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  • Writer's pictureAndile Khumalo

What South African CEO’s Really Think About 4IR

Earlier this week I hosted a discussion at Business Day Focus 4.0, sponsored by MTN. My panel consisted of South Africa’s leading CEO’s in the technology industry, namely Jonas Bogoshi, the CEO of BCX; Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa, the CEO of Naspers South Africa; Sean Emery, the CEO of RainFin and co-founder of 4AX, the new stock exchange that rivaled the JSE for the very first time ever; and Lesley Donna Williams, the CEO of Tshimologong Precinct. Here are some highlights from the discussion.

Focus on Solving Customer Problems

4IR is often debated in two extremes: On the one hand, people say “AI is gonna take over our lives”, and on the other hand people say “it’s all just hype”. The truth is somewhere in between, and business people should focus on solving customer problems an not on academic debates. Sean told the story of the original innovation behind 4AX, the stock exchange he co-founded that now competes with the JSE. It was originally based on the infamous “T+3” rule at the JSE which essentially meant that it takes 3 days for trades between two parties to clear and the seller to get his money in his bank account. He thought that made no sense and technology could remove this barrier. And that’s what 4AX set out to do. His point? Solve the customer problem and find or build the technology that helps you solve it.

What About Everyone Else?

4IR is not an elitist conversation. In fact, according to Phuthi, Goldfields - a company she sits on the board of - is busy implementing technology that allows women miners to not have to go underground and can work from the surface, operating machines that do the risky business of mining thus preventing loss of life. The pace of technological advancement will impact us all as innovators find solutions to fundamental problems in our daily lives. Phuthi also made the point that not so long ago ordering “take away” (as “take out” Americans call it) was often a Friday night thing that involved driving to fast food outlets, ordering, paying and driving back. Now we do this more than once a week all on our smart phones without ever having to speak to anyone or drive anywhere.

Is 4IR a Real Thing?

4IR is a huge commercial opportunity. Naspers has backed the digital economy in a big way moving from having only 25% of its annual revenues from the digital economy a few years ago to 100% today! They do this by backing founders. The insight here is that every innovation is driven by solving a need. Whether it’s cheap travel or fast food.

It’s Not About The Technology

Don’t focus on the technology. Focus on solving customer problems. The technology may actually change as you find better solutions to the problem.

Jobs Are Under Threat

4IR’s impact on unskilled jobs is a real challenge that should not be swept under the carpet. There are some real bottlenecks to training for the skills required by the digital economy, including regulatory barriers. South Africa has a unique opportunity to leapfrog many other developing markets in taking the opportunity, but it must have enabling legislation to allow for this - and currently it doesn’t.

Enabling Legislation Is Required

The role of government cannot be understated. Regulation must allow as many South Africans as possible to connect to the internet and take advantage of the opportunities, otherwise this revolution will leave more people behind than it takes along.

For more information on the The Business Day Focus 4.0 follow the hashtag #BDFocus4 on all social media platforms or visit

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