Top tech trends to watch in Africa in 2017


From 3D printed food to the rise of augmented reality, what will be the latest technologies to hit the mainstream in Africa over the coming 12 months?

While 2016 wasn’t a wonderful year for human advancement, technology wise saw much progress.

Many gadgets and products once thought fanciful are becoming commonplace in homes and offices (wearable devices and intelligent personal assistants, such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon Alexa, spring to mind). Technologies that seem improbable or even impossible one year can therefore soon be catapulted into the mainstream the next.

Here’s a look at three areas of technology ripe for mainstream adoption in 2017.

3D printing

The vision of 3D printers replacing mass manufacturing with products customised for individual requirements may still be in the distant future, but the use cases for 3D printing are growing by the day.

“Aside from some of the more obvious applications within the automotive and aerospace industries, we expect to see some innovative and potentially transformative 3D printing deployments among medical suppliers, electronics manufacturers, and tools and components manufacturers,” says Martin Kuban, a senior research analyst with IDC Manufacturing Insights.

In fact, 3D printing technology seems to be constantly branching out into new and un-chartered territory.

Consider, for example, the potential of 3D food printing.

Some experts believe food printers could help reduce waste through innovative use of hydrocolloids; substances that form gels with water. These could potentially be used to transform alternative ingredients such as proteins from algae or insects into new food products.

3D food printing also holds great promise for nutrition, helping to cut down on the amount of chemical additives in food and reduce overconsumption. Scientists are exploring how to customise at macro-nutritional level, which could eventually lead to tailoring the amounts of calcium, protein, omega-3 and carbohydrates in meals. The Middle East and Africa is expected to be some of the highest growth markets for 3D printing in the coming years. Spending on 3D printing in the Middle East and Africa market is set to reach $1.3 billion by 2019, according to research from International Data Corporation (IDC).

One compelling use case in Africa has been the development of 3D printing to provide customisable artificial limbs.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 30 million people in low-income countries need prosthetic limbs, which 3D scanning and printing could help to address. Start-ups such as Not Impossible Labs and 3D Life Prints have been working with charities to provide refugees with customised prosthetic limbs, which through the power of 3D printers are far quicker than conventionally produced plaster cast methods.

AR & VR

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) edged closer to mainstream adoption in 2016.

Evolving from costly immersive experiences reliant on specialised hardware to technology more readily available on a smartphone or tablet, AR and VR are finally making their mark globally.

According to Digi-Capital, the AR market could generate US $120 billion in revenue compared to $30 billion for the VR market.

AR presents an exciting new marketing channel for businesses of all sizes, creating a whole new mixed reality world for brands to promote themselves, potentially resulting in far higher customer engagement.

A growing number of retailers are tapping into AR, which, by using a camera to seamlessly blend virtual digital elements with reality, is creating a virtual showroom for products and services.

South Africa is poised to be Africa’s testbed for AR, where the rapid adoption of smartphones means that AR is now well within reach of the average South Africa. Success will hinge on fruitful partnerships between brands and technology solution providers, of which a growing number appeared in 2016.

Meanwhile, all the biggest names in the gaming business and beyond have already made their move into VR. There has been a modest start to life for Sony’s PlayStation VR, Samsung’s Gear, HTC’s Vive and Facebook’s Oculus Rift, which are predicted to grow in popularity and stature from 2017 through to 2018.

Cheaper and more user-friendly VR experiences can be found using a basic headset that attaches to a smartphone. The development of headsets made from cheaper materials – Google offers one made from cardboard – is helping to drive down prices, which could prove critical for the technology’s adoption in Africa.

Drones

2016 will also be remembered as the year that drone technology started to take off.

There have been some major breakthroughs in drone technology over the last 12 months that could see the commercial arrival of delivery drones much earlier than previously anticipated. Drones are now available on the market with vertical lift and horizontal flight, making landing and take-off considerably easier in confined spaces.

Amazon has publically begun showcasing the potential of its conceptual drone-based delivery system, Amazon Air Prime, in North America and Europe, and some very compelling use cases for delivery drones also arrived in Africa.

Given its lack of air traffic, Rwanda has emerged as the test pad for drone technology.

In October 2016, the worlds’ first commercial drone delivery service began delivering blood in Rwanda. US start-up Zipline has been trialling fixed-wing drones that automatically fly to destinations across the country, releasing packages attached to parachutes at delivery points.

Plans too are place for Rwanda to host the world’s first airport for drones, which will be launched during 2017. The Red Line drone port will become home to a delivery network of drones that will help deliver medical and emergency supplies as well as commercial products, such as electronics and e-commerce.

“I expect to see two different types of commercial cargo drones. The first will be small and quick drones that can be used to deliver goods over the last mile. For example, these types of drones could be used to deliver medical emergency products, with trials already underway across Rwanda to transport life-saving blood supplies via drones,” said Jonathan Ledgard, Director of Afrotech-EPFL and Founder of Red Line.

“But the bigger opportunity is on the medium-sized payloads flying between secondary towns in Africa, which will present some really interesting retail opportunities. This could connect small towns and businesses to e-commerce for the first time in a very big way.”

(This post was first published on Liquid Telecom blog).