Traditional businesses are transforming into digital businesses at an exceedingly rapid pace, as a result of the wave of disruption that has swept across the industry. That is why it’s vital for us to ensure that digital solutions are at the core of business, enabling us to leverage on emerging technologies for sustainable development.

By Rudi Matjokana, managing executive: Vodacom Business Public Enterprise 

Our networked society is changing the way we live, as the impact and implications of the digital revolution become more evident with each passing hour. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognises the great potential for global connectivity to spur human progress, and challenges us to ensure universal and affordable internet for all.


Sustainable development through technology

Vodacom Group last year launched Africa’s first commercial 5G service. This is “Africa’s first standards-based, commercial 5G service”, which is being used in Lesotho. The 5G service uses 3.5GHz spectrum to deliver fixed-wireless access to two enterprise customers in the country. The immediate benefit of 5G technology, for Vodacom subscribers in Lesotho, includes the quicker deployment of broadband services with fibre-like speeds.

We deployed the same standards-based 5G technology in South Africa, with speeds of more than 700Mbit/s and latencies of less than 10ms. This will exceed 1Gbit/s as new software versions and devices become available. However, until 4.5GHz spectrum becomes available to Vodacom South Africa, this network will not be available to its customers.

With early access to this technology, entrepreneurs, industry shapers and government will in future be able to work with Vodacom to develop and incubate innovative applications to power digital transformation in Lesotho.

What we’ve accomplished in Lesotho is an example of what can be achieved in Africa, should the requisite spectrum also be made available.

More needs to be done. We need to expand 4G coverage and keep pace with an increase of more than 45% in sustained data traffic demand. Both of these come at a cost and we have invested R32.7 billion over the past four years.

However, a lack of access to spectrum is hampering our ability to drive down infrastructure costs and in turn, enable us to pass savings to the consumer.


AI and big data analysis

We realise the importance of Artificial Intelligence, and have implemented it in our call centres, which service over 39 million customers, and require a lot of time to tend to customer queries, in addition to trying to identify who is calling, and why they are calling. By implementing AI, which offers predictive analytics, call centres are able to identify why customers are calling us, and are then able to solve their problems before they even call.

We need to be able to identify our customers through voice recognition, and anticipate why they are calling the moment we pick up their voice, utilising machine learning.

Driverless car technology is another key area of focus for us. However, due to the fact that a driverless car cannot operate without sufficient network connectivity, it’s up to us to create sustainable partnerships between vehicle manufacturers and mobile network operators, in order facilitate the rollout of this technology.


The Internet of Things

Our prime example of a transformation technology is Connected Farmer, the result of an estimated combined investment of R21 million over three years. The cloud-based web and mobile software solution, which was launched by Vodacom Business, has connected thousands of smallholder farmers to the agriculture value chain.

This small business model has achieved its purpose of turning smallholder farmers into a sustainable realistic and executable food manufacturers and retail businesses, increasing the number of smallholder subsistence farmers in commercial agriculture value chains within South Africa.

We’re also working with various municipalities to facilitate the rollout of smart metering projects. We are working with the Department of Health to provide an IoT system that will act as a solution for replenishing stock within hospitals. By partnering with financial services companies, we’ve been able to create working payments and ordering systems.


Virtual Reality

Vodacom Business has recently introduced Virtual Teacher technology, in partnership with the Department of Education to address some of the challenges facing our education system, particularly in rural and underperforming schools.

The solution is about bringing innovative technology to those who need it most in order to improve learning outcomes for all education segments in South Africa. The future of the country’s education system is digital and we must embrace the opportunities this offers to leapfrog infrastructure backlogs and legacy issues in our schools.

Virtual Teacher is a new interactive technology platform that allows an individual teacher or lecturer to deliver lessons in real-time to multiple remote classrooms or locations simultaneously. Through a range of smart devices, learners can join classes from anywhere and at any time. For the first time in South Africa, the technology can be accessed through any personal device.

For example, in a bid to improve the matric pass rate in the Eastern Cape, the Department of Education is using the Virtual Teacher platform to provide extra classes to students at selected districts in the province. Lessons are delivered remotely by some of the country’s best teachers, with emphasis on mathematics, science and accounting. Students from various locations are transported to teaching sites in the Eastern Cape, including Mdantsane, Maluti, Lusikisiki and Mt Frere.


Sustainable Development

When it comes to sustainable development, we must ensure that the Fourth Industrial Revolution wave is embraced by South African companies, and that nobody is left behind.

ICTs can overcome bottlenecks to progress through sustainable development gains and accelerated technological practices. ICTs are increasingly facilitating efforts to prevent and recover from setbacks that disproportionally affect marginalised and poor populations.

For instance, during disease outbreaks, big data from mobile phones can help track the movement of people, helping to prevent, predict and prepare for the spread of deadly diseases, as was the case with the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Mobile phones were also vital in ensuring timely, accurate payments to those who provided health and other critical services on the frontlines of the Ebola response, enabling them to meet their own needs and provide continuous care.

Mobile devices have the potential to enable real-time tracking and guide recovery measures in crisis-affected countries, to ensure crisis response interventions are more effective. After Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, UNDP partnered with private telecom companies to implement emergency cash for work schemes for debris management in poor communities. Participants paid through mobile phones and continued to benefit from mobile banking although the scheme ended.

Governments can foster the use of digital payments and mobile money in ways that expand financial services to poor and marginalised populations, helping them build assets and prepare for weather and financial shocks. In Africa, 12 percent of adults now have mobile bank accounts, compared with just 2 percent globally, in large part due to the innovation of M-Pesa in Kenya.

In China, digital payments through social networks and e-commerce platforms are bringing financial services to millions, helping low-income populations invest, save and build credit scores. As of September 2016, China’s Alipay platform had provided financing to over 4.11 million small and microenterprises and entrepreneurs.

Globally, decision-makers should work together to identify technologies vital to SDG achievement and take steps to remove obstacles to their adoption. More work is needed, including in research and development, to unleash the potential of big data. Acceptable standards and agreed privacy safeguards are needed to overcome the reluctance to share data and fully tap the vast potential to improve policies, get results, and build the capacity of stakeholders to use and apply data and information to poverty-related interventions.

As a company, Vodacom is transforming into a digital business. We’re also looking at what the Fourth Industrial Revolution means for our customers. We’re looking at what access to broadband and internet access means to base of the pyramid customers and how we can make sure that they have sufficient digital literacy so that they know how to use the internet and that they are not excluded due to an inability to use it.

The majority of people in South Africa access the internet through their smartphones, so we have to make sure that people have smartphones, that they know how to use them and ensure that there is sufficient education around our products and services that are meant for people who live in rural South Africa.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to chart a path of action towards achieving the 17 universal and mutually reinforcing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Achieving those goals will require us to implement new development strategies and innovative resource mobilisation as well as the creative use of both existing and emerging technologies, as highlighted by the 2018 World Economic and Social Survey 2018.