The World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa’s focus this year on growth and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is the most important initiative for Africa in 50 years, perhaps longer, as the continent faces a stark choice worth billions of dollars.
Looking ahead to WEF Africa which kicks-off in Cape Town next week, Sandile Hlophe, EY Partner and Africa Region Government and Public Sector Leader, says the buzz around Africa’s potential had faded in the past few years but a wholesale prioritisation of 4IR, also known as the digital revolution, would mean South Africa could make a giant economic leap forward.
“The digital revolution is the most fundamental transformation we are likely to experience in our lifetime. We need to quickly embrace it or be left behind. This is particularly important to South Africa’s lacklustre economy.”
He adds that the South African government had repeatedly signalled its intention to embrace all things Fourth Industrial Revolution, but the key enablers of the digital economy are business and government, which need to work together to make it a reality for the country.
“This means investing in digital infrastructure that enables independent devices (such smart phones, computers and vehicle navigations systems) to communicate with each other and to exchange and analyse key data that provides humans with actionable insights.”
This connectivity is enabled by digital infrastructure, such as 5G data networks and WIFI platforms which serve as a connectivity foundation for digital applications that enable online trade, inventory management and logistics management. Also important of course is access to cloud data storage platforms, with adequate cyber security, which completes the digital revolution eco-system.
“Government needs local cloud data storage infrastructure more urgently than private sector as they have security concerns over storing data outside South Africa. The private sector is comfortable with globally located digital storage cloud infrastructure that complies with Protection of Personal Information (POPI) and General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) as offered by the likes of Microsoft, Amazon and Google,” says Hlophe.
Shifting purchasing and supplying goods and services across the region to online platforms, would enable access and participation in these activities from anywhere in the continent meaning, increased market reach for suppliers and broader choice and better pricing for buyers.
“We estimate that if African companies shifted more processes to digital, it could add 2% to overall African Regional Economic growth which amounts to an increase of billions of dollars. For example, by 2020, the value of Africa’s mobile money industry is projected to top $14 billion.
“It would also dramatically increase service delivery and add jobs – such is the scale of skills demanded by the task of shifting to a digital-first world.”
Hlophe recognised that while the benefits are clear, the reality is that funding for digital infrastructure presents a major challenge. Public private partnerships and pro-4IR tax and trade policies could encourage private sector participation in transformational, capital-intensive programs that are particularly strategic to South Africa’s 4IR goals.
He noted that government needed to introduce more digital education methods and technology subjects at schools to support what it likely to be a multi-decade shift in demand for new skills
“Expanding technical college offerings to include coding and other technology subjects is a necessity. Given that these skills require strong mathematical foundations, government needs to review their decision on introducing math literacy in schools,” he concludes.
WEF Africa, which began nearly 30 years ago, will be held from 4 to 6 September 2019 in Cape Town drawing many business, government representatives and leading thinkers in the fields of technology, inclusiveness and economics.