South Africa needs to get on the technology trajectory

The opportunities of the digital age could be the engine of growth for South Africa, delegates heard at the Vision 2030 Summit. It needed more investment in skills and infrastructure, but it could use technology to push local innovation.

The digital age offers South Africa the opportunity to change the face of our economy. (Image: Strike a pose photography)

Sulaiman Philip
Investment in information and communications technology infrastructure today will bear fruit before the National Development Plan (NDP) ends in 2030. Embracing the opportunities of the digital age could be the engine of growth in South Africa. This was the view of speakers at the Vision 2030 Summit held in Johannesburg between 21 and 22 June.

As Limpopo Premier Chupu Mathabatha pointed out in his keynote address, to work towards a possible future we need to be able to visualise it. The NDP is that vision. “The people of South Africa, united in their diversity, have all embraced this future as visualised in the NDP. The challenge for all of us is to put shoulder to the wheel and work in unity towards this shared future.”

The South African context

Brand South Africa’s head of research, Dr Petrus de Kock, set the context upon which South Africa needs to build. South Africa, despite its many challenges, remains a magnet for investment. For South Africans, it still offers the best opportunity for personal development. “We talk about vision but to transform our world we need imagination.”

The world, De Kock pointed out, was still recovering from the economic meltdown of 2008. In some countries, especially Western economies, that had led to more aggressive inward-looking policies. South Africa had escaped the worst and as future growth would be driven by the Asian/African axis, we could grow if we were ready.

“We talk about vision but to transform our world we need imagination,” Dr de Kock speaking at the Vision 2030 Summit. (Image: Strike a Pose Photography)

The country and its people remained open and welcoming he said, and pointed to our tolerance as a society. “We exist in a unique context. We are unique in our constitutional acceptance of difference, religious tolerance for example. This is the identity of who we are.”

The future can be in ICT

Post and Telecommunications Deputy Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams — like the speakers who spoke after her — championed the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. She has been a strong advocate for the benefits that that will accrue to South Africa if we embrace the digital world.

“We need to integrate digital goals into our day to day lives. We need to become comfortable with the changes and benefits that will come. Most importantly, we need to be more than just consumers of the internet.”

Ndabeni-Abrahams said South Africans needed to embrace the 21st century. The digital age, she said, would allow the country to show off the innovation of which we were capable. The deputy minister acknowledged that South Africa faced infrastructure challenges, but added that innovative solutions would help to make the best use of the infrastructure we had.

“We have launched the Internet for All with a pilot project in the OR Tambo municipality. The idea is that no matter where you are, you will have access. We can find solutions that have South African characteristics.”

Beyond infrastructure, South Africa’s shortage of skills in digital industries had hamstrung the growth of the sector. In response to this dearth, she pointed to the public-private programme with Google, which had undertaken to train 5 million coders over five years, as the way forward.

“We need to work together to breach the skills gap. We need to find these innovative ways forward, solutions that show that not only are we spending, but that we’re gaining on more digitally advanced nations.”

Infrastructure

One of the important benefits of the digital age highlighted by the deputy minister would be the lower cost of communication. Working towards lowering costs while still innovating was Siemens’ history in South Africa since it started doing business in the country in 1860.

Sabine Dall’Omo, Siemens South Africa chief executive, highlighted the company’s relevance in South Africa. Its operations contributed R6.8-billion to gross domestic product (GDP) and its technology lay at the heart of 31 mega projects. From the first telegraph built, the company had been “driving innovation and now driving digitisation”.

A benefit of the digital age often overlooked was the way technology was making it easier and cheaper to transfer technology to developing nations. This benefit had allowed Siemens to use innovations developed in more mature economies to benefit South Africa.

It did so in the automotive industry, for example: “One hundred and twenty thousand cars — or 50% — of cars produced in South Africa are built using Siemens technology.”

Siemens’ Sabine Dall’omo and Dr Petrus de Kock being interviewed after their presentations. (Image: Strike a Pose Photography)

eCommerce

To highlight the importance of the internet to economic growth, the Chinese TELE company Huawei monitored sales on one day — 18 June 2017. The study highlighted the power and opportunity presented by e-commerce.

Huawei studied the buying habits of people on T-Mall, the Chinese online shopping service.

It found:

  • In a five-minute spell 200 tons of milk powder were bought online
  • In a seven-minute period 200 million nappies were bought
  • In a 26-minute spell 10 million lipsticks were bought
  • The fastest time between order and delivery was 13 minutes
  • 85% of all orders that day were made on a mobile device

This, in the words of Leonard Chang, Huawei’s managing director of corporate industry development and marketing, showed the power e-commerce had to create economic miracles. If South Africa was to meet the growth requirements of the NDP it needed to embrace digitisation. “Connectivity is not only a human right but an economic growth right.”

Digitisation could be the engine for growth. While South Africa had among the strongest ICT policy frameworks, investment from the government and the public sector had lagged. The company’s research had shown that for every additional dollar (about R12) invested in ICT infrastructure there could be a $5 benefit to GDP growth by 2025.

In the recently released Huawei 2017 Global Connectivity Index, it was reported that South Africa led Africa in terms of connectivity but lagged behind the rest of the world. “If we go at the same pace as we do today, we may never catch up with the frontrunners. At the same time, we must realise there is no shortcut in climbing the ladder of digital transformation.”

The NDP was a start, but the vision was never enough, Chang warned. The country needed to move faster to close the digital divide. South Africa needed a strong action plan with achievable targets. One area that needed improvement was building ICT talent.

Building skills

Mymoena Ismail, the CEO of the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa (Nemisa), believes South Africa was closing in on the Mobile Moment – when there was at least one mobile smartphone per citizen.

She explained that the world was close to a new kind of future. “We are going to see a convergence of a new kind of tech, one that seamlessly merges physical, digital and biological spheres. If we do not take advantage and adapt, we will not benefit.”

Her organisation focused on developing e-skill capacity in South Africa by offering training courses across the country. “We are part of the solution to ensure South Africa has the necessary skills to be leaders in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

In his address, Mathabatha said the NDP identified a stronger and better educational system and a more equal society as the keys to unlock economic growth. “The NDP envisions a South Africa where everyone feels free yet bound to others; where everyone embraces their full potential, a country where opportunity is determined not by birth, but by ability, education and hard work.

“This is a vision embraced by all South Africans. The challenge, as I have said, is about navigating the routes towards such a future.”

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