ‘developed’ countries.

Why? Well cloud computing relies on realtime server interactions with low latency, high bandwidth, and a stable connection. None of those are common in most of Africa. As an example, 193 Kbps in Ghana is the best bandwidth speed I’ve found in my Africa travels. Or as Miguel says:

The Cloud is predicated on having an “always on” connection to function. While it’s fine to design a web architecture that centrally stores user data and handles all the heavy lifting when it comes to processing, the issue of access is going to block off Africa and whole lot of the rest of the world because of this. Designers (if they can be nudged to care) need to build applications with this in mind for probably the next 5-10 years. It’s building in “graceful degradation” to a system.

But why live in the now? Others look to a brighter, more connected future with announcements like 3.5G in rural Ghana. Specifically, Matt Berg makes the point that we should not close our minds to the rapid growth of bandwidth options that make cloud computing possible:

The data quality of GSM networks in places like Africa is improving dramatically and will soon offer (if they don’t already) performance comparable to the West. Assuming the well funded operators can weather the growing pains of widespread data adoption, I think we can expect the quality and reliability to improve. Also in terms of GSM networks rural areas will increasingly = urban areas as operators extend services.

In addition, the quick spread of technology infrastructure can reduce some of the connectivity constraints that Miguel described. Alice Liu points out that much of the long distances data must now cover to reach American or European server farms is shortening as infrastructure moves onto the continent:

The cloud doesn’t necessarily mean connecting back to California as another person mentioned. MTN in Kigali, for instance, offers data center/hosting services and many governments are setting up their own data centers and IT service centers to serve other government units. I’m hoping this takes off, because in govt they’re all competing for the same scarce IT resources.

But I think the best point in the whole discussion is made by Michael Downey, when he says that, like politics or the weather, all technology is local:

“Appropriate” technology is based 100% on context of who users are and the environments in which they will work and live. Thus, there’s a danger of over-generalizing any technology, such as emerging platforms like cloud computing, and even more proven platforms such as mobile devices.

Choosing the right solution for a given situation is what’s paramount, not any one specific technology. In high-bandwidth areas where users have devices that can browse the Internet quickly and cheaply, cloud computing can make great sense. I used my mobile phone web browser more in Accra, Ghana than the USA. Yet in Nigeria, Internet bandwidth is so poor and unreliable, VoIP intranets beat Skype for voice communications and cloud computing would be a joke.

So its best not to watch international news for the right technology solutions to implement in your specific project. Like the weather, its best to be local and look out the window to see what’s appropriate for your day – be it cloudy or not.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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5 Comments to “Cloud Computing in Africa? All Weather is Local”

  1. Kozuch says:

    You can do local cloud – maybe just in WAN or MAN – so far as your network allows…

  2. damien charpentier says:

    I tend to disagree with a part of this subject.

    Cloud computing does not impact client web connection (or if it does, it can improve the navigation thanks to a better server scalability). From a client side, using a cloud application should be like browsing any website, using http and html if you want.

    Problems you are referring to (3g connection, rich content media) have not much to do with cloud computing itself.

    The big deal with cloud computing is on a server side, not that much on the client one.

    Indeed Mr Downey made a good comment, you can still built light websites running on a cloud web app.

  3. ryan Vank says:

    “Like the weather, its best to be local and look out the window to see what’s appropriate for your day – be it cloudy or not.” That summarized it well. African developers must get together and design new protocols closely related to their internet connection speed or the lack of it.

  4. ryan Vank says:

    Hi Damien,

    The problem the are pinpointing in this article in mostly the lack of good 24/7 highly available internet connection in African countries.

  5. Sri Prakash says:

    A cloud strategy in Africa makes the greatest sense. The reasons below will justify my view of the trend towards the cloud paradigm in Africa over the next few years to help it join the information super-highway.

    GEOGRAPHY: A large continent with a number of countries with disparate levels of access to education and commerce. This makes it exceedingly hard for the standard distributed computing model to proliferate. Cities that can and centers of excellence are too few and spread too far apart to seed this kind of development. A faster and more practical model for growth would be to establish a cloud infrastructure clustered in the few cities that can actually host it.

    DISPARATE INFORMATION NEEDS: Let me explain what I mean – given that a majority of the population is still extremely poor and requires access to basic needs – the kind of information that will be most helpful and be readily consumed by the larger population is that which is related to healthcare, hygiene, literacy, safety, micro farming, small business, micro business, and basic social development including village and small town development; in this scenario, the majority of the population are going to be “consumers” of information rather than “producers”. In such a model, a cloud approach makes more sense since these population centers cannot really afford to maintain their own data centers from a logistical, financial, and know-how perspective.

    INTERNATIONAL INVESTORS: International investors are one of the major drivers for helping Africa get onto the information super highway. Profitability is a key objective for these investors; the only way they can see the quickest ROI (Return on Investment) is to follow a cloud model. By piggy-backing on Africa’s current major broadband initiative, investors can establish clouds that are physically located in the few major cities scattered across Africa and make the cloud services available to the entire population over cellular-data networks that are proliferating across Africa at a much more rapid rate than any other technology. A cloud strategy is also the cheapest way for information services providers to keep costs low – so it’s a no brainer that this approach trumps the more traditional information services models. Proof of this happening is further seen in the participation at “Capacity Africa 2011” at Nairobi where most of the world’s leading telecommunications companies are showcasing their cellular and broadband efforts in Africa.

    SEEDING AFRICA’S GROWTH THROUGH INFORMATION: Who better to seed Africa’s growth than the people of Africa themselves. Like I pointed out, the populations is scattered over an impossibly large geography. The centers of excellence are few and far apart. But it is these few centers that are best positioned to seed development of the rest of the continent by decimating information that is most relevant at a cost that is minimal. The cloud will allow Africa to achieve this in the most technical and cost feasible manner.

    You can read my specific posts on Cloud Computing, architectures, and trends at http://ecomcanada.wordpress.com/category/5-cloud-computing/