So the last two days I have been discussing the HPC on my Twitter Time line and some who have not been following keenly have asked me to explain further what is HPC. HPC is acronym for High performance Computing. To be specific it refers to the practice of aggregating computing power in a way that delivers much higher performance than normal computer functions. High Performance Computing makes possible the harnessing of data, advancing of research and drawing of insights. Simply put this is a case of putting many computers together to solve bigger problems.
Talking of problems, we have many and few Kenyans are working to find the solutions. Look at the food security for example, it is sad that at this point in time we still have Kenyans dying due to lack of food. And this is in a country where 80% of the population are farmers. Do we even need advance research to understand our food security problem? I don’t think so. But we need to continuously understand our environment, the things like rain patterns, and to find ways to harness the water masses within the country, like rivers, lakes and ocean. For this to happen, you continuously need to collect data, analyse them and take appropriate actions. Data collected in such a situation is huge (You have heard of big Data) and then come the need to have powerful computing power(HPC). There are other areas like Health, Transport, Energy, Climate that intervention of HPC is needed.
What it takes
What does it take to build a HPC centre and ecosystem? Policy (Government), Resources and partnerships (Money, political goodwill, collaboration), Programmers and Analysts (human capital) Researchers (Academia). In Africa only South Africa has HPC centre and to get to their level, Kenya has no choice but do something. Despite all the hype about Kenya and Silicon Savannah maneno, South Africa is still miles ahead of Kenya in terms of tech, research and software development. And it all starts from the policy level. In terms of policy, Kenya tech policy anchored on Vision 2030 is defective and needs to be redefined. As I mentioned here sometime back, our full ambition was simply to have a vibrant BPO Sector. That is not good enough for a country with ambition to be a computing power house. It is okay to have a thriving BPO sector but it should be a by the way as we build original computing ideas.
The next thing is the resources. I was somehow delighted to learn that in 1980, African countries made what they called Lagos declaration, promising to invest 1% of their GDPs on research, science and technology every year. Unfortunately, up to now none of African countries invest 1% of their GDP on research, science and technology. It took like twelve years after that declaration was made for the first African country(Ethiopia) to come up with a Science and technology policy. Others followed reluctantly and I feel it is the reason why Africans are majorly consumers when it comes to technology. Building a HPC center would not be hard if the Government would commit to investing 1% of our GDP on research and tech space.
In terms of human capital, a lot of effort has been made to train some top notch developers. On private sector side the likes of Moringa school, Andela, Nairobi Dev School, Hubs (the Nailab, iLab Africa, iHub, Nairobi Garage,Growth Africa) are doing their best to train and mentor all rounded developers. We also have some great universities like Strathmore, USIU, JKUAT, UoN, which have made strides in training students on ICT. On this front even the Government has not been left behind. The Presidential Digital Talent Programme (PDTP) is a collaboration between the Government and private sectors that takes fresh and qualified ICT graduates through an internship programme designed to build their ICT capabilities and equip them to be ready for the ICT market.
HPC has been Tried before in Kenya
Is HPC a new thing in Kenya, one may ask? And the answer is no but it might be the right time for it to get the attention it deserves. Back in 2012, my late friend Mr. Idd Salim (RIP), approached Erik Hersman of iHub with the idea of building a computer cluster where software developers could write codes for multiple environments. Erik worked with Idd to set up iHub cluster which went live in January 2013. Idd’s motivation was to create a centre for High Performance Computing. The project fizzled out over time probably because of lack of support from the industry and the Government.
Looking back to what happened, I think with more effort and goodwill from the Government, Kenya can easily build a first class HPC centre and ecosystem. That is why I have been impressed by the work of USIU in the last few days spearheading the discussion on how different stakeholders can come together in realizing this dream. One word which kept on coming up from almost all the presenters at the series of events at USIU and UNEP is ”collaboration”. Universities need to work together , as well as with the Government and the private sector. USIU, has come out strongly and is ready to provide space and manpower needed to kick-start the building of HPC in Kenya. We should also commend Intel for supporting the initiative. Talking of Intel, they also supported the iHub cluster project back in 2012.