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Opportunity Issue 103

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Opportunity magazine is a niche business-to-business publication that explores various investment opportunities within Southern Africa’s economic sectors. The publication is endorsed by the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI).

INTERVIEW Innovation is

INTERVIEW Innovation is at the core for telecommunications organisations Telkom’s Group Executive, Innovation and Transformation, Dr Mmaki Jantjies, stresses the vital role that new technology can play in bringing vital services to under-resourced communities. Are African telecoms responding fast enough to technological innovation? The evolution of the telecommunication industry has involved a transformation mainly from voice services to data-led services. Owing to varying infrastructure investment requirements, these changes have not unfolded at the same pace across Africa. While a few countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana have seen extensive innovation in data-led services in areas such as fintech, ecommerce, edtech, etc, many countries still require basic capital-intensive infrastructure to leap-frog them towards universal digital access and participation in the digital economy. Furthermore, the skills required in the key technology areas powering a data-led environment have also proven a challenge for many countries. Telecommunication companies have also invested in data sciences, enabling a data-led approach to improve efficiencies. Telcos have thus embraced key technology to adapt to our evolving customer needs. We are now also seeing a number of 5G use-cases being tested across multiple sectors. Dr Mmaki Jantjies Biography Dr Mmaki Jantjies joined Telkom in April 2021 to establish the new Innovation Office focusing on leading digital innovation as well as research and development initiatives. Dr Jantjies is also an adjunct associate professor and holds a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Warwick (UK) and other qualifications from the UK and South Africa. She previously led two academic departments and has played a key leadership role in advancing technology innovation and programmes in emerging technology areas such as Augmented and Virtual Reality and Big Data. Dr Jantjies is a member of the South African Young Association of Scientists and of the World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders. What are the things that have already transformed telecoms? Telecommunication organisations continue to innovate at their core with offerings such as 5G with reduced latency proving crucial in supporting new technologies such as augmented reality. Similarly, new offerings such as WiFi 6 technology are supporting the reduction of lag time, so improving customer experience in streaming. Such innovations enable endless possibilities. Customer-centric data offerings are now being offered as vital services in partnerships by telecommunications organisations. Here the Telkom group has played a key role in reflecting growing customer needs by ensuring growing access to digital services and in areas where products are supported in ecommerce, education, financial services and entertainment (which includes video streaming and gaming). What are the first things your new office did after you started in 2021? Telkom has been evolving and innovating continuously within the telecommunication and technology sector. Our 42 | www.opportunityonline.co.za

INTERVIEW office began by ensuring a clear prioritisation of the focus areas. A group-wide innovation “sandbox” was piloted to enable a crossdisciplinary team to move a customer challenge from ideation towards incubation, using a bottom-up innovation approach. In embracing this strategy, we have strengthened partnerships with higher educational research institutions. Research programmes have focused on our core network as well as identified adjacencies. It has also been important to develop our partnerships with the start-up community as we continue to invest in new innovation areas where we aim to establish growth. What are key programmes that Telkom is pursuing for the future? Internally, we’ll continue to expand our innovation sandbox while being more outward-looking with regards to partnerships with the start-up community. We will also continue to partner with original equipment manufacturers to co-create key solutions to the challenges faced by South Africans. We value our research and development (R&D) partnerships as they enable us to attain a sharp future-focused outlook. These partnerships will also enable us to invest in skills. Where can improved digital technologies make the biggest impact on society? The pandemic was an important reminder of the possibilities of technology while highlighting the inequalities that affect South Africans. Through technology, remote work and remote learning continued. However, lack of digital devices and access to connectivity affected some people. Over this period, Telkom offered zero-rated educational content on its streaming and zero-rated learning sites. It further supported and continues to support edtech start-ups focused on enabling online education in important science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects (STEM). Another example is the importance of being able to access online content through indigenous languages. While most of the content online is offered in English in text or as automated audio services, many Africans are not English first-language speakers. Machine translation and artificial intelligence technology then affords us the opportunity to enable online access to African languages. What are potential obstacles? Considering the capital-intensive nature of telecommunications, infrastructure investment led by public partnerships remains integral to scaling solutions. Although technology is not a silver bullet to solve major national challenges, technology can be deployed through partnerships as an enabler of access to health services, financial services, education and many other services. Which one or two things most excite you about the future? Transformative technology should not only serve to introduce efficiencies but to enhance people’s lives by moving beyond improved access to enable Africans to enjoy better participation on digital platforms. NLP: Natural-language processing (NLP) technologies are enabling multilingual African speakers to access online services seamlessly in their own languages. Telkom has invested in this area through its data-science team and our partnership with Enlabeler through the izwe.ai platform. Examples of the benefits of NLP include enabling government services to people in remote areas. Artificial intelligence and related technology areas will thus remain some of the main areas where we will see transformative innovation. 5G technology: In terms of telecommunications, improved connectivity speeds leveraging technologies such as 5G network capabilities as well as edge computing, enables lower latency. Increased connectivity speeds coupled with IoT devices can support smart-city uses such as using autonomous vehicles to deliver chronic medical suppliers to remote areas. In education, these technologies can support immersive technologies where students can learn remotely while having a full immersive experience with 3D visuals. In all, technology might not be the silver bullet solution to major social challenges such as economic inequality, but it can be leveraged to solve societal challenges in the key areas of education, health and food security. Please tell us about some of your academic work on Augmented and Virtual Reality and Big Data. In our published studies, we explored the potential for immersive technologies to support practical experience in fields such as mining, dental and medical education while reducing their related risks. Immersive technologies have also presented an immense opportunity to support access to remote learning, particularly for students in remote areas. I was also passionate about enabling access to maths and science education through African languages on mobile phones. I thus explored the potential of multilingual mobile learning in STEM subjects. What is the South African Young Association of Scientists (SAYAS)? SAYAS is a forum that enables young STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) practitioners and scientists in the various STEM fields to collaborate in solving challenges facing South Africa and beyond. Please tell us about the non-profit organisation which you have established. My passion for enabling access to technology equitably for South Africans while fostering greater diversity in the technology field, has driven me to launch Peo ya Phetogo. Both technology skills and early exposure to technology have been a huge challenge and I sought to increase technology access opportunities for children in underresourced communities. The NPO programmes have focused on helping young children solve their community problems through technology skills gained in sessions with graduate computer science students. The beginning of the pandemic also presented a moment to reflect upon the importance of teachers, not only in their role of sustaining online-learning environments but in scaling the transfer of digital skills. We took the opportunity to partner with several organisations in order to expand our existing teachertraining programme, particularly to rural and remote areas through continuous technology training. www.opportunityonline.co.za | 43

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