Digital transformation is a powerful tool for companies and societies. But the divergence of Africa’s economies means the region faces additional challenges when it comes to embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a wave of digital-era change. Growing youth unemployment, low commodity prices, climate change and a lack of critical infrastructure are among a range of obstacles. In a challenging environment, companies are having to adapt and open up new opportunities to help them grow.

Yet multinationals such as GE and Maersk are still expanding in the region, and local companies are growing internationally. As home to seven of the world’s megacities (hubs of over 10 million people), and with millions of young people entering the labour force each year, Africa is fertile ground for investment in such areas as infrastructure and manufacturing.

The leaders of these organisations are facing new technology challenges and choices. No industry is immune. Migrating to new platforms such as cloud, supporting global connectivity including mobile platforms, and securely managing and making sense of the ever-increasing amounts of data, all need focus.

Becoming a digital business

Achieving sustainable growth means increasing business agility and innovation to keep pace with emerging technologies and trends.

For example, the mining industry is looking to digital technology to carry out explosions. By letting software control the explosion instead of doing it manually, chemical and mining companies are getting the best possible yield out of the explosion. In times of low commodity prices, this is helping them stay competitive, as well as improving the safety of miners.

With only 34 per cent of adults in Sub-Saharan Africa having a bank account, financial empowerment can make a real difference to people’s lives. WIZZIT International, a mobile banking company, embraced cloud technology to extend the reach of its mobile banking platform. WIZZIT enables real time person-to-person payments and transfers, supported by cards that let consumers access ATMs and point of sale terminals.

They’ve extended their global reach using a cloud-based platform, reducing the cost of the service to reach a broader market. Established in South Africa in 2005, WIZZIT now provides services through partner banks to over six million customers in 11 countries across three continents.

The digital businesses of the future

With many people in Africa paying ten times as much of their salary for broadband as most of those living in the rest of the world, providing internet access for all is also key to building a sustainable future.

Schemes to address this include Coca-Cola transmitting free WiFi from its vending machines, and Connecting Africa, a programme which uses BT satellite services to bring free broadband to remote villages in thirteen African countries, helping protect children from social isolation. From providing skills, training and access to education, these schemes also open up opportunities for small businesses to begin to grow.

Trust in a digital world

In a digital economy, trust attracts customers. But digital risk and digital opportunity are two sides of the same coin. A digital business offers lots of opportunity but it also opens up even more security risks, through everything from greater collaboration to the greater use of data.

Digital security isn’t a technical issue, it’s part of doing business in our networked world and needs to be part of a wider strategic planning process.

In Africa in particular, the world is changing, and it’s changing fast. The incredible potential of digital to help not just businesses, but also communities, become sustainable for the future, is something we need to embrace for the future.

Disclosure: Wizzit and Coca-Cola are BT customers