By 24 June 2019 | Categories: feature articles


If you have been paying any attention to emerging technologies, you likely have heard much already about artificial intelligence (AI). And, you will no doubt hear plenty more in the years to come.

From a local perspective though, the ever present question is how is South Africa faring on its AI journey? Are we lagging behind or powering ahead? The good news is, the country is actually doing quite well, with new research contained in the AI Maturity Report in South Africa –  commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by EY - indicating AI experimentation is now prolific across South African companies.

Furthermore, businesses are showing a willingness to embrace AI and experiment using new technology, with 46% of South African companies noting they are already actively piloting AI within their organisations.  

Full steam ahead

The report found that there is enthusiasm in South Africa to pioneer new AI solutions, which is producing a “very open culture” towards AI. It also revealed that at least 25% of South African companies consider themselves highly competent in their willingness to experiment with and learn about new technologies – compared to just 14% across the Middle East and Africa (MEA).

Together, this enthusiasm and openness bode very well for adoption of the technology moving forward, not just in the short term.  

“Many AI experts argue that it’s not simply a lack of technical skills that slows the progress of AI, but also a greater need for a culture of experimentation. Though AI is in its early stages of development in South Africa, it bodes well for AI maturity in the country that businesses are actively experimenting with exciting new AI use cases,” explained Lillian Barnard, Managing Director at Microsoft.

Transformative impact for all

She continued that from Microsoft’s perspective, the company believes that AI will become, “the defining technology of our time, like electricity, that will transform industry and society.” With that in mind, she stressed that Microsoft is intent on democratising artificial intelligence, and make it available to everyone.

One of the examples given of that was Seeing AI, an app that leverages artificial intelligence and one’s smartphone to help people with seeing difficulties identify the world around them. That app is already freely available on both iOS and Android platforms.

Beyond the personal example of  AI in action, what exactly are businesses most gravitating towards using AI for? Apparently the range runs the gamut, but it is machine learning that has garnered the majority interest (67%) as the tech that businesses are considering of greatest usefulness. Following behind that are smart robotics and biometrics.

Also being actively experimented with by businesses are the likes of  Chatbots, Robotic Process Automation and Advanced Analytics.

Great expectations

When it comes to the future benefits of AI, companies across the MEA region are highly positive - and perhaps none more so than South African organisations. 96% of local businesses expect to gain significant financial benefits by using AI solutions to optimise their operations.

The top use cases for AI listed by companies surveyed include automation (83%) and prediction (70%). Use cases in question include a broad range of applications, from increasing employee productivity, to predicting customer churn or consumer conversion rates and proactively managing machinery downtime.

That being said, and despite the fact that 42% of South African businesses say AI is one of their digital priorities, not a single company indicated that it was their most important priority. In fact, there are a number of core competencies South African companies feel they still need to address in terms of AI maturity.

While data management scored well as a competency in South Africa (almost a third of companies consider themselves highly competent), businesses typically rate themselves as only moderately competent when it comes to leadership capability with regards to driving AI forward.

Combining AI with emotional intelligence is another significant challenge for South African companies, with many respondents citing concerns around human-machine interaction, and how AI outputs should be integrated with operational processes and the people involved in those processes.

From the top down

Brian Lewkowicz, Lead on Intelligent Automation at EY Africa, noted that discussions around AI need to take place across all levels of South African businesses. While 83% of organisations report direct involvement at the C-suite level, this number is significantly lower (29%) at a non-managerial level.

Currently, 54% of companies rate impact on personnel as the top business risk in implementing AI. While South Africa’s unemployment rates are high, understanding of AI is low. This typically means that much of the workforce’s excitement around AI is quickly replaced by fear of job losses.

“To realise the true value of AI, organisations need to understand the scope and risks specific to them. Then they need to define the value and capabilities needed to integrate, activate and incorporate intelligent, robotic and autonomous capabilities. We hope that this study, which we are proud to have partnered with our alliance partner Microsoft, opens doors for South African organisations to use AI to improve business processes and accessibility for non-technical users,” added Lewkowicz.

His advice? Companies should implement change management to help employees across the organisation understand that AI helps enhance productivity and can reduce the amount of time they spend on menial tasks.

“Microsoft has always believed that AI strategy should be designed with people at the centre. When companies opt for a ‘people first, technology second’ approach, human capabilities are extended and people can spend more time on creative and strategic endeavours so, ultimately, companies achieve more,” concluded Barnard.

To download the full report on South Africa’s AI outlook, click here.


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