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African Telcos Open Up on AI, Digital Transformation

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Two of Africa's leading operators have revealed their attitudes towards embracing technologically driven transformation, including the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI).

Vodacom Pty. Ltd. and Safaricom Ltd. -- two of Africa's most dominant mobile operators -- spoke of the challenges relating to organizational change in the face of digital transformation. At a roundtable discussion during the AfricaCom in Cape Town, hosted by Connecting Africa in collaboration with sister sites Light Reading and Telecoms.com, network transformation, cultural change and the introduction of AI services all came to the fore.

Vuyani Jarana, Vodacom's eterprise chief executive, made the point that operators today are facing a tipping point with regards to customer expectations, from both the managed services and consumer services perspectives.

"When it became clear that the traditional consumer business will be under pressure unless it transforms, it also became clear that the big shift has to go towards becoming the total communications provider," he said. "That's why we made big bets on the enterprise business, largely because we realized we need to diversify, we need to look at other revenue streams for the business."

Jarana went on to explain that the great challenge -- beyond the rudimentary network requirements -- is getting cultural buy-in from across the organization.

"The architectural design becomes key, otherwise you'll struggle to really share the economics of the network between consumer and enterprise and have a much more effective capex utilization model. That is what is enabling us to actually be able to do this. I think the big issue is always going to be the question of culture.

"You're coming from organizations that have always been very consumer and mobile-centric. To actually shift the culture, there needs to be a lot of engagement, a lot of advocacy. You need to be evidence based, you need to actually be able to do proper market research so that people can see and believe in the opportunity."

As part of the transformation, Safaricom's head of strategy, Ken Okweru, believes artificial intelligence will gradually become introduced into specific business functions, such as marketing, but that there's a fundamental lack of talent being able to maximize its potential.

"I believe that we're not going to have enough data scientists who will be able to analyze data as fast as we need them to," he said. "Instead, we'll use AI-as-a-service. When we look into the future we think that AI is taking the place of marketing functions. Marketers previously were the guys who felt the market and understood what consumers wanted.

"When you are looking at data for analysis from the marketing point of view, sometimes there's no opportunity. But, you put that same data to a data scientist and all of a sudden these guys are seeing the opportunities. We can take that a step further with AI so that it sees all of the opportunities."

These comments are just some of the insights that feature in the recently published Telecoms.com eBook: Tomorrow's World - What is the Future of Telecoms? -- download and read the whole book here.

— Tim Skinner, Editor, Connecting Africa

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