There is a need to create an enabling business environment by developing digital skills and technologies
The presidency recently unveiled its draft Country Investment Strategy plan to draw more investment into SA. The stated and obvious aim is to grow businesses and create jobs, against the grim backdrop of record-breaking levels of unemployment over the past year. On the expanded definition, almost 46% of South Africans are unemployed.
We are self-evidently well beyond the point of unpacking the reasons why SA must increase investment. Frankly, we’re even beyond the point of casting a wide net into the infinite investment possibilities that could, should, would drive growth in an ideal world.
The reality is that life for millions of South Africans is the furthest thing from ideal right now. Millions of people have lost their lives and livelihoods since 2020. And today rising inflation, sky-high living costs, intermittent electricity and crippling consumer price increases are affecting every household and business.
More than just “feeling the pinch”, almost everyone is “feeling the punch” of a miserable economy. But we are not beyond redemption. There can be no doubt that we can increase our state’s capacity to improve investment outcomes, but this can only be achieved through a dogged focus on activating economic levers that will expand opportunities, and quickly.
We must create an enabling and skilled business environment by developing digital skills and technologies, and we must enable our current and future businesses to do business efficiently and effectively, with digitalisation and infrastructure as critical enablers.
SA is far behind in the world’s digital revolution. We may have positioned ourselves as the gateway to Africa in the past, but countries such as Kenya, Rwanda and Nigeria have been quick to lead the way towards establishing themselves as today’s digital gateway to the continent.
At this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos the WEF and the Digital co-operation Organisation (DCO) launched the Digital Foreign Direct Investment Initiative. This focuses on accelerating FDI for digitalisation in emerging economies. It is a prime opportunity for SA to attract investment — so where do we feature? Nowhere.
The WEF predicts that 70% of future economic growth is set to be digital, and DCO members such as Rwanda and Nigeria were identified as valuable investment opportunities, but SA did not feature at all. We must become a member of the DCO if we want to secure increased foreign investment, or simply attract foreign interest and enquiries. To have any chance at seizing the opportunities provided by the global digital economy we must wave our flag as high and as vigorously as possible.
Some years ago the Presidential Commission for the 4IR (PC4IR) identified that a digitally enabled economy was the only way that SA could survive and thrive in a modern global economy. Of the eight workstreams the PC4IR identified there are three pivotal areas that are the most effective levers to unlock inclusive growth in SA.
If we can get small and medium-sized enterprises (SMMEs) development, 4IR skill enablement and digital regulation right with critical enablers in place, SA will be on the right track to grow into the digital future. The powerhouses of our economy — SMMEs and entrepreneurs — should be empowered and upskilled in digital skills, processes and technology in an enabling regulatory environment to propel SA towards its transformed inclusive social and economic goals.
That is the only way we can immediately increase knowledge transfers and tax revenue, while enabling the continued digital development of our human capital. All of these would contribute substantially towards improving our country’s economic resilience in the long term.
Many businesses and public sector enterprises are playing their part to make this happen now. Microsoft SA, the Empire Partner Foundation (EPF) and SAtion recently hosted a hackathon to solve the problem of unlocking economic growth for SMMEs in SA townships, using the opportunities available through the 4IR.
The event brought together a remarkable group of young tech innovators from across SA: skilled data experts, data engineers, data scientists, Microsoft front- and back-end developers, business analysts, marketers, finance experts and more.
The triumphant team, “Kasi Army” won with its “Kasi Centric” solution. It uses a WhatsApp Business bot and QR code technology to scan virtual and physical customer cards. Designed to open many more payment options, it will crucially enable better data-driven business decision-making and performance. As part of its prize the Kasi Army will join the EPF Incubation Hub and also won R14,000 in prizes to start up its techpreneurial foundations.
But these efforts could come to nought if SA doesn’t invest emotion, passion and financial commitments to digitalise every element of our economy. It can be as simple as an entrepreneur understanding how to better use the data their business already collects; it can be as complicated as SA establishing an artificial intelligence institute to mould the next Elon Musk.
We can’t wait for another strategy, or another plan, or another crisis to hit. Right now we need to move beyond our dire reality towards the returns of a digitalised economy.
• Craker is CEO and Grimmer programme lead, at SAtion, an NPO and partnership between government and business enablers with the aim of digitalising SA for inclusive economic growth.