As the 28th World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa convenes in Cape Town this week, it offers an opportunity to consider ways to accelerate economic growth across the continent.

By Pieter Bensch, executive vice-president at Sage Africa & Middle East

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) sweeping across the world, one pressing concern is to evaluate how to harness digital technology to boost prosperity and employment across Africa.

The 4IR will catalyse greater automation, higher productivity and lower costs across industries, driven by the advent of the Internet of Things, cloud computing, advanced robotics, intelligent software, artificial intelligence (AI), distributed ledgers, 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, and a range of other technologies.

While much of the discussion at WEF on Africa will inevitably focus on the dangers of losing employment to automation, we also should not lose sight of the opportunities the 4IR will create for entrepreneurs and digital workers in Africa. Innovations such as AI, robotics, the cloud and 3D printing will enable small and larger businesses alike to streamline processes and get better visibility into their performance.

Reclaiming time lost to admin

One of the spin-offs will be to use automation to reclaim the time, energy and resources we lose to routine administration and other tedious tasks. According to the Sage We Power the Nation Productivity Tracker, South Africa alone loses some R7,2-billion a year to unnecessary admin – and in addition to this direct cost, there is the loss of precious time that could be spent on innovation, problem solving, strategy and relationships.

Imagine the economic value we could unlock by redirecting human ingenuity and effort to creative and human tasks that add value.

Imagine the might of a digitally augmented African workforce empowered with the tools and data it needs to be globally competitive and hyper-productive.

Imagine small African businesses harnessing the cloud and AI to drive growth and innovation.

It is within our power to seize these opportunities, but it will take a serious coordinated response from the public, private and non-governmental sectors. The challenges are significant, from building the energy and telecoms infrastructure Africa needs as a foundation for the new generation of digital technologies, to retooling educational systems to produce a digitally-ready workforce.

Leapfrogging legacy

Each African business will need to invest in technology, innovation and people to keep pace with the changing world. Companies of all sizes need to take a strategic view on how the next technology revolution will change supply chains, the workforce and the customer base. Some will face disruption, but others will uncover massive opportunities.

Government and big business should also ask how they can help smaller businesses to boost productivity through reducing procurement paperwork, paying them on time, and subsidising new technologies. The full value of the 4IR will be unlocked when society in its entirety transitions to a digital business model – with no one marooned in an analogue world.

We are only at the start of the massive transformation that digital technology will bring to Africa. But with its young, digital-savvy population and its opportunity to leapfrog old tech in favour of new-age solutions like renewable energy and the cloud, the 4IR is the opportunity of a generation for Africa.

I have a strong belief in this continent and what it can offer to the rest of the world as it seizes on this opportunity.