By Bridget Wijnberg
Coming to grips with the future is now wedded to business strategy
Community WhatsApp groups deal with everything from thwarting abalone poachers to finding lost dogs, but the digital revolution has so much more to offer us than trinkets and fake news. Embracing this can sometimes feel overwhelming for the less tech-savvy citizen, business leaders included. Yet, with 26.3 million smartphone users in South Africa by 2023 it’s clear that we are already “online” with our digital presence.
A series of factors are defining the business landscape that call or greater efficiencies, resilience and adaptability. Let’s look at inflation, currently on the rise (peaking at 7.8% in July) with predictions the country could also enter recession in 2023. Consumer price sensitivity is likely to influence demand and increase competitive behaviour. This has a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem from suppliers to bank credit facilities. Reducing production costs, whilst maintaining prices and profit margins via product re-design (process re-engineering) and efficiencies, will be front of mind for business. Industrial clusters enable cross-entity waste utilization and integrative processes to share energy and material streams. Collaboration can further improve cost efficiencies and increase market penetration. Much of this can benefit from tech applications.
With our global footprint front of mind, another new kid on the block is the circular economy, its end goal based on efficiencies to design out waste altogether so that business functions within planetary boundaries. Aside from meeting investor or market driven ESG targets, circularity is a societal imperative and makes complete economic sense. Investment uptake for circularity can be encouraged through Virtual Reality (VR) simulation which walks stakeholders through a digital factory floor. In this way, resistance to change can be mitigated by highlighting the cost, material, and energy savings in a visually engaging and role-specific experiential way. Alternatively, Blockchain can sort materials to reduce waste and recirculate materials, or record components that are recycled or remanufactured, enabling companies to quantify their reductions in the use of virgin materials.
There is an additional trend at play - over half a million rural households abandoned farming between 2011-2016 with farms increasingly run by large-scale consortiums. This will mean greater food insecurity and reliance on food imports. Addressing this by connecting the dots between the entire value chain from farmer to buyer, from logistics to trading, is the e-commerce platform AgriKool. This proudly South African digital innovation is transforming the agriculture sector, reducing food waste, and improving profitability - and all inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic when the informal sector was forced to shut down. Connecting buyers and sellers could refine supply chains globally.
Precision agriculture is already being used by the farming industry with drones identifying crop health, the specialisation of Field Tech Drone Inspection Services, a youth-owned business that encompasses industrial asset inspections, agricultural mapping, wildlife and livestock monitoring, and property surveillance. In addition, an app developed by Agriman enables customers to analyse their soil content and customise their organic fertiliser which Agriman then supplies via a circularity collaboration with municipalities converting human waste into a climate-friendly fertiliser.
As a sector responsible for 30% of global CO2 emissions, industrial clusters will be a critical player in accelerating the path towards net zero. Here, multi-stakeholder collaboration has seen uptake by The World Economic Forum which launched a global initiative to support industrial clusters in their paths to net zero where sharing of tech knowledge and resources can really excel.
The Internet of Things can build digital twins, from a manufacturing facility to shopping malls, enabling users to step inside these digital twins using experiential metaverse technology like VR headsets to get a better understanding of how they work, experimenting to improve efficiencies or predict breakdowns.
We are already seeing tech applications in retail, where store planners can monitor customer behaviour and footfall in real time. And 3D body scanning is enabling Gucci and Nike customers to try before they buy, minimising the high rates of returned items.
The health sector has embraced 3D printing (agile manufacturing), a process that eliminates the need to store large inventories of stock in physical warehouses from the automotive to the building industry. Another circular economy entrepreneur, Ludada and Associates Orthopaedic Services in Mthatha, has expanded its novel rental model and is now printing prosthetics on demand. Virtual Doctors turns a smartphone app into a lifeline for healthcare in rural Zambia and Malawi by connecting isolated health centres with volunteer NHS doctors in the UK who diagnose conditions and manage and treat patients virtually. In South Africa, Zinacare – a small business that provides testing services for sexually transmitted diseases specifically aimed at women, also uses a digital platform to give patients peace of mind and anonymity.
Education is essential to tackling the triple threat of unemployment, inequality and poverty. Australia’s School of the Air was the original education system to embrace technology with children in far-flung stations across the outback who would sit alongside HF radio sets for their daily lessons. Today, with education poverty still a real issue in South Africa, Syafunda Digital Libraries is creating the future of education with their virtual bookstore and library. This game-changing concept provides learners from school age right through to university with affordable access to videos, e-books and audiobooks delivered to their phones.
Yet, South Africa has a critical skills shortfall of 70 000 ICT professionals. Thulisile Dlamini has taken up the mantle and is passionate about upskilling young people in remote areas through Ikusasa Technology Solutions to empower learners in coding and robotics, bringing the digital age to students who have never even touched a computer before.
Tech is not without challenges. Fetola recently introduced Zoho Project boards as a work tool to diarize tasks. Uptake was initially reticent until they created team huddles to champion each other and gamified performance. Sometimes there is nothing quite like a prize reward as an incentive. Sharepoint, a powerful virtual storage platform, enables multiple people to work on the same document in real-time, but each individual has their concept of filing often resulting in multiple folders and lost documents. There is still room for improvement.
South Africa is rapidly emerging as a centre for public and private cloud hosting. This has translated into exponential growth in data storage centres - investment seeing an increase of over 100% compared to the same period last year. However, with this digital reliance comes exposure to the effects of loadshedding and to a new threat, cyberattack. As states across Africa have emerged as a favourite target of cybercriminals, with South Africa a regional hub for the likes of Black Axe, a global criminal network specialising in fraud, expect digital crime to increase as a business reality.
In contrast to this threat, Telkom recently backed the first cyber security hackathon at the Southern Africa Telecommunication Networks and Applications Conference in George. The challenge, to mitigate against digital identity theft, business e-mail compromise and insider threat in a cloud-based world. Won by an all-female team, the overall level of young talent demonstrated that South Africa’s digital future is in good hands.
Digital transformation is critical to business futures, yet the speed with which it is innovating can create a sense of jargon-filled overwhelm if it is not in your field of expertise. Staying in your lane by concentrating on what is relevant to you and your business will make the implementation of these tools digestible. Enlist the support of whole of business tech experts who have your best interests in mind and are impartial. It is well worth the investment.
As customers come to expect instant responses to their queries, world-class online shopping, and 24/7 engagement; and staff demand seamless hybrid and remote working conditions, budget for upskilling in new technology, data-driven business decision-making, and automation of manual and routine workloads. Commit to these changes and anticipate better profit margins and improved customer demand as a result.
To avoid some of the pitfalls and over-ambitious advances, stick to what you know: listen to the customer, define the end goal, do A/B testing, transform in small increments, and recalibrate along the way. Many companies fail because they focus on finding the technology and not on the processes they’re trying to transform.
Bridget Wijnberg is the Digital Content Manager, Fetola