by Joanne Carew

Diversity is crucial for digital transformation, say African tech leaders

Dec 01, 2021
Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion is no longer a compliance issue. Today, it is critical to represent a more diverse customer base in order to achieve business and economic growth, according to speakers at the recent Women Transforming Technology Summit for sub-Saharan Africa organized by IDC.

diversity gender equality girl power south african women hugging and leadership careers south afric
Credit: CecillieArcurs / Getty Images

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is no longer a compliance issue — it is a critical component in achieving business and economic growth through digital transformation, according to analysts and technology executives leading businesses in sub-Saharan Africa.

Digital transformation is a necessary disruption because it changes how an organisation delivers value, and these days customers aren’t only interested in quality and cost, they also demand proactive service, personalised interactions and connected experiences across a range of digital channels.

Beyond tools and technologies, digital transformation is also about transforming the modern workforce. This goes beyond complying with government legislation, like South Africa’s Employment Equity Act, which seeks to drive progress towards workplace equity. Today, businesses must endeavour to transform the workplace so that it is more representative of the customers they serve, according to participants at the recent Women Transforming Technology Summit for sub-Saharan Africa organized by IDC.

“Despite a growing number of IT organisations saying that they are developing and implementing diversity and inclusion strategies, the proportion of women and minorities still averages under 25% for all employees, particularly in technical and engineering roles,” noted Mark Walker, associate vice president for sub-Saharan Africa at IDC.

The open source community is an example of the value of having diverse perspectives, especially when it comes to innovation, said Monica Sasso, EMEA FSI (financial services) chief technologist at Red Hat. “When lots of different people from different backgrounds literally swarm over a problem, all of these unique views deliver better outcomes. And you get products that more people want as a result,” Sasso said. 

Mariam Abdullahi, the Kenya-based director of platform partnerships for Android and Play at Google, agreed. “True diversity goes beyond gender, beyond ability and beyond ethnicity. All of these elements must be represented in your organisation if you want to succeed in serving the world as it is. You’re not doing anyone a favour by prioritising diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s just good business.”

But there are challenges.

Diversity programmes often fail

Most companies have programmes that seek to boost diversity, equity and inclusion but these often fail to translate into real workforce transformation. Even at an organisation like Google, which has long been committed to diversity and inclusion, according to Abdullahi, the number of female employees in senior leadership currently sits at below 35%.

Anna Collard, senior vice president of Content Strategy at KnowBe4 Africa, the world’s largest integrated platform for security awareness training, noted that having diverse teams is particularly valuable within the cybersecurity space because you get a view of the problem from so many different angles. But the industry is nowhere close to getting this right, she explained. “Within cybersecurity in Africa only about 9% of the security professionals are female. And only 1% of these are in executive management positions.”

So, large organisations need to do more to make a real change, and so do small businesses and start-ups. SME and start-up culture has to become more open and accepting of female founders, continued Mercy Onyango, Kenya-based channel business lead at Fortinet, a global cybersecurity solutions company. “This is important because when a woman starts a business, it has a knock-on effect because she is more likely to hire another woman.”

According to a recent report from Findexable, a global database of fintech firms, representation within the fintech space leaves much to be desired. Of the more than 1,000 fintech companies in the Findexable database, just 16 are founded by women. “That’s just 1.5%,” noted Sasso. “And the Findexable survey found that where women are in executive roles, they are most likely to be chief people officers, chief marketing officers or chief financial officers. Which showcases that where there are women in senior roles, they aren’t in the more positions where they have the chance to innovate.”

Reframing perceptions about gender and roles

Changing this situation, said Collard, requires a social change. It’s about reframing how society perceives some roles as being for men and others for women. Beyond this, it’s critical to create programmes that encourage and support women in their efforts to pursue careers STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics ) fields from school all the way through to university. And then when these women enter the workforce, in industries that are typically dominated by men, businesses need to create working environments that make them feel welcome.

In line with this, companies must be intentional about recruitment, continued Onyango. If you have a particularly homogenous team, it’s important for team leaders to make a concerted effort to bring in people who look and think differently because they introduce alternative ideas that speak to different customer demographics. “As is the case with any new business initiative, you need to have a dedicated bus driver; someone who is championing and driving the effort from the front,” added Collard.

Now is the perfect time to be intentional about making a change, concluded Abdullahi. “I really think that nature has given us an incredible opportunity to redefine our businesses and our world.”