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Scarcity Breeds Innovation – The Rising Adoption of Health Tech in Africa

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Africa carries the world’s highest burden of disease and experiences a severe shortage of healthcare workers. Across the continent, accessibility to primary healthcare remains to be a major challenge. During the COVID-19 pandemic, several health tech companies emerged and offered new possibilities for improving healthcare access. Among these, telemedicine and drug distribution services were able to address the shortage of health workers and healthcare facilities across many countries. New health tech solutions such as remote health monitoring, hospital automation, and virtual health assistance that are backed by AI, IoT, and predictive analytics are proving to further improve health systems in terms of costs, access, and workload on health workers. Given the diversity in per capita income, infrastructure, and policies among African countries, it remains to be seen if health tech companies can overcome these challenges and expand their reach across the continent.

Africa is the second most populated continent with a population of 1.4 billion, growing three times faster than the global average. Amid the high population growth, Africa suffers from a high prevalence of diseases. Infectious diseases such as malaria and respiratory infections contribute to 80% of the total infectious disease burden, which indicates the sum of morbidity and mortality in the world. Non-communicable diseases such as cancer and diabetes accounted for about 50% of total deaths in 2022. High rates of urbanization also pose the threat of spreading communicable diseases such as COVID-19, Ebola, and monkey fever.

A region where healthcare must be well-accessible is indeed ill-equipped due to limited healthcare infrastructure and the shortage of healthcare workers. According to WHO, the average doctor-to-population ratio in Africa is about two doctors to 10,000 people, compared with 35.5 doctors to 10,000 people in the USA.

Poor infrastructure and lack of investments worsen the health systems. Healthcare expenditure (aggregate public healthcare spending) in African countries is 20-25 times lower than the healthcare expenditure in European countries. Governments here typically spend about 5% of GDP on healthcare, compared with 10% of GDP spent by European countries. Private investment in Africa is less than 25% of the total healthcare investments.

Further, healthcare infrastructure is unevenly distributed. Professional healthcare services are concentrated in urban areas, leaving 56% of the rural population unable to access proper healthcare. There are severe gaps in the number of healthcare units, diagnostic centers, and the supply of medical devices and drugs. Countries such as Zambia, Malawi, and Angola are placed below the rank of 180 among 190 countries ranked by the WHO in terms of health systems. Low spending power and poor national health insurance schemes discourage people from using healthcare services.

Health tech solutions’ potential to fill the healthcare system gaps

As the prevailing health systems are inadequate, there is a strong need for digital solutions to address these gaps. Health tech solutions can significantly improve the access to healthcare services (consultation, diagnosis, and treatment) and supply of medical devices and drugs.

Health tech solutions can significantly improve the access to healthcare services (consultation, diagnosis, and treatment) and supply of medical devices and drugs.

For instance, Mobihealth, a UK-based digital health platform founded in 2017, is revolutionizing access to healthcare across Africa through its telemedicine app, which connects patients to over 100,000 physicians from various parts of the world for video consultations. The app has significantly (by over 60%) reduced hospital congestion.

Another example is the use of drones in Malawi to monitor mosquito breeding grounds and deliver urgent medical supplies. This project, which was introduced by UNICEF in 2017, has helped to curb the spread of malaria, which typically affects the people living in such areas at least 2-3 times a year.

MomConnect, a platform launched in 2014 by the Department of Health in South Africa, is helping millions of expectant mothers by providing essential information through a digital health desk.

While these are some of the pioneers in the health-tech industry, new companies such as Zuri Health, a telemedicine company founded in Kenya in 2020, and Ingress Healthcare, a doctor appointment booking platform launched in South Africa in 2019, are also strengthening the healthcare sector. A study published by WHO in 2020 indicated that telemedicine could reduce mortality rates by about 30% in Africa.

The rapid rise of health tech transforming the African healthcare landscape

Digital health solutions started to emerge during the late 2000’s in Africa. Wisepill, a South African smart pill box manufacturing company established in 2007, is one of the earliest African health tech success stories. The company developed smart storage containers that alert users on their mobile devices when they forget to take their medication. The product is widely used in South Africa and Uganda.

The industry gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the emergence of several health tech companies offering remote health services. The market experienced about 300% increase in demand for remote healthcare services such as telemedicine, health monitoring, and medicine distribution.

According to WHO, the COVID pandemic resulted in the development of over 120 health tech innovations in Africa. Some of the health tech start-ups that emerged during the pandemic include Zuri Health (Kenya), Waspito (Cameroon), and Ilara Health (Kenya). Several established companies also developed specific solutions to tackle the spread of COVID-19 and increase their user base. For instance, Redbird, a Ghanaian health monitoring company founded in 2018, gained user attention by launching a COVID-19 symptom tracker during the pandemic. The company continues to provide remote health monitoring services for other ailments, such as diabetes and hypertension, which require regular health check-ups. Patients can visit the nearest pharmacy instead of a far-away hospital to conduct tests, and results will be regularly updated on their platform to track changes.

Scarcity Breeds Innovation – The Rising Adoption of Health Tech in Africa by EOS Intelligence

Start-ups offering advanced solutions based on AI and IoT have been also emerging successfully in recent years. For instance, Ilara Health, a Kenya-based company, founded during the COVID-19 pandemic, is providing affordable diagnostic services to rural population using AI-powered diagnostic devices.

With growing internet penetration (40% across Africa as of 2022) and a rise in investments, tech entrepreneurs are now able to develop solutions and expand their reach. For instance, mPharma, a Ghana-based pharmacy stock management company founded in 2013, is improving medicine supply by making prescription drugs easily accessible and affordable across nine countries in Africa. The company raised a US$35 million investment in January 2022 and is building a network of pharmacies and virtual clinics across the continent.

Currently, 42 out of 54 African countries have national eHealth strategies to support digital health initiatives. However, the maximum number of health tech companies are concentrated in countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, and Kenya, which have the highest per capita pharma spending in the continent. Nigeria and South Africa jointly account for 46% of health tech start-ups in Africa. Telemedicine is the most offered service by start-ups founded in the past five years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the most popular telemedicine start-ups include Babylon Health (Rwanda), Vezeeta (Egypt), DRO Health (Nigeria), and Zuri Health (Kenya).

Other most offered services include medicine distribution, hospital/pharmacy management, and online booking and appointments. Medicine distribution start-ups have an immense impact on minimizing the prevalence of counterfeit medication by offering tech-enabled alternatives to sourcing medication from open drug markets. Many physical retail pharmacy chains, such as Goodlife Pharmacy (Kenya), HealthPlus (Nigeria), and MedPlus (Nigeria), are launching online pharmacy operations leveraging their established logistics infrastructure. Hospitals are increasingly adopting automation tools to streamline their operations. Electronic Medical Record (EMR) management tools offered by Helium Health, a provider of hospital automation tools based in Nigeria are widely adopted in six African countries.

Medicine distribution start-ups have an immense impact on minimizing the prevalence of counterfeit medication by offering tech-enabled alternatives to sourcing medication from open drug markets.

For any start-up in Africa, the key to success is to provide scalable, affordable, and accessible digital health solutions. Low-cost subscription plans offered by Mobihealth (a UK-based telehealth company founded in 2018) and Cardo Health (a Sweden-based telehealth company founded in 2021) are at least 50% more affordable than the average doctor consultation fee of US$25 in Africa. Telemedicine platforms such as Reliance HMO (Nigeria) and Rocket Health (Uganda) offer affordable health insurance that covers all medical expenses. Some governments have also taken initiatives in partnering with health tech companies to provide affordable healthcare to their people. For instance, the Rwandan government partnered with a digital health platform called Babylon Health in 2018 to deliver low-cost healthcare to the population of Rwanda. Babylon Health is able to reach the majority of the population through simple SMS codes.

Government support and Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs)

With a mission to have a digital-first universal primary care (a nationwide program that provides primary care through digital tools), the Rwandan government is setting an example by collaborating with Babylon Health, a telemedicine service that offers online consultations, appointments, and treatments.

As part of nationwide digitization efforts, the government has established broadband infrastructure that reaches 90% population of the country. Apart from this, the country has a robust health insurance named Mutuelle de Santé, which reaches more than 90% of the population. In December 2022, the government of Ghana launched a nationwide e-pharmacy platform to regulate and support digital pharmacies. Similarly, in Uganda, the government implemented a national e-health policy that recognizes the potential of technology in the healthcare sector.

MomConnect, a mobile initiative launched by the South African government with the support of Johnson and Johnson in 2014 for educating expectant and new mothers, is another example of a successful PPP. However, apart from a few countries in the region, there are not enough initiatives undertaken by the governments to improve health systems.

Private and foreign investments

In 2021, health tech start-ups in Africa raised US$392 million. The sustainability of investments became a concern when the investments dropped to US$189 million in 2022 amid the global decline in start-up funding.

However, experts predict that the investment flow will improve in 2023. Recently, in March 2023, South African e-health startup Envisionit Deep AI raised US$1.65 million from New GX Ventures SA, a South African-based venture capital company. Nigerian e-health company, Famasi, is also amongst the start-ups that raised investments during the first quarter of 2023. The company offers doorstep delivery of medicines and flexible payment plans for medicine bills.

The companies that have raised investments in recent years offer mostly telemedicine and distribution services and are based in South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, and Kenya. That being said, start-ups in the space of wearable devices, AI, and IoT are also gaining the attention of investors. Vitls, a South African-based wearable device developer, raised US$1.3 million in funding in November 2022.

Africa-based incubators and accelerators, such as Villgro, The Baobab Network, and GrowthAfrica Accelerator, are also supporting e-health start-ups with funding and technical guidance. Villgro has launched a US$30 million fund for health tech start-ups in March 2023. Google has also committed US$4 million to fund health tech start-ups in Africa in 2023.

Digital future for healthcare in Africa

There were over 1,700 health tech start-ups in Africa as of January 2023, compared with about 1,200 start-ups in 2020. The rapid emergence of health tech companies is addressing long-running challenges of health systems and are offering tailored solutions to meet the specific needs of the African market.

Mobile penetration is higher than internet penetration, and health tech companies are encouraged to use SMS messaging to promote healthcare access. However, Africa is expected to have at least 65% internet penetration by 2025. With growing awareness of the benefits of health tech solutions, tech companies would be able to address new markets, especially in rural areas.

Companies that offer new technologies such as AI chatbots, drones, wearable devices for remote patient monitoring, hospital automation systems, e-learning platforms for health workers, the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), and predictive analytics are expected to gain more attention in the coming years. Digitally enabled, locally-led innovations will have a huge impact on tackling the availability, affordability, and quality of health products and services.

Digitally enabled, locally-led innovations will have a huge impact on tackling the availability, affordability, and quality of health products and services.

Challenges faced by the health tech sector  

While the African health tech industry has significantly evolved over the last few years, there are still significant challenges with regard to infrastructure, computer literacy, costs, and adaptability.

For instance, in Africa, only private hospitals have switched to digital records. Many hospitals still operate without computer systems or internet connections. About 40% of the population are internet users, with countries such as Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Morocco, Ghana, Kenya, and Algeria being the ones with the highest number of internet users (60-80% of the population). However, 23 countries in Africa still have low internet penetration (less than 25%). This is the major reason why tech companies concentrate in the continent’s largest tech hubs.

On the other hand, the majority of the rural population prefers face-to-face contact due to the lack of digital literacy. Electricity and internet connectivity are yet to reach all parts of the region and the cost of the internet is a burden for many people. Low-spending power is a challenge, as people refuse to undergo medical treatment due to a lack of insurance schemes to cover their medical expenses. Insurance schemes provided in Africa only cover 60% of their healthcare expenses. Even though health tech solutions bring medical costs down, these services still remain unaffordable for people in low-income countries. Therefore, start-ups do not prefer to establish or expand their services in such regions.

Another hurdle tech companies face is the diversity of languages in Africa. Africa is home to one-third of the world’s languages and has over 1,000 languages. This makes it difficult for companies to customize content to reach all populations.

Amidst all these challenges, there is very little support from the governments. The companies face unfavorable policies and regulations that hinder the implementation of digital solutions. Only 8% of African countries have online pharmacy regulations. In Nigeria, regulatory guidelines for online pharmacies only came into effect in January 2022, and there are still unresolved concerns around its implementation.

Lack of public investment and comprehensive government support also discourage the local players. Public initiatives are rare in providing funding, research support, and regulatory approval for technology innovations in the health sector. Private investment flow is low for start-ups in this sector compared to other industries. Health tech start-ups raised a total investment of US$189 million in 2022, which is not even 10% of the total investments raised by start-ups in other sectors in Africa. Also, funding is favored towards the ones established in high-income countries. Founders who don’t have ties to high-income countries struggle to raise funds.

EOS Perspective

The emergence of tech health can be referred to as a necessary rise to deal with perennial gaps in the African healthcare system. Undoubtedly, many of these successful companies could transform the health sector, making quality health services available to the mass population. The pandemic has spurred the adoption of digital health, and the trend experienced during the pandemic continues to grow with the developments in the use of advanced technologies such as AI and IoT. Telemedicine and distribution have been the fastest-growing sectors driven by the demand for remote healthcare services during the pandemic. Home-based care is likely to keep gaining momentum with the development of advanced solutions for remote health monitoring and diagnostic services.

Home-based care is likely to keep gaining momentum with the development of advanced solutions for remote health monitoring and diagnostic services.

With the increasing internet penetration and acceptance of digital healthcare, health tech companies are likely to be able to expand their reach to rural areas. Right policies, PPPs, and infrastructure development are expected to catalyze the health tech adoption in Africa. Companies that offer advanced technologies such as IoT-enabled integrated medical devices, AI chatbots, drones, wearable devices for remote patient monitoring, hospital automation systems, e-learning platforms for health workers, and predictive analytics for health monitoring are expected to emerge successfully in the coming years.

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Is ChatGPT Just Another Tech Innovation or A Game Changer?

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ChatGPT, a revolutionary AI-based conversational chatbot, has been making headlines around the world. The AI-based tool can answer user queries and generate new content in a human-like way. By automating tasks such as customer support and content creation, ChatGPT has the potential to revolutionize many industries, resulting in a more efficient digital landscape and an enhanced user experience. However, the technology is not without its risks and poses a number of issues, such as creating malicious content, copyright infringement, and other moral issues. Despite these challenges, the possibilities for ChatGPT are infinite, and with the advancement of technology, the opportunities it presents will only continue to expand.

ChatGPT is an AI-based question-and-answer chatbot that responds to user queries in a conversational way, just like how humans respond. OpenAI, a US-based research and development company, launched ChatGPT in November 2022. Since then, ChatGPT has garnered increased attention and popularity worldwide. The tool surpassed over 1 million users within five days and 100 million users within two months of launch.

ChatGPT has become popular due to its capability to answer queries in a simple and conversational manner. The tool can perform various functions, such as generating content for marketing campaigns, writing emails, blogs, and essays, debugging code, and even solving mathematics questions.

OpenAI’s ChatGPT works on the concept of generative AI and uses a language model called GPT3 – a third-generation Generative Pre-trained Transformer. The AI chatbot has been fed with about 45 terabytes of text data on a diverse range of topics from sources such as books, websites, and articles and has been trained on a set of algorithms to understand relationships between words and phrases and how it is used in context. This way, the model is able to develop an understanding of languages and generate answers. ChatGPT uses a dialog format, asks follow-up questions for clarification, admits mistakes, and is capable of dismissing inappropriate or dangerous requests.

ChatGPT also has a simple user interface, allowing communication through a plain textbox just like a messaging app, thus making it easy to use. Currently, ChatGPT is in beta testing, and users can use it for free to try and provide feedback. However, the free version is often inaccessible and out of capacity due to the increasing traffic.

In February 2023, OpenAI launched a pilot subscription plan named ChatGPT Plus, starting at US$20 per month, which is available to its customers in the USA. The subscription plan provides access to ChatGPT even during peak times and provides prior access to any new features. OpenAI is also testing ChatGPT to generate videos and pictures using its DALLE image-generating software, which is another AI tool developed by OpenAI to create art and images from text prompts. OpenAI also plans to launch a ChatGPT mobile app soon.

How could ChatGPT help businesses?

One of the most impactful areas where ChatGPT can make a difference is customer support. The AI tool can handle a large volume of consumer queries within a short time frame and give accurate responses, which can boost work efficiency and reduce employees’ workload.

In addition, the tool can also be employed to answer sales-related queries. By training ChatGPT to understand product information, pricing, and other details, businesses can provide a seamless sales experience for customers. ChatGPT can also analyze user data and behavior and can assist customers to find the products they are looking for, and give product recommendations leading to a more tailored and enjoyable shopping experience. ChatGPT can be incorporated into websites to engage visitors and help them find the information they need, which can help in lead generation.

Another potential benefit of ChatGPT is its ability to automate content generation. ChatGPT can generate unique and original content quickly, making it an effective tool for creating marketing materials such as email campaigns, blogs, newsletters, etc.

ChatGPT could be used in a number of industries, such as travel, education, real estate, healthcare, information technology, etc. For instance, in the tech industry, ChatGPT can write programs in specific programming languages such as JavaScript, Python, and React, and can be very helpful to developers in generating code snippets and for code debugging.

In healthcare, the tool can be used in scheduling appointments, summarizing patient’s health information based on previous history, assisting in diagnostics, and for telemedicine services.

In the education sector, ChatGPT can be used to prepare teaching materials and lessons and to provide personalized tutoring classes.

These are just a few applications of ChatGPT. As generative technology continues to evolve, there may be many other potential applications that can help businesses achieve their goals more efficiently and effectively.

Is ChatGPT Just Another Tech Innovation or A Game Changer by EOS Intelligence

ChatGPT’s output may not be always accurate

While ChatGPT offers several benefits and advantages, the tool is not without limitations. ChatGPT works on pre-trained data that cannot handle nuances or other ambiguities and thus may generate answers that are incorrect, biased, or inappropriate.

Moreover, ChatGPT is not connected to the internet and cannot refer to an external link to respond to queries that are not part of its training. It also does not cover the news and events after 2021 and cannot provide real-time information.

Another major limitation is that the tool is often out of capacity due to the high traffic, which makes it inaccessible. There are also other potential risks associated with these generative AI tools. Some of the threats include writing phishing emails, copyright infringement, generating abusive content or malicious software, plagiarism, and much more.

ChatGPT is not the first or only AI chatbot

While ChatGPT has garnered most of the attention in the last few months, it is neither the first nor the only AI-based chatbot in the market. There are many AI-based writers and AI chatbots in the market. These tools vary in their applications and have their own strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, ChatSonic, first released in 2020, is an AI writing assistant touted as the top ChatGPT alternative. This AI chatbot is supported by Google, has voice dictation capabilities, can generate up-to-date content, and can also generate images based on text prompts. However, ChatSonic has word limits in its free as well as paid versions, which makes it difficult for users who need to generate large pieces of text.

Similarly, Jasper is another AI tool launched in 2021, which works based on the language model (GPT-3) similar to ChatGPT. Jasper can write and generate content for blogs, videos, Twitter threads, etc., in over 50 language templates and can also check for grammar and plagiarism. Jasper AI is specifically built for dealing with business use cases and is also faster and more efficient and generates more accurate results than ChatGPT.

YouChat is another example, developed in 2022 by You.com, and running on OpenAI GPT-3. It performs similar functions as ChatGPT – responding to queries, solving math equations, coding, translating, and writing content. This chatbot cites source links of the information and acts more like an AI-powered search engine. However, YouChat lacks an aesthetic appeal and may generate results that are outdated at times.

ChatGPT-styled chatbots to power search engines

While a lot of buzz has been created about this technology, the impact of AI-based conversational chatbots is yet to be seen on a large scale. Many proclaim that tools such as ChatGPT will replace the traditional search method of using Google to obtain information.

However, experts argue that it is highly unlikely. While AI chatbots can mimic human-like conversation, they need to be trained on massive amounts of data to generate any kind of answers. These tools work on pre-trained models that were fed with large amounts of data sourced from books, articles, websites, and many more resources to generate content. Hence, real-time learning and answering would be cost-intensive in the long run.

Moreover, ChatGPT’s answers may not always be comprehensive or accurate, requiring human supervision. ChatGPT may also not be very good at solving logical questions. For instance, when asked to solve a simple problem – “RQP, ONM, _, IHG, FED, find the missing letters”, ChatGPT answered incorrectly as “LKI”. Similarly, when provided a text prompt, “The odd numbers in the group 17, 32, 3, 15, 82, 9, 1 add up to an even number”, the chatbot affirmed it, which is false. Moreover, the AI chatbot does not cover news after 2021, and when asked, “Who won the 2022 World Cup?” ChatGPT said the event has not taken place.

On the other hand, Google uses several algorithms to rank web pages and gives the most relevant web results and comprehensive information. Google has access to a much larger pool of data and the ability to analyze it in real time. Additionally, Google’s ranking algorithms have been developed over years of research and refinement, making them incredibly efficient and effective at delivering high-quality results. Therefore, while AI chatbots can be useful in certain contexts, they are unlikely to replace traditional search methods, such as Google.

However, leading search engines are looking to incorporate ChatGPT into their search tools. For instance, Microsoft is planning to incorporate ChatGPT 4, a faster version of the current ChatGPT version, into its Bing Search engine. Since 2019, the company has invested about US$13 billion in OpenAI, the parent company of ChatGPT.

In February 2023, Microsoft also incorporated ChatGPT into its popular office software Teams. With this, users with Teams premium accounts will able to generate meeting notes, access recommended tasks, and would be able to see personalized highlights of the meeting using ChatGPT. These add immense value to the user.

In February 2023, China-based e-commerce company Alibaba also announced its plan to launch its own AI chatbot similar to ChatGPT. Similarly, Baidu, a China-based internet service provider, launched a chatbot named “Ernie” in its search engine in March 2023.

Amidst the increasing popularity of ChatGPT, Google has also started working on a chatbot named “Bard” based on its own language model, Lambda. The company is planning to launch more than 20 new AI-based products in 2023. In February 2023, Google invested about US$400 million in Anthropic AI, a US-based artificial intelligence startup, which is testing a new chatbot named Claude. Thus, the race to build an effective AI-enabled search engine has just begun, and things have to unfold a bit to learn more about how chatbots can modify web searches.

On the other hand, AI technologies such as ChatGPT are sure to leave an impact on how businesses operate. With the global economy slowing down, resulting in low business margins, many businesses are looking to cut down costs to increase profitability.

ChatGPT could be extremely beneficial to companies looking to automate various business tasks, such as customer support and content generation. The tool can be integrated into channels, including websites and voice assistants. While this sounds beneficial, there is also a likelihood of the technology displacing some jobs such as customer service representatives, copywriters, research analysts, etc.

However, ChatGPT will not be replacing the human workforce completely since many business tasks require creative and critical thinking skills and other traits such as empathy and emotional intelligence that only humans have. This technology is expected to pave the way for new opportunities in various fields, such as software engineering and data analysis, and allow employees to focus on more value-added tasks instead of routine, mundane tasks, ultimately boosting productivity.

EOS Perspective

With their remarkable ability to generate human-like conversations and high-quality content, generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT, are sure to be touted as a game-changer for many businesses. The advancements in generative AI are expected to have a significant impact on various business tasks such as customer support, content creation, data analysis, marketing and sales, and even decision-making.

Investors are slowly taking note of the immense potential the technology holds. It is estimated that generative AI start-ups received equity funding totaling about US$2.6 billion across 110 deals in 2022, which echoes an increasing interest in the technology.

The adoption of generative AI technologies is poised to increase, especially in business processes where a human-like conversation is desirable. Industries such as e-commerce, retail, and travel are likely to embrace this technology to automate customer service tasks, reduce costs, and increase efficiency. In addition, generative AI is likely to become an indispensable part of industries such as finance and logistics, where high levels of accuracy and precision are required. Media and entertainment companies can also benefit from this technology to quickly generate content such as articles, videos, and audio.

That being said, generative AI is not without its risks, and the technology could be used to create fake and other discriminatory information. Hence, there is an inevitable need to ensure that generative AI models are trained and deployed in an ethical and responsible manner. Despite these challenges, there is increased research and significant activity going on in the field of generative AI, especially with regard to combining the capabilities of chatbots and traditional search engines.

The current chatbots will continue to evolve and will lead to the creation of even more advanced and sophisticated models. The popularity of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT is unlikely to wane, and the technology is here to stay, with the potential to create better prospects for business and a brighter future for society.

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Sustainable Electronics Transforming Consumer Tech Companies

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Globally, electronics are discarded at alarming rates, generating unprecedented amounts of e-waste. On the other side, finite resources such as minerals and metals, which are used to make these electronics, are getting depleted. To foster sustainability across the electronics value chain, many tech companies are adopting strategies such as incorporating long-lasting product design, using recyclable and biodegradable materials, using clean energy for power generation, etc. However, the sustainable electronics concept is still in a nascent stage of adoption, and a lot of work needs to be done. Strict legislation, cross-sectoral collaborations, organizations facilitating networking and knowledge sharing, and changes in business models are needed to implement sustainability across various business units in the electronics industry.

Growing need for sustainability in electronics

Global consumption of electronics is rising exponentially and is expected to double by 2050. This increase is set to adversely affect the environment, leading to more mining of raw materials, an unprecedented increase in e-waste, and increased carbon emissions during manufacturing.

Globally, people are discarding electronics sooner than before due to the availability of new electronics, owning outdated models, obsolescence, etc. Over the last few years, nearly 50 million tons of e-waste has been generated annually. Only 17% of this e-waste is recycled globally, and the rest is transported and dumped in developing countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria, and India, which do not have adequate facilities for processing and handling e-waste. This e-waste ends up in landfills, accounting for approximately 70% of hazardous chemicals, and pollutes the air and water streams. Moreover, e-waste generated globally contains recyclable or reusable raw materials, scrap rare earth metals, plastics, and valuable elements, which are valued at US$62.5 billion per year.

Given the economic and environmental cost of e-waste, as well as responding to growing consumer preference for sustainable products, several companies are looking to transition to sustainable electronics. Sustainable electronics are products that are made using recycled or reusable and biodegradable materials, as well as products that generate low carbon emissions during manufacturing and distribution.

Sustainable electronics transforming consumer tech companies by EOS Intelligence

Sustainable Electronics Transforming Consumer Tech Companies by EOS Intelligence

Recycling, clean energy power, and modular design for sustainable electronics

Over the last few years, consumer tech companies have been adopting many strategies for manufacturing electronics sustainably. In 2021, tech giants Cisco, Dell, Google, Microsoft, Vodafone, and many others together formed a “Circular Electronics Partnership (CEP)” to accelerate the circular economy for electronics by 2030 and to help businesses and organizations overcome barriers to sustainable electronics.

Several companies are looking to increase the life span of their smartphones to make them more sustainable. Increasing the phone’s life span by two years can reduce carbon emissions to a great extent, as 80% of the carbon emissions come during manufacturing, shipping, and the first year of phone usage. Fairphone, a Dutch-based smartphone manufacturer, has introduced smartphones with a lifespan of approximately 5 years, higher than the average lifespan of 2.5 years. Similarly, Teracube, a US-based sustainable smartphone manufacturer, has launched phones that can last up to 4 years.

Many companies are also designing their products with modularity, which allows users to repair, upgrade, customize, and disassemble their gadgets easily. For instance, Framework Computer, a US-based laptop manufacturer, sells laptops that can be upgraded. The company offers upgrading kits that contain laptop main boards and top covers to customize the device as per the user’s need. Similarly, Fairphone manufactures modular smartphones, which are easy to repair and upgrade. These kinds of gadgets eliminate the user’s need to buy new ones, saving both costs and wastage.

There is also an increased interest among consumer electronics companies to use recycled materials in various products. Sony, a Japan-based multinational corporation, has developed a recycled plastic, SORPLAS, and has been using it in a range of its products, such as audio systems and televisions, since 2011. In 2022, Logitech, a Swiss-American manufacturer of computer peripherals and software, used recycled plastic in 65% of its mice and keyboards. Similarly, in 2021, Acer, a Taiwan-based electronics corporation, launched a series of PCs named Vero, which uses recycled plastics for the chassis and keycaps. Acer also launched the Earthion program, an eco-friendly initiative, in the same year and started working closely with suppliers and partners to bring various sustainability measures in product design, packaging design, and production. Tech giant Apple stopped selling chargers and headphones along with the iPhone in 2020 to cut e-waste. The company used 20% recycled material in all its products in 2021 and uses robots to disassemble or separate metals from e-waste. There is 40% recycled content in the MacBook Air with Retina display, and 99% recycled tungsten is used for the iPhone 12 and Apple Watch Series. Samsung, a multinational electronics corporation, is using recycled plastics in refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners, TVs, monitors, and mobile phone chargers.

Due to this increased demand for recycled materials, recycling companies are receiving investments to a significant extent. In 2021, Closed Loop Partners, a US-based investment firm, invested an undisclosed amount in ERI, a US-based electronics recycler that supplies materials to companies such as Best Buy, Target, and Amazon, to extend the capacity for the collection and processing of electronics. Similarly, in 2022, the Australian Business Growth Fund (ABGF), an investment fund focused on small to medium-sized Australian businesses, invested US$7.5 million in Scipher, an Australia-based urban mining and e-waste recycling business.

Significant activity has been happening in the refurbished electronics market as well due to the rising consumer awareness of sustainability. Trade-in and refurbishment reduce e-waste piling up at landfills, as it limits buying newer gadgets and thereby paves the way for greater sustainability across the electronics industry. Back Market, a France-based marketplace of renewed devices (which provides refurbished devices with a one-year warranty), has raised over US$1 billion since its launch in 2014. In 2022, Verdane, a European specialist growth equity investment firm, announced an investment worth US$124 million in Finland-based Swappie, a re-commerce company that sells previously owned, new, or used smartphones. Vodafone also announced a major initiative to extend the life of new mobile phones and to encourage customers to trade in or recycle their old devices. The company is planning to provide customers in European markets with a suite of services, including insurance, support, and repairs for their devices, in 2022. Samsung collaborated with iFixit, an online repair community, for its self-repair program in 2022. The company said that under this program, Galaxy device owners in the USA can make their own repairs to the Galaxy Tab S7+, Galaxy S20, and S21 products using easy-to-repair tools available from iFixit.

Tech companies have also started transitioning to renewable energy and looking for ways to reduce their carbon emissions. Intel, a US-based technology company, uses green energy of up to 3,100,000 MWh annually in the manufacturing of processors and computer accessories. Samsung’s facility operations in the USA and China switched to 100% renewable energy in 2019. In 2021, Microsoft entered into a partnership with IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, to reduce carbon emissions in the organization’s supply chain. IFC is said to work with selected Microsoft suppliers in emerging markets, primarily in Asia, to identify technical solutions and financing opportunities to reduce emissions in the production process.

Legislation to aid the shift toward the circular economy in electronics

For years, many countries did not have appropriate policies enforcing sustainability across the electronics industry. Nevertheless, the trend is reversing with several countries adopting legislation for the circular economy. For instance, in 2020, the European Commission announced a circular electronics initiative that would promote eco-design (a design that considers environmental aspects at all stages of the product development), right-to-repair rules, including a right to update obsolete software, and regulatory measures on universal chargers, to name a few. France became the first European country to pass the Anti-Waste for a Circular Economy Act (AGEC) in 2020, which requires producers of electronic devices to provide details on how repairable their products are. According to AGEC, manufacturers are required to scale their products at a rate of 1-10 based on the reparability index. France also plans to introduce a durability index by 2024, whereby manufacturers would be asked to describe the full lifecycle of their products. Moreover, the US government passed an order in 2021 to draft regulations that protect the consumer’s right to repair electronic devices and other tools.

It is not easy to manufacture sustainable electronics

While sustainable electronics are the need of the hour, and several leading players have already started promoting and investing in this space, the sector faces many challenges. Currently, there are no established standards, concepts, or definitions concerning sustainable electronics, and there is no strict legislation to enforce sustainability practices in the electronics industry. There are some rating systems that identify energy-efficient products followed in the USA and Europe (for example, the USA’s ENERGY STAR program). However, registering and complying with the ratings and their requirements is up to the manufacturer and is not mandatory. Moreover, e-waste regulations in several countries are poorly enforced due to low financing, and illegal practices such as dumping e-waste and incineration by the informal sector still persist.

Most electronics companies are also not transparent about their environmental performance, and the impact is often hidden. The term ‘sustainable’ is widely misused as a promotional tactic by companies targeting environmentally conscious consumers.

The electronic industry also operates on a linear established model, wherein products are manufactured (with planned obsolescence) and sold to consumers. Incorporating circular strategies for recycling and reuse requires a lot of remodeling and reconfigurations across the supply chain, and the rising consumption of electronic devices makes it difficult to adapt to any new changes. Challenges, such as complex recycling processes, costs of recycling, and consumer perception of green electronics, also hamper sustainability development. Most electronics are not designed for recycling and are made of a complex mixture of materials such as heavy metals, highly toxic compounds, glass, plastics, ferrous and nonferrous materials, etc. Recycling these materials is tedious and involves several steps such as dismantling, removing the hazardous waste, shredding into fine materials, and sorting the materials into various types. The process is also resource and cost-intensive, requiring human labor, more processing time, and adequate infrastructure such as various material screening types of equipment. Recycling e-waste could also be polluting, with potential exposure to toxic metal fumes.

Finally, the perception of consumers about sustainable electronics also needs to be changed, which is challenging. There is a notion among customers that the use of recycled, sustainable materials in electronics means products would be of lower quality. A lot of investment would be required to educate and convince consumers about the benefits of sustainable electronics and to address any concerns about quality. In most cases, it is difficult to pass on these costs to the consumers as they are unlikely to accept higher prices. Thus, this cost would be required to be absorbed by the companies themselves. Due to this, most current initiatives toward sustainable electronics can be best described as half measures.

EOS Perspective

The economic benefits of sustainable electronics are enormous. The resource scarcity and the price fluctuation of various minerals and metals make them necessary to recycle, recover, and reuse in the circular economy. Over the last few years, consumer electronics manufacturers have taken many sustainability initiatives, such as reducing energy consumption, eliminating hazardous chemicals, introducing biodegradable packaging, incorporating recycled and recyclable materials in products, and investing in renewable energy projects. Also, the refurbished electronics segment is growing fast, while interest is surging in introducing devices with built-in reparability. While several small initiatives are being taken by leading players, electronics manufacturers mainly do not know how to introduce sustainability across their products in a mainstream fashion.

Sustainability in electronics has still a long way to go. Several legislative initiatives are underway toward a circular (sustainable) electronics economy, and it is high time for electronics manufacturers to be proactive and rethink their business models. A complete business model transformation is required to integrate sustainability across every unit. Cross-sector collaborations with stakeholders such as product designers, manufacturers, investors, raw material producers, and consumers are crucial to understanding the technical know-how. It is essential to analyze the entire life cycle of products, from choosing raw materials to their disposal, and to prioritize circular strategies for such products. Electronic manufacturers also need to come up with creative and rewarding ways for consumers to be willing to choose sustainable products, as, in the end, the industry cannot flourish without consumer acceptability. The future of sustainable electronics can be bright, and manufacturers who see this as a potential business opportunity rather than a problem will benefit in the long term.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

COVID-19 Unmasks Global Supply Chains’ Reliance on China. Is There a Way Out?

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Dubbed as the factory to the world, China is an integral part of the supply chain of a host of products and brands. From manufacturers of simple products such as toys to complex goods such as automobiles, all are dependent on China for either end products or components. However, China’s ongoing trade war with the USA and the COVID-19 pandemic have made several brands question their supply chain dependence on this country, especially in some industries such as pharmaceuticals. Moreover, aggressive investment incentives offered by countries such as India and Japan have further cajoled companies to reassess their global supply chains and reconsider their dependence on China. However, with years of investment in the supply chain ecosystem, a shift such as this seems easier said than done.

China emerged as the manufacturing hub of the world in the 1990s and hasn’t looked back since. Owing to the vast availability of land and labor, technological advancements, and overall low cost of production, China became synonymous with manufacturing. Over the past decade, increasing labor and utility costs, and growing competition from neighboring low-cost countries such as India, Vietnam, Thailand, etc., have resulted in some companies shifting out from China. However, so far, this has been limited to a few low-skilled labor-intensive industries such as apparel.

The year 2020 has changed this drastically. The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the ongoing trade war between the USA and China, made companies realize and question their dependency on China. At the beginning of last year, COVID-19 brought China to a halt, which in turn impacted the supply chain for all companies producing in China. Moreover, several pharmaceutical companies also realized that they are highly dependent on China for a few basic medicines and medical supplies and equipment, which were in considerable shortage throughout 2020. This pushed several companies across sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, automobiles, and electronic goods, to reconsider their global supply chains to ensure reduced dependence on any one region, especially China.

Currently, several companies such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft are looking to shift their production from China to other South Asian countries, such as Vietnam and Thailand.

Some of the companies looking to reduce dependence on China:

Apple

In November 2020, Apple, along with its supplier Foxconn, expressed plans to shift the assembly of some iPads and MacBooks to Vietnam from China. The facility is expected to come online in the first half of 2021. Moreover, Apple is also considering shifting production of some of its Air Pods to Vietnam as well. In addition, it has invested US$1 billion in setting up a plant in Tamil Nadu, India, to assemble iPhones that are to be sold in India. Apple and Foxconn are consciously trying to reduce their reliance on China due to the ongoing USA-China trade war.

Samsung

In July 2020, Samsung announced plans to shift most of its computer monitor manufacturing plants from China to Vietnam. The move is its response to hedge the supply chain disruptions it faced due to factories being shut in China during the early phase of the pandemic. In addition, in December 2020, the company shared its plans to shift its mobile and IT display plants from China to India. Samsung plans to invest about US$660 million (INR 48 billion) to set up the new facility in Uttar Pradesh (India).

Hasbro

Hasbro has been moving its production out of China into Mexico, India, and Vietnam over the past year. It aimed to have only 50% of its products coming out of China by the end of 2020 and only 33% of its production to remain in China by the end of 2023. In 2019, about 66% of its toys were produced in China, while in 2012, 90% of its toys were manufactured in the country. The key reason behind the consistent switch is the souring trade relations between the USA and China.

Hyundai

During the past year, Hyundai Motors has been looking at developing India into its global sourcing hub instead of China in order to reduce its over-reliance on the latter. It has been encouraging its vendors, such as Continental, Aptiv, and Bosch, to ramp up production in India so as to move their supply chain away from China. It plans to source its auto parts from India (instead of China) for its existing factories in India, South America, and Eastern Europe, as well as a planned facility in Indonesia.

Google

Google is looking to manufacture its new low-cost smartphone, Pixel4A, and its flagship smartphone, Pixel5A, in Vietnam instead of China. In addition, in 2020, it also planned to shift production of its smart home products to Thailand. This move has been a part of an ongoing effort to reduce reliance on China, which, in fact, gained momentum after supply chain disruptions faced due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Microsoft

In early 2020, Microsoft expressed plans to shift the production base of its Surface range of notebooks and desktops to Vietnam. While the initial volume being produced in Vietnam is expected to be low, the company intends to ramp it up steadily to shift volumes away from China.

Steve Madden

In 2019, Steve Madden expressed plans to shift parts of its production out of China in 2020, given growing trade-based tensions between the USA and China. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it could not make planned changes to its supply chain. In October 2020, it again expressed plans to start shifting part of its production away from China by spring 2021. It plans to procure raw materials from Mexico, Cambodia, Brazil, and Vietnam to reduce reliance on China.

Iris Ohyama

The Japanese consumer goods player expressed plans to open a factory in northeastern Japan to diversify its manufacturing base, which is based primarily in China. The company made this move on the back of increasing labor costs in China, rising import tariffs to the USA, and the supply disruptions it faced for procuring masks for the Japanese market. In 2020, it also set up a mask factory in the USA. In addition, the company plans to open additional plants in the USA and France for plastic containers and small electrical goods to cater to the local demand in these markets.

Nations using this opportunity to promote domestic production

In August 2020, about 24 electronic goods companies, including Samsung and Apple, have shown interest in moving out of China and into India. These companies together have pledged to invest about US$1.5 billion to setup mobile phone factories in the country in order to diversify their supply chains. This move is a result of the Indian government offering incentives to companies looking to shift their production facilities to India.

In April 2020, the Indian government announced a production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme to attract companies looking to move out of China and set up large-scale manufacturing units in the electronics space. Under the scheme, the government is offering an incentive of 4-6% on incremental sales (over base year FY 2019-20) of goods manufactured in India. The scheme, which is applicable for five years, plans to give an incentive worth US$6 billion (INR 409.51 billion) over the time frame of the scheme.

In November 2020, the Indian government subsequently expanded the scheme to other sectors such as pharma, auto, textiles, and food processing. In addition, it is expected to provide a production-linked incentive of US$950 million (INR 70 billion) to domestic drug manufacturers in order to push domestic manufacturing and reduce dependence on Chinese imports. Apart from incentives, India is developing a land pool of about 461,589 hectares to offer to companies looking to move out of China. The identified land, which is spread across Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, makes it easy for companies looking to set up shop in India, as acquiring land has been one of the biggest challenges when it came to setting up production units in India.

On similar lines, the Japanese government is providing incentives to companies to shift their production lines out of China and to Japan. In May 2020, Japan announced an initiative to set up a US$2.2 billion stimulus package to encourage Japanese companies to shift production out of China. About JNY 220 billion (~US$2 billion) of the stimulus will be directed toward companies shifting production back to Japan, while JNY 23.5 billion (~US$200 million) will be given to companies seeking to move production to Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries.

In the first round of subsidies, the Japanese government announced a list of 57 companies in July 2020, which will receive a total of US$535 million to open factories in Japan, while another 30 companies will be given subsidies to expand production in other countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. The move is a combination of Japan looking to shift manufacturing of high-value-added products back to the country, and the initial disruptions caused to the supply chain of Japanese automobiles and durable goods manufacturers.

Similarly, the USA, which has been at odds with China regarding trade for a couple of years now, is also encouraging its companies to limit their exposure in China and shift their production back home. In May 2020, the government proposed a US$25 billion ‘reshoring fund’ to enable manufacturers to move their production bases and complete the supply chain from China, preferably back to the USA, and in turn, reduce their reliance on China-made goods. The bill included primarily tax incentives and reshoring subsidies. However, the bill has not been passed in Congress yet, and now, with the leadership change in the USA, it is expected that president Biden may follow a more diplomatic strategic route with regard to China in comparison to his predecessor.

In addition to individual country efforts, in September 2020, Japan, India, and Australia together launched an initiative to achieve supply chain resilience in the Indo-Pacific region and reduce their trade dependence on China. The partnership aims at achieving regional cooperation to build a stable supply chain from the raw material to finished goods stage in 10 key sectors, namely petroleum and petrochemicals, automobiles, steel, pharmaceuticals, textiles and garments, marine products, financial services, IT services, tourism and travel services, and skill development.

Similarly, the USA is pushing to create an alliance called the ‘Economic Prosperity Network’, wherein it aims to work with Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, Vietnam, and South Korea to restructure global supply chains to reduce dependence on China.

COVID-19 Unmasks Global Supply Chains’ Reliance on China by EOS Intelligence

Is it feasible?

While these efforts are sure to help companies move part(s) of their supply chain out of China, the extent to which it is feasible is yet to be assessed. Although the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted and exposed several supply chain vulnerabilities for companies across sectors and countries, despite government support and incentives, it will be very difficult for them to wean off their dependence on China.

Companies have spent decades building their manufacturing ecosystems, which, in many cases, are highly reliant on China. These companies not only have their end products assembled or manufactured in the country but also engage Chinese suppliers for their raw materials, who in turn use further Chinese suppliers for their inputs. Therefore, moving out of China is not a simple process and will take a tremendous amount of time as well as financial resources.

While companies such as Google or Microsoft are looking to shift their assembling plants out of China, they are still dependent on China for parts. This is all the more relevant in the case of high-technology products, such as automobiles and telecommunication infrastructure, where companies have made significant investments in China for their supply chain and are dependent on the nation’s manufacturing capabilities for small, intricate but technologically advanced parts and components.

Moreover, despite significant efforts and reforms from countries such as India, Vietnam, and Thailand, they still cannot match China in terms of the availability of skilled labor, infrastructure, and scale, which is required by many companies, especially with regard to technologically advanced products. That being said, more companies are looking at a strategy where they are maintaining their presence in China, while also developing relatively smaller operations outside the country to have a fallback and to reduce total dependency on China. This is also dubbed as the China + 1 strategy.

Another reason going in China’s favor has been its capability to bounce back from the pandemic and resume production in a short span of time. While production had been halted from January to March 2020, it ramped up from April onwards and was back to normal standards within no time. This reinforced the faith of many companies in Chinese capabilities. Therefore, as some companies are already cash-strapped due to the pandemic, they are not interested in investing in modifying their supply chains when, in most cases, normalcy resumed in a relatively short span of time.

EOS Perspective

Companies have been looking to diversify their supply chains and reduce dependence on China for a couple of years now, however, the trend has gained momentum post the coronavirus pandemic and growing US-China trade tensions. The onset of the COVID-19 outbreak exposed several vulnerabilities in the supply chain of global manufacturers, who realized the extent of their dependence on China. Moreover, several countries realized that they relied on China for key medicines and medical supplies, which cost them heavily during the pandemic.

Given this situation, several nations such as Japan, India, and the USA – together and individually, have started giving incentives to companies to shift production from China into their own borders. While this has resulted in several companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Sanofi, Samsung, etc., expanding their manufacturing operations out of China, it does not necessarily mean that they are moving out of China. This is primarily due to heavy investments (in terms of both time and money) that they have already made into developing their intricate supply chains, as well as the inherent benefits that China provides – technologically skilled labor, sophisticated production facilities, and quick revamping of production after a calamity.

That being said, it has come into the conscience of companies to reduce their over-reliance on China, and while it may not impact the scale and extent of operations in the country in the short run, it is quite likely that companies will phase out their presence (at least part of it) in China over the coming decade.

A lot depends on the level of incentives and facilities provided by other nations. While countries such as India, Vietnam, and Thailand can offer low-cost production with regard to labor and utilities, they currently do not have the technological sophistication possessed and developed by China. Alternatively, while Japan and the USA are technologically advanced, without recurring incentives and tax breaks, the cost of production would be much higher than that in China. Thus, until there is a worthy alternative, most companies will follow the China +1 strategy. However, with growing trade tensions between China and other nations and ongoing efforts by other nations to encourage and support domestic production, China may risk losing its positioning as the ‘factory of the world’ in the long run.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Decoding the USA-China 5G War

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The USA perceives Huawei, world’s largest telecom network equipment supplier and second largest smartphone manufacturer, as a potential threat capable of using its telecom products for hacking and cyber attacks. The US government suspects that China could exploit Huawei for cyber espionage against the USA and other countries. Amidst national security concerns, the US government has called for global boycott of Huawei, including of its 5G product range. The USA’s efforts to clamp down Huawei have rippling effect across the 5G ecosystem.

The USA and China have been trading rivals since 2012, particularly on the technology grounds. This resulted in a ban on China-based telecom equipment provider Huawei preventing it from trading with the US firms, over the accusation of espionage of critical information to the Chinese government. As a result, Huawei was barred from selling any type of equipment to be used in the US communication networks. This ban pertained to the 5G network equipment as well, and thus, Huawei’s 5G network equipment was ruled out from deployment in all parts of the USA. Few other countries, which agreed with the USA’s accusations on Huawei, also imposed a ban on the company’s 5G network equipment. The move severely affected Huawei’s exposure to some of the potential 5G markets, but it came as sigh of relief for its global competitors wary of Huawei’s growing dominance in 5G space.

Further, on May 16, 2019, the US government decided to put Huawei on the Security Entity List which restricted the company from buying any US-based technology (key hardware and software) for their 5G network equipment without approval and license from the US government, thus aggravating the 5G war. This not only brought new set of challenges for Huawei, but also created a rough path for the USA’s own technology firms involved in supplying components to Huawei. Considering impact on the US technology firms having Huawei as a key customer, on June 29, 2019, the US government announced relaxation on the Huawei ban, thereby allowing these US firms to continue their supply to Huawei for a 90-day period which got over in mid-August. The relaxation period was further extended till November 18, 2019, giving temporary relief to Huawei and its US-based business partners.

Huawei bears the brunt of USA-China 5G clash

The USA has initiated a global campaign to block Huawei from next-generation wireless communication technology over security concerns and it is pressuring other countries to keep out Huawei from 5G rollout. This invited quite a few repercussions for the company. One of the major and obvious consequences involved a major loss of potential market opportunity in the US territory as well as in other countries which are under strong influence of the USA.

After prolonged persuasion by the US government, in July 2018, Australia banned Huawei from 5G rollout in its territory. Japan also joined the league in December 2018 by imposing a ban on Huawei’s network equipment for 5G deployment, amid the security concerns to avoid hacks and intelligence leaks. Further, New Zealand and Taiwan also followed the suit in shutting out Huawei from 5G deployment.

In June 2019, the founder and CEO of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, indicated that the company is likely to experience a drop in its revenue by US$30 billion over the next two years, which can be seen as a knock-on effect of growing US sanctions on Huawei. Also, Huawei expects its smartphone shipments to decline by 40% to 60% by the end of 2019 as compared to the total shipments in the previous year.

Despite repeated warnings from the USA, some countries have come out in support of Huawei by rejecting the USA’s claims. The regulatory bodies of countries such as Russia, Germany, Brazil, South Korea, Finland, and Switzerland have taken their decisions in favor of Huawei and allowed the company to deploy its 5G network equipment in their territories, affirming that they do not see any technical grounds to ban the company from their telecom networks.

Moreover, the US government has been persistently urging many European countries, especially the UK, to join its decision of barring 5G trade with Huawei. In March 2019, the EU recommended its member countries not to impose outright ban on Huawei, but instead assess and evaluate the risks involved in using the company’s 5G network equipment. Already earlier, in February 2019, the UK government concluded that any risks from the use of Huawei equipment in its 5G network can be mitigated through certain improvements and checks which the company will be asked to make and hence the decision of completely banning the company’s equipment from UK’s 5G network was not taken.

Among Asian countries, India, the second-largest telecom market in the region, has not decided whether to allow Huawei to sell its 5G network equipment in the country. China has warned the Indian government that the repercussions of banning Huawei equipment would include challenges in catering to the demand for low-priced 5G devices, thus causing a hindrance in rapid development of India’s telecom sector. In June 2019, the Department of Technology of India indicated that, since the matter of Huawei concerns the security of the country, they will scrutinize the company’s 5G equipment for presence of any spyware components. India will see how other countries are dealing with the potential security risks before giving a green light to the company.

The USA’s allegations against Huawei have made all the countries cautious over dealing with the company. Despite having proven technological supremacy in 5G network equipment market, Huawei has come under strong scrutiny for its 5G network equipment across the globe.

Huawei ban: Boon for some, bane for others

Huawei’s troubles are turning into major opportunity for its competitors in the 5G network equipment and smartphones market space. However, suppliers to Huawei, particularly US-based companies providing hardware and software for 5G devices and network equipment, took a hard hit as they lost one of their key customers because of the trade ban.

Huawei ban presents increased opportunities for its global competitors in 5G network equipment market

Major competitors of Huawei in 5G network equipment manufacturing business – Samsung (South Korea), Nokia (Finland), and Ericsson (Sweden) – are positioned to get the inadvertent benefit of expanded market opportunities with one competitor less. With Huawei losing potential market in countries where it is facing backlash, its competitors managed to grab a few contracts.

For instance, in March 2019, Denmark’s leading telecom operator TDC, which had worked with Huawei since 2013, chose Ericsson for the 5G rollout. Further, in May 2019, Softbank Group Corp’s Japanese telecom unit, which had partnered with Huawei for 4G networks deployment in the past, replaced Huawei with Nokia for its end-to-end 5G solutions including 5G RAN (i.e. radio access network equipment including base stations and antennas which establish connection between individual smart devices and other parts of the network). In the USA, Samsung is gaining significant traction as it has started supplying 5G network equipment to some of the leading US telecom operators including AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint.

A report released in May 2019 by Dell’Oro (a market research firm specializing in telecom) indicated that Samsung surpassed Huawei for the first time by acquiring 37% of the share of total 5G RAN revenue in the first quarter of 2019. In the same period, Huawei stood second with 28% share, followed by Ericsson and Nokia with 27% and 8% share, respectively. Earlier, Huawei led the 5G RAN market in 2018, accounting for 31% share of total 5G RAN revenue that year. Huawei was followed by Ericsson, Nokia, ZTE (China), and Samsung with 29.2%, 23.3%, 7.4%, and 6.6% share, respectively. Due to widespread skepticism about Huawei over espionage accusations, a shift in 5G network equipment market can be expected by the end of 2019, since competitors are likely to gain more growth momentum over Huawei.

Demand for Samsung smartphones gets a boost as Google blocks Android support to Huawei

In the smartphones sector, Samsung, which is the world’s largest smartphones manufacturer, may turn out to be the winner in the Huawei ban situation. Huawei, through its low-priced Android smartphones with features similar to Samsung’s smartphones, is emerging as the largest rival of Samsung in the smartphone market.

As per IDC data, Samsung’s market share (by total smartphone shipments volume) declined from 21.7% in 2017 to 20.8% in 2018, whereas Huawei recorded 33.6% year-on-year growth as market share increased from 10.5% in 2017 to 14.7% in 2018. But since Huawei was placed on US trade blacklist, Samsung is likely to benefit from the situation because of the broken deal between Google and Huawei which led Huawei to lose access to Google’s Android operating system (OS) for its next-generation 5G smartphones.

While Google managed to get a temporary license to continue to provide update and support for existing Huawei smartphones, it prevented Google from providing Android support for Huawei’s new products including soon to be released 5G smartphones. Huawei indicated that its latest 5G smartphones Mate 30 series, which will be launched on September 19, 2019, will run on open-source version of Android 10 and it will not have any of the flagship Google apps such as Google Maps, Google Drive, Google Assistant, etc.

Huawei unveiled its own operating system named HarmonyOS on August 9, 2019, but it still seeks support of Google’s Android OS for its upcoming 5G smartphones along with access to widely popular apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp which all belong to American firms. Android OS, controlling over three-fourths of the mobile OS market as of August 2019, is widely adopted by both the app developers as well as the users. As of second quarter of 2019, Android allowed its users to choose from 2.46 million apps. Encouraging app developers to rewrite their apps as per platform-specific requirements of a new OS with low user base is challenging. Conversely, consumers prefer OS which allows them to use all the apps they like. If HarmanyOS needs to be used as Android replacement, Huawei will need considerable time and financial resources to work with app developers to add similar apps to Huawei’s HarmonyOS.


Explore our other Perspectives on 5G


The future scenario for global 5G smartphones market will depend on the pending decision of the US government over allowing US technology firms to trade with Huawei. If the US government allows the trade, Huawei will have high chances of leading in the 5G smartphones sector owing to its competitive pricing and innovative solutions. On the other hand, if the ban still persists in future, the market of Huawei’s global competitors, Samsung in particular, is likely to swell, owing to their trusted brand name and reliability along with the support of Android OS.

US-based hardware suppliers for telecom devices face revenue loss as they lose their key customer, Huawei

The US government’s executive order issued in May 2019 blocking US exports to Huawei led to adverse effect on the revenue of the US-based companies that used to supply key hardware to Huawei for its 5G network equipment and devices.

For example, Qualcomm which was one of the largest sellers of modem chips, mobile processors, and licenses for 3G, 4G, as well as 5G technology in the Chinese market, has experienced a decline in revenue by 13% year-on-year in the third quarter of 2019 along with decline of approximately 36% in shipments of chipsets and processors. Similarly, Broadcom, which supplies switching chips used in network equipment, is also facing challenges with loss of its highest revenue-generating customer, Huawei, accounting for US$900 million of company’s revenue in 2018. Considering the Huawei blacklisting’s impact on financial results in the first two quarters of 2019, Broadcom has even cut its revenue outlook of the fiscal year 2019 from US$24.5 billion to US$22.5 billion.

In view of financial implications of Huawei blacklisting on the businesses of US-based technology firms, the US government, in June 2019, reprieved the trade ban on Huawei till November 18, 2019. Post the relaxation period, the US government may again ban Huawei from doing business with US technology firms. In case the US government puts the ban in effect owing to the security concerns, the repercussions are likely to deepen further for the US firms over losing considerable revenue coming from China’s telecom hardware industry.

Ban on Huawei means telecom operators will have to pay a higher price for 5G network equipment

Huawei ban is also seen to be impacting the US telecom operators as they face a particular challenge of increasing outlay to build the 5G networks. This is because the 5G network equipment provided by Nokia and Ericsson is more expensive than Huawei’s. In March 2019, Huawei claimed that allowing the company to compete in the telecom market in North America would reduce the total cost of wireless communication infrastructure development in the region by 15%-40% and provide an opportunity for telecom operators to save US$20 billion over the next four years.

The cost factor has also made some European countries sway their decision in favor of Huawei. In June 2019, GSMA, an industry association with over 750 telecom operators as members, indicated that shunning Chinese equipment from 5G network deployment in Europe would add EUR 55 billion (~US$61 billion) to the costs of telecom operators and will also cause the delay of about 18 months in 5G network deployment. In fact, to avoid such repercussions, many European countries have already decided to continue buying telecom equipment (including 5G network equipment) from Huawei and other Chinese firms, Greece being the latest one to join the group of countries including Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, and few more.

India, which is a huge market for low-priced smartphones and telecom network equipment, still remains undecided on the proposed ban on Huawei. The 5G network equipment supplied by Nokia and Ericsson in India is expected to be 10%-15% more expensive as compared to Huawei’s. Also, Huawei claims that imposing a ban on the company will push back 5G deployment in India by two to three years. Moreover, the prolonged decision-taking has also affected the 5G network deployment timeline of the country and thus slowing down the overall development of its telecom industry. Dilemma whether to work with Huawei is seen to have wide-reaching implications on overall development of 5G technology in some countries.

Decoding USA-China 5G War - EOS Intelligence

EOS Perspective

The USA-China 5G war has taken many unpredictable turns over the last year, resulting in adverse implications for Huawei and its US-based business partners. The current status of the 5G war indicates a relaxation over the Huawei ban till November 18, 2019. This allows the US companies to continue supply of their technology products including key software and hardware required by Huawei for 5G equipment manufacturing. However, the relaxation of the ban is not intended to remove Huawei from the US Department of Commerce’s Entity List and the US companies still have to apply for temporary license for exporting products to Huawei.

The USA has been targeting Huawei since 2012, and there seems to be no stopping. Considering the implications of the US sanctions, Huawei has been making notable efforts to end the ongoing discord with the US government. Huawei has always denied all the accusations and maintained that the company is willing to work with the US government to alleviate their concerns over cybersecurity. In May 2019, Huawei proposed implementation of risk mitigation programs to address potential security threats. To further appease the US government, on September 10, 2019, Huawei proposed selling its 5G technology (including licenses, codes, technical blueprints, patents, as well as production know-how) to an American firm. This is seen as one of the boldest peace-offering deals by Huawei to win back the trust of the US government. Huawei claimed that the buyer will be allowed to alter the software code and thereby eliminate any potential security threats.

Currently, there is no US company manufacturing 5G network equipment. Acceptance of Huawei’s proposal would enable the USA to gain footing in the 5G network equipment market and mitigate the fears over rising dominance of Huawei in global 5G space. While the move risks to create a competitor for Huawei in the 5G network equipment market, the company could also use this as an opportunity to evolve from core manufacturing business to providing technical expertise to other companies for manufacturing 5G equipment. The proposal is still subject to approval from the USA and Chinese governments.

While Huawei is ramping up its efforts to break the deadlock with the US government, at the same time, the company is also devising a parallel strategy presuming the worst possible outcome of USA-China trade tensions over 5G, i.e. the USA eventually cutting off ties with Huawei. The company is working towards a contingency plan with an ambition to take control of its supply chain and reduce its dependency on the US technologies and supplies.

One of the major actions of its plan B includes developing its own operating system HarmonyOS as a substitute to Google’s Android OS. While Huawei wants to continue with Android OS for its future 5G smartphones, in case the US government blocks Huawei’s access to Google’s services, Huawei will have to switch to own HarmonyOS.

China, Huawei’s home market, is more receptive to the company’s products, and switching to own operating system is expected to work in favor of the company. In July 2019, Canalys, a Singapore-based technology market research firm, estimated that China would account for over one-third of 5G smartphones globally by 2023. Huawei could use this opportunity to develop its proprietary OS based on the learnings in China before expanding globally to compete with more established and mature OS such as Android OS and iOS (which respectively controlled 76.23% and 22.17% of the smartphone OS market as of August 2019).

On the other hand, in anticipation of loss of partnerships with key suppliers such as Qualcomm and Broadcom, Huawei had stockpiled critical components between May 2018 and May 2019, according to a research report by Canalys. This move was aimed at ensuring the continuity of production of 5G products that rely on core technology from US-based firms for three to twelve months.

Further, Huawei has been developing proprietary chipsets for its 5G smartphones and networking products, which are being considered as alternatives for products offered by Qualcomm and Broadcom. On September 6, 2019, Huawei launched Kirin 990, a new 5G processor for smart devices, which will power Huawei’s upcoming 5G smartphone including Mate 30 series. Further, in January 2019, Huawei launched a 5G multi-mode chipset, Balong 5000 that supports a broad range of 5G products including smartphones, home broadband devices, vehicle-mounted devices, and 5G modules. The company claims this chipset to be the first to perform to industry benchmark for peak 5G download speeds.

Seeing such developments at the Huawei’s end, it is clear that the company is striving hard to remain on the top of 5G network equipment and device manufacturing sector. The USA’s efforts to derail Huawei from its path to dominance in 5G are certainly going to impact the overall growth of the company in short term, but, with its plan B, things are expected to smooth out for Huawei in future. Even if Huawei is not be able to retain its current global leading position in 5G network equipment and device manufacturing, it will certainly remain one of the strong contenders. The US sanctions are further encouraging Huawei to evolve as an all-round player in the 5G ecosystem.

On the contrary, the USA’s aggression against Huawei is expected to hit its own technology industry in the long term. For instance, the blacklisting of Huawei will not only cost the US technology firms to lose one of its largest customers, but will also result in intensified competition as Huawei ramps up its in-house capabilities to fulfill the demand of the entire 5G ecosystem. An example of this could be Huawei’s announcement in April 2019 that the company was open to selling the 5G chips to rival smartphone companies, including Apple. Moreover, if Huawei’s HarmonyOS is able to succeed in gaining significant user base, it would challenge the dominance of Android and iOS. Hence, it would be in best interest of the USA and its technology industry, if the country could take a different approach and try to control and minimize security risks related to Huawei’s engagements, rather than placing an outright ban on the company. Similar to what Germany did in December 2018, the USA could encourage telecom operators to establish verification centers and hire third-party experts to identify and resolve vulnerabilities in Huawei’s 5G network equipment and devices.

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Infographic: Google’s Tech Initiatives Transforming Industries

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Google, beyond being the leading search engine worldwide, is also one of the largest and most innovative companies. Through its innovations, Google along with other Alphabet companies (parent company of Google and its subsidiaries) is transforming various industries by empowering them with technology. Its solutions have reached diverse industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, energy, and fishing, among others.

Innovation has always been at the core of Google’s strategy and it is bringing artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, augmented reality, robotics, among others to shape various industries. It has introduced surgical robots to medicine, Google glass to manufacturing, AI-enabled programs to energy, among various other solutions that are revolutionizing these industries. We are taking a look at where Google has already left its innovative footprint.

Google’s Tech Initiatives Transforming Industries - EOS Intelligence


Alphabet companies included in the infographic:
Verily – Alphabet’s key research organization dedicated to the study of life sciences
Verb Surgical – A joint venture between Johnson & Johnson and Verily
DeepMind – Alphabet’s artificial intelligence company
Global Fishing Watch – An organization founded by Google in partnership with Oceana and SkyTruth
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Connecting Africa – Global Tech Players Gaining Foothold in the Market

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While in the past, most global tech companies have focused their attention on emerging Asian markets, such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc., they have now understood the potential also offered by African markets. Africa currently stands at the brink of technical renaissance, with tech giants from the USA and China competing to establish here a strong foothold. That being said, Africa’s technological landscape is extremely complex owing to major connectivity and logistical issues, along with a limited Internet user base. Companies that wish to enter the African markets by replicating their entry and operating models from other regions cannot be assured of success. In addition to global tech firms building their ground in Africa, a host of African start-ups are increasingly finding funding from local as well as global VC and tech players.

Great potential challenged by insufficient connectivity

Boasting of a population exceeding 1.2 billion (spread across 50 countries) and being home to six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies, Africa is increasingly seen as the final frontier by large global technology firms.

However, the African landscape presents its own set of challenges, which makes increasing tech penetration extremely complex in the market. To begin with, only about 35% of the continent’s population has access to the Internet, as compared with the global rate of 54%. Thus, Africa’s future in the technology space greatly depends on its ability to improve digital connectivity. This also stands in the way of large tech-based players that wish to gain foothold in the market.

Large players try to lay the necessary foundations

Due to this fundamental challenge, companies such as Google, Facebook, and IBM have initiated long-pronged strategies focusing on connectivity and building infrastructure across Africa. Facebook’s Free Basics program (which provides access to a few websites, including Facebook and Whatsapp, without the need to pay for mobile data) has been greatly focused on Africa, and is available in 27 African countries. With Facebook’s partnership with Airtel Africa, the company has started to strengthen its position in the continent.

Similarly, Google has launched Project Link, under which it rolled out a metro fiber network in Kampala, Uganda, with Ghana being in the pipeline. Through such efforts and investments, Google is aimed at bringing about faster and more reliable internet to the Africans.

Microsoft, which has been one of the first players to enter the African turf, is also undertaking projects to improve connectivity in Africa. The company has invested in white spaces technology, which uses unused radio spectrum to provide Wi-Fi connectivity at comparatively lower costs.

However, managing to get people online is only the first step in the long journey to develop a growing market. Companies need to understand the specific dynamics of the local markets and develop new business models that will fit well in the African market.

For instance, globally, the revenue model for several leading tech companies, such as Google and Facebook, largely depend on online advertising. However, the same model may not thrive in most African markets due to a limited digital footprint of the consumers as well as the fact that the business community in the continent continues to draw most transactions offline, using cash.

Connecting Africa – Global Technology Firms Gaining a Foothold in the Market

Players employ a range of strategies to penetrate the market

These tech giants must work closely with local businesses and achieve an in-depth understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities that the African continent presents. Therefore, these companies are increasingly focusing on looking for collaborations that will help in the development of successful and sustainable businesses in the continent.

Leading players, such as Google and Microsoft have been investing heavily in training local enterprises in digital skills to encourage businesses to go online, so that they will become potential customers for them in the future.

While this strategy has been used somewhat extensively by US-based and European companies, a few Chinese players have recently joined the bandwagon. For instance, Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma announced a US$10 million African Young Entrepreneurs Fund on his first visit to Africa in July 2017. The scheme will help 200 budding entrepreneurs learn and develop their tech business with support from Alibaba.

The company has also been focusing on partnerships and collaborations to strengthen its position in the African market. Understanding the logistical challenges in the African continent, Alibaba has signed a wide-ranging agreement with French conglomerate, Bollore Group, which covers cloud services, digital transformation, clean energy, mobility, and logistics. The logistics part of the agreement will help Alibaba leverage on Bollore’s strong logistics network in Africa’s French-speaking nations.

Considering the importance of mobile wallets and m-payments in Africa, Alibaba has expanded its payment system, Alipay, to South Africa (through a partnership with Zapper, a South Africa-based mobile payment system) as well as Kenya (through a partnership with Equitel, a Kenya-based mobile virtual network operator). In many ways, it is applying its lessons learnt in the Chinese market with regards to payments and logistics, to better serve the African continent.

While Chinese players (such as Alibaba and Baidu) have been comparatively late in entering the African turf, they are expected to pose a tough competition to their Western counterparts as they have the advantage of coming from an emerging market themselves, with a somewhat better understanding of the challenges and complexities of a digitally backward market.

For instance, messaging app WeChat brought in by Tencent, China-based telecom player, has provided stiff competition to Whatsapp, which is owned by Facebook and is a leading player in this space. WeChat has used its experience in the Chinese market (where mobile banking is also popular just as it is across Africa) and has collaborated with Standard Chartered Bank to launch WeChat wallet. In addition, WeChat has collaborated with South Africa’s largest media company, Naspers, which has provided several value added services to its consumers (such as voting services to viewers of reality shows, which are very popular in Africa). Thus, by aligning the app to the needs and preferences of the African consumers, it has made the app into something more than just a messaging service.

While collaboration has been the go-to strategy for a majority of tech companies, a few players have preferred to enter the market by themselves. Uber, a leading peer-to-peer ridesharing company entered Africa without collaborations and is currently present in 16 countries.

While entering without forging partnerships with local entities helps a company maintain full control over its operations in the market, in some cases it may result in slower adoption of its services by the local population (as they may not be completely aligned with their preferences and needs). This can be seen in the case of Netflix, a leading player in the video streaming service, which extended its services to all 54 countries in Africa in January 2016 (the company has, however, largely focused on South Africa). Despite being a global leader, Netflix has witnessed conservative growth in the continent and expects only 500,000 subscribers across the continent by 2020.

On the other hand, Africa’s local players ShowMax and iROKO TV have gained more traction, due to better pricing, being more mobile friendly (downloading option) and having more relatable and local content, which made their offer more attractive to local populations.

Netflix, slowly understanding the complexities of the market, has now started developing local content for the South African market and working on offering Netflix in local currency. The company has also decided to collaborate with a few local and Middle-Eastern players to find a stronger foothold in the market. In November 2018, the company signed a partnership with Telkom, a South African telecommunication company, wherein Netflix will be available on Telkom’s LIT TV Box. Similarly, it partnered with Dubai-based pay-TV player, OSN, wherein OSN subscribers in North Africa and Middle East will gain access to Netflix’s content available across the region. However, while Netflix may manage to develop a broader subscriber base in South Africa and a few other more developed countries, there is a long road ahead for the company to capture the African continent as a whole, especially since its focus has been on TV-based partnerships rather than mobile (which is a more popular medium for the Internet in Africa).

On the other hand, Chinese pay-TV player, StarTimes has had a decade-long run in Africa and has more than 20 million subscribers across 30 African countries. While operating by itself, the company has strongly focused on local content and sports. It also deploys a significant marketing budget in the African market. For instance, it signed a 10-year broadcast and sponsorship deal with Uganda’s Football Association for US$7 million. To further its reach, the company also announced a project to provide 10,000 African villages with access to television.

US-based e-commerce leader, Amazon, is following a different strategy to penetrate the African markets. Following an inorganic approach, in 2017, Amazon acquired a Dubai-based e-retailer, Souq.com, which has presence in North Africa. However, the e-commerce giant is moving very slowly on the African front and is expected to invest heavily in building subsidiaries for providing logistics and warehousing as it has done in other markets, such as India. This approach to enter and operate in the African market is not widely popular, as it will require huge investment and a long gestation period.

Local tech start-ups are on the rise

While leading tech giants across the globe are spearheading the technology boom in Africa, developments are also fueled by local start-ups. As per the Disrupt Africa Tech Startups Funding Report 2017, 159 African tech start-ups received investments of about US$195 million in 2017, marking a more than 50% increase when compared to the investments received in 2016.

While South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya remained the top three investment destinations, there is an increasing investor interest in less developed markets, such as Ghana, Egypt, and Uganda. Start-ups in the fintech space received maximum interest and investments. Moreover, international VC such as Amadeus and EchoVC as well as local African funds appear keen to invest in African start-ups. The African governments are also supporting start-up players in the tech space – a prime example being the Egyptian government launching its own fund dedicated to this objective.

African fintech start-ups, Branch and Cellulant, have been two of the most successful players in the field, raising US$70 million and US$47.5 million, respectively, in 2018. While Branch is an online micro-lending start-up, Cellulant is a digital payments solution provider. Both companies have significant presence across Africa.

EOS Perspective

Although US-based players were largely the first to enter and develop Africa’s technology market, Chinese players have also increasingly taken a deeper interest in the continent and have the advantage of coming from an emerging market themselves, therefore putting themselves in a better position to understand the challenges faced by tech players in the continent.

Most leading tech players are looking to build their presence in the African markets. Their success depends on how well they can mold their business models to tackle the local market complexities in addition to aligning their product/service offerings with the diverse needs of the local population. While partnering with a local player may enable companies to gain a better understanding of the market potential and limitations, it is equally imperative to identify and partner with the right player, who is in line with the company’s vision and has the required expertise in the field – a task challenging at times in the African markets.

While global tech companies are stirring up the African markets with the technologies and solutions they bring along, a lot is also happening in the local African tech-based start-ups scene, which is receiving an increasing amount of investment from VCs across the world. In the future, these start-ups may become potential acquisition targets for large global players or pose stiff competition to them, either across the continent or in smaller, regional markets.

It is clear that the technological wave has hit Africa, changing the continent’s face. Most African countries, being emerging economies in their formative period, offer a great potential of embracing the new technologies without the struggle of resisting to adopt the new solutions or the problem of fit with legacy systems. It is too early to announce Africa the upcoming leader in emerging technologies, considering the groundwork and investments the continent requires for that to happen, however, Africa has emerged as the next frontier for tech companies, which are causing a digital revolution in the continent as we speak.

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Autonomous Vehicles: Moving Closer to the Driverless Future

An Uber self-driving car was reported getting into an accident in Arizona last month. But as the saying goes “any publicity is good publicity”, this also holds true for autonomous vehicles. The news sparked a discussion and shed some light on potential challenges the technology may face before it becomes available for commercial use. At the same time, it spread awareness about the level of safety testing being done to improve the technology before it is rolled out to the public. We are taking a look at what’s potentially in store for users waiting to see streets flooded with driverless vehicles.

Autonomous self-driving vehicles have been the talk of the industry for some time now, with some of the initial attempts to create a modern autonomous car dating back to 1980s. However, major advancements have only been made during the last decade, coinciding with advancements in the supporting technologies, such as advanced sensors, real-time mapping, and cognitive intelligence, which are perhaps the most crucial to the success of any autonomous vehicle.

Early advancements in the segment were led by technology companies which focused on developing software to automate/assist driving of cars. Some prime examples include nuTonomy, which has recently partnered with Grab (a ride-hailing startup rival to Uber) to test its self-driving cars in Singapore, Cruise Automation (acquired by GM in 2016), and Argo AI, which has recently received a US$1 billion investment from Ford. These companies use primarily regular cars/vans that are retrofitted with sensors, as well as high-definition mapping and software systems.

However, software alone is not capable enough to offer self-driving driving functionalities, therefore, automotive OEMs are taking the front seat when it comes to driving advancements in autonomous vehicles segment. New cars/vans, which are tuned to work seamlessly with this software, are likely to adapt better with the algorithms and meet stringent performance and safety standards required before they can be rolled out commercially. California-based Navigant Research believes that with its investment in Argo AI, Ford has taken a lead among such automotive OEMs in the race to produce an autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

Advanced levels of autonomy still to be achieved

In a nutshell, there are five levels of autonomous cars. Levels 1 through to 3 require human intervention in some form or other. The most basic level comprises only driver assistance systems, such as steering or acceleration control. Most common form of currently prevalent autonomy is Level 2, which involves the driver being disengaged from physically operating the vehicle for some time, using automation such as cruise control and lane-centering. Tesla’s current Autopilot system can be categorized as Level 2.

Level 3 involves the car completely undertaking the safety-critical functions, under certain traffic or environmental conditions, while requiring a driver to intervene if necessary.

Most OEMs developing autonomous cars target launching their vehicles in the next three to five years. Tesla is probably the closest, with its Model 3 car with Autopilot 3 system expected to be unveiled in 2018 (however, this depends on whether the regulations are in place by then). Nissan, Toyota, Google, and Volvo plan to achieve this by 2020, while BMW and Ford have set a deadline for 2021. Most of these companies are working on achieving cars with Level 3 autonomy, with a driver sitting behind the steering wheel to take over from the car’s programming as and when required.

Level 4 and Level 5 vehicles are deemed as fully autonomous which means they do not require a driver and all driving functions are undertaken by the car. The only difference is that while Level 4 vehicles are limited to most common roads and general traffic conditions, Level 5 vehicles are able to offer performance equivalent to a human driving in every scenario – including extreme environments such as off-roads.

Some OEMs, Ford in particular, are against the practice of using a human as a back-up, based on the understanding that a person sitting idle behind the wheel often loses the situational awareness which is required when he needs to take over from the car’s programming. Ford is planning to skip achieving Level 3 autonomy and target development of Level 4 autonomous vehicles instead.

Google is currently the only company focusing on developing a Level 5 autonomous car (or a robot car). The company already showcased a prototype that has no steering wheel or manual controls – a prototype that in true sense can be the first autonomous car. Tesla also plans to work on achieving the highest level of autonomy and plans to fit its cars with all hardware necessary for a fully-autonomous vehicle.

High costs continue to be challenging

While the plans are in place, one massive roadblock that persists in the development of these cars of future are costs. There are multiple sensors used in these cars, including SONAR and LIDAR. The ongoing research has helped to reduce the costs of sensors – Google’s Waymo has managed to reduce the costs of LIDAR sensors by 90%, from about $75,000 (in 2009) to about $7,000 (in 2016) – but they are still very expensive. The fact that a driverless car requires about four of these sensors, makes the cars largely unaffordable for consumers, and that puts off any discussion of feasibility of commercial production at this stage.

EOS Perspective

The first three months of 2017 have been particularly eventful, with several prototypes launched or tested. This activity is expected to increase further as companies try to meet their ambitious plans to roll out self-driving cars by 2020.

Initial adoption is likely to come from companies investing in commercial fleet, particularly those focusing on on-demand taxi or fleet, similar to what Uber or Lyft offer. Series of investments by large bus manufacturing companies, such as Scania, Iveco, and Yutong, also indicate how this technology will be the flavor of the future in public transport.

It is too soon to comment how and when exactly these autonomous vehicles can be expected to impact the way people choose to travel and how they may redefine the societies’ mobility. It is likely to depend on how the regulatory environment evolves to allow driverless cars in active traffic. Current regulatory environment for driverless cars is still at a nascent stage and allows only for testing of these cars in an isolated environment. Some states in the USA, particularly California, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, have opened up to testing of these cars in general public. However, recent accidents and cases of autonomous cars breaking traffic rules have put pressure on authorities to reconsider their stance until the cars become more advanced and tested to handle the nuances of public traffic. We might need to wait another decade or two before driverless cars are a reality in many markets. As things stand, endless efforts continue to go behind the curtain, as companies strive to win the race to develop highly autonomous and safe vehicles.

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