IBM’s research in AI goes back to the 1950s and includes significant milestones like the Deep Blue supercomputer defeating chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. In 2011, IBM Watson defeated Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings in the Jeopardy! challenge.

By Ria Pinto, GM and technology leader at IBM South Africa.

AI has evolved since then and thanks to advances in machine learning and deep learning generative, AI stands as one of the most transformative technologies of our era and now promises to revolutionise industries, drive innovation, and reshape economies.

According to PwC it is predicted that AI will have a potential contribution of $15,7-trillion to the global GDP by 2030. This makes the technology the biggest commercial opportunity in today’s fast changing economy.

In South Africa, the interest in AI has surged over the years, and major corporations, businesses and individuals alike are all beginning to recognise the technologies potential to enhance productivity, improve customer experiences, and drive growth.

A global study by IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that 54% of African CEOs surveyed identified customer experience as their highest business priority. With 46% recognizing productivity or profitability as key to achieving their business goals.

Furthermore, 75% of CEOs globally believe their organisation’s competitive advantage will depend on who has the most advanced generative AI.

However, while the enthusiasm for AI is evident, local organisations face numerous barriers as they race to modernize and adopt generative AI.

Barriers to AI Adoption for African Businesses

In South Africa, businesses face various obstacles in their journey to AI adoption and like their regional counterparts they grapple with the following challenges: market and regulatory factors; workforce readiness; skills gap, ethics and governance.

For many local organisations, navigating these hurdles can be a daunting exercise, especially for SMEs.

How to Overcome Barriers and Successfully Integrate AI in the Business

Businesses need to move from AI plus to AI first as this will help them experience the true benefits of AI. It is critical that CEOs in Africa establish and implement clear and consistent standards concerning the utilisation of AI across all strategic focus areas.

This will determine the level of investment and, ultimately, an organization’s success in a rapidly advancing digital economy. The key to unlocking the full potential of AI lies in understanding what the business wants to achieve.

These goals must be coupled with a robust strategy and an understanding of what needs to change to make the vision a reality. Every leader in the chain of command needs to asses where work can be streamlined and augmented – and how generative AI can be used to deliver greater value every day.

CEOs also need in-depth knowledge about the risks and exposures the organisation will face on this journey.

Once that is established, it is important to cultivate collaborative partnerships. Partnership ecosystems, which include technology and systems integrators as well as consultants and software vendors, are critical in filling gaps in the organisation’s skillset, creating robust data strategies, or guiding organisational change to help businesses, particularly SMEs, adopt AI.

An exemplary organisation employing the power of partnerships is Umbono Cloud Services – a South African cloud and automation company. The organisation has utilised IBM watsonx and IBM Discovery to build a Multi-Modal Conversations User Interface Platform, a natural language intelligent assistant that can be used by businesses to assist with customer service, online purchasing, booking appointments and many more functions.

Ethics, Governance, and Trust in AI

As more organisations start to harness the power of AI, they must prioritise ethics, governance, and trust to ensure the deployment of responsible AI. Thankfully, this is a realisation that many organisations are embracing as awareness and investment in responsible AI is growing.

According to IBM research, investments in AI ethics are rising, growing from 3% of AI spending in 2018 to nearly 9% in 2025. Indeed, IBM’s own AI solutions are guided by four principles found in the Pillars of Trust: explainability, fairness, robustness and transparency.

“Integrating AI in business operations has become a business imperative,” says Pommie Lutchman, conversational AI & bot evangelist and exclusive expert consultant to Umbono Cloud Services.

“AI offers businesses significant benefits by streamlining customer service operations, enhancing user engagement, reducing operational costs, improving efficiency and providing personalised experiences at scale.

“But all of these fall away if AI is not implemented responsibly or lacks trust.”

To help organisations apply AI responsibly and get ready now for regulation coming worldwide, IBM last year released watsonx.governance, our data and AI integrated platform to help businesses manage their AI responsibly at enterprise scale and prepare for a broad range of AI regulation.

Watsonx allows companies to leverage multiple or build trusted and transparent AI models focused on business uses cases.

Addressing the AI Skills Gap

The growing demand for automation in various sectors underscores the pressing need to address the skills gap and equip the local workforce with the requisite capabilities.

Over the next three years, it is estimated that about 40% of the organisational workforce will need to be reskilled in AI and automation.

To address this skills shortage, IBM has committed to democratising AI education and has launched ambitious initiatives to train two million learners, focusing on underrepresented communities, in AI over the same period. This will be achieved by collaborating with key university partners to deliver AI training and generative AI coursework through IBM SkillsBuild, which offers enhanced access to AI education and in-demand technical roles.

Trends and the Future of AI

Looking ahead, AI is poised to drive profound transformations across industries and societies. Emerging trends such as the rise of enterprise AI, increased use of open-source AI models, the rapid expansion of APIs, and increased focus on AI safety and ethics are set to shape the future of AI.

As global nations prioritise AI as a strategic asset, it is critical that South African businesses keep abreast of the latest developments to remain competitive and relevant in a digital-first global economy.


In conclusion, the journey of adopting AI in South Africa is marked by immense potential, but also accompanied by numerous challenges.

By embracing a strategic approach, fostering collaboration, prioritizing ethics and governance, addressing the skills gap, and staying attuned to emerging trends, local organizations can harness the transformative power of AI to drive sustainable growth, foster innovation, and propel the country towards a brighter future.