Kithinji Muriungi of KamsHub presented at this year’s OFC, focusing on how fibre technology in Africa might look in 2030
As part of the Vision Talks: Beyond 2021 and Towards 2030 (Part 2) presentation at this year’s virtual OFC event, Kithinji Muriungi, systems engineer at Kenya’s Vision 2030 project Konza Technopolis, and founder at KamsHub focused on Africa, and how the fourth industrial revolution in the market will be driven by photonics.
‘When we talk about Africa and the contribution that it gives to the world,’ he began, ‘we do so more in terms of resources and population, but there's something unique about the African population. Currently we stand at 1.3 billion people, but it's predicted that by 2050 this will actually have doubled. Uniquely, most of the population currently is young, and we hope through that doubling that the population will still be young. A young population is an asset to the African continent, but also when we talk about fibre and most specifically the broad look at photonics, we realise the pioneers of fibre have roots in Africa.’
Muriungi referred to Ghanaian-American chemical engineer, inventor and fibre pioneer, Tomas Mensah, whom he said: ‘built a very great foundation for Africans, especially when we talk about fibre.’ Muriungi feels that the continent’s young population can leverage on this ‘key string’ that Africa has. This is demonstrated, he went on, by Africa’s startup mindset amongst the young. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ he said. ‘In Africa, like other continents, we have so many challenges. But we see them as opportunities and that's why the startup mindset really comes into play, especially in industry 4.0 and web 3.0 solutions.’
Shaping the future
Muriungi also referenced some of the academic influences of today who are nurturing this startup mentality, such as South Africa’s Professor Andrew Forbes and West Africa’s Professor Paul Werfel. ‘They are building that society, that community,’ he said. ‘They are nurturing the young ones, so they can eventually take over from them.’
This means, believes Muriungi, that by 2030, Africa will have a young, energetic generation with a solid foundation in photonics for optical communications. ‘Drifting further from those key role models,’ he said, ‘we see university students, and these are IEEE Photonics Chapter student members, inventing and patenting products.’
Muriungi touched on the size of the photonics market in Africa, referencing a recent study from market research firm, P&S Market Research on the global market. The figures demonstrated that in 2019 the market share was $576bn, with predictions of a 6.9 per cent growth rate by 2030, to be worth $1,214bn. He commented: ‘It’s taking on an upward trend and it's not looking as if at any point, it could really go down.’
Photonics technology, went on Muriungi, is seen in Africa as an enabler to bringing Industry 4.0 into reality. ‘Africa may currently fall short of physical setup,’ he explained, ‘but it's very ready for data and digital experience. When we build a fibre ecosystem, it becomes a foundation from which we are able to achieve almost everything that we want. We can do 5G without any problem. We can do IoT systems without any issue and this will enable real time robotics, especially in manufacturing or agricultural activities, for which Africa is becoming well known. But this digital experience can only be built by having a very strong foundation of fibre networks.’
Looking at coverage, Muriungi highlighted that South Africa and the majority of West African countries and the eastern side have a strong network. Kenya, meanwhile, is currently undergoing deployment works under the government’s National Optic Fibre Backbone (NOFBI) initiative to help connect more remote areas like Mandera and Lodwar. ‘By building that foundation we can reach where we want to be by 2030,’ he said.
With such a young population, it is possibly of little surprise to note that internet usage in Africa is significantly high, and still growing. Muriungi cited figures from internetworldstats.com, which demonstrated a growth rate in use of 12.9 per cent, the highest continent growth rate in the study, with 590,296,163 users in 2020.
Breaking it down into countries, the figures showed that Morocco, Djibouti, Tunisia, South Africa, and Gabon are the best connected. It is these countries, said Muriungi, that are ‘really taking the lead on ensuring the population is well connected.’ In addition, Kenya is currently experiencing rapid growth in fixed broadband subscriptions, and FTTx technologies are coming to the forefront. ‘In the city of Nairobi, for example,’ said Muriungi ‘a lot of businesses are being powered by this technology, and a lot of homes are being connected.’
Because of this, network operator Safaricom has been able to launch 5G in the region. ‘We can now see,’ said Muriungi, ‘that the numbers of 4G and 5G subscriptions are almost closer, and this is a suggestion that we are ready for the enrollment of these 5G technologies.’ But this was not the first deployment of 5G in the continent. In 2020, communications service provider MTN, in partnership with Ericsson, went live with commercial 5G in the South African cities of Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth. Now, Safaricom is looking into trialling more than 150 sites to expand its network over the coming year. Said Muriungi: ‘This is key for us because, when this technology is here with us, we can be sure that most of the innovations, most of the research in this area is very possible.’
A smart future
Another application powered by fibe is the smart city, which is also increasingly important to Africa. ‘We need to champion them,’ said Muriungi, ‘because we cannot do without them.’ And for a smart city ecosystem to be put in place, photonics technology becomes a necessity.’
There are already numerous examples of smart cities, said Muriungi, ‘on paper,’ but in a few instances, it is becoming a reality. Konza City, for example, is based upon Silicon Valley, earning it the moniker Silicon Valley of Africa. Konza is in phase one of its smart city horizontal development, with a tier three data centre already complete in terms of design and construction, the next stage is to put it into operation.
In addition, explained Muriungi, an important consideration in Africa is education, particularly in light of the ongoing pandemic. ‘We are looking into that generation being equipped with laptops or other devices,’ he said. An example is in Kenya, where primary school children have been working on laptops donated by the country’s Ministry of ICT. ‘The only way Africa is able to look into the future boldly,’ concluded Muriungi, ‘ is through being connected, enabling these young minds to not only learn, but learn to build things on their own, transforming from research to engineering. They will be able to transform the knowledge that they have into something that can be brought to market.’