GIS opportunities in Africa: the Continent not the “Country”

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A colleague of mine recently asked me about the future prospects of the GIS industry in Africa. Well I jokingly answered him, “if I was a prophet I would need further intercession before I could prophecy on matters of such magnitude”.

Recently the Rural electrification authority in my country Uganda announced a multi-million dollar investment they intend to inject in the energy sector, and there was mention of the need to deploy GIS technology in the project (finally!). While watching the news on local television NTV I noticed how excited, some top notch officials were while viewing a map showing electricity coverage in the country. This got me thinking about the opportunities that lie buried in the GIS industry with respect to Africa the continent, not the “country”.

Well a lot has already been written, spoken about the present, past and most importantly the future of Africa. I frequently hear people say, in many African countries, people find it so difficult to build a successful business, which is not based on contracts with governments or local authorities. This is why so many people believe that it is not possible to be in big business unless you are somehow connected to those in power or high places. It is after all those in power who control government contracts, and projects.

So, many believe that to build a successful business in Africa you must either have a powerful relative, kinsman, or you pay bribes.

“IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO!!!..”

There are a lot of business opportunities that you can pursue successfully without being dependent on governments, or powerful connections.
The Internet, and the mobile revolution, has liberated us to build a new generation of businesses, and social enterprises, that play by a different set of rules. Unfortunately most times when people think of Africa, they tend to bias their imaginations to oil, minerals and hectares of virgin fertile soils, well all these comes with the bottlenecks that come with politics in African countries.

Forget the bad publicity by international news cables on war, famine, poverty in Africa; almost every month a multi-million dollar contract is being signed on infrastructure related developments within Africa; some of the best performing stocks in the world are to be found in stock markets in African Countries. I bet you didn’t know that! Well the Ghanian writer Kofi Opoku, says: “Do not say that your mother’s stew is the best in the world, if you have never left your village”.

Putting all the “mambo jambo” aside, let’s turn to a subject much dear to my heart, GIS!

Information management systems give policy makers and planning agencies the foresight to manage growth and change today in a way that is useful for tomorrow. As Africa’s various regions expand in resource development and urban, industrial, technological, and agricultural growth, geographic information system (GIS) technology offers solutions for conservation and urban planning. GIS is a computer software that allows its users to manage and manipulate geographic data. By using GIS, analysts are able to establish the patterns and process of development that work and that do not work.

As much as this sounds familiar to many individuals in Europe and America, in many African countries today this is a very new field, which requires “expatriates” to execute any job description or contract with a GIS element to it. To get you grounded to this fact, let’s take a look at some GIS gaps that remain unexploited in many African countries.

Spatial Data: As of 2005 according to a UNOCHA report only 15 percent of the world was mapped. Nine years later, that number has definitely gone up, but most definitely not in Africa. All though many online sources claim to have this data, it’s either outdated or unverified, African countries are growing every other day, a new road is being opened; a new construction is being undertaken etc. Data is like fuel to any GIS!

The Collaborative mapping effort through Open Street Maps and Google has indeed made giant leaps, to keep track of the developments. However with the low internet penetration coupled with high internet cost, many African countries still remain unmapped.

Satellite Imagery: Still on the subject of data, remotely sensed images that are currently available relative to Africa are either of very poor resolution (black and white) or they are totally outdated. A quick virtual visit of many African countries using your Google Earth application can point this out quite quickly. Recently a government institution approached us for satellite images, after several Skype calls to contacts in Europe and America many of these companies didn’t have any in their archives, well we finally got a supplier from India.

Environmental conservation and Natural resource management: With the discovery of underground resources taking place on almost every country in Africa, it’s only a matter of time before conflicting interests arise on the best way to extract and manage the resources without damaging the environment. GIS will prove very instrumental in helping these hot headed decision makers on the most cost effective method, while conserving the environment.

GIS skills and awareness: In many African countries learning GIS still requires people to travel abroad on a scholarship or part with an arm. The cost of training an individual in the GIS field is still too high for many individuals, mainly due to software cost. At Geographic Information Solutions Ltd, we have managed to keep this as low as possible to allow affordability for many people looking to skill up.

Currently each time I meet a friend and he/she asks me what we do as company! I try to stick to as basic an explanation as possible. Because I noticed each time I mentioned GIS related activities, it just got the person more confused. An opportunity can only be fully exploited when only a few people are aware about it, and a quick way to test that is, how confused a person gets when you explain the opportunity.

GIS jobs & pro-bono consultancy: A quick look at the job market however reveals an interesting story. Most companies, government planners and NGO’s working in Africa are beginning to realize the value of GIS as a decision making tool and slowly but surely the jobs have begun trickling in and these numbers will only continue growing.

An important tool for managing the earth’s resources, GIS technol­ogy has the sophistication to go beyond mapping as simply a data management tool. GIS can integrate georeferenced imagery as data layers or themes and link them to other data sets to produce geospatial representations of data. These geographical pictures not only depict geographic boundaries but also offer special insight to planners across disciplines such as health, agriculture, urban infrastructure, power resources, telecommunications, and trans­portation. Whatever people can imagine that needs mapping, GIS can do.

Obtaining the goal of sustainable development within Africa’s diverse communities requires that analysts and decision makers understand the characteristics of resource use as well as human conditions.

7 of 10 fastest growing economies are found in Africa, many multinational companies will greatly need an understanding of the geographic context of their investments as they make investment decisions. In these high profile discussions, “where” and “what” in terms of other local businesses will come up more than once before a final decision is made. Those with such valuable information will surely make a killing. Don’t wait for the demand in order to start offering the service, it will be late. There has never been a better time to invest in the GIS industry in Africa!

If you have worked, currently working or contemplating on working on GIS projects in Africa, please share your experience! Feel free to add more opportunities.

One thought on “GIS opportunities in Africa: the Continent not the “Country”

  1. I am now not certain the place you’re getting your info, however good topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or figuring out more. Thank you for magnificent info I was on the lookout for this information for my mission. Mursko

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