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How relevant are digital trends in Africa?

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Kathy Gibson reports from Gartner Symposium in Cape Town – The world has picked up the concept of digital business and is running with it. But how relevant are these new technologies for the African and South African market?

Jeff Mann, vice-president: research at Gartner, tells IT-Online that local companies could be better placed than they think.

“We find that South African organisations tend to feel that the constraints they are under are bigger than they really are,” he says.

“Yes, they are big, but companies are focusing on the constraints when there is so much that they could be doing. When you look at what is possible, rather than how difficult it is to do things, there is plenty that can be done.”

Examples abound, he adds. Discovery’s Vitality programme, M-Pesa, even the architecture of the Gauteng e-toll system are all impressive implementations of sophisticated technology.

Emerging developments like mesh communication and mobile payments are also showing the world that African companies can innovate within constraints – or even use the challenges to create new technology advances.

“There are companies in Africa that are embracing the constraints. I say focus on the opportunities and maybe even use the constraints.”

Some of the solutions showcased at Gartner’s ITExpo include one where individual smartphone users can connect to one another in order to create a mesh network. “This solution uses the fact that small communities tend to have a dense population of smartphone users who have little money. It’s a unique kind of solution.”

Another company has come  up with a way to enable credit card transactions with a very small investment, solving the problem faced by thousands of small traders who currently cannot afford to accept credit card payments.

An IoT solution connects existing industrial or management equipment to a modern network, where it can be monitored, managed and maintained. Communication networks have been enabled in mines that help to improve occupational health and safety.

“These solutions are typically created by the elements that could be viewed as constraints, but have become opportunities,” Mann says.

The eternal conundrum around innovation, he adds, is whether it will be driven by large companies or by startups.

“The issue here is whether corporates can be agile; and how startups can grow,” Mann explains.

Corporates have found ways to be innovative, to encourage the creation of ideas and to nurture them to fruition, and they are coming up with some interesting new products.

Startups, on the other hand, face a tougher battle to bring products to market in the first place, and then to scale to a point where they can be relevant in a global landscape.

Simply saying they should work with the bigger, more established company is easy – but the reality is not that simple.

“It can be surprisingly difficult for startups to work with corporates,” Mann says. “Some of the issues are structural and some regulatory in terms of the hoops they feel they have to jump through.

“On the other side, large companies are used to dealing with large companies that understand the structural things like acceptance and credit worthiness.

“The attitudes in corporates compared to startups are different too. Startups tend to iterate quickly and fail fast – and corporates may not like the idea of failing.

“Part of being a startup is that you are going to fail,” Mann adds. “This will help you to pivot and change. But we need to mesh some of these attitudes with the corporate world.”

For South African or African startups to scale, they almost have to become global players, and Mann emphasises that making this move is hard.

Partnering with an ecosystem leader could be one route to the international markets, where the local company provides a product or service within the broader value chain.

“You have to somehow get into the big companies’ ecosystems, providing the algorithm or API so the big platform provider can use it as part of their solution.”

This won’t happen unless the startup has happy customers that want to work with it. “You have to have a great product, sell lots of it and make sure you’ve got happy customers,” Mann says.

“You have to get out there and slog, with a relentless focus on your customers, who are getting great results from your products.”

He also recommends that startups keep their products simple. “It’s ironic that achieving simplicity is very complex,” he says. “You have to really work at it and make sure you’ve got the right systems in place.”