Digital technologies can spur new business growth and help existing business survive through the pandemic, says Matone Ditlhake, Chief Executive Officer of Corridor Africa Technologies.

As South Africa and the rest of the continent brace for the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the next few months, the question on everyone’s mind is how long will this last. Many have already made lifestyle changes and it remains to be seen whether circumstances will remain the same over the short to medium term. However, there is little doubt that COVID-19 will change the fortunes of many businesses and the way in which we live our lives for the next 18-24 months.

Most countries have had to grapple with opening the economy and the economic recovery thereof; the realisation should be that the recovery does not have to be financial, but we need policy that leans towards the acceleration of fourth industrial revolution (4IR) implementation. As much as 4IR has been touted as the next big thing that will leapfrog the country past delays in infrastructure development, it can also prove to be key to cushioning the COVID-19 economic blow.

Overcoming current challenges

Major challenges currently facing local businesses include avoiding business disruption due to contamination and staff infections; supply chain interruptions; and the cost and complexity of maintaining facilities when much of the workforce is working remotely. 4IR tools can overcome all of these challenges.

Business disruptions and downtime can be mitigated by deploying robotic process automation and industrial robots capable of keeping business running even if staff are off sick. These technologies can also pick up the slack in facilities now running with only 33% of their usual staff complement. By enhancing efficiency and accuracy, 4IR solutions can not only help businesses maintain operations – they can actually help them improve operations and become more competitive than they were previously.

Health and safety in the workplace can be enhanced by implementing digital tracking and monitoring, and by optimising analytics to determine where COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred, which staff have been exposed, and where there is risk of spread. Among our many projects, Corridor Africa Technologies is preparing to launch a simple Bluetooth low-energy based app that will send alerts to users when they have been exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

4IR solutions can also reduce the cost and contamination risk involved in facilities maintenance. Instead of sending maintenance workers to conduct regular checks, technology allows them to remotely monitor infrastructure and facilities, so avoiding unnecessary travel. Smart building solutions also allow organisations to run facilities at only the levels necessary, so avoiding the cost of operating lights, air conditioning and other services for empty buildings.

With the pandemic having disrupted traditional supply chains and the recovery process expected to be a slow one, digital technologies can connect supply and demand via online platforms and open seamless flows across industrial chains for output. They also pave the way for entrepreneurs to seize the opportunity to bridge gaps between consumer and supplier, with the potential for the country to grow a whole logistics machinery.

New opportunities in the digital economy

Despite the spread of the pandemic, several sectors continue to thrive, and the digital economy has remained vibrant and grown rapidly. Amid the economic lacuna, it is clear that e-commerce has been very resilient, and other areas such as remote working, broadband adoption and connectivity, and smart manufacturing will show substantial growth over the next few months.

There are new opportunities for fintech and logistics start-ups: a case in point being Zulzi, the home-grown delivery app that has surged in popularity in the last few months and has recently raised R30 million in capital. When the country went into lockdown, the company hit a surge in volumes with turnover of more than R1 million a day. Zulzi is not the only lockdown SA success story. On a far smaller scale, we saw other examples, such as the teenagers behind Cloudy Deliveries seizing the opportunity to introduce deliveries by bicycle in Langa township. The team delivers groceries for elderly residents at a fee of only R9 per delivery, using simple cellphones to arrange the service. These successes underline the fact that technology is a crucial tool to help entrepreneurs launch new ventures and do better business.

However, in order for South Africa to benefit from the opportunities digital technologies and 4IR tools present, we need to see universal access to broadband, and a changing mindset in both public and private sector, to embrace innovation and change.