Conversation with Kwena Mabotja (Africa Regional Director at SAP Next-Gen) – a catalyst to moving our African continent forward
In this post, I have an interview with Kwena Mabotja.
What inspired you to embark into the tech industry? Can you tell us a little bit about your journey?
I have a business background having started my career as a strategy and operations management consultant in one of the top firms in South Africa. Through various consulting engagements, I have had the opportunity to work across various industries where I have put into practise key concepts in Business Administration and innovation to solve business challenges, thereby building critical leadership and problem-solving skills that allow me to fulfil my current role today.
To further develop my professional skills, I embarked on an MBA at the University of Cape Town which permanently altered the course of my career. This was a pivotal year, where I developed a deep passion for Africa’s potential as a continent and started to see a role for myself as a catalyst to moving our continent forward.
Following my MBA, I was awarded a one-year fellowship in Germany at SAP’s global Headquarters in Walldorf, where I developed a keen interest in technology and started to see the application of tech as a tool that can solve problems and drive impactful and sustainable development for Africa.
Africa is blessed with a multitude of assets that if well leveraged, can poise our continent to realise its unbound potential. Our youth for example, is Africa’s greatest asset with one of the largest youth workforce. With the 4th Industrial Revolution, we will see an upsurge in tech related jobs. This is an opportunity for our vast and youthful workforce to contribute towards providing necessary tech skills that can help us thrive within the digital age. Africa also possesses a unique set of challenges that are opportunities for innovation that can not only solve African social challenges but also be exported to the rest of the world. For example, international investors are now looking to Africa as we continue to pioneer Fintech innovations that are providing convenient and affordable financial services that can be accessible to all.
Therefore, technology inspires me because I see it as an essential tool and enabler that can help us drive meaningful innovation and positive socio-economic change for our continent.
You currently look after the SAP Next-Gen Program which is described as an Innovation Community for SAP linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. As the Director for Africa- what are some of your highlights in this role?
SAP has committed itself as an organisation that is driving a business agenda with purpose. We look to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) as a framework to rally our network and technology towards innovation with purpose. SAP Next-Gen’s philosophy is to provide an open platform to connect SAP’s vast eco-system of customers and partners- which consists of global influential organisations within the public sector, civic society, academia, youth, start-ups, accelerators and incubators, to collaborate and join forces.
Given Africa’s young population, a priority for us in Africa is to enable the future workforce. As such, we have a robust university and school programme whereby we partner with a Pan-African Academic Community to empower students with relevant industry related tech skills. This creates a future ready pipeline of talent into Africa’s ecosystem. A program I am particularly proud of is our foundational Enterprise Systems for Africa curriculum that has so far trained over 5000 students across 13 African countries on SAP industry related software, contributing workforce ready graduates and reducing youth unemployment.
We have a strong focus on establishing gender equality across all spheres, as we believe this is a critical pillar to solving many of the other UN SDGs. Gender Equality is a topic close to my heart. By encouraging more women and girls to enter tech, we level the playing field and create opportunities for women to take up careers in the field and provide needed skills whilst creating income earning opportunities for themselves. An example of our Gender Equality initiatives is our partnership with The Female Quotient where we establish FQ Lounges on campuses of African universities- sending a strong message that women have a space to hold in the tech and innovation conversation. For broader reach, we deploy a FQ App (available on Android, iOS soon to follow) with the Female Quotient that connects to the global community whilst providing a skills platform for women and girls to build their skills sets. We also bring Women in Data Science conferences to Africa which is a movement born out of Stanford University, to inspire women and girls to view data science as a viable career opportunity.
Start-ups represent the next generation of innovators that can create jobs, however they need vigorous ecosystems that are connected and resourceful to support growth and sustainability. To support Africa’s ecosystems and tell an Africa-centric narrative of innovation, SAP Africa is sponsoring
Start-up Guide for five African cities. Start-up Guide is the Lonely Planet of a cities innovation eco-system, where we profile exciting start-ups, investors, accelerators, incubators universities and programs available to support entrepreneurs. Start-up Guide is the ultimate resource for innovation. We also view this as an opportunity to attract global attention to African cities by telling the African innovation narrative.
You were part of the Mandela Washington Programme in the USA (an initiative started by former President Barack Obama for Young African Leaders) - how was that experience for you? How has it impacted the work you do back on the African continent?
I was blessed to be accepted as part of the Business and Entrepreneurship track hosted by North Western University’s Kellogg Business School in Chicago.
The Mandela-Washington Fellowship was a well-rounded transformational experience for me that presented multiple learning opportunities that have allowed me to gain more impact in my activities.
We were exposed to concepts and practical case studies on starting and sustaining a business using the Business Model Canvas as a central theme. This has allowed me further insight in terms of how start-ups can grow their businesses. Access to business acumen and knowledge is amongst the biggest challenges for African entrepreneurs. As such, I have leveraged the content from the Fellowship to run Business Model Canvas Workshops for township entrepreneurs in South Africa, providing access to otherwise unattainable knowledge.
Understanding innovation ecosystems was another important theme of the Fellowship where we were taken on site visits to interact with the top incubators, accelerators and innovation hubs in Chicago. This gave me exposure to some of the building blocks for mature innovation ecosystems and how these models may be replicated to support Africa’s ecosystems to thrive.
Lastly, the Fellowship provided the opportunity to be inspired by the brightest minds from various countries across the continent who were part of my cohort. The networking aspect is invaluable. Through the fellowship, I now have a network of like-minded peers who have collaborated with me on joint projects across the continent which provides for a truly continent-wide reach.
You are described as a “change multiplier who is passionate about empowering Africa’s youth and women through skills development, innovation and technology as a key driver in unlocking economic growth”. What are some of the challenges that currently limit us as youth and women, particularly in Africa, to reaching our potential?
From a tech skills perspective, there are a number of factors that I believe are constraining the uptake of tech in youth, women and girls. For example, in South Africa, our educational system can be improved in terms of delivering STEM curriculum, to spark the initial interest in learners towards pursuing tech careers. In addition, due to the rapid pace of digital advancement, in some instances it can be difficult for traditional academic institutions to alter curricula. This is compounded by the fact that youth are facing challenging socio-economic circumstances where access to resources such as the internet, tablets or laptops is limited.
To address this, it is important to have an intentional effort where multiple stakeholders are collaborating to close these gaps. Initiatives such as President Ramaphosa’s Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution where the private, public and civic sectors are all playing a role towards creating more future ready skills and ensuring that South Africa is ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be critical to advancing youth.
What advice would you give young females looking to get into the 4th industrial revolution?
As young women, we are the creators of our destinies. I would encourage young women to take the initiative in building their careers. Here are a few practical tips:
- Be proactive about keeping yourself informed about technological trends and how that may impact your area of interest.
- Research what skills are needed for the future of work. Compare that to your existing skills and identify gaps. There are many free resources online. Find online courses or youth skills development programs that can help you bridge your skills gaps.
- Find mentors and network. You don’t always have to look far for mentors. Sometimes it’s an aunt who you admire. Ask them for advice.
- Lastly, be brave and act! You have agency to create your future and once you act on it, the possibilities become endless.
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