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By Kevin Taylor, President, Asia, Middle East and Africa, BT

Africa is a diverse continent with unique market conditions. As home to seven of the world’s megacities, and with millions of young people entering the labour force each year, Africa is fertile ground for investment in areas such as infrastructure and manufacturing. However, divergence in Africa’s economies also means the region faces additional challenges to embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is dawning on the world economy – including growing youth unemployment, low commodity prices, climate change and a lack of critical infrastructure among others. Added to this, customers and employees are demanding the best value and most responsive service, ecosystems are evolving, and the established rules of business economics and decision making are shifting.

Faced with this myriad of challenges and increasing complexities, many organisations across Africa need to turn their attention to digital and disruptive technologies, to harness the transformative influence and benefits these bring to the business.

Globally, traditional views on technology have evolved over the past several years, thanks in part to its consumerisation. Increasingly, technology delivers on more than just products. Instead the disruptive technology trends today – including cloud computing, mobility and collaboration, and data – focus on offering solutions that span the corporate and consumer spheres. And, digital transformation continues to play a pivotal role in assisting multinationals to continue expanding in the region, as well as enabling early adopter local companies to grow internationally. However, adapting to digital transformation still needs to be engrossed higher on the boardroom agenda for all businesses across Africa.

To put this into perspective: our CIO report 2016 – the digital CIO highlighted that organisations the world over either have already or plan to adopt a ‘multi-speed’ approach to technology-led initiatives. Currently, however, this sentiment is not as pervasively mirrored across Africa. Instead disruptive technology trends are all contributing towards new eco-systems that are putting pressure on IT departments and businesses who may still be very traditionally-minded. What these businesses need to realise is that adapting to technology-led initiatives creates access to a new era of digital, bringing with it incredible opportunities for innovation and new ways of doing business. From creating new possibilities and opportunities, to improving customer experiences, driving improved operational efficiencies and transforming costs, or indeed creating whole new business models. Such elements are critical to success in tougher economic times, or volatile markets, to avoid being ‘left behind’. Digital transformation is certainly empowering people – customers, businesses and employees, alike – to do amazing things. We call this the Digital Possible.

Becoming a digital business

While phrases like the sharing economy, digitalisation, and collaboration may make adapting to a digital-led approach daunting; it doesn’t have to be. Achieving sustainable growth means increasing business agility and innovation to keep pace with emerging technologies and trends.

It is true that with the immense opportunities that digital technology opens up, also comes increased layers of complexity and choices; that no industry is immune to. However, a digital-led approach essentially means putting digital transformation at the core of the business. It’s advisable to conduct an audit-like assessment of all the business’ activities to better understand the aspects and elements of the business that best stand to benefit from the use of digital technology.

For example, digital explosions in the mining industry. By letting software control the explosion instead of doing it manually, chemical and mining companies are getting the best possible yield out of the explosion. In times of low commodity prices, this is helping them stay competitive, as well as improving the safety of miners.

On the other hand, embracing a complete digital transformation enables business to reinvent its processes and systems, in some cases even create new products/services to grow its market offering – which involves more creativity, flexibility and a more dynamic operating model.

Furthermore, according to the World Bank, 34% of adults across sub-Saharan Africa have a bank account – where financial empowerment can make a real difference to their lives. In recognition of this, in recent years we have seen a flurry of start-ups and banks operating in Africa adapting digital approaches to bring sophisticated fintech solutions to the continent. With internet connectivity, mobile and cloud computing, providers are now able to offer banking and other financial services to consumers across divergent and dispersed regions, who previously would have been excluded from formal financial markets.

A keen example of this is WIZZIT International, who embraced cloud technology to extend the reach of its mobile banking platform. WIZZIT enables real time person-to-person payments and transfers, supported by cards that let consumers access ATMs and point of sale terminals.

The company has extended their global reach using a cloud-based platform to accelerate deployment and reduce the cost of the service to reach a broader market. Established in South Africa in 2005, WIZZIT now provides services through partner banks to over six million customers in 11 countries across three continents.

The digital businesses of the future

With many people in Africa paying ten times as much of their salary for broadband as most of those living in the rest of the world, providing internet access for all is also key to building a sustainable future.

Whether it’s access to free WiFi on Coca-Cola machines to give entrepreneurs and small business owners in the community the opportunity to manage some of their business aspects online, or providing free broadband connectivity in village communities through Connecting Africa.

From providing skills, training and access to education, these schemes also open up opportunities for small businesses to begin to grow.

Trust in a digital world

In a digital economy, trust attracts customers. However, digital risk and digital opportunity are two sides of the same coin. So, while a digital business offers lots of opportunity, it also opens up even more security risks, through everything from greater collaboration to the greater use of data. Where digital security can no longer be viewed as a technical issue, alone. It has to become an integral part of doing business in our networked world and needs to be part of a wider strategic planning process.

We know the world is changing – and fast! Every day, the world is discovering more incredible things that can be done with technology. The digital world is not only making fundamental changes to how we live – but it is also having a profound impact on how we conduct business – and rightly so. And this digital future will be the future of technology in Africa.

In Africa in particular, the incredible potential of digital to help not just businesses, but also communities, become sustainable for the future, is something that simply has to be embraced.