Overcoming barriers to AI adoption by SMEs

Artificial intelligence will be a key business tool, and small and medium enterprises have to ensure they are in a position to use it.
Takalani Madzhadzhi
By Takalani Madzhadzhi, CEO, Ashanti AI.
Johannesburg, 31 Aug 2023
Takalani Madzhadzhi, CEO of Ashanti AI.
Takalani Madzhadzhi, CEO of Ashanti AI.

In my previous Industry Insight, I argued that South African small and medium enterprises (SMEs) were lagging in the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) − and that this posed a threat to their sustainability.

Not adopting AI would also reduce their potential for playing a much greater role in creating jobs and generally driving economic growth.

Having identified what I think the barriers to adoption are, I now want to consider some possible solutions.

The three most important barriers to adoption are cost, data availability and skills.

Cost considerations

There’s no doubt that technology is expensive for many SMEs, but it’s vital they have it − technology really can help a smaller organisation compete on more equal terms with much bigger rivals.

It can make employees much more productive, and it can enable more flexible working styles and collaboration, to name a few benefits.

AI, in particular, can deliver huge productivity benefits by taking on some of the drudge work that consumes huge amounts of time, such as creating spreadsheets or presentations.

At the broadest level, SMEs should consider the various models for IT support − if they are using AI, they need to have a decent and reliable IT infrastructure. It’s no longer necessary to have in-house IT staff: remote IT support can be used for the majority of IT support, and can be obtained via a recurring monthly fee, or hourly fees based on usage.

Compared to the cost of paying a salary for an in-house resource, plus the necessary training to maintain staff skills, the financial outlay is greatly reduced.

There’s no doubt that technology is expensive for many SMEs, but it’s vital they have it.

Another avenue to explore is cloud computing, which has matured significantly. For obvious reasons, the international players, whose services are priced in dollars, should be avoided, but there are many local providers.

Adopting the cloud model will mean the SME does not have to find upfront capital for technology and can respond to new tech developments and market shifts more readily.

It’s also true that most of the AI tools and resources are located in the cloud. It should be stressed that a cloud strategy needs to be developed by experts, but here the different IT models come into their own.

Another avenue to explore is that many leading corporates and NGOs have put in place programmes to assist SMEs (particularly if they are business partners) acquire (and are trained in) new technologies.

A final point is that there are many free AI tools available.

Data issues

It is now widely accepted that the ability to mine data for business-relevant insights is a key lever of success. AI obviously has a huge and growing role to play in deriving these insights.

But first things first: many SMEs find it hard to understand at a granular level what insights they should realistically be looking for, and how to assess the probable return on investment. Then, as previously noted, there is the challenge of collecting it from disparate sources and integrating it into one data lake.

The World Economic Forum suggests a few ways that SMEs can come to grips with these challenges. One is to take stock of their existing IT infrastructure in terms of data needs (see the point above) and put a strategy in place.

Involving a trusted provider at this point would probably make a lot of sense and would be a very contained expense that would pay off in the long run.

As part of this process, the SME should begin encouraging a data-centric culture among its employees and provide relevant training in topics like data analytics and visualisation, and AI, but also in complementary skills like cyber security. The need to have access to the right skills segues into the final challenge below.

Skills shortages

South Africa has a significant skills deficit in ICT generally; as a new discipline, AI is particularly affected.

At a national level, there are moves afoot to turn this situation around. But, in truth, AI is so new that SMEs are advised to take the initiative into their own hands and investigate what courses are available online in order to upskill current staff.

As for finding resources that are already skilled, why not look north? Africa is full of highly-skilled individuals who are available at a much lower cost than their equivalents here in South Africa − and AI is well-suited for virtual engagements.

Another avenue that SMEs should explore is to build relationships with online and real-world academies like Data Camp, Explore AI and WeThinkCode, all of which are producing young people with fresh skills.

Skills are available if one is persistent − and growing your own timber is always a satisfying experience!

None of these are small challenges but given the benefits that SMEs can realise from AI, they simply must be overcome. With solid AI strategies and the means to realise them, South African SMEs can enhance their competitiveness and ultimately become the engine of the economy.