Thought leadership
    06 March 2019

    James Francis

    Digitising Communities in South Africa

    Thanks to connectivity and technology, almost any business can find a market beyond its borders.

    In the middle of last year, Walmart opened a store in China. It’s likely to be successful because the retail giant is no newcomer to the middle kingdom. In fact, while there was a major drive in the 1980s to ‘buy local’, Walmart had already established distribution warehouses in China – one of the first major global businesses to do that. Before that, it was already in Korea and Hong Kong.

    Globalisation works. Despite all the problems that it also causes, it’s hard to argue that we’d all be better off if business networks couldn’t operate across borders. Not only selling items to other countries but the ability to scour the globe for the best products and quality ingredients at the right price. Just ask Singapore or Japan, two massive economies in countries with no natural resources. Or Australia: despite having lots of natural resources, over two-thirds of its economy is based on services.

    The connected world

    It used to be the case that if you wanted to play on a global scale, you had to be a big and powerful company. But not anymore. Thanks to connectivity and technology, almost any business can find a market beyond its borders. All it takes these days is a high-speed internet connection and you can get started plying your trade worldwide. Netflix and Uber are common examples of this force at work. You can also pay cheaply for great services, such as Office365, and so drastically lower expenses for businesses and communities.

    South African companies are not holding back on this. Nearly 80% of them are already making changes to allow them to compete globally, according to research by the North-West University. An Accenture report agrees, adding that many of us don’t even realise how much of this effect influences our daily lives. Every day South Africans already interact with advanced digital systems such as artificial intelligence, without knowing it. We are actually a globally competitive country - and we’re just getting started.

    One reason why Mzansi is further ahead on the curve than we think is because of inclusive connectivity. The immense and fast networks built by Vodacom and its peers have helped put a mobile phone in everyone’s hands, with smartphones catching up fast. Our hunger for connectivity can be seen in the demand for more data and how eagerly we flock to new choices like fibre. South Africa’s robust debates on online media also show how much of a connected nation we’re becoming. Vodacom recognises this and has been playing a key role in driving digital inclusion through mobile affordability.

    Africa plays on the global stage

    The future promises even greater things. During this year SA will become the first African country to have local hyperscale cloud servers. These are massively powerful systems that allow people to build very fast and brilliant services. The rest of Africa will no doubt plug into these servers, building their own economies as well. SA is already a global technology partner for other African countries and this will only improve.

    But we can think even bigger. There is a lot of talk around 5G, but we’ve yet to see its greatest contribution emerge. 5G isn’t just fast – it’s very responsive. With 5G, a surgeon can control a surgery robot from far away, meaning medical care comes to places and people where doctors aren’t. This combines with the spread of wifi networks, which are connecting more locals every day. Rural areas are no longer be ignored backwaters, but joining in on the modern world.

    Those effects aren’t incidental or isolated. They all reflect how connectivity has brought us closer and made the world a closer place. If a small business in Polokwane can serve a customer in Bonn, Germany, then that same connectivity can bring the most distant communities closer to the pulse of the nation.

    So next time you fire up your phone and type a Whatsapp to your cousin in London, remember that it costs less and is faster than sending an SMS 10 years ago to your aunt next door. That is the power of global connectivity, created every day by companies like Vodacom.

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    James Francis