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Nomsa Nteleko on Embracing Artificial Intelligence in Africa

Africa has a unique opportunity to develop its competitiveness through artificial intelligence (AI) and there is a general sentiment that new digital technologies such as AI should be leveraged to drive large-scale transformation. AI is widely seen as a key to innovation and there are varying levels of confidence in the ability to widely deploy the technology in certain areas of the continent. A few countries on the continent, notably South Africa, Mauritius, Seychelles, Rwanda and Senegal have been noted in as taking different approaches in their efforts to lay the groundwork for innovation in AI.

This episode features Nomsa Nteleko, an award-winning entrepreneur from South Africa with 15 years’ experience in the ICT space. She is the Founder & CEO OS Holdings Ltd, and the Chief Commercial Officer at Amathuba AI. Nomsa’s experience is specifically in business and financial management systems, primarily assisting organizations in automating their business processes from HR, Payroll, Supply Chain and Municipal Standard Chart of Accounts.

Nomsa speaks about the limitless possibilities that artificial intelligence presents towards the automation of business processes on the continent. She also chats about what she views as the biggest misconceptions about AI, the moral and ethical dilemmas presented by the deployment of AI in Africa and why she thinks the continent is more than ready for AI. Nomsa also speaks about her journey as a young, black, female founder.

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*The transcript below has been generated through software, and may contain errors. Viewpoints with Brenda is designed to be heard. We strongly recommend that you listen to the episode for context and speech emphasis before quoting the text below in print.

BN  00:20: I’m so excited about this episode because not only is it my 10th episode and an episode on a topic that I’m keen to learn about, but it’s also the first episode that I’m having with an African changemaker who is not Ugandan. My guest today is a phenomenal black woman in STEM. Nomsa Olivia Nteleko is an award winning entrepreneur with 15 years experience in the ICT space. She is the founder of and CEO of OS Holdings Limited and the Chief Commercial Officer at Amathuba AI.  Nomsa’s experience is specifically in business and financial management systems. She primarily helps organizations in automating their business processes from HR payroll supply chain, municipal standard charter of accounts to ensure optimum performance of their resources. Nomsa’s vision is to see the African continent use technology to solve its challenges. So Nomsa, welcome to the podcast. I know my summary of your accomplishments does not do them justice so I’m going to let you introduce yourself. 

NN  01:20:  Hi Brenda, thank you very much. I’m really excited to be hosted at your podcast. It’s a true honor. I’m literally jumping up and down. Thank you very much for the opportunity. I think in terms of introducing me, you did an absolutely amazing job. My name is Nomsa Nteleko. I’m born in the Eastern Cape in South Africa; I grew up in Gauteng in Johannesburg. So my background is a combination of ICT accounting, project management and business development. I’m really in pursuit of leading high performing teams because that’s really where I’ve been enjoying — lead high performing teams that are able to deliver exceptional work for customers. I’m also really passionate in helping businesses automate their internal processes. I believe that technology is an enabler of a lot of things in business and ensuring that leaders in business succeed because they’re using a number of tools in technology. Our idea is to ensure that the internal processes are in alignment with the business strategic objectives. There’s no point in bringing a technology in an organization if it’s not aligned to the strategy of the company in terms of what they want to see themselves in the future. I firmly believe that the success of the C-suite lies in the richness of information that can be derived from their management reports and dashboards from which these leaders are in a position to make intelligent decisions about their businesses and profitability. So that’s basically who I am and what I really love to do.

BN  03:09: I think what you’re doing is amazing, and has the ability to change how Africans are doing business. So just diving right into artificial intelligence, how would you describe it?

NN  03:22: If you think about it, I can tell you about artificial intelligence according to Professor Malume from MIT, and this resonates with us very much at Amathuba. He states that AI is where a group of people, and computers can work better together than any group of people, or any group of computers ever did on their own. And from the Amathuba perspective, we believe that the AI technology gives back to humanity through providing increased capacity and freeing up times of humans to do more things, allowing humans to become more humane by moving away from working like robots. From our perspective, there is great power in that, in a sense that when you combine humans and bots, you can achieve greater than what a human can achieve alone, and what a bot can achieve alone. So that’s basically our simplistic definition and understanding and alignment of what AI means to us.

BN  04:31: And what would you say is the biggest misconception about artificial intelligence.

NN  04:36: It’s about people losing their jobs. And I think there needs to be created education around that to say people in organizations must not look at AI and think that people will lose jobs or organizations must not think that people will be replaced by AI. Think about it. The same thing happened when the internet craze came. In 2011, McKinsey reported that internet provided 2.4 new jobs at a cost of one job. Imagine what ratio would be today. I mean, that’s a decade later. So those are some of the things that we need to look at and re educate people about — to say, how do we then create new jobs and how to rescale our people in terms of the new opportunities that AI provides.

BN  05:26: And in the African context, do you think Africa is ready for AI? And who would benefit the most from it?

NN  05:34: To answer the first part, it would be critical to understand what the benefit would be seen as. One person may see benefit as financials, others, they can see it as time away from work to spend with one’s family. In some cases, people work from 6 to 10 everyday to get through mundane work, and never spending time with their family. That is a massive loss to generations and quality of life because one of the things that we need to strive for as a people is quality of life. 

NN  06:09: Now, if you think about is Africa ready? Question is, does Africa have businesses? Does Africa have airlines, supply chains? Do we have hospitals? We are definitely ready as a continent. And I think we need to really embrace the possibilities, the limitless possibilities AI will bring into our continent for us to be the creators of it, not just a continent that is ready to receive and consume. We want to use AI and technology for us to be creators, so we can serve the globe. Think about a situation where Edison invented electricity. Were we ready for that? There has been no limitation on achievement by having to make use of technology from the 1870s through the second industrial revolution. No continent is ever ready. But that is why there’s research and development. That’s why we have to continuously keep on improving our way of life and strive to do more with less to preserve our futures and aspire to live legacy to those that follow. So I think for me, it is not our job to assess whether we are ready or not. But how do we prepare ourselves to be ready for the opportunities that are brought by the latest technology? How about as Africans, we decided to be trendsetters instead of followers. And my greatest thing is that as Africans, why should we be mentioned last? And yet there’s so much innovation that has happened in the African continent. So my answer is definitely we are ready.

BN  07:50: So what would you say are the biggest benefits of AI.

NN  07:55: So if we think about AI is the technological capacity and processing volumes of data faster and more accurate than any human can? What that does, it allows for people to be more humane, while robots are taking care of the mundane transactions of capturing. For instance, allowing a financial service company who normally processes  4000 loan applications in a month, with staff complement of four to increase volumes to 40,000 loan applications a month with a combination of four staff members and eight bots, in the meantime, allowing better accuracy and reducing the processing time. So the technology is not limited to just one part of business, but it looks at processes. Like I indicated, technology replaces processes, not people. That is a great benefit where technology is concerned. 

NN  08:51: Think about it. Long time ago, accountants would be doing and recording these things manually. Imagine when a technology of a financial management system came and accountants then were afraid to say, look, we cannot take this technology because it takes away our job. But what the technology does it allowed the accountants to now start looking at the reporting, instead of worrying about writing and documenting these ledgers that would get lost. Or what happens if a building burns — these ledgers are not available. Now the job of accountants is to say the systems are available to take all the information that will be put in it and the reporting that comes out. That’s what helps the business, in terms of which way do you want to move as a business to continue to take advantage of the competitive advantage of what your business is bringing. And let’s bring it back to simple things like in their home. The invention of washing machines– does it mean now we don’t need helpers at our homes because we have washing machines? The invention of a microwave, the invention of a hoover. So these technologies, they really are there to aid humans and assist humans to have better lives. And if we can look at it that way, I believe there’s a lot that we can achieve.

BN  10:13: What do you think African companies, governments and other stakeholders should be doing right now in order to maximize the benefits of AI?

NN  10:21: I think what is important is that we need to really understand that AI is not an enemy, but a friend of humans. I know that there’s a lot of education that we need to do where AI is concerned. But the small experience can change how we think about it. So African countries, government, and individuals at large, we need to learn a little bit about it to say, what benefits can it bring, we need to then re-look at the skills would need to re-look at their education systems to say what are we teaching people at school? And the skills that we’re teaching, are these the skills for the future? 

NN  11:03: AI also requires critical thinking, because it automates what’s there. AI is not going to automate what is not there.  So we still need great thinkers that will be able to work very closely with the machines and technology that we bring in order to achieve what the organizations are needing, be it government, be it private sector companies, big organizations in every aspect of industry. So it’s the rethinking to say, how can we rethink our future? How can we make it easy? How can we use technology as an enabler? Technology is an enabler it does not replace.

BN  11:40: In terms of deployment in Africa, what do you think,are the main ethical dilemmas and moral questions associated with deployment in Africa?

NN  11:49: What we need to think about where ethics and AI are concerned, is that we need to change the human behavior. The problem is not with the technology, the problem is with the human behavior, or the human thinking, to say, how can I use technology to harm a person or to do unethical things. So that behavior is what we need to be looking at. How do we change the behavior so that as people we can actually make the right decisions, and we must do more good than do negative things.

BN  12:23: And just pivoting to you being a female founder, you recently celebrated your nine year anniversary for one of your companies OS Holdings? What has your journey been like as a female founder? And how did you reach that level of success you’ve reached given the sector’s gender gap?

NN  12:40: Thank you very much for that question, Brenda. Look, it has been a journey. We come from a history where, as a young African woman, there’s a stereotype that you don’t know what you’re doing, you will fail, you’re probably occupying a space through a BBE deal. You know, certainly that is the history that we come from, especially from the South African context. But this means that we have to work extra hard to bust the stereotype, especially in the technology point of view. Technology has not always been open or readily available for females, therefore, the minute you are young, or you look young, and you are in the technology space, when you are a woman and you are black, it’s a problem. So it means that we really have to work hard. And these things, if I can be faced with these things we can imagine what is it that my technical team goes through. But it has also been very exciting, because I’ve experienced the joys of sharing space with great minds and leaders. And I’ve had great opportunities to implement projects that are of national strategic importance. So being in a platform where you can create and where you can build, it has been an absolutely amazing journey. 

NN  14:00: For me, the greatest thing about being in business is that you need a greater ability to change when change is required. So there’s been also great challenges. We’ve had a number of learning lessons because business is not really easy. So you have to continuously be changing lending repurposing. So we’ve been very fortunate to have people that bought into our vision, and fly the flag very high for OS Holdings. 

NN  14:29: The other thing is in terms of the gender gap, I believe it starts at your ECD level. It starts at home, where girl children are given different toys to boys. Some of the other things girl children are experiencing is that they don’t finish school because there’s teenage pregnancy. They get married while they’re very young. By the time it gets to a graduate level, there’s a reduced number of girls compared to the number of males that are graduating. So you can imagine, even if there are opportunities that are open for women in STEM, or girls in STEM, there’s not a sufficient number. My thinking is that we need to change it right at the grassroots level. you know, in a family where a girl and a boy, they’re treated exactly the same, because they have the same intellectual capacity. That’s where we need to change it, I was reading research by W.H.O that was saying that it will take about 75 years in South Africa to curb the gender gap. So it is a big thing. It means that each and every one of us need to be really deliberate about introducing girl children to careers as where they could easily succeed. The other thing is, when I walk into a room, I walk into a room as a professional first, then as a woman, because I carried the same intellectual capacity any male can have in my space. I had to really develop a very thick skin for us to be able to succeed in the journey of business. I’m grateful that we attend nine this year, it’s been absolutely an amazing training. 

BN  16:10: We’ve met recently, and obviously, I am very inspired by you, and by the work you’re doing. So what would you say have been your biggest lessons on your journey so far?

NN  16:22: I think the biggest lesson is have the ability to change, because you cannot be stuck up on your ways. Have the ability to change and the ability to diversify. If perhaps your goal or the plan that you have is not really working, you need to then go back and rework it. And the other lesson is that the people that you bring into your world, you need to equip them with the same thinking and the same alignment in terms of what is it that you are trying to achieve? What I’ve learned that works best, especially when we talk about your employees, you need to tap into their natural ability, you need to place people in the right spaces in your organization, because at the end of the day, people need to really love what they do. And you have to learn resilience. I mean, I learned that resilience is key to you succeeding in anything that you embark on. And when I talk about agility and the ability to change, I mean, look at what COVID brought into a lot of businesses and a lot of businesses failed because they could not repair pose, and they could not change and they were not ready for the change. So ability to change when things change or when things don’t really work is key to any success of the business.

BN  17:46: That’s amazing. Nomsa I just want to thank you for coming on to the podcast and for making this 10th episode a really memorable one, obviously going to keep cheering you on from the sidelines as your normalize AI on the continent. So thank you so much.

NN  18:01: Thank you, Brenda. This has been an absolute pleasure. I’m really appreciative of the opportunity endears meeting you has been absolutely amazing for me. I’m looking forward to us collaborating further.

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