SA's digital journey continues poor form

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 28 Jan 2020

South Africa’s downward slip in the ICT rankings persists, with research from US-based networking solutions giant Cisco the latest to indicate slow progress in the country’s digital journey.

Last week, the World Economic Forum’s Global Social Mobility Index 2020 revealed SA’s bottom tier ranking in terms of technology access, with an overall glum ranking of 77th out of the 82 nations assessed.

In the latest Cisco Global Digital Readiness Index, SA ranks in 78th spot, even taking a beating from neighbouring country Botswana, which was up two spots compared to SA’s ranking.

Cisco has been assessing countries’ level of digital readiness for a few years. The index looks at 141 economies across seven components – basic needs, human capital, ease of doing business, business and government investment, start-up environment, technology infrastructure and technology adoption.

According to Cisco, its research aims to uncoverkey insights to help build understanding on what it means for a country to be digitally-ready, the positive impact the digital economy can provide, as well as outline possible opportunities to advance readiness.

“Technology has the potential to be the single greatest catalyst for economic and social progress,” says Tae Yoo, senior vice-president of corporate affairs at Cisco. “In every corner of the world, digital technology is helping us become more connected to each other and the organisations upon which we rely. It opens markets, creates jobs, and better connects citizens and customers.”

Measurement stages

Once the findings were determined, Cisco says it was able to group the countries based on three stages. The digital readiness stages are: activate, the lowest stage of digital readiness; accelerate, the middle stage; and amplify, the highest stage of digital readiness.

Overall, digital readiness scores ranged between 4.32 and 20.26 out of a maximum possible total of 25, states the report.

In regards to SA, it shows the country to have obtained an overall score of 11.39, which puts it in the accelerate stage. The score for technology adoption and start-up environment is 1.18 and 0.67, respectively, while tech infrastructure scored 1.06.

“Countries that ranked in the activate stage were in the earliest steps of their digital journey, with an average score of 6.24. Those in the middle accelerate stage had a group average score of 11.82 and represented countries that had taken some steps forward, but had significant opportunities to accelerate or improve in their digital readiness.

“Countries in the amplify stage averaged a digital readiness score of 17.89, but as the findings showed, scoring in the amplify stage is no guarantee of ongoing digital readiness leadership.”

While it may be intuitive that technology infrastructure and adoption are strong indicators of a country’s digital readiness, Cisco says research shows technology alone is not the answer.

“Developing skills, ensuring basic human needs are met, creating a business-friendly and start-up environment, and making private and public investments in innovation and technology will aid countries in their digital future.”

The strongest components of digital readiness include basic needs, human capital and technology infrastructure, states the report. “Human capital is critical across every stage of digital readiness to build a workforce capable of utilising and creating technology, and developing new skills in emerging fields. There is strong correlation between countries’ digital readiness scores and other performance indicators.”

Mark Walker, associate VP for Sub-Saharan Africa at the IDC, believes that improving the country’s digital readiness rankings calls for a two-pronged approach: development and execution of a coherent public/private national strategy and a bottom-up initiative to drive deployment, access and skill development.

“Central to this is access to funding – to this end government needs to create incentives and fast-moving regulatory and approval environments that encourage local entrepreneurship linked with attractive plans for investment and support from international technology players.”

Walker explains the Cisco index is a useful measure of the country’s digital readiness and should be viewed alongside similar technology-focused indices produced by global bodies such as the World Bank and United Nations.

Referencing the IDC’s South African Connectivity Index, produced in 2018, Walker says the survey findings showed the country’s national connectivity index baseline score is 44.65 out of a possible 100.

The national demand score was 45.92, with the national supply score a much lower 34.82, indicating latent demand across much of the country. “These findings show that while a lot of discussion is heard about 4IR [the fourth industrial revolution] the reality is that access to and use of technology varies widely across urban versus rural areas and also across industry.”

Marketing gimmick?

Dr Charley Lewis, independent analyst and researcher, is sceptical about the proliferation of global reports and indexes like the one produced by Cisco, saying these are usually more part of the marketing strategy of the company whose name and logo are attached to them.

He explains: “Cisco’s index is based on quantitative, objective measures, although some of these are puzzlingly several years older than is necessary – more recent numbers for some of these measures are available.

“Other indexes, like the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, have been criticised for including subjective ranking from captains of industry, something too easily swayed by Ramaphoria or the South African penchant for pessimism.

“Whilst the attention of policy-makers and the general public too often fixates on the scores and rankings of South Africa, many of these reports are too thin on diagnosis and remedy. It’s all very well to know that South Africa ranks 78th out of 141 ‒ and South Africa has consistently been a poor and slipping performer on many of these indexes over the last 20 or so years ‒ but the real questions need to be directed at exactly what is it that is pulling the country down, and what needs to be done to fix the problems.”

Lewis proposes the qualitative component as one that needs to be far more the focus of attention: policy analysis to identify the causes of poor performance, and policy recommendations for specific interventions to remedy the problems.

“Unfortunately, the Cisco White Paper on its own has little to offer by way of practicable advice for policy-makers, regulators and industry players. Its findings would need further analysis to pinpoint problem areas and aspects of under-performance for South Africa,” he concludes.