14 December 2011

Africa: Using ICT Solutions to Reduce Global Business Emissions

Photo: The East African
Residents of Sega browse after the launch of Sega Silicon Valley Community ICT centre in Ugenya district.

interview

The ICT industry, which contributes only two percent to global CO2 emissions, insists that ICT expansion is critical in achieving a low-carbon economy.

Leading the charge is Ericsson sub Saharan Africa, which has invested in green solutions through its "Technology for Good" program and is networking communities in South Africa to reduce transportation costs. Ericsson is also investing in power saving technology and exploring bio-fuel solutions across the continent.

Mwambu Wanendeya, Vice President and Head of Communications for Ericsson sub Saharan Africa, makes the case that achieving a "Networked Society" is key to more efficient energy utilities, more efficient work options and better transportation solutions. He spoke to allAfrica.

The main issue at the climate talks in Durban, South Africa has been that the United Nations framework for fighting global warming, the Kyoto Protocol, is about to expire. What message is Ericsson bringing to the climate talks?

The ICT industry contributes to an estimated two percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and we are committed to decreasing this further. But at the same time what we can do is make significant contributions to reducing the other 98% of carbon emissions that come from other industries and sectors such as energy production, transport and construction.

We are part of the industry group called the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) which has the vision of using ICT solutions to reduce global business emissions by 15% by 2020. The vision will be achieved through innovative technologies like smart electricity grids, remote working enabled by broadband and intelligent transport systems.

The central message we have brought to Durban is to show how ICT can be used to reduce carbon emissions. And we have different applications that illustrate this, be they mobile money, smart grids, how increased broadband speeds can increase GDP, you can obviously use broadband better for remote computing. There is whole range of applications we want people to aware of and to work with us on.

Ericsson has been doing some work in the use of ICT solutions to reduce global business emissions in South Africa. Would you care to explain?

What we have done in Johannesburg is we have built a fiber network. We are laying over 1000 kilometers of fiber, which will give ultra fast internet connectivity for material on that network and this is being funded through an innovative partnership whereby it has not cost the city taxpayer any money.

Ericsson formed a company that bids for money loans from banks at the commercial rate of interest.

The banks found the project attractive and they financed the company which is building this network. One of the things that will happen from this is that for the city of Johannesburg most of their calls from one municipal office to another will now be done at no cost and they will also have access to information stored in one location will it be easily accessible through this network at another location.

There will be less need for people to drive up and down trying to get information, there will be no cost because that has been incorporated in the cost, and that will take up about 15% of the capacity of the network, the other 85% will be available on a commercial basis to various companies that want to use it.

For example, a company which produces a lot of film might decide that it wants to have a movie library, so you can hook up your DVD player and just download  the movie, or just livestream it through into your television in your living room.

Or it may be that some of the hospitals may decide that they want to use this powerful technology to do effective remote diagnosing by putting in a high end camera at one location and the patient sits in front of the camera and can be quickly diagnosed by a doctor sitting somewhere else.

So Ericsson thinks a "networked society" makes us more efficient and reduces the carbon footprint?

It is not just about reducing the carbon footprint, because in a network society we envision that people will be connected to other people. We think we stand at the threshold of a fundamental change in innovation and opportunities across many industries.

People will be connected to other people, people will be connected to machines, machines will be connected to other machines and we believe this is how we will achieve these 15 billion connections of a "network society."

Obviously, all those connections won't all be people to people because there are only 7 billion people. Some of them will be machines that will be connected to each other or to people, and those still have to be invented.

Can you talk about the importance of Africans generating African content?

What we have seen in Africa - like in every other market - are that the conditions within that market are slightly different. We've had programs that have been developed by Ericson in Africa, such as dynamic discounting, which has then gone on to be introduced in other regions.

Dynamic discounting is a product whereby the operator looks at his base station, and maybe sets a revenue target for each base station, and then if the base station isn't achieving that revenue target, they can dynamically discount the call, so if you are within the area covered by that base station, you get an estimate saying 10% off calls made in the next two hours, and the customer then says, 'great this will cost me less so I will make some calls.'

We have seen in Africa as well that the market is very different.

We have seen mobile money has had a very sharp uptake, particularly in countries like Kenya, and has gone on to be enhanced and developed further.

Now you can add interest on your mobile bank account, and these are things that may be of interest in countries on the continent.

What about issues affecting connectivity in Africa?

One is the availability of connectivity and we are trying to address that through the rural networks. When we produce networks in rural areas, which operators can share thereby lowering  the cost of entry in the rural areas for the operators.

This, in turn, spurs governments, because the more people that are connected the more easy it is for government to monetize the rural areas, so people can send mobile money, send a receipt, pay from the rural areas. It reduces the likelihood that Africans will be tempted to go from the rural to urban areas.

The second thing is that we have seen the cost of devices is falling dramatically, its now possible to get smart phones below $50 and tablets below $50 before taxes and transportation.

Can you talk about Ericsson 'Apps for Africa Program'?

We've launched this competition in Africa at the big centers of innovation – Nairobi, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Lagos and Harare. These communities will be driving innovation, putting out apps that are relevant to the local market – and some may be globally relevant. We believe this will further develop the app market. We started with android apps because our former company, Sony-Ericsson, worked on android.

There are a lot of apps created during the Ericsson apps competition. For example, there is a mapping application that you can use for free. It is quite interesting. University students may decide to make an app of the university campus just for fun or of the city to test their skills.

And what have you noticed is the difference between the kind apps developers are creating and the kind of apps Africans need?

The requirements of the African population are in someways different. For example, last year when we had an apps competition, one of the winners was a company called Hip Snip.

The application they developed had you putting items of clothing on yourself on the internet and you then send a message to your friends asking, "You think this looks good on me?" Then they say, "Yes, you must buy that shirt from Banana Republic or wherever; it looks great on you." But in an African context that application is not as relevant.

What would be more relevant is an app you put on your smart phone and you will can walk up to your cow and check the temperature and it will tell you this cow is fertile and ready for insemination. Such an app won't cut it in New York. But in Africa, a $100 worth of semen is a big investment for a farmer.

In Sweden, for example, we have an app that will allow you to send a sms to a vending machine and you are billed back on your mobile phone. In Africa that assumes there are a lot of things. It assumes there is a vending machine in a secure location, which assumes there is electricity.

We have launched the apps competition because we believe there are a lot of developers in Africa who are working in isolation but know their markets very well.

We are helping them to get their apps to work at a certain level till it is a commercial feasible thing, then we might give them further expertise to develop it further. Like in Silicon Valley where people come together in a community to partner and compete, therefore raising the level of the whole industry, we hope the Ericsson apps competition can do the same thing in Africa.

But more broadband means installing more servers and that means more power consumption and more carbon emissions. Isn't an expansion in ICT contributing to the problem of climate change?

The ICT industry contributes an estimated two percent of global carbon emissions. It is really a fraction but we are committed to making it lower. Where things expand is when you drive to the bank, withdraw cash, drive back, and pay for your lunch in the canteen. Or walk to the canteen, use your mobile phone to pay for launch in the canteen and do all the other things. Which has less carbon impact?

So the carbon impact has less to do with ICT expansion and more to do with how people manage their lives?

It is a little of both. Remember dial up? You couldn't really work from home efficiently with dial up. But now with broadband it solves a transport problem and lets you decide whether you want to reduce your carbon footprint and have a better quality of life. If your commute is one hour each way, if you decide Fridays you are going to work from home, you save two hours of travel and all the carbon footprint that would involved, as well as the cost of driving yourself to work. Before broadband, that wasn't as feasible.

The other thing is the telecommunication and auto industry started about the same year. The telecom industry started by laying cables and poles to connect places, and then connecting people because it was now a phone in your house; then it became a mobile, a phone in your car; now it is a phone in your pocket.

So it has evolved very dynamically and the number of connections has increased rapidly. The auto industry, on the other hand, it still four wheels burning auto fuel. So the speed of evolution of the two industries, which started around the same time, is completely different. And there is proof that increasing broadband, especially mobile broadband, increases connectivity thereby reducing the need for people to use the car.

With the ongoing global financial crisis, is there any political will at the moment within governments to implement the solutions you are suggesting?

What is clear right now is that mobile connectivity contributes to GDP. And there is studies showing that a ten percent increase in penetration of mobile broadband directly increases GDP by one percent. So governments have a clear understanding of that and they can see that having more mobile broadband in their countries increases GDP. And there are also the other side effects of bringing more rural people into the formal banking economy and by harnessing the savings these people have, there is more capital to lend out because there is more money in the system.

Now when you look at broadband, we have also done studies, not in Africa but in other regions, that increase in broadband speed increase GDP further than increase in connectivity.

All these governments also know that in their countries the biggest revenue earner is the telecommunications industry so they are sensitive to the fact that this is an industry that has an enormous impact on their countries and see it as a partner in development. Mobile telecommunications has been the biggest spur of development on the continent.

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