People 'n' Issues

Digital can deal with Africa’s legacy problems

May 29th, 2017
Many businesses are grappling with the challenges posed by digitalisation as fears mount on the impact on jobs and growth. However, this view overlooks the real economic value that a digital industry will bring, writes WILLIAM MZIMBA of Accenture.
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However, this myopic view of the future comes with a significant risk as it overlooks the real economic value that digitally driven industry initiatives will bring to growth, development, jobs and society at large. While research has generally been scarce on exactly what this means in rands and cents, the World Economic Forum launched the Digital Transformation Initiative (DTI) in 2015, in collaboration with Accenture, to maximize opportunities for businesses and society stemming from digital technologies.

Since then the DTI has assessed how digitalization in 13 major industries is transforming business and wider society. This work has brought us into direct contact with more than 1,000 executives, policy makers and experts, who have helped uncover some key themes for ensuring the value of digitalization is captured by both business and society.

Thanks to this initiative it is now possible to more adequately determine how these initiatives can make an extremely positive contribution over the next decade if harnessed early enough.

While embracing something new is always hard to do and a desire to stick to your knitting is only natural, key role players in Africa must realise they are on the cusp of a real game changer and by embracing digital change in a strategic fashion they can leapfrog many legacy problems they face.

It certainly won’t happen overnight but the first step is for business, labour and government to understand the potential and to work together on making changes that matter.

Many are too quick to focus on the negatives as a reason for not taking action – for instance, estimates of global job losses due to digitalization range from 2 million to as high as 2 billion by 2030.

Could it be they have never actually been able to quantify the benefits in their sector? If that is so, a white paper by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Accenture, throws considerable light on the potential value for industry due to digital transformation. To date, the research has confirmed that digitalization has immense potential: we estimate it could deliver around $100 trillion in value to business and society over the next decade.

There is therefore little doubt DTI represents an immense opportunity for new value creation and lead in the new, often against a backdrop of a stagnating market, regulatory pressures, or changing consumer preferences.

What is urgently needed, however, is a new framework for public-private dialogue, as we are still at the early stages of discovery about the true benefits of DTI. It is no use paying lip service to these realities and far more discussion and input is required from all stakeholders as this journey unfolds.

Breaking down traditional barriers to entry and expansion will be key and our DTI research across the automotive, consumer, electricity and logistics sectors estimates the value of DTI in the region of $8.4 trillion; and value for society of approximately $12.7 trillion, between 2016 and 2025.

Zoning in on a specific industry of critical importance to Africa – electricity – optimizing the grid to manage real-time supply and demand is worth $191 billion for electricity companies, while the value this could deliver to society is three times as much ($623 billion). This is derived from cost savings for customers (offering an incentive to postpone consumption during peak hours), lower fuel emissions and jobs created.

Nothing could be more important in Africa today than making a difference to broader society. The dialogue I mentioned above needs to take numerous realities into account if the benefits are to be realised. For instance, in many instances, digital initiatives are projected to deliver high value to business and society. This means that no intervention is likely needed to realize those benefits – industry has a clear incentive to act of its own accord. For example, omni-channel retail is likely to deliver such huge benefits to industry (estimated at $1.4 trillion) and to society (from a $5 trillion reduction in costs and productivity improvement, amounting to 300 billion hours saved), that there would appear to be little need for policy/regulatory intervention.

However, in logistics the value to society of shared warehousing is equivalent to approximately 500 times the value to industry. In the automotive industry, the value to society of automotive partners agreeing on usage-based insurance to help reduce road deaths, insurance premiums and crash costs is worth approximately 200 times the value to industry. This is where multi-stakeholder collaboration is needed and, potentially, new incentives required to change the direction of the market.

The bottom line is DTI needs to be used to augment and fast track growth, development and education in Africa, but this will require significant buy-in from all stakeholders. That journey needs to start today.

* William Mzimba, Chief Executive of Accenture South Africa and Chairman of Accenture sub-Saharan Africa

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