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BusinessDay: Democratising AI — the untapped potential for SA’s SMMEs

Artificial intelligence platforms can help streamline bureaucratic processes and facilitate tailored financial advice.

By Johan Steyn, 6 September 2023

The prevailing myth in many industries is that artificial intelligence (AI) is the exclusive realm of large-scale corporations. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Especially in the SA context, where small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) play a pivotal role in employment, it’s imperative to recognise the potential of AI for these businesses.

In April, small business development minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, announced the SMMEs and Co-operatives Funding Policy for SA in the Government Gazette. SA has an estimated 3.2-million SMMEs and 43,062 co-operatives. The National Development Plan projects that by 2030, small enterprises will account for 90% of an expected 11-million new job opportunities.

It is my hope that our government is strongly considering the powerful impact that AI technologies can have in these initiatives. By deploying AI-driven platforms, governments can streamline bureaucratic processes, making it easier for entrepreneurs to register businesses, obtain licences, and comply with regulations. AI can also facilitate tailored financial advice, helping businesses access suitable funding options and optimise cash flows.

Predictive analytics, another facet of AI, can provide small businesses with insights into market trends, enabling them to better position themselves in the competitive landscape. The government should establish AI-powered digital hubs that offer training resources, mentorship programmes, and networking opportunities. Such hubs can help small businesses harness modern technologies, innovate, and expand their market reach.

In a recent article, “Artificial Intelligence in Africa: Emerging Challenges (Social and Cultural Studies of Robots and AI)“, authors Abejide Ade-Ibijola and Chinedu Okonkwo write that AI adoption and implementation are on the rise globally and have the potential to significantly transform various sectors in Africa. However, the adoption of AI in Africa faces multiple challenges. There’s a significant skills gap, with a high demand for AI expertise, especially in programming, but a limited supply of trained professionals. This problem is compounded by uncertainty about AI’s benefits, leading to hesitancy in its adoption. Africa struggles with data shortages, making it hard for AI systems to get relevant and representative information. The available data often doesn’t capture the continent’s diverse population.

While some African nations acknowledge AI’s potential and are crafting strategies, a larger number remain unprepared. This delay is further amplified by ethical dilemmas associated with AI, including concerns about accountability, biases, and socioeconomic implications. Cultural and societal factors also play a role and many Africans remain sceptical of new technologies, resulting in resistance to adoption. Infrastructural issues, such as the absence of robust networks and affordable internet, act as significant roadblocks to AI’s proliferation in the continent.

The transformative potential of AI for small businesses, particularly in SA, is immense, but the journey towards widespread adoption is fraught with challenges. SA’s large number of SMMEs and co-operatives stand as a testament to the country’s entrepreneurial spirit and are poised to be at the forefront of AI-driven growth in the local market.

It is crucial for government bodies, industry leaders, and educational institutions to collaborate in overcoming these hurdles. By bridging the gap between the present state and the promising future AI offers, we can ensure that SA and the wider African continent leverage fully the advantages of this technological evolution, benefiting businesses and the broader society alike.


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