Why I feel inspired about the future after my recent trip to Africa

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By Steve Tzikakis, SAP President EMEA South

We face an exciting – but uncertain – time ahead. The disruption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will echo across our time and change every facet of work and life over the coming decades. We will need to confront global challenges such as climate change, the rise of new diseases and super bugs, and the socio-economic effects of workplace automation. Improvements in medicine will extend the human lifespan, leading to ageing populations and swelling numbers of people.

This will put strain on our natural resources and force us to develop innovative new ways to meet basic human needs such as food and shelter. New technologies such as the IoT, artificial intelligence, gene editing, and quantum computing will upend traditional industries and disrupt our lives in ways we can’t yet predict.

This during a time when nearly half the world still lives on less than $2.50 a day.

While the poverty rate in Africa may have fallen from 56% in 1990 to 43% in 2012, according to World Bank data the actual number of poor has increased, mainly thanks to rapid population growth. On my latest trip to the continent, I was struck by how citizens, businesses and governments are combining efforts to overcome the socio-economic challenges prevalent in many African countries. The disadvantage posed by a lack of infrastructure is being turned into a competitive edge as innovators develop future-fit solutions unburdened by legacy systems.

African entrepreneurs are creating inspiring solutions to the problems in their local communities: from AI-augmented education initiatives to solar-powered irrigation for small-scale farmers, and new ways to pay for – and trade – goods using mobile phones, there is a wealth of new ideas emerging from Africa’s pioneers. Innovation is rife within the continent’s larger organisations also: Safaricom has leveraged its digital transformation to launch a highly successful local competitor to Uber in the Kenyan market, following unprecedented success with its M-Pesa payment service.

Over the next decade, Africa will add 15-20 million people to the global workforce every year. While populations age and population growth stalls in much of the developed world, Africa is set to reach a working age population of 1 billion by 2050. These millennial workers will power the global economic engine in the second part of the century. But they need the digital skills to succeed. Some experts predict that today’s children will witness humanity’s greatest challenges in their lifetime. It is our duty as guardians of their future to equip them with the knowledge and tools to rise to these challenges.

The best investment we can make right now is in education and training.

To overcome the underdeveloped state of education systems in many African countries, governments, NGOs, and private sector companies are coming together to fast-track digital skills development across the continent. From a base of 89 000 youth trained in its first year, our Africa Code Week initiative will this year aim to teach basic coding skills to half a million African youth, leveraging local networks and building on a platform of collaboration with our partners.

The diversity of Africa’s young workforce also points to an encouraging future for innovation on the continent. The continent is home to as many as 3 000 ethnic groups speaking more than 2 000 different languages across 54 countries. Nowhere else in the world is there such a richness in human capital and divergent thought.

We must celebrate and encourage diversity in our businesses and our lives. The future belongs to high-impact collaborative teams that can combine different perspectives and skills in creative ways to solve great problems.

According to the latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Women’s Report, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest female entrepreneurship rates in the world: 25.9% of the female adult population is engaged in early-stage entrepreneurial activity in some form. Six out of ten said they started a business because of opportunity, not need.

Large global organisations have an important role to play here: by providing a technology platform delivered in the cloud, companies such as SAP can help equip these entrepreneurs with tools that could exponentially grow and expand their businesses.

More than 80% of our customers are SMEs. Our solutions for SMEs, such as SAP Business One, are being adopted by local entrepreneurs at breakneck pace, helping them scale and reach new markets that were once the reserve of large multinationals. And with 95% of small businesses failing within the first five years, we have the opportunity to use our knowledge and resources to support and grow these businesses.

In a hyper-connected global economy, we collectively share success, and failure. What I’ve seen on my trip to Africa left me with one key impression: we have all the ingenuity, innovation, energy, curiosity, and tools to rise to the great challenges of our time. This is good news not only for the continent, but for the world.

And I love to tell a good news story.

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