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Op-Ed

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the future of work, the opportunity for Africa

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) Summit (Photo: Microsoft South Africa).

Africa has a unique opportunity to influence what the future of work looks like in these early days as large language learning models (LLMs) are evolving, and the environment for applications is still new. This is according to the AI and the Future of Work in Africa whitepaper produced by Microsoft and a collective of industry experts from across the continent.

Nearly one billion people in Africa are currently under the age of 35 with the continent projected to be home to almost half of the world’s youth population by the turn of the century, in effect making up half of the potential global workforce of the future. Currently, up to 12 million young Africans enter the labour market annually, but according to a report from the International Labour Organisation, more than 20% are neither in employment, education nor training.

“We see a significant role for generative AI to not only transform work environments, but also foster opportunities for the youth to create jobs, innovate and help drive economic growth and stability across the continent,” says Ravi Bhat, Chief Technology and Solutions Officer at Microsoft Africa.

According to the whitepaper, many expect generative AI to drastically change knowledge worker jobs, especially in terms of the type of work done, the skills required, and the outputs produced. McKinsey research shows that generative AI (GenAI) could enable labour productivity growth of up to 0.6% annually through 2040, depending on the rate of technology adoption and the redeployment of worker time into other activities.

“Generative AI has significant potential to advance human capabilities,” says Jacki O’Neill, Director at Microsoft Research Africa. “As more people across Africa get access to GenAI tools through their internet-enabled devices and more affordable data, the barriers to access are being reduced and opportunities for skilling can increase.”

“But it is not only information workers that stand to benefit from GenAI.”

The promise of GenAI to transform industries such as agriculture, healthcare, and services must be balanced by equipping the youth with the skills needed for an AI-disrupted labour market to ensure that they are not left behind in this technological shift.

It is therefore important to build skills across the spectrum, from how to deploy and use GenAI tools effectively at work, to how to build appropriate and innovative applications and technologies on top of these models, to the post-graduate skills of research and innovation in machine learning, natural language processing, human-computer interaction, cybersecurity, and systems to name a few.

“Investing in this range of skills gives Africans the best opportunity to create dignified, appropriate jobs, to adapt AI sensitively to indigenous knowledge, to create new value chains, and better AI systems which might reflect for example human-centred and community values. Such systems would add value globally and could counter typical tech-centric models of automation and deskilling,” adds O’Neill.

With culturally and linguistically sensitive design, GenAI can become more tailored to individual workers, learning from interactions and becoming a personalised tool that respects privacy and enhances each worker’s unique skills. It can serve as a guide to foster inclusivity and showcase the diverse skills and abilities of African workers. GenAI can also be appropriated as a community-focused tool that supports collaborative work and communal development.

The technology can assist in decision-making, risk assessment, and data analysis, empowering entrepreneurs in their ventures. For the informal sector, tailored GenAI tools will elevate the capabilities of entrepreneurs, providing customised assistance for their unique needs.

According to the whitepaper, ensuring a beneficial outcome with GenAI involves proactive governance, inclusive design, investment in education, and a commitment to regulatory and ethical standards. This is a collective responsibility, requiring engagement from policymakers, technologists, and citizens alike.

“Technology alone cannot solve the challenges that our youthful continent faces. We need to create policies and practices to ensure that GenAI, and AI in general, is deployed responsibly with AI-related labour being valued and dignified. It requires the macro-economic, labour, and regulatory markets to adapt and be capable of supporting positive change,” adds Bhat.

The AI revolution in Africa is no longer just a possibility; it is already underway, and Microsoft is committed to working alongside individuals, governments, partners and stakeholders across the continent to prepare for a future where AI is intricately woven into the fabric of work and society in Africa.

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Health

Bridging The Gap Between Menstrual Health and Mental Health in Africa

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Menstrual health is not just about periods; it’s about breaking the cycle of exclusion and empowering the future of Africa – one girl at a time.

Empowering women and girls who menstruate worldwide starts with breaking the silence around periods. Eno, a 14-year-old girl from a remote community in the south, shrinks when her period arrives each month. Shame and fear are a constant part of her experience. “At school, whispers follow me. They call me ‘dirty’ because I can’t afford pads. I use the white piece of cloth my mother gave me and the extra layer of pad I had sewn on our neighbor’s machine using pieces from his shop.” Eno’s story, though heartbreaking, is far from unique. Across Africa, millions of girls and women face a hidden crisis: period poverty. 

Period poverty refers to the inability to afford and access menstrual products, sanitation and hygiene facilities, and education and awareness to manage menstrual health. Globally, more than two billion people around the world menstruate monthly.

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Menstruation, a healthy and natural biological process continues to be shrouded in silence and stigma across many parts of Africa. This silence perpetuates a cycle of neglect and exclusion, where the menstrual health needs of women and girls are ignored, leading to significant physical and mental health issues. 

Daily, women and girls are unable to afford sanitary pads, forcing them to resort to unhygienic alternatives like old rags, leaves, old clothes, cotton wool, toilet paper, newspaper, and make-shift hygienic pads. This lack of access not only affects their physical health but also their mental well-being, as they experience anxiety, shame, and isolation during their menstrual cycles. With limited to no access to safe water and sanitation to manage their menstrual health and hygiene, these women and girls who cannot afford menstrual products do not live well within their rights and freedoms as their menses interrupt their day-to-day flow.

Human-Centered Stories 

To truly understand the impact, we must listen to the voices of those affected. Nike, a 15-year-old girl from a rural community in Ogun State shared, “I have to stay home when I have my period because I don’t have pads. I miss out on school and feel ashamed.” Rukkayat, another young woman from a community in Abuja stated, “The stigma around menstruation is so strong that I can’t even talk to my teachers about it. It feels like a dirty secret. I feel dirty walking around my school. So, I’d rather stay at home when I’m on my menses to endure the pain and take care of myself.” These anonymous quotes reflect a common reality for many girls and women across Africa, highlighting the urgent need for change.

Addressing Stigmas and Period Poverty 

Period poverty stems from persistent stigmas around menstruation. These stigmas include the belief that menstruating women are impure, leading to their exclusion from everyday activities and social interactions. Such beliefs not only undermine women’s confidence but also reinforce gender inequality. Periods, already a source of physical discomfort, become a breeding ground for anxiety, shame, and isolation. This can lead to depression, decreased self-esteem, and a reluctance to seek help. The link between menstrual health and mental health is undeniable.

To combat these stigmas, sensitization initiatives, and project outreaches need to provide menstrual products and education. These programs will empower girls with knowledge and resources, breaking the silence and changing societal attitudes toward menstruation. 

Breaking the Cycle: Investing in Solutions, Empowering Futures 

So, how can we bridge the gap between menstrual health and mental health by showing one can’t do without the other? By recognizing that menstrual health is intrinsically linked to mental well-being, we can create holistic approaches that address both.

  • Combat Stigma Through Education: Open conversations are key. Educational programs that address menstrual hygiene and dispel myths can empower girls and communities. Schools and communities should provide comprehensive menstrual education that includes mental health support.
  • Invest in Sustainable Solutions: Supporting the development and distribution of affordable, reusable menstrual products is crucial. Access to menstrual products should be seen as a basic human right, and efforts should be made to ensure that all girls and women have the necessary resources.
  • Build Sanitation Infrastructure: Safe and private sanitation facilities in schools and public spaces are essential for dignity and hygiene management.
  • Champion Advocacy: Investing in menstrual health advocacy at the local and national level can lead to policy changes that prioritize girls’ needs. From providing dignity kits to advocating for safe and private facilities, menstrual hygiene management is crucial for their well-being and development. Through advocating for women and girls, we can ensure every girl has the knowledge and resources she needs to thrive. 

By investing in menstrual health, we invest in a future where girls like Eno, Nike, and Rukkayat can access education, participate fully in life, and thrive. Through increased conversations and heartfelt advocacy, the Going North Project initiative is addressing the urgent need for quality healthcare, education, and the eradication of period poverty through targeted outreach programs.

The Going North Project aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of Education, Health, and Gender Equality, which are crucial for fostering a brighter future and empowering girls – one at a time.

Let us address the urgent need for accessible menstrual health resources and education, highlighting how this issue impacts individuals globally. This advocacy inspires and reminds us that menstrual equity is essential for a just and healthy world. Together, we can break the stigma and ensure menstrual equity for all.

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Op-Ed

PaySpace: Payroll integration as a business advantage

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PaySpace Director, Warren van Wyk (Image: Supplied).

Business silos have their purpose, but they are not effective. Connect the dots, and the results pay handsomely. This wisdom can revolutionise payroll operations and employee relationships. What should companies know about integrating payroll (or other operations)?

The case for integration

In Charles Duhigg’s award-winning book Habits, he tells the story of Tony Dungy, the first African-American head coach to win the Superbowl, the peak of competitive American Football. Dungy’s success hinged on a central principle: keep practising the team until their plays became reactions. The team that doesn’t have to think to respond is quicker than the one that does. The more integrated the team is, the better it performs.

Sports teams are a fitting comparison for organisations. They rely on their players’ individual skills and talents, yet those players don’t succeed if everyone is isolated and there are significant delays between them. Businesses call these ‘silos’. Silos are not bad. Like a talented player, a silo creates a safe space for people and processes to flourish. But if they are too isolated, they quickly lose their effectiveness.

The answer is integration, says Warren van Wyk, Director at PaySpace, “Silos are important but have their limits. It’s tempting to try and remove those silos, but that is often the wrong approach. It’s much more effective to integrate silos by connecting them through special channels. The concept works well in business, and it works incredibly well in modern technology.”

Today’s digital systems thrive through integration, often called the ‘API economy’. An API (application programming interface) is software that translates instructions between two systems. For example, rather than multiple applications having copies of a database, they can all draw information from a central database via its API, cutting down on duplication and confusion.

Integration forms the modern digital economy’s backbone, along with the cloud and broadband internet. When businesses integrate their primary systems, they produce substantial benefits.

Payroll that works for everyone

Payroll systems offer a practical example of this dynamic. Payroll is typically isolated. Though it might share some connections with other business systems, such as HR and finance, the information is often added manually and usually by a handful of people who crunch payroll runs at monthly intervals.

This is labour-intensive, prone to errors, opens opportunities for fraud, and stops payroll from becoming a living part of the organisation. Yet payroll is crucial to every company. Miss a salary run or miscalculate remuneration, and you quickly have angry employees. Isolated payrolls also drag down the speed of leave applications and are often marginalised in financial discussions.

“An isolated payroll system is not a benefit,” says van Wyk. “Even if it works, I can guarantee it is still inefficient and lacks visibility. Many CFOs and other finance professionals have a very hands-off relationship with payroll, which doesn’t make sense as it’s often their biggest and most complicated expenditure. But the reason they end up there is because it’s easy for payroll to fall into a silo rut.”

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Getting payroll integration right

Integration overcomes the silos and marginalised operations in a business. It can be a complicated journey but with great benefits. Smooth the transition with these tips:

  • Look for an HR, finance or ERP platform that offers payroll integration options. Outdated and legacy software struggles with integration, while new-generation cloud-native platforms are natural. These platforms can partner with other modern software, such as cloud-native and multi-tenant payroll platforms with native API capabilities.
  • Embrace APIs. Some providers work around integration shortcomings by using flat files or other tricks. However, an API approach is the only truly effective and long-term way to invest in integration for payroll or any other business area.
  • Involve the system’s users. The departments and people who use those systems are crucial to helping plan and design the relevant processes and data. Manage integration through collaboration, not dictation.
  • Take stock of in-house skills. Larger enterprises with substantial IT skills may have some of what they need for integration projects. Using these skills will help reduce project costs and improve delivery times. But integration is specialised—don’t make the mistake of thinking in-house technologies can do it all. They will need complementing partner skills and experience.
  • Explore Integration Platform as a Service (iPaas) Tools. These toolsets enable you to rapidly build powerful applications, data and API integrations from a single interface in minutes using a low code integration platform. This could result in substantial savings if you have the in-house technical skills that are not necessarily specialised back-end sleepers.
  • Vet your integration partner. An integration partner brings experience and skills to the table. They should be able to demonstrate their project history and provide reference sites. Select partners that do their homework, especially towards understanding the specific systems you want to integrate.
  • Go cloud-native. Genuine cloud-native systems support integration, digital workflow design, and business process management. The best sign of a cloud-native system is a single-instance, multi-tenant platform, meaning one cloud software serves multiple customers. This model powers SalesForce, Slack, Microsoft 365, and other cloud-era giants. Cloud-native software is more affordable, faster to integrate, and future-proof.

Not sure where to start? Contact specialists such as PaySpace to discuss your payroll integration options, and start making this crucial business silo a team player in your enterprise.

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Op-Ed

Sam Tayengwa: Navigating the Future of Insurance in Africa

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Sam Tayengwa, CEO of TransUnion Rwanda and Head of Growth Africa Regions (Image: Supplied).

With more than 400 million people between the ages of 15 and 35, Africa has the youngest, fastest-growing, and arguably most digitally savvy population in the world. Given the rapid evolution of technology and research from The TransUnion Trends and Outlook Report for Personal, Commercial, and Life Insurance in 2023 showing that 47% of Generation Z indicate a willingness to purchase life and health insurance online, the potential of this market segment cannot be ignored. Companies therefore need to think smarter when it comes to delivering online insurance solutions while at the same time educating the market on how best to benefit from digital offerings.

By using data more efficiently, insurers can improve customer experiences while managing risks – especially when it comes to people who have no credit profiles. But data means little if insights are locked away inside it. The right data at the right time is essential to make trust possible. Operating in over 30 countries, eight of which are in Africa, we have proven ourselves as a partner who empowers our customers with the information needed to make more accurate predictions when it comes to managing risk, especially amongst the influx of ‘young’ consumers entering the insurance segment for the first time.

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Adding further complexity to insurance markets across the continent is the continued cost of living crisis. Consumers are desperately trying to weather the economic crisis and looking at ways to manage inflationary increases, as well as fuel, food prices, and interest rate hikes.

TransUnion research has found that 67% of consumers surveyed in East and Southern Africa indicated that they have reduced their discretionary spending. But even with these cutbacks, at least one in three people are unable to pay any of their bills and loans in full. This makes the insurance value proposition, which many consumers view as a luxury expense, even more difficult to sell.

Market forces

Challenging conditions are creating a profitability challenge for insurers who have been forced to reassess their marketing and underwriting plans while looking internally at how to cut costs. Invariably, this has led to an increase in premiums for existing customers.

Digitalisation across the policy lifecycle and meeting the online expectations of the young population require insurers to rethink their approach to technology. So, while it is essential to adopt the latest innovations to digitalise more traditional insurance practices, it is not just about technology. Insurers must make sure that the human touch points remain in place to build a personal connection with their customer base.

On the flip side of this, new technologies and the use of non-traditional data sources are seeing insurers able to make the policy-writing process more accurate, efficient, and equitable. Now, insurance policies can be more effectively tailored to deliver on individual requirements as opposed to an ‘off-the-shelf’ policy.

Addressing critical needs

However, it is not enough for insurers to embrace advanced technologies and provide more innovative platforms to sell life and health products. It is also essential to transform people’s skills across Africa, especially when it comes to their awareness of insurance and how essential it is.

Part of this entails moving with people as opposed to leaving them behind. Insurance of the future is all about financial inclusion and how no person can afford not to have policies in place. The financial literacy gap when it comes to insurance and the means to buy it must be addressed. Currently, people are not catching up to the technology. This means insurers need to take a step back, review what they are doing, and ensure that they are doing their part to educate the market.

Data identity

All this combines to reflect just how important the consumer is in the relationship. Insurers have realised that it is the end-user who holds all the power in today’s uncertain market. They demand fast, easy, safe, and personalised experiences especially when it comes to essential products and services like insurance.

Consumers expect service providers to know who they are, what their likes and dislikes are, and what their most pressing concerns are all based on the data they provide. Think of this as an individual data identity that translates into a comprehensive data profile of a person – their digital DNA. This data identity influences the opportunities and experiences available to an individual. In this age of data availability, consumers can also access ‘their’ data and decide what to share with whom.

At a top level, the insurance industry faces uncertainty as regulatory bodies discuss and define methods to explore the concepts of fairness and equity in the use of consumer data for insurance transactions. And yet, this presents the insurance sector with a great platform to help drive financial inclusion. Fundamentally, the sustainability of an efficient insurance market is having a comprehensive customer view that will result in an improved insurance experience.

With data identities in place, insurers can access demographics, behaviours, preferences, financial relationships, and even the assets of individuals. All this combines to empower the insurer to develop extensive solutions designed to protect individual and household assets. The result – an improved experience across the insurance lifecycle.

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