Africa’s technology and business leaders have in their hands an unprecedented opportunity to surpass their global counterparts, says Ocea Garriock – Software Group technical leader, IBM SA.
If we can harness the vast and growing sources of information known as “big data”, members of the C-suite – particularly CMOs and CIOs, who increasingly share the responsibility for growth and innovation – stand to not only significantly boost our organisations’ bottom lines, but catapult our brands into positions of global leadership and best practice.
But to do so requires uniquely African approaches to the selection and use of big data which align with our continent’s fast-evolving socio-economic and technological landscape.
The currency of data
What is big data? The Internet and computing technologies have, particularly in the past decade, resulted in exponential growth in digital information which exists in the world – in fact, more than 90% of data currently in existence was created in the last two years. We call this abundance of information “Big Data”, and it has seismic implications for consumers, technologists, and business leaders alike.
Analysis of big data can identify trends, weaknesses, and opportunities which would be otherwise invisible to human observation – as long as the right tools and strategies are in place to convert these stockpiles of information into meaningful insights.
Many commentators are calling data the “next commodity”: like natural resources traditionally, those who can access and refine it will have increasingly clear advantages and growth potential over those who don’t.
CMOs and CIOs will need to work together to turn big data’s potential into tangible insights and improvements. Alliances between marketers and IT staff are already becoming more frequent, and for good reason.
They both count innovation as a major part of their portfolios; they share common goals around improving quality of services; and their efforts are held responsible for core organisational growth – or decline. Big data has relevance to all these areas and the complementary skills of the CMO and CIO are essential to its effective use.
Organisations the world over are taking steps to build big data into how they make decisions, invest, and even safeguard the future of entire populations. But retrofitting existing technologies to manage and analyse big data is typically a prolonged and technically intensive task.
By incorporating big data at the very foundation of their investment in technology and strategy, African CMOs and CIOs have the chance to get ahead of their global counterparts in their ability to make smarter, faster decisions.
For it to be effective, Africa needs to approach big data differently to the rest of the world. This is because Africa’s technological and infrastructural environments continue to diverge from those of other continents.
Mobile devices, for example, are the primary, often sole means of Internet access for a burgeoning percentage of the population. That has already had significant impact on the evolution of e-commerce in Africa, where mobile-centric online marketplaces and peer-to-peer networks are seeing rapid success and growth – not the big e-tailing shops that dominate online trades in the United States or Europe.
That, in turn, will define the nature of big data in Africa, from the source (predominantly mobile devices and transactions) to what it is used for (building new marketplace platforms, or identifying gaps in current mobile payment channels).
African CMOs and CIOs have the distinct advantage of the many entrepreneurs from the burgeoning IT ecosystem of start-ups. These businesses are developing innovative means of tapping this growing mobile-based business landscape.
By adopting home-grown innovations from micro-payments, to retail supply chains and banking for the unbanked and using these to expand locally and globally, smart African CMOs and CIOs who work together will be able to more efficiently and effectively target consumers and deliver beyond their expectations.
That is not to say African business leaders cannot learn from their overseas counterparts when it comes to big data. Take, for example, Nairobi’s latest efforts to reduce congestion and augment public transport services using big data and analytics.
IBM’s approach will collect and analyse data from the Kenyan capital’s transport grid to predict and identify delays, automatically reroute transport to optimal pathways, and notify commuters via live SMS and mobile app updates – all based on a similar approach developed by IBM for Singapore’s transport network.
However, Kenya’s infrastructure lacks the coverage of sensors and monitoring infrastructure which the Singaporean system relies on for success. IBM adapted the Singapore solution by drawing on algorithms and mobile phone data, allowing the base platform to deliver equal – if not better – results.
By taking advantage of these opportunities, rather than approaching them as roadblocks, businesses can turn big data to its most powerful applications.
A smarter marketplace
These applications hold great promise for how CMOs and CIOs create more efficient marketplaces and seamless transactions. Many of Africa’s most promising start-ups are turning global notions of e-commerce on their head, often through the canny use of mobile devices to form networks where buyers, sellers, and advice-givers can share both opportunities and information in a more fluid, physically unconstrained manner.
The same approaches hold promise for much larger companies and even governments. For example, creating more resilient networks for sharing public-service information is in practice not so different from developing online marketplaces for trading goods.
Big data and analytics have the potential to enrich these networks with insight – into wherever inefficiencies and market failures are occurring, and how to potentially fix these.
Combined, they can match buyers and sellers more efficiently, or allow marketers to deliver more accurate recommendations for future purchases. They can enable marketers to predict consumer behaviours and deliver messages with more timeliness and resonance than otherwise possible – with potentially life-saving results if applied to public-service announcements in industries like government and healthcare.
Only by joining their expertise in behaviour and technology can CMOs and CIOs use big data to power growth and innovation in their organisations.
And only with approaches that leverage the nuances of our cities and cultures, rather than simply adhering to a “one-size-fits-all” global model, can Africa’s businesses and governments excel at big data – so much so that the rest of the world may soon turn to them for guidance. For that to happen, though, Africa’s top leaders need to put big data on their agenda as a key opportunity.