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Enter the Blockchain era

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LEE NAIK, MD of Accenture Digital for South Africa believes the next era in banking will be Blockchain, as among other things it allows faster and more secure transactions, comprehensive audit trails and greatly reduced costs.

An internet of finance. The renaissance of money. If the previous decade was the age of mobile banking, the next looks set to be the era of Blockchain. No other technology has more potential to change the very face of how banking takes place.

People get tangled in the technical side of what Blockchain is – skip to 29:00 of this podcast for a fantastic explanation from Stuff editor Craig Wilson – so I want to rather focus on the incredible implications of this technology.

Currently, our model for managing the flow of money is antiquated. Transactions take place across multiple payment engines that all need central brokerage, which takes time, incurs cost and introduces needless complexity. As a decentralised ledger of transactions, Blockchain introduces a standardised framework for transactions rather than the individual payment ‘language’ of each bank.

Just how much of a game-changer is this? Just think of the Tower of Babel. Taking place in a time where everyone spoke the same language, humanity came to an agreement to build what was effectively an Old Testament version of the Burj Khalifa. God, realising what was about to happen, said a few holy words and caused the builders to suddenly speak a multitude of extremely confusing languages so they couldn’t cooperate properly.

The story shows the power of having a single unified language. A real life example would be the use of Sanskrit throughout the ancient world. Blockchain shows the same promise by offering a lingua franca for transactions across different banks and nations.

This is what makes the technology such a game changer. As a vehicle for universal, transparent communication, Blockchain’s potential for innovation is huge. Just like the Babel story, it allows us to reach right up to the heavens.

A world shaped by Blockchain

What does this mean for the business world? At the moment, no-one’s entirely sure, although it’s sure to be disruptive. Blockchain’s decentralisation and community-based assurance means it allows for faster and more secure transactions, comprehensive audit trails and greatly reduced costs, among other things. I’m incredibly excited about the potential applications across all industries.

Banks take note: Blockchain is effectively borderless, potentially enabling instant money transfers from any location. With Africa standing out as one of the largest and fastest-growing remittance markets in the world, Blockchain could potentially free up billions in costly brokerage fees. Numerous start-ups and some large banks are already testing out Bitcoin and other Wallet services in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

Then there is the possibility for smart assets to drastically change models of ownership. Blockchain currencies like Ethereum and Ripple could allow for the risk-free exchange of real-world assets in a single transaction. Imagine being able to enter into an instant smart bond that pays for itself and has a risk-free interest rate.

It’s not just banks that will feel the effects either. A Blockchain-based energy network for example could effectively allow consumers to bypass traditional utilities providers and enjoy ‘peer-to-peer’ electricity. Need some energy? Who needs a service provider when you have a neighbour with solar panels willing to sell.

And that’s just a tiny sampling of potential use cases – there’s the possibility of specialty lending, tamper-proof digital record-keeping, transparent e-voting and much, much more. Here’s what I believe enterprises should be doing in order to sniff these out.

Just do it

Not every application is necessarily suited for distributed ledgers. There’s just one way to find out – by jumping into the sandbox and playing around with the toys available. Dedicate some resources to testing out possible use cases and developing potential proofs-of-concept. Partner with FinTech companies and start-ups who already have some Blockchain knowledge and set up a space for experimentation, free of the pressure of short-term monetisation.

Join the community

The best way of keeping ahead of the Blockchain curve is to become part of the conversation. There’s a thriving cryptocurrency community out there that covers every industry and talking point. Immerse yourself in the discussions and you’ll be up to date on what the evangelists, sceptics and early adopters are really thinking.

Start having the conversation

One of the biggest obstacles to mainstream Blockchain adoption is that of regulation. Similar to Uber, which faces regulatory roadblocks in many of the countries it launches in, Blockchain players will also have an uphill battle to fight. In Africa especially, legislation tends to be somewhat silent on the basics of IT systems. Similarly, there needs to be an understanding among your own staff on what Blockchain is, how to use it effectively and what exactly it can do. Start preparing the narrative now so that the educational foundation is there when the time comes to launch distributed ledger applications into operation.

Go for glory

Blockchain isn’t going to become mainstream overnight, but many companies – from small start-ups to major financial institutions – are already testing use cases in an attempt to be first to market. It’s tempting to either try outrace the competition or sit back and wait until use cases are fairly established to swoop in as a best in class alternative. But why not both? It’s always preferable to be a disruptive force, but this calls for a strategy that is as bold as it is structured. Start with what your customer wants, utilising existing use cases – other organisations’ as well as your own – as tools to build experiences that go above and beyond.

Have you begun to explore the possibilities for Blockchain in your enterprise? How far along is your industry in the adoption of cryptocurrencies?

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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