Why digitization is an opportunity for Africa

Africa is ripe for transformation. It is home to nine of the world’s 15 fastest-growing economies, making the continent an increasingly attractive environment for global business investment. South Africa in particular is seen as a vibrant country with many attractive industries and opportunities. The country has made great strides in technology, ranking second in the sub-Saharan Africa region on the Networked Readiness Index. This, combined with the 147.7 million devices that will be networked in South Africa by 2018, provide great prospects to drive growth and enhance social and economic well-being.

I have long believed that technology and education are the two great equalizers in life. Today, I see technology at an inflection point, in which it can transform local economies and create many new opportunities, with the increased digitization of countries. Digitization, if harnessed by both the private and public sectors, can allow South Africa to position itself as a leading developing economy.

With the most advanced network on the continent, South Africa’s telecommunications sector has already connected millions of citizens and created thousands of jobs, proving what is possible with strategic investments in technology. These connections are just the first step. With only 11% of South Africa’s population currently using the internet and almost 50% of the users under the age of 25, there is still huge potential for growth.

To realize this opportunity, companies and the government must work together to increase access to affordable, reliable technology for South Africa’s population. The true promise of digitization in South Africa is equal opportunities for all. By increasing access to the tools of the global economy ‒ like phones, computers and the internet ‒ citizens in historically disadvantaged communities can learn the skills they need to succeed. For example, a connected country will drive demand for job creation of trained professionals with skills in information and communication technology, which in turn will help to maintain the networks that form the backbone of the country’s economic prosperity.

This is just the beginning for South Africa. Digitization of the country will lay the groundwork for what I believe is the next phase of the internet ‒ the Internet of Everything. As the networked connection of people, process, data and things, the Internet of Everything has the potential to further accelerate the country’s pace of change.

Cisco predicts that the Internet of Everything can create ZAR 152.58 billion ($14.3 billion) of economic value for South Africa’s public sector over the next decade, while also solving some of the country’s most pressing problems. For example, through the adoption of a smart grid renewable energy system, South Africa can begin to move away from its reliance on coal power. Energy can be saved by equipping street lights with intelligent sensors so they can be dimmed or brightened based on motion. Healthcare can be improved by connecting rural patients with chronic diseases to doctors, without ever having to leave their homes. These are just a few of the many outcomes that the Internet of Everything can make possible for South Africa.

To make a lasting impact through technology, companies have to work with the South African government to rethink our engagement with the citizens and the services we provide them. This means not being afraid to try new solutions, take strategic risks and collaborate openly between the public and private sectors. We are at a point where we can act, rather than react, to the opportunity digitization holds for South Africa. The time for us to start doing so is now.

The World Economic Forum on Africa 2015 takes place in Cape Town, South Africa from 3-5 June. 

Author: John Chambers, Executive Chairman, Cisco

Image: Students use computers to study at Elswood Secondary School in Cape Town November 7, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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