Kathy Gibson is at Sibos to Africa 2019 in Midrand – When it comes to innovation in banking and payments, Africa can actually teach the western tech giants a thing or two.

Arthur Goldstuck, CEO of World Wide Worx, points out that tech leaders like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella come to Africa to learn how we do things.

“If we solve the problems of Africa, we solve the problems of the world,” he quotes Nadella as saying.

The next 1-billion users for any tech company will come from Africa, Goldstuck says.

There are well-known instances where African use cases are ahead of the global curve – often driven by needs that don’t exist in the developed world.

Examples include blood supply deliveries by drone in Rwanda and now South Africa.

“In Silicon Valley, opportunity drives innovation. In emerging markets, it is driven by need,” he reiterates.

On top of this, the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) has a role to play, but it may take a while to show.

World Wide Worx research shows that the number of companies using AI didn’t grow between 2018 and 2019, remaining at 13%.

The intention to use AI has actually dropped between 2018 and 2019 – and this is driven by the cost of implementing these systems.

“This delivers some conclusions about AI,” says Goldstuck. The lack of skills and cost of training is the cause of this.

On the other side of the coin, there are massive opportunities to develop these skills, he adds.

“It is clear AI is going to transform the market.”

Robotics is already well-used in many companies, with almost half of those polled using robotic process automation (RPA) in their businesses – and most of the others planning RPA projects.

So what is the next interface that we’ll see in Africa that will facilitate payment services, Goldstuck asks.

Hyperscale cloud providers are enabling a new way of banking, he points out. An example is Tymebank, built on Amazon Web Services (AWS), which is able to sign up 5 000 new customers per day – and saw a massive cost saving by moving to the platform.

AWS’s SageMaker allows developers and data scientists to quickly build, train and deploy machine learning models at scale. There is massive potential in systems like this for financial services, Goldstuck says.

We are going through a massive technology shift right now: it is happening now, and it is happening quicker than anyway anticipated.

Goldstuck quotes Dr Werner Vogels, chief technology officer of Amazon.com, who believes that natural language processing is evolving fast through machine learning and will probably be the next user interface.

He says voice is the most natural interface and using speech as input will make computer accessible to more people such as the blind and illiterate.

He goes as far as saying that being able to access information or query a database simply by speaking to it has the potential to positively change lives around the world.

Locally, banks are already working on voice assistance, demonstrating that disruption not only can happen in Africa, but has done so already.

“We might not realise the scale of disruption that has happened in Africa.” Goldstuck says.

M-Pesa is often quoted as the poster child for electronic payments in Africa, and up to 80% of the Kenyan economy is driven through M-Pesa.

Zimbabwe is actually the country that uses the greatest number of digital transactions. Again, this has been driven by need: cash is practically unavailable, so Ecobank has plugged the gap.

A massive 83% of the Zimbabwe population using EcoCash. A total of 50 000 merchants use EcoCash, and now the vast majority of transaction in the country are digital.

The continent is becoming ever more connected, which is underpinning the future opportunities.

Goldstuck reminds delegates that, just 10 years ago, only Telkom’s SAT-3 and SAFE cables connected sub-Saharan Africa to the world. Today, there is a multitude of high-bandwidth cables connecting the continent to the rest of the world.

The massive oversupply that we now have has resulted in lower prices – the cost of international connectivity is actually lower than local connections – and massive redundancy as well.

A proliferation of fibre on the ground is expanding as well, on a scale never seen before, which is driving more Internet use, which will lead to the user of applications like AI, RPA, natural language processing, drones, mobile payments and more.