Philippa Larkin, the content editor of Business Report.
Philippa Larkin, the content editor of Business Report.
Pieter Bensch, the executive vice- president, Sage Africa & Middle East.
Pieter Bensch, the executive vice- president, Sage Africa & Middle East.
JOHANNESBURG - Philippa Larkin, the content editor of Business Report, interviews Pieter Bensch, the executive vice- president, Sage Africa & Middle East.

Q: You became the company’s executive vice-president for Africa and the Middle East in September last year. What have been the main challenges in that period?

A: My main challenge has been to build a business that can deliver and support the Sage Business Cloud and related services in our region. We aim to simplify the Sage business in Africa and Middle East to be agile. As we move to a fully cloud-native business, we need to enable operational efficiencies and services to support a high level of growth.

Q: How do you define your leadership role and strategy?

A: My role is to enable people and provide a clear long-term strategy for my team. Our strategy is to deliver a cloud native product stack in Sage Business Cloud for our region. Each of my business leaders should feel enabled to deliver business results in their respective areas. I am there to support them and remove any obstacles that could prevent this.

Q: Business confidence and growth expectations have picked up under President Cyril Ramaphosa. How is this affecting Sage’s South Africa expectations?

A: We have been encouraged by the increase in business confidence in South Africa, as well as signs that we can expect to see stronger economic growth in the months to come. That said, we have always focused on serving our customers as best we can, rather than on short-term political and economic developments. South Africa has a wonderfully vibrant business landscape, with strong companies of all sizes, and our entrepreneurs have shown enormous creativity and resilience over the years. The country has always been a great market for us.

Q: What has been the impact of rand volatility on Sage’s business?

A: Sage prices its products in local currency to ensure that they are priced affordably for our customers. That means we can sustain the growth of our user base and serve the needs of our customers, even in periods of currency volatility. Our goal is to build long-term customer relationships that endure - so we make allowances for currencies to go up and down in our forecasts.

Pieter Bensch, the executive vice- president, Sage Africa & Middle East.

Q: Obviously, with Sage’s focus on sole traders, start-ups and small businesses Ramaphosa’s small business plans seem attractive, but when do you think Sage will be able to benefit from the effect of these initiatives?

A: President Ramaphosa’s upbeat tone will no doubt inspire confidence among small businesses, which is great news since they are key to driving the growth of our economy. It is difficult to quantify what effect the president’s small business plans will have on our business, however, since these will also be affected by factors such as global market conditions and consumer confidence.

That said, the president seems to understand that entrepreneurship doesn’t happen in a vacuum - it is the result of collaboration between big business, government, business builders, universities and other stakeholders to build the skills, infrastructure and support systems entrepreneurs need to succeed. That bodes well for the future.

Q: I see you tweeted, “Artificial intelligence is here, next 18 months is critical. Can go beyond the hype, but to do so must start delivering ROI.” Please elaborate on this and tell us how it relates to the South African context?

A: At the moment, we’re hearing a lot of hype about how artificial intelligence (AI) will change the world around us.

For South African organisations, the question remains how they can incorporate AI into their businesses in a way that delivers better workplace and customer experiences, improves productivity and reduces costs.

For AI to deliver ROI, it needs to be intuitive for the people who use it, so that it’s easier to interact with a voice assistant or a chatbot than to speak to a human or fill in a form. It shouldn’t duplicate the inefficiencies of old business processes or add complexity to customers’ lives. And it should enable us to drive more value from data and business systems.

When we look at accounting, AI offers a wonderful opportunity for accountants to elevate automation of mundane tasks, so that they have more time to spend on the things that really matter: to be strategic advisers for their clients and in their roles. In our global Practice of Now research, 49 percent of accountants said they would like to automate number-crunching, data entry, email and diary management; 66percent planned to invest in AI to automate repetitive and time-consuming tasks.

One way AI will make life easier for accountants and business owners is by providing a more natural way to interact with financial systems and data.

For example, you can use an accounting virtual assistant like Sage’s Pegg to easily capture financial information in much the same way as you’d ask Siri to give directions to your next meeting or compose a text message.

Q: How many of your customers in South Africa have been affected by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that will come into effect across the EU on May 25 this year?

A: The EU is one of South Africa’s largest trading partners for goods and services, so GDPR affects many of our companies in financial services, manufacturing, tourism, and other key segments of the economy.

While larger South African organisations with operations and compliance teams in EU countries have been preparing for GDPR, awareness is lower among small and medium businesses. That’s despite the fact that businesses of all sizes that store information about EU citizens and residents are, in theory, expected to comply with GDPR, even if they don’t have operations in Europe.

Q: Will the Protection of Personal Information Act in South Africa have similar repercussions?

A: Though some definitions and requirements vary, POPI and GDPR are broadly similar. South African organisations that have been proactive in preparing for POPI ahead of its full implementation will have a head start. Although South African businesses have had a long time to prepare for POPI, it is complex and the requirements can be daunting for smaller businesses with limited resources.

Q: I see Sage Accounting continued to show strong momentum in Africa, with growth of 59percent in H1 FY18. How did South Africa contribute to that growth?

A: South Africa is a more mature market for accounting software than many other African countries, so growth is slower. However, we are seeing strong interest in our cloud solutions among local businesses, and we are also successfully retaining customers as their needs evolve from requiring an entry-level accounting solution to a mid-tier or enterprise product.