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Cape Town South Africa

Artificial Intelligence

AI: the catalyst emerging economies have been waiting for 

Published 5 April 2024 in Artificial Intelligence • 7 min read

Could South Africa become the India of the AI revolution? Adam Craker thinks so.

Before the Indian government’s economic liberalization policies lit a fire under Bengaluru’s (Bangalore) incredible transformation into India’s “Silicon Valley”, it was a sleepy city favored by retirees. The ensuing IT and outsourcing revolution changed all that, and India – with Bengaluru at the forefront, rode the new tech wave to redefine itself as an economic powerhouse on the global stage.

From a diverse career in South Africa, spanning four decades, I have witnessed firsthand the transformative power that technology can have for both business and society. As we stand on the brink of a new digital era shaped by artificial intelligence (AI), I feel compelled to share my insights on how AI presents an unprecedented window of opportunity for a significant transformation – as IT was for India – for South Africa, the wider African continent, and other nations in the Global South. Furthermore, this opportunity is not just about technological advancement; it represents a beacon of hope for addressing some of our most pressing social challenges, not least youth unemployment, and for positioning our region as a future hub of global digital economy growth.

“The South African government's Youth Employment Service (YES) programme aims to create employment opportunities, yet progress has been modest, with 131,000 internships created in 5 years, against a target of 1 million.”

The promise of AI in South Africa and the Global South

South Africa, like many developing nations, grapples with elevated levels of youth unemployment, with estimates suggesting a staggering 52% of young people aged 15 to 34 are unemployed. If we include those that have given up the search for employment, the unemployment numbers are closer to 70%. This is not just a statistic but a vivid illustration of untapped potential and unfulfilled aspirations, and the huge challenge that today’s policymakers face in designing and implementing effective solutions to complex, embedded structural problems in post-colonial nations.

However, AI offers a silver lining. Its potential to create new job opportunities and transform existing ones could be the key to unlocking this potential – an opportunity to “leapfrog” phases of economic development to position countries such as South Africa in a whole new light, in a similar vein to India’s experience with IT services. But, of course, realising this vision requires more than just passive optimism; it demands concerted effort from both the government and the private sector.

Despite a shared recognition of the issue at hand, the translation of willpower into tangible action has been slow. The South African government’s Youth Employment Service (YES) programme aims to create employment opportunities, yet progress has been modest, with 131,000 internships created in 5 years, against a target of 1 million. This gap underscores the need for a more dynamic approach to harnessing the digital age, one that involves substantial investment in AI education and skills development.

There are glimmers of hope, however. International tech giants, recognizing Cape Town’s potential as a regional and global hub, are making significant investments. Furthermore, pioneering initiatives in the AI space are starting to take root already, including Microsoft South Africa’s partnership with the Youth Employment Service (YES) to provide AI skills to 300,000 South African youth. Such programs, if scaled and supported adequately, can serve as blueprints for how public-private partnerships can address both skills development and unemployment.

Prioritising AI training is not just an economic decision but an urgent social one. In the emerging digital economy, the divide between those with and without AI skills will only widen. For South Africa and its peers in the Global South, the unique opportunity to leapfrog into the forefront of the digital economy would transform economies, create jobs, and, most importantly, offer a pathway out of poverty for millions.

Notably, Amazon has embarked on a ground-breaking investment, with plans to spend up to R30 billion ($1.6bn) on establishing its African headquarters in Cape Town.

An AI-enabled vision for the future

To achieve this vision, a multipronged strategy is necessary, with both governments and business fully on board and working in harmony. Policymakers must prioritise digital education and infrastructure, while companies should invest in training and development. Moreover, international collaboration will be key to sharing knowledge and resources. Education systems must adapt to prepare students not just for the jobs of today but for those of tomorrow.

For international businesses, in particular, the burgeoning AI talent pool in South Africa and the Global South represents a frontier of opportunity. Investing in local talent development not only contributes to societal good but opens up new markets and innovation possibilities. The success of such investments, however, depends on a stable and supportive policy environment and a commitment to long-term development.

The landscape of international business opportunities in South Africa, particularly in Cape Town and the Western Cape, is witnessing a significant transformation, driven by strategic investments from global technology giants. Notably, Amazon has embarked on a ground-breaking investment, with plans to spend up to R30 billion ($1.6bn) on establishing its African headquarters in Cape Town. This move not only highlights the region’s potential as a key player in the tech industry but also sets a precedent for future investments in the continent’s digital infrastructure and workforce development.

Similarly, Microsoft has reinforced its commitment to South Africa’s digital economy through the establishment of multiple hyperscale data center locations across the country. These facilities are pivotal in providing Azure, Microsoft 365, Co-pilot and other leading online services, supporting local and regional organizations as they navigate the rapid pace of digital transformation. This investment is a testament to the growing demand for cloud services in Africa and Microsoft’s confidence in the region’s potential to lead in the digital age.

Beyond these notable investments, the region has attracted attention from other international companies looking to tap into the burgeoning tech ecosystem. For example, companies like Cisco and IBM have also made significant contributions, with investments aimed at enhancing cybersecurity, cloud computing, and AI capabilities in South Africa. These investments not only bring cutting-edge technology and expertise to the local market but also foster job creation, skills development, and economic growth.

The confluence of these investments sends a clear call sign for international businesses. Cape Town and the Western Cape are rapidly emerging as a strategic hub for technology and innovation in Africa, offering a fertile ground for companies looking to invest in the digital future. The region’s growing tech ecosystem, supported by world-class infrastructure and a skilled workforce in beautiful surroundings, presents a unique, attractive proposition for businesses aiming to expand their footprint in the global digital economy.

This influx of investment and interest is already positioning the country at the forefront of the global conversation on digital transformation and innovation. It reinforces the notion that the region is not just a participant in the digital age but a driving force behind its evolution.

For international businesses, the message is clear: the time to invest in South Africa’s digital economy is now. As these initial investments continue to bear fruit, they will undoubtedly pave the way for more companies to explore the vast opportunities within South Africa and the broader African continent. 

Artificial Intelligence - South Africa - Machine Learrning
Realizing the enormous potential for AI-inspired transformation requires much more than recognition — it demands action

Risks of inaction

On the flipside, the consequences of ignoring this opportunity are dire. Beyond the economic implications, failing to engage with AI’s potential risks exacerbating social inequalities and missing out on a critical driver of sustainable development. As such, the urgency of this situation cannot be overstated: We have a narrow window to act decisively and inclusively.

Realizing the enormous potential for AI-inspired transformation requires much more than recognition—it demands action: a collaborative effort that spans governments, the private sector, academia, and civil society. As leaders, we must champion this cause, ensuring that AI serves as a force for good, driving economic development and social progress.

The conversation around AI and its potential for societal transformation is just beginning. As we delve deeper into this new frontier, continuous dialogue and collaboration among all stakeholders will be crucial. Let us embrace this opportunity with the same spirit of innovation and determination that has guided us thus far. Together, we can ensure that the digital economy’s future is inclusive, equitable, and prosperous for all.


Adam Craker - CEO, IQbusiness

Adam Craker

CEO, IQbusiness

Adam is the Chief Executive Officer at IQbusiness, the largest South African management and technology consulting firm and a majority-owned subsidiary of JSE-listed Reunert Group, since July 2023. Adam joined IQbusiness in September 2009 and was appointed CEO in November 2010.

Adam studied Management & Computer Science (BSc – First Class – Honors) at the University of Warwick; DipM International Marketing with the Chartered Institute of Marketing; and completed his MBA at IMD in Switzerland. 


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