Strengthening South Africa’s digital economy: An investment into the future

Rapid digital transformation is reshaping the South African economy, altering how the nation learns, works, trades, and accesses information, raising expectations of faster growth, innovative offerings, and more job opportunities.

A recent Business Day 4.0 conference, brought to you by the Johannesburg Business School, and in partnership with Takealot Group, SAS Institute, Datacentrix, Sybrin SA, PNet and Vulatel focused on innovative technologies, a data-driven approach, and the skills required to meet the demands of an expanding digital agenda.

The keynote address was delivered by Professor Abejide Ade-Ibijola, professor of artificial intelligence and applications and head of the Innovation Lab at the Johannesburg Business School (JBS), who spoke about the technological skills shortage in SA.

Although there are growing opportunities in the technology space – and no shortage of money to pay for them – very few young people have the necessary skills to benefit from these opportunities, said Abejide Ade-Ibijola. Universities equip students with theory, but no practical experience. Although online courses and YouTube videos help with upskilling they are not recognised by employers, he pointed out

The solution, he suggested, is to train students while they are studying. The Innovation Lab at JBS encourages students to build a portfolio of projects and work experience by the time they graduate so that they are immediately employable. The Innovation Lab keeps not only a portfolio of skilled students but also flags at-risk students with their app “Predict Your Mark”, who are immediately given the opportunity to perform better, he revealed.

He added that students tend to thrive in an environment where help is available and trainers are dedicated. Universities are designed to teach students theory, but that space needs to be augmented with practical skills.

“There is no joy in qualifications without skills,” Ade-Ibijola pointed out. “It makes no sense.”

Dawie Nel, CIO of Vulatel, agreed, revealing that, in his business, while getting the basic infrastructure right is crucial, the artisans and technicians who install and maintain that infrastructure are just as essential. They need to be trained, motivated, and acknowledged so that they are incentivised to eventually start their own businesses to service the infrastructure.

“Invest in the right skills with the right people,” he advised. Good qualifications are important, but so is the mind-set. An employee who understands the full scope of the business, and who is given responsibility and accountability, will be more committed and motivated to deliver, and his skill set must be rewarded.

He went on to say that if SMEs are to be the future of SA’s economy, those businesses need a commitment of five years of continuous support and mentoring from big companies to ensure they survive.

Paul Byrne, head of data insights at Pnet, advised brands to get pro-active in their relationships with staff and build up reputations as good employers who grow careers, retaining staff and becoming companies whom employees aspire to work for.

Looking ahead, he recommended that the core skills needed for the future should be introduced at schools, along with “creativity, social skills and leadership qualities.”

Ahmed Mahomed, CEO of Datacentrix, supported this, saying that the youth must be educated to compete in the global environment and that there is a corporate responsibility to ensure that schools get the fundamentals right, especially given the wide gap between private schools which already use digital platforms and public schools which can’t afford them.

Digital transformation disrupts the established business model, he added. Among other issues, cyber security becomes vital, influencing the choice of employees recruited by a business. “Decisive action is needed to direct the ship in a different direction,” said Mahomed.

The power of the digital economy is that there are different business models for different needs, a merging of the old legacy system with the new digital needs, said Karabo Moloko, CEO of Sybrin SA. A wide range of skills is needed to achieve this, with flexibility and communication on both sides.

One of the main drawbacks in SA is that there are “pockets” of digital function, but not everyone is connected, despite a large portion of the population owning cell phones. A domestic worker, for example, will be paid digitally but cannot in turn pay her taxi fare digitally. Connections are convenient and profitable.

Mamongae Mahlare, Group CEO of Takealot Group, revealed that the prevalence of mobile phones has led to an increase in Takealot customers across all income levels and has been transformative in terms of geographical location. Takealot can now deliver to rural homes without an address, simplifying the transaction.

As part of their digital strategy, companies need to be relevant in the communities they serve, she went on. Takealot offers SME’s the opportunity to sell their products on the Takealot platform, while restaurants can access a wider range of customers through Takealot’s Mr D Food delivery service. This transforms how businesses grow and contributes towards an inclusive economy by spreading the benefits.

Itumeleng Nomlomo, senior business solutions manager at SAS, stressed that businesses need to employ staff with problem-solving skills to focus on their need for digital business solutions. Data and analytics are used to inform future strategies – to improve the supply chain, follow stock movement and delivery, to ensure the quality of the service and give insights on how to move – but the overall aim is to satisfy people with the ultimate focus being on the customer.

Data literacy and analytics “should be ubiquitous, understood and communicated in all departments,” she continued. “With the right infrastructure and the right skill sets, Africa could lead the world with its vibrant digital economy.”

To watch the full conference, click here.

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