The persistent problems in Sub-Saharan Africa are so complicated that they have proven resistant to many formidable attempts at finding sustainable solutions in the last 50 years. Whatever the solutions may be, it is likely that the most successful would feature fundamental elements such as self-determination, attraction of foreign investment, technological productivity, food security, increased capacity to contribute to global knowledge, political stability, and rule of law. Evidence from other regions of the world have proven that all of these elements can be facilitated by the adoption of information and communication technology (ICT) tools and services. It is therefore exciting to see the rapid implementation and adoption of ICT in Sub-Saharan Africa in the past few years. Benefits from the rapid adoption of cell phone technology, for instance, provide clear evidence that there is good reason for hope that this hypothesis holds true in the African region as it has in others.
I believe that another technology that presents unprecendented opportunity for Sub-Saharan Africa is Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).
SaaS “is a software delivery model in which software and its associated data are hostedcentrally (typically in the (Internet) cloud) and are typically accessed by users using a thin client, normally using a web browser over the Internet.” - Wikipedia
SaaS: “ it’s software that’s developed and hosted by the SaaS vendor and which the end user customer accesses over the Internet. Unlike traditional packaged applications that users install on their computers or servers, the SaaS vendor owns the software and runs it on computers in its data center. The customer does not own the software but effectively rents it, usually for a monthly fee. SaaS is sometimes also known as hosted software or by its more marketing-friendly cousin, “on-demand.”” - CIO
Simply put, SaaS enables on-demand access to software hosted by a remote provider and delivered through the Internet. In contrast to software that is locally installed on a user's computer, the SaaS user connects to a host usually through a Website.
Common SaaS Products:
Common SaaS products include applications for e-mail management, document and data management, office process automation and management, health care management, classroom management, and library collection management. The most popular consumer products include IBM Lotus Live, Google Apps, and, most recently, Microsoft Office 365.
Since SaaS is delivered through the Internet, user experience benefits greatly from robust bandwidth. As a result, access to SaaS has become more viable and popular with the advent of affordable broadband.
1. Low initial investment.
2. Pay per use.
4. On-demand access.
4. Minimal client-side hardware requirements.
5. Low maintenance burden.
All of these factors make SaaS ideal for implementation in Africa because they lower the threshhold for entry to a level that Africa can afford.
The need for shared on-demand resources became apparent to us at Techbiz (our cybercafe in Freetown) even before we could actually envision SaaS products. It actually started with hardware. We recognized that we could save money by consolidating several hard drives into one server box with connections to c-port units at client stations. This solution was initially driven by the need to save money on electricity and space. So in 2002 we installed a ClearCube solution that allowed us to deploy 10 to 15 computers from a single box. The solution also simplified our security needs since we only needed to secure one box that could be located in a small space several yards away from the terminals.
It also quickly became clear to us that our clients needed different applications at different times. Some came in to write papers using word processors; some needed to browse the Web; some needed to access software learning applications; some needed access to typing training software; others needed to print. Instead of loading each station with all of these applications, it made sense to host the applications on servers that could provide access on-demand. That is when we started playing with VMWare Workstation, VirtualBox, and Microsoft Virtual Machine. With these solutions we needed only a few copies of each application, only a couple of "servers" to host the applications, and only low-cost thin clients at user stations. This was back in 2006.
While virtual desktops and applications dramatically minimized our costs, the setup and maintenance are still more sophisticated than ideal in Sierra Leone. With the emergence of SaaS solutions such as Google Apps we see a light at the end of the tunnel where we don't have to host and maintain our own servers and applications. Now we only need broadband! As you can imagine, Techbiz is excited about the opportunity to invest in SaaS solutions such as Google Apps not only for our cybercafe but also for installation in small businesses and institutions. We can hardly wait for affordable broadband to land in Sierra Leone in 2012!
A Lifeline for Africa:
In addition to the need for consumer applications such as Google Apps, Software-as-a-Service offers Africa the opportunity to gain reliable access to critical applications that could make a huge difference in healthcare, education, financial management, and governance. For example, a SaaS application such as Practice Fusion would enable hospitals and medical care centers to manage patient records and drug inventories without having to manage complex computing infrastructure. Practice Fusion is already one of the fastest-growing health record management systems in the US because it is a SaaS solution that can be deployed and adopted easily by providers that do not wish to invest in complex on-site infrastructure. With the software infrastructure managed remotely, medical care centers in Africa would only need to invest in high speed Internet access, user training, and low-cost Web-access terminals such as tablets, Chromebooks, thin clients, or virtual desktops.
African Universities could also benefit from SaaS through the adoption of virtual libraries, virtual learning management systems, student records management systems, financial management systems, course management systems, and lab information management systems.
SaaS solutions could furthermore provide records management systems for government institutions such as the police, drivers licensing and passport services, tax revenue management services, census services, and pension management services. The opportunities are virtually endless. Instead of waiting for Africa to develop the technical capability to develop and host such sophisticated infrastructure, Software-as-a-Service solutions could make sophisticated applications accessible to Africa through broadband connections. Then Africa can concentrate on learning to apply these tools to the challenges at hand. Eventually, African countries will develop the human resources to handle local hosting of these resources, and even local development of sophisticated applications. In the meantime, SaaS could provide a much-need bridge.
Software-as-a-Service is ideal for Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, it could be a real lifeline. We just need to make sure that we take full advantage of this unprecedented opportunity.