Interview: Andile Ngcaba
How good is Africa at advancing and adopting information and communications technology (ICT)?
ANDILE NGCABA: ICT is a rapidly evolving global industry and one that experiences booms and busts from which new innovations emerge, and new regions take the lead. Up until 2000, Europe was outpacing the US in leading technological innovations in the mobile environment. Yet today, Europe is lagging behind the US, with Asia slowly picking up. While Africa is far behind, in some ways this can serve as an advantage, as the continent has somewhat bypassed the PC era and is leapfrogging directly to use of mobile devices; with this being the platform by which many Africans access the internet for the very first time.
The early 2000s saw the development of HTML and companies like Google and Facebook being born. Similarly, today, the people who are driving ICT and emerging as industry champions are not necessarily those who control the devices, but those who develop the applications that are run on mobile devices.
Africa is home to around 1bn people, and by 2016 the hope is that mobile phone penetration will grow from 80% to 100%. There is a direct relationship between mobile communications and economic growth, and furthermore between broadband penetration and economic activity. Mobile phones are no longer seen as something people can just talk on, but something that ordinary people can use as a computing device. In Africa, we are seeing exciting forms of economic activity taking place through mobile technology, for example in Kenya where M-Pesa uses mobile phones as a means of transferring money between businesses and people. This is a uniquely African solution and one in which Africa is actually leading the world.
As a means of engaging and transacting with a wide range of companies and government, mobile internet is extremely exciting for the country and continent. While Africa might lag behind some of the world in terms of physical business and service infrastructure, the beauty of the internet is that companies today can operate without an actual physical address while governments can register digital certificates online, thus allowing Africa to leapfrog other regions that need to change their ways of doing things.
What are the main regulatory changes you think could help improve the sector?
NGCABA: Emerging markets need to develop a holistic strategy towards enabling the private sector to accelerate and deliver ICT solutions. The private sector has the money and is driving the design of innovative devices, as well as the development of applications and social media that are changing how the world communicates. As such, rather than investing in ICT, the government should focus on creating legislation that would facilitate private investment to meet government objectives, such as affordable access to broadband. It should stop serving as a regulator and instead act as an enabler.
Are there any specific areas within the business processing outsourcing (BPO) industry that South Africa should look to target? If so, what are these?
NGCABA: Traditionally, people have wrongly associated the BPO space with a classic call centre environment.
It is crucial to transition from a focus on voice to data, as it is the power of data and the analytics that can be done with that data that will make economies and countries more competitive in the future.
If you are a big or even a very small company, you want to know what people are saying about you on social media. And you want to profile your customers based on their behaviour and online preferences, so that you can communicate with them and create offers that are more personalised. Analytics and data mining can ultimately be employed by government to better understand its constituents at different layers of society.
For example, an energy regulator or provider can apply complex algorithms to better understand demand and consumption patterns to the most minute details in order to manage the grid network more efficiently.
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