In South Africa, where economic growth has been stagnant and digital adoption is accelerating but still lags global trends, the imperative to transform is urgent. Artificial Intelligence (AI), as a key component of a digital business environment and as an enabler of industry-disrupting advances, is a game-changer that deserves attention.

Organisations that are able to leverage technologies like AI to reshape our world will have the opportunity to weave themselves into a new digital society. For economies that adopt AI, a future of increased annual growth rates awaits, a future in which quantum computing’s near-unlimited processing and algorithmic power can solve difficult problems in entirely new ways across multiple industries.


South Africa is facing low economic growth. Unemployment is high, skills levels are low, and productivity and competitiveness are declining. There are multiple challenges specific to business and industry sectors that AI could help address.

In South Africa, the majority of organisations are dealing with legacy technologies, systems, business models and corporate structures, large core workforces and sunk investments in owned infrastructure.

Many businesses are just starting their digital journeys, addressing data quality and data management—fundamental building blocks for digitalisation of businesses—and coming to terms with the new business models,processes and skills needed to leverage the opportunities a digital world offers.

The addition of AI to process automation and to augment human capabilities can deliver huge value for businesses, driving efficiencies, productivity and innovation.Across key industry sectors, South Africa is facing a number of challenges. The contributions of the agriculture and manufacturing sectors to South Africa’s GDP are declining. And the growth prospects of the consumer goods industry, which is closely linked to the economic health of the country, is down. A lack of skills, insufficient and deteriorating infrastructure, a lack of access to information, and outdated regulatory policies are among the many issues impacting this decline.

How could AI help?

In the agricultural sector, the use of autonomous vehicles, drones and sensors will enable precision agriculture,
improving use of resources and increasing yields.

In the manufacturing sector, embedding intelligence throughout the value chain and in products can improve responsiveness to demand, and enable the introduction of many value-adding services.

To organisations in business and industry, AI may seem a long way off. It is not.


AI is emerging as new factor of production. South Africa can no longer depend on increases in capital and
labour to drive economic growth. Careful investment in AI can, however, transform the country’s economy. Accenture’s research quantifies the value,and pinpoints where and how AI can most readily deliver value in this country.


In 2017, Accenture’s research showed that AI has the potential to add up to an entire percentage point to annual economic growth rates in South Africa by 2035. This means that by embedding AI in the economy, South Africa could potentially double the size of its economy size five years earlier.

This alone is a compelling reason for the country to jump onto the AI bandwagon. In this paper, we drill down, showing the impact of AI on South Africa’s industriesand how each of these will benefit from AI. The numbers are significant.

Our research shows that Manufacturing, Agriculture and Wholesale and Retail, Accommodation and Food Services will benefit the most with use of AI boosting their annual gross value add (GVA) growth rates by 1.4, 1.2 and 1.1 percentage points, respectively, in 2035.

In absolute dollar terms, Public Services and Finance and Business Services will gain the most with additional boosts to their annual GVA of R308 billion and R252 billion, respectively, in 2035. The potential gross value add of AI-augmented growth for South Africa: R1,372 billion.

What will it take to succeed?

To successfully pursue an AI agenda in South Africa, policy makers and business leaders must prepare for, and work toward a future with artificial intelligence. To do this they must understand that AI is not simply another productivity enhancer; it is a tool that can transform our thinking about how growth is created.


AI is not a new field; much of its theoretical and technological underpinning was developed over the past 70 years by computer scientists such as Alan Turing, Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy.

Today, the term refers to multiple technologies that can be combined in different ways to:


Computer vision and audio processing, for example,are able to actively perceive the world around them by acquiring and processing images, sound and speech. The use of facial recognition at border control kiosks is one practical example of how it can improve productivity.


Natural language processing and inference engines can enable AI systems to analyse and understand the information collected. This technology is used to power the language translation feature of search engine results.


An AI system can take action through technologies such as expert systems and inference engines, or undertake actions in the physical world. Auto-pilot features and assisted braking capabilities in cars are examples of this. 

All three capabilities are underpinned by the ability to learn from experience and adapt over time. AI already exists to some degree in many industries but the extent to which it is becoming part of our daily
lives is set to grow fast.

Two key factors are enabling AI growth:

1 Unlimited access to computing power

Public cloud computing was estimated to reach almost US$70 billion in 2015 worldwide. Data storage has also become abundant.

2 Growth in big data

Global data has seen a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 50 percent since 2010 as more of
the devices around us have become connected. As Barry Smyth, professor of computer science at University College Dublin, tells us: “Data is to AI what food is to humans.” So in a more digital world, the exponential growth of data is constantly feeding AI improvements.


There is no doubt that AI will create a quantum change in every industry segment over the next decade. The opportunity for South Africa is not just to improve efficiencies, but use AI to close gaps and radically improve productivity of people and assets, spur innovation and increase competitiveness across sectors.

The time to move forward—at every level, from reskilling for an AI future todeveloping policies to drive adoption and ensure ethical use of AI—is now.


  1. ABA Journal, “How artificial intelligence is transforming the legal profession,” April 1, 2016
  2. Robotics Business Review, “Fetch Robotics,” 2015
  3. Finders, K., “IPsoft gives automation platform a face,” September 30, 2014.
  4. IPsoft, “Amelia: Mortgage broker agent at a global bank,” 2016.
  5. Ford, “Ford teams up with MIT and Stanford to advance automated driving research,” January 22, 2014
  6. Ventureburn, SA startup Aerobotics secures funding round from Nedbank VC fund,13 July, 2018
  7. United Arab Emirates Government, UAE Artificial Intelligence Strategy

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