South Africa - a country with huge digital potential

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez August 24, 2015
South Africa is transforming rapidly thanks to the availability and growth in mobile internet and smartphones. It has a huge amount of potential.

south african flag
There has been incredible growth in the use of digital technologies in South Africa over the past couple of years. Since landing yesterday morning in Johannesburg, I have definitely noticed a step change in the role of digital since my last visit back in 2013.

This is largely down to the increased availability of mobile internet and the ability to get hold of a reasonably cheap Android smartphone. This is a country where the majority of people are experiencing the internet for the first time on their mobile phones, rather than via a desktop.

And it's apparent that this is driving change throughout communities and businesses across the country. Almost half of the South African population can now use the internet, but less than 19% of those do so from traditional methods of access. And whilst half doesn't sound a lot – when you consider that in 2010 less than 10% of people in the country were using the web, the growth is incredible.

Mobile internet and smartphones now mean that a significant chunk of the population have access to information and services that previously may have been out of reach. For example, social networks, banking, safe transport and education materials are all now just a few clicks away. These are things, as we know, that can make a huge impact.

For more information on this you should take a read Cath Everett's diginomica story on the transformative power of mobile in Africa.

Coincidentally, Gartner has just released its 2015 hype cycle for the African continent. And whilst I'm not a huge fan of analyst research materials, much of what Gartner maps out on its curve – which shows technologies move through periods of innovation, to a peak of inflated expectations, then through a trough of disillusionment, up through a slope of enlightenment and into a plateau of productivity – rings true.

Gartner rightly notes:

The mobile telephony revolution that has transformed connectivity in Africa will continue to evolve with further penetration in the next two years of ultra-low-cost mobile devices (for example, mobile learning, and low-range/midrange handsets).

With these devices and a continued proliferation of connectivity into the semiurban and rural parts of Africa (for example, Advanced Underserved Area Comms and Video Visits), this could be a powerful force to reduce the "digital divide," which is one of the biggest social issues in Africa.

It will also be a significant enabler for the increasing number of enterprises looking to benefit commercially from the large "bottom of the pyramid" opportunities in Africa.

Here's a picture of the hype cycle itself:

gartner hype africa

As you can see from above, some of the technologies on the rise include things that point towards digital business playing a greater role in the near future. Things such as information governance, digital commerce and bimodal IT operations – where bimodal IT operations refers to a model of development that allows businesses to both focus on tech stability and speed to innovation.

Gartner says:

Among the 35 technologies listed here, 13 will mature within the next five years and have a transformational or high impact on businesses. Some technologies enable new ways of doing business across industries (for example, Information Governance and Bimodal IT Operations) resulting in a major shift in industry dynamics and lead to the creation of a new or improved and sustainable ecosystem.

We have begun to include a few technologies of moderate impact (for example, enterprise cloud email) reflecting the movement of Africa into a somewhat more settled and advanced state, where enterprises can consider the broader view and more specific circumstances.

It's also interesting to compare the Africa hype cycle to Gartner's emerging technologies hype cycle, where in

particular UK and US businesses will be beginning to think about things like Internet of Things, brain-computer interfaces, neurobusiness and smart robots. These are miles away from what South African businesses are considering, but as a result that means that there is an incredible amount of growth to be had.

Having said all that, there are things that still hold South Africa back. For example, it's physical broadband infrastructure is incredibly patchy and comparably quite expensive. And whilst the availability of mobile broadband is good, I think most people recognise that physical infrastructure is still important to be efficient. I have spoken to people first hand that have said that this is a reason why they actively avoid cloud products.

Equally, security and corruption are a problem. This means that people are less willing to put their trust (and money) into new unproven services. This could dampen innovation and growth in new digital businesses. It also means that lots of extra controls are put in place to help reduce the chances of any wrong-doing and red tape isn't ideal when trying to stimulate areas of growth.

And finally, the legislative environment is still playing catch up. For instance, the country is still waiting for a data protection act to come into force. And as we know, data and privacy are becoming increasingly important areas to get right.

My take

It's great to be back in South Africa and see that things have changed so quickly – even things like being able to step off the plane and connect to free Wi-Fi in the airport makes me think about how far the digital experience here has come along. I've had a number of conversations with people that make it evident that this is a country that recognises it has an opportunity to leap-frog other nations.

However, I'll be posting a story tomorrow that highlights some of the challenges still facing the country in terms of the adoption of cloud technologies, following an interview with two local government departments.