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Digital transformation, the African way

Professor Randall Carolissen. Picture: Jan Potgieter

Professor Randall Carolissen. Picture: Jan Potgieter

Published May 29, 2022

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OPINION: For Africa, specifically, this also lessens the dependencies and reinforces the understanding that we need to look after ourselves, and technology enables us to do so, writes Professor Randall Carolissen.

The African continent is at a crossroads. Globally, technology has become pervasive and is being used to make exponential leaps, across all aspects of life. Yet, Africa continues to lag when it comes to digital transformation and the concept of digital economies.

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But we cannot stand back from this. There is too much at stake. The digital divide between countries on the continent, and the rest of the world, will continue to increase. Africa will continue to be the continent that is seen as solely useful for extracting raw materials. And, gradually, African countries will stagnate.

The digital state of the continent

To ensure that Africans take greater advantage of technological advancements, it is important to understand the continent's structural and social issues. Firstly, there is a fragility in African economies, which is most evident when there is a global crisis. African countries often suffer disproportionately.

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Secondly, the sovereign debt of many African countries puts them in a place where they cannot invest in infrastructure, which serves as a significant hindrance to how to take advantage of technology. Without the infrastructural development, especially beyond urban areas, it becomes difficult to take technology to the people.

Another limitation is the distance between mobile phone penetration, which is high, although primarily in urban areas, and the actual use of mobile phones. For example, in South Africa, according to the 2020 State of the ICT Sector report, smartphone penetration was 91.2% in 2019, which is misleading because many may have mobile phones, but they don't necessarily connect to the internet.

Instead of using these devices to disseminate knowledge and ideas, or to access new ideas and thinking on the internet, people basically use the phone just for talking and messaging. This is probably partially due to the roll-on effect of limited infrastructure, namely, higher than normal data costs and insufficient bandwidth.

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What Africa brings to the table

The challenges that Africa faces provide for exciting opportunities for the rollout of digital solutions, in a way that advances and shifts the continent's paradigm beyond simply trying to fill all the infrastructure gaps.

The continent has a great deal to offer by way of indigenous knowledge systems and developing digital solutions to sectors like agriculture. We need to leverage and take advantage of our very rich endowments across the continent and, in the process, disseminate these to the rest of the world, on our own terms.

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For example, in agriculture, the African continent has shown how agricultural practices can be made more efficient, by applying the right solution to the right geographic location, at the right time, using drone technology.

In addition, with the high mobile penetration, the banking sector, internationally and on the continent, has been looking at how to use technology to make transacting easier. MPESA, which started in Kenya and has spread to other countries on the continent, serves as an African model that can be replicated in other parts of the world.

Furthermore, with Africa poised to become a free trade area, with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, trade across borders, and the future role of borders, create even greater opportunity, including in terms of a possible increase in revenues generated.

At the heart of all of this is Africa’s people, who are the continent's biggest asset. It is absolutely imperative to look at how we educate the people using technology, while ensuring that they are in the best position to leverage the rich endowment I mentioned earlier.

Building leaders that are fit for the future

According to the World Economic Forum, one-third of current jobs will disappear by 2030. At the same time, Africa's youth demographic is the second highest in the world, after Asia. Add to this how the future of work is going to be totally different from what we are used to, and there is no room for debate.

To harness this youth dividend, we are compelled to train people differently. We are compelled to make our continent more digitally literate. We are compelled to make sure that we embed technology into the way we live and leverage technology; otherwise, we won't be able to interface effectively with the rest of the world.

We need to train leaders who are fit for the future. We need leaders who are imaginative, combine analytics with design and creativity, and use both sides of their brains. And this needs to happen earlier than at a tertiary level. A question I constantly ask myself is “how do we prepare our kids and develop their brains optimally, so that when they get to university, they can indeed become these innovative, forward-looking, curious, productive, and visionary citizens, who we further upskill and release into the world?”

The reality is that we must look at our school systems critically, because I believe that you can only develop your brain if you stretch it at a young age.

It is this thinking that is at the heart of what we do at the Johannesburg Business School, and what inspires us daily. This disruptive phase that we are in needs a different type of business leader, a leader who is adaptive, agile, can be nimble, is nuanced in their approach, and can adjust strategically as things unfold.

To do so, we have reconfigured all our programmes to lead with a digital transformation lens. With the MBA, I realised that we were still training business leaders pretty much in the same way as when I did my MBA many years ago, at a time when order and predictability were valued above all else. We reconfigured our MBA and introduced both a Post-Graduate Diploma (PGDip) in Business Administration and a Doctor of Philosophy, all in digital transformation, in addition to all our executive programmes, which we co-design with our clients.

With our doctoral programme, the initial plan was eight students but, after receiving more than a hundred applications, we currently have thirty-three from different disciplines, which enriches the experience even further and is in line with how the future is unfolding. Digital transformation requires a cross-pollination of ideas, across many disciplines, and, in the programme, the cohort benefits from the richness of a physicist, an attorney, a university administrator, an engineer, and a chartered accountant, amongst others.

I have found this extremely invaluable and enriching in my own career. I have a PhD in Nano-Physics, MBA (cum laude) and MCom, and I have worked both in corporate and being the head of research in Sars. Now I am dean of a new business school, that is seeking to embrace and pilot Africa into this exciting future of digital leadership. That diversity of training and experience allows me to bring different insights and different ways of thinking, and that is what we are imparting to those who participate in any of our programmes. Clearly, we have to develop both sides of our brain to be effective as future-focused business leaders, as entrenched silos across disciplines are beginning to coalesce. Analytics, creativity, design for ease of use, and people management are integrated into the technology companies dominating other GDP contributors globally.

When it comes to our Centre for Entrepreneurship, we recognise that we have no choice but to develop small businesses, particularly when you look at youth and graduate unemployment, especially in South Africa. Traditionally, I would say that the enterprise development of SMEs suffer from a mindset problem, namely that they will stay with SMEs into perpetuity.

Essentially, we need to build people to have a bigger vision for their business, beyond just living from “the survival perspective”. Digital technology effectively brings SMEs into an interconnected network or ecosystem, where they can punch significantly above their weight. This should enable them to move up the value chain and grow into bigger businesses.

With this in mind, the Johannesburg Business School (JBS), firstly, is building a digital ecosystem for our SMEs, of which there are close to a thousand, where they can connect and trade with each other, as well as collaborate, to access technology, markets, finance and the like. Secondly, we have connected our MBA students with SMEs, to act as mentors and advisers. This counts toward the MBA students’ practical work.

Sustainable digital transformation

At the end of the day, it is all about the societal impact of technology and the digitisation of our world. We are living in a constantly shifting and complex world, and while we need to train people in hard ICT skills, like security, software development, etc, we can't shy away from the issue of social justice, inclusion, and human interfaces that are contextual and appropriate.

It is about balance and creating a world that works for everyone, as opposed to the few. Nature has shown us repeatedly that, if only part of an ecosystem consumes, the whole ecosystem eventually collapses.

This is beyond a technological revolution; it's also about societal transformation. I truly believe that, by fully developing our people, by reskilling and upskilling them, all the other challenges can be solved, including infrastructure.

For Africa, specifically, this also lessens the dependencies and reinforces the understanding that we need to look after ourselves, and technology enables us to do so. All in all, it is an exciting time. We have a great opportunity to institute greater social justice in this world, and make it a better place for everybody. We can't afford to miss this window.

* Professor Randall Carolissen is the dean of Johannesburg Business School (JBS), a faculty of the University of Johannesburg (UJ)

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