While South Africa navigates its way through lockdown measures and confirmed COVID-19 coronavirus cases now head towards 600,000, this is a time to take stock and act, notes Hamilton Ratshefola, Country General Manager, IBM, South Africa. Many industries can use this time to realign and regard this challenge as an opportunity to re-wire the fundamentals of the way they do business.

This is an opportunity for South Africa to completely embrace digital transformation. Indeed, the wealth of opportunity at our country’s disposal in terms of technological skills ensures it is uniquely positioned to support broader digital transitions that can unlock over R5-trillion in value over the next decade, according to Accenture.

We have seen sectors across South Africa respond well amidst the crisis. Telecommunications and IT companies were well set to lead the way. The banking sector’s ‘early adopter’ mentality allowed the industry to transact without traditional branch support. Additionally, while the retail sector and our health services struggled with both positive and negative implications on their businesses – they have organically reshaped their abilities to respond to a population in lockdown.

There is no doubt that the tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit sectors due to global lockdown measures. This follows with the manufacturing and oil & gas sectors who have struggled to navigate the unique circumstances impacting their business models.

The past decade saw the word disruption take on a new technology-fueled and opportunity-laden meaning. But the first few months of 2020 reintroduced disruption’s traditional meaning – an interruption to the way we conduct business.

This global pandemic is forcing businesses to rethink the very foundation of offering and is calling them to radically transform – as a matter of survival.History will look back on this time as the moment when the digital transformation of business and society suddenly accelerated. If there is anything the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s the critical importance of technology solutions that enable speed, flexibility, insight and innovation.

Tech platforms and competitive advantage

In fact, industries are finding that choosing which technology platforms power their business is the most consequential decision they can make. Technology platforms are the basis for competitive advantage in the 21st century and the opportunities do exist and as such, can mean that progress should not be halted. For example, we should not stop progress in enabling greater financial inclusion on the continent.

The South African Reserve Bank’s (SARB) Vision 2025 has set out the strategic objectives in building a world-class national payment system (NPS) to better serve South Africans and the economy inclusively and as a whole. COVID-19 may be the long-awaited catalyst needed to motivate the industry to overcome some of the biggest challenges facing South Africa’s payment sector by embracing the transparency, speed, efficiency and traceability of blockchain technology.

In further facilitating highly secure mobile payments across the nation the impact on economic activity will be manifold and holistically support ailing sectors such as transport, logistics, and manufacturing.

Take the entertainment industry, which has been leading in innovation throughout the African continent. Video entertainment leader, MultiChoice South Africa, began their digital transformation journey many years ago and is setting the benchmark for many South African and African organisations.

Recognising that innovation, first-class content and exceptional customer experiences have never been more important, they set out to transform customer experiences. For MultiChoice, the answer was AI-IBM Watson Assistant – which was integrated as a means to support its call center agents to help ensure a seamless and speedy customer service.

Embracing disruption and transformation

It’s time that all industries embraced a disruptive and transformative culture and realised the value that technology and digital transformation can bring to a country that has some of the best technologies, engineers, and solutions across sectors – yet there are challenges obstructing the obvious fast-track that the COVID-19 pandemic can permit.

To meet the challenge of COVID-19, the IBM Research lab in Johannesburg is collaborating with the Gauteng Department of Health, University of Pretoria and WITS University, to develop a dashboard to help officials make accurate decisions to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

The dashboard uses anonymous demographic data collected by the Gauteng Province to pinpoint hot spots and make data-driven decisions. A local innovation tackling this global pandemic on the ground in Gauteng, this sets the benchmark for what can be achieved when digital transformation is prioritised.

Legacy systems and infrastructure across the country pose a challenge to adopting technology at pace. Many organisations still utilising legacy systems need to embrace a “digital first” mindset and culture to help the nation realise the potential that can be generated by employing innovative and disruptive technologies.

Creating employment

There is no point in companies evolving digitally without creating employment in the process. As such, challenges that can be addressed more immediately relate to skills and creating a workforce equipped with skills for the future. For the better part of the last decade, a changing labour market and rising unemployment rates were heightened by ongoing concerns over the widening skills gap. The reality is that millions of workers will need to be retrained and reskilled as a result of AI in the next couple of years and this will be crucial for organisations of all sizes and across industries post-COVID-19.

As digital transformation grows and evolves, addressing the skills gap has been a key area of focus for IBM in South Africa. We know the future will be driven by digital, cloud, and cognitive IT skills to help support a 21st century workforce and we’ve made a significant investment to help address this need.

Through IBM Digital – Nation Africa we provide a cloud-based learning platform designed to provide free skills development programs for African youths over five years. Launched three years ago, IBM is helping to bridge the skills gap that will be essential in bringing to bear Industry 4.0 through New Collar jobs.

While COVID-19 has disrupted the social and economic fabric of the nation there are clear signs that we must intensify digital transformation across South Africa. There may be challenges but it is incumbent on companies like IBM to partner with government and the private sector to identify the opportunities that have a lasting impact on South Africa’s present and future.

The introduction of new technologies and upskilling the nation’s youth are priorities that will fulfill our potential but also help us all navigate the current circumstances. With a truly collaborative mindset we can achieve those goals and spur the next generation of growth in a country full of promise.

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