Opinion piece: The accelerated adoption of digital tools and its long term impact

Opinion piece: The accelerated adoption of digital tools and its long term impact

Bayo Adekanmbi, Chief Transformation Officer, MTN Nigeria Communications Plc

As many of us have sat, isolated at home over the last 3 months, cut off from our offices, and aspects of day-to-day life that we are accustomed to, the world around us has been changing in ways that very few of us could have predicted if asked at the end of 2019. We have seen an acceleration in the transition to the use of digital tools that we expected to take a decade, happen almost overnight, and it is unlikely that some of these changes will be reversed. The new normal is here and businesses have to re-organise their core business models through backward and forward integration to maintain their relevance.

The key challenge that new digital tools often face is how to drive adoption. How to break deeply-held routines, or accepted practice. Many disruptive digital tools seek to change long-held social norms. For example, employers for years have insisted on the need for physical meetings, in an office, in order to conduct business. While the video conference industry has grown with the growth of digital technology, I am not sure that it anticipated the kind of acceleration that took place when COVID-19 struck the world.

In a few short months, employees everywhere are completely used to the concept of engaging with their colleagues remotely. Just look at the share price of Zoom, and the investments that its competitors are making in their propositions. It’s already clear that a significant percentage of offices will continue some level of remote working, even if restrictions are lifted. Google and Twitter have said that they won’t, and so the industry has achieved a level of adoption in months, that would normally have taken it years.

This is true in other segments too. Visual or digital entertainment businesses have grown significantly and more and more people are going to understand the type of immersive experiences that technologies like 7D offer. In Denmark, the football club Aarhus have introduced a ‘virtual stadium’ for spectators to attend via Zoom and showed the world how football can work without fans. Sport being delivered through an enhanced experiential immersion experience would have been considered decades away just three months ago.

Digital Financial Services are also expanding rapidly as they underpin all of these digital services, and many of the existing adoption challenges have been removed as people sign up to mobile financial services, or utilise agent networks close to them, out of necessity.

The tele-health industry has had to step into the gap left by restrictions on access to hospitals. How many of us will now be more comfortable engaging with our doctors remotely going forward? How many of us will be comfortable with the idea of engaging with robots as the first point of contact at hospitals, as has been introduced in Rwanda?

Remote learning has exploded. Whether at the university level or primary schools, students are engaging with their teachers over digital tools, and utilising digital delivery platforms. The ability to continue to ensure learning is absolutely critical to how this crisis is managed. In Nigeria, this is an area we have focused on recently. Not everyone can spend money on the data services that you need to enable it, and so, in partnership with the Ministry of Education and the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), we have launched a free data service that gives students 500MB of free data for use on government-approved online learning platforms over the next three months.

Logistics models and e-commerce companies have also had to respond to the changing nature of retail and the changing structure of service delivery. We have seen Amazon recruiting hundreds of thousands of staff across its operations as it tries to meet demand. The same is happening across Africa as many large FMCG companies open up their operations to sell directly to the consumer through e-commerce platforms. Some are going as far as accelerating the incorporation of drones and other autonomous vehicles into their distribution chain.

It is not just a select group of existing business models that are seeing increased demand in this situation, it is forcing the accelerated evolution of new business models. A light touch economy is emerging that is much leaner, meaner, and more effective than the older ones. This is hugely advantageous for entrepreneurs because it removes significant barriers to entry. The gig economy, remote workstations, and free-lancing are all going to grow post-COVID-19, and faster than they would have done without it. That means the costs for a start-up will reduce significantly, at the same time as many traditional forms of employment begin to decline. Hugely fertile ground for an explosion in innovation and new ways of working that COVID-19 has accelerated to the present when it would likely have taken another ten years to happen progressively.

Finally, even traditional sectors that digital tools often find it hardest to penetrate, are seeing the benefits of digitisation. A network of Nigerian agricultural companies has invested significantly over the last few years in automating the supply chain and ensuring they can track inputs in real-time. That capability makes it much easier to manage the type of disruption that COVID-19 and movement restrictions bring. On the other side of the equation, farms that have seen offtake levels fall significantly as markets have closed, or had their operations restricted, have established digital distribution capabilities, and many of them are now able to track their route to market, or even deliver direct to consumers. As these capabilities continue to be enhanced, the efficiency and sustainability of our agriculture sector will improve, and many of the challenges that it faces from a logistics perspective can be resolved.

Hotel chains effectively shut down by lockdowns, have had to be hugely innovative to try and create revenue streams from their existing infrastructure. A leading international hotel in Lagos responded by opening laundry and food delivery as complementary businesses. They also digitized the food delivery with order placement and fulfillment possible on two existing applications.

For a digital operator investing in the building blocks that enable this type of transition, our models are also being forced to change faster than we had anticipated. We provide the rails that these services run on, and an explosion in demand for access to data is something that we have had to adapt very quickly to manage. We’ve seen increasing investments in this capability and are anticipating that this continues throughout the COVID-19 period and beyond as many practices adopted today will continue as the ‘new normal.’ Thankfully, we have spent nearly two decades investing in the fixed infrastructure to enable us to do this, with well over 20,000km of fibre rolled out across the country, our network can provide the backbone that enables not only our services but the services of many other providers as well.

As the pace of digital adoption continues to grow, new technologies like 5G will be key enablers for new generation businesses. The ability to create and smoothly operate the ‘internet of things’ will be a key driver for the rapid transition to digitisation. Nigeria has already embarked on this process, with public consultation, and we look forward to the debate.

At MTN, we firmly believe that the digital economy has the potential to not just replace the oil economy that has been relied upon for so long, but that it will enable Nigeria’s economy to surpass it, becoming more sustainable, more productive and delivering more value to its people.

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