A closer look at digital transformation in Africa

Better training is one of the keys to progress, according to speakers at the Business of Africa conference.
A closer look at digital transformation in Africa

Digital technology is transforming the African economy, but progress is being limited due to a number of factors — including challenges with mapping technology and the need for better digital education.

That assessment was one of the key takeaways from the Business of Africa Conference held at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday.

Lyndsey Duff, South Africa country manager at what3words, a UK-created mapping app, highlighted how her company’s technology is helping the continent surmount the fundamental structural problems such as the lack of physical addresses in the rural or informal economies that dot the African landscape. What3word is creating unique three-metre square, “three-word” co-ordinates that anyone can identify and access.

“It’s a massive barrier,” Duff said. “There are other issues, too. Google has its limitations pinpointing exact addresses. It creates a lot of frustration for the individual, businesses, and governments.”

From a social perspective, the technology gives someone in rural KwaNdengezi in South Africa an address if they need to call an ambulance, for example. And South Africa’s city of Cape Town is poised to put three-word addresses on lampposts in informal settlements, to make it easier to report infrastructure faults in these areas.

Discussions of the continent’s digital revolution also touched on the importance of mobile banking, where technology is facilitating financial activity. During one presentation, Norman Moyo, group executive at Econet Global, a Zimbabwe-based mobile banking company, noted that, “The largest banks in Africa today are mobile. If you walk into a typical store, you don’t need cash; we pay for anything and everything in Zimbabwe using our phones.”

This set the stage for Raymond de Villiers, a digital disruption and future of money consultant, who highlighted not the role of technology in the African digital revolution discourse, but that of people.

Digital is not about how Africa catches up to the rest of the world, “it’s about looking at how to do things differently,” he said. “Developing technology is not the problem for Africa, the problem for Africa is how do we create the right people? Or rather: Why don’t we have the right people?”

De Villiers argued that driving greater innovation across Africa and competing on the world stage did not come down to rolling out more and more technology, but rather to educating Africa’s vast youth population with an eye on the future.

“When Africa succeeds in the digital age, it will be because we realise that our key resource is not gold or copper, but our people,” he concluded.

Cara Bouwer is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at