What does digital transformation really mean for Africa? While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift to digital – with millions of people working remotely, and conferences and meetings moving to virtual platforms – it has also widened the existing digital divide. Read on for some insights from a thought-provoking webinar on digital transformation in Africa, co-hosted by Absa and the Oliver & Adelaide Tambo Foundation.

 Oliver & Adelaide Tambo Foundation thought leadership webinars

For the past five years, Absa has partnered with this public benefit organisation that promotes and protects the Tambo legacies with meaningful conversations that increase understanding, encourage debate and inspire positive action.

On 18 September 2020, radio personality Refilwe Moloto facilitated a  webinar discussion with a diverse and passionate panel of experts, including:
 ·      Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and Deputy Chair of South Africa’s Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)
·      Ms Charmaine Houvet, Senior Director Africa at Cisco and Commissioner, Presidential Commission on 4IR
·      Ms Lwazi Wali, Head of Venture at Founders Factory Africa and 2019 Obama Africa Leader.

Click here to view the digital transformation webinar. 
There are two more webinars in the series:
·       “The cost of gender-based violence on the South African economy” on 14 October 2020 at 14:00
·       “Ethical and courageous leadership” in November 2020.


The dangers of 4IR

According to the Brookings Institute, Africa still trails developing and developed countries on important information and communication technology (ICT) indicators such as infrastructure, technology access and education. As Refilwe Moloto noted early in the webinar, the majority of Africans are excluded from these types of digital conversations because they lack access to the necessary infrastructure and technology.

M-Pesa– an innovative mobile payment system that spread from Kenya to across the world - is a rare success story. The continent risks being left behind as digitalisation transforms existing systems, jobs and trade.

“Technology is changing the nature of our economy and employment, and there is nothing that we can do to stop that,” Professor Tshilidzi Marwala said. “If we become uncompetitive, then even dealing with unemployment through universal basic income will not be possible because we just will not have sufficient taxes.” Instead of fearing that artificial intelligence would crowd out or endanger humans, he said, we need to ask: what is the role of human beings in this ecosystem?

Part of the answer lies in education. Marwala noted the rising need for generalists rather than specialists. “Education must become multidisciplinary,” he emphasised. He challenged us to think about where Africans could be participants, not just users, of technology. “Most of these algorithms are available for free. But how do we mobilise the people who understand the technology and infrastructure so we can build applications that solve real problems?”

Capital, collaboration and culture

The panel highlighted some of the basic systemic requirements to enable successful digital transformation, including technological and data literacy, telecommunications infrastructure, start-up capital, and regulatory and legislative sandboxes.

In Africa, lack of capital is one of the biggest obstacles to greater innovation and start-up success. And while venture capital is flowing to Africa from Silicon Valley and other parts of the world, in many cases, African founders had to leave Africa to raise this capital, moving away from the context and local challenges requiring innovative solutions.

Lwazi Wali challenged wealthy Africans to direct capital towards entrepreneurs to solve local problems. “How do we foster an ecosystem for start-ups and innovation to thrive – and also to fail?” she asked, pointing out that the cost of failure in Africa is much higher than in more innovative countries such as the United States of America.

For Charmaine Houvet, one of the crucial gaps lies in collaboration: between government, civil society, academia and the private sector. “We need consultation between an ecosystem of stakeholders to ensure that 4IR is enabled in a responsible manner, said Houvet.” Wali added to this the need for collaboration and integration between South Africa and the rest of the continent.

Inclusion emerged as a common theme of the panellists’ comments on the enabling environment needed for digital transformation and success in 4IR. Inclusion needs to be central to any discussion of democratising access to capital, technology and education. “An ecosystem of innovation cannot be closed,” Marwala said, noting the risk that exclusion, whether intentional or not, would embed discrimination in artificial intelligence outputs.

Houvet closed with a question that seemed to shape much of the discussion – and does not have an easy answer: “How do we ensure that we use this technology for good?”