Picture: 123RF/SOLARSEVEN
Picture: 123RF/SOLARSEVEN

In the Business Beyond Covid series, CEOs and other business leaders and experts in their sectors look to the future after Covid-19. What effect has the pandemic and resulting lockdown had on their industries and the SA economy as a whole? Which parts will bounce back first and which will never be the same again? Most importantly, they try to answer the question: where to from here?

SA is more than 60 days into the Covid-19 lockdown. Alert level 5 brought the country to a halt and gave the government essential breathing space to focus on its preparations for a humanitarian crisis. When we shifted to level 4, according to a recent Standard Bank report, still only 50% of businesses were operating.

Now, as we move to level 3, the economy is gearing up, companies will reopen and, inevitably, thoughts are turning to the prospect of “some sort of normal”.

The question is, what sort of normal will the future hold? It’s tempting to make predictions, but these are early days and right now there is no crystal ball. Across the world there are many factors at play and ultimately they will all come together to shape our future: our new normal.

Naspers’s strategy has always been to anticipate changes in human needs and consumer behaviour, particularly in the context of technology advances, and to then apply innovative solutions to address those needs. Building from our start in media, over the years we’ve guided our group’s evolution into firstly TV and video entertainment, and more recently into internet and social platforms.

Today, the entrepreneurs and teams at the heart of our investments and companies improve the daily lives of more than a fifth of the world’s population. They enable people to buy and sell online, easily order meals that are delivered quickly to their homes, access important financial services that traditional banks won’t provide to them, educate themselves without ever visiting a classroom, and much more.

And they satisfy that most basic of human needs: the ability for people to connect and interact with each other, even when they are locked down at home. It is the combination of the endeavour of those teams and the technology they apply that makes all of this possible.

Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus this powerful relationship between human endeavour and technology. For example, think about the way many of us are working today, wherever we are in the world. Chances are, if you have an office job you’re working from home and not in an office. While technology has made this possible for decades, it’s only in more recent years that companies have fully embraced the importance of flexible working practices for their talented people.

Covid-19 has step-changed this need, asking big questions of IT teams that they have answered with endeavour and vigour. Whole companies have adapted to operating on empty offices in just a matter of weeks, in some cases, days. Human endeavour and technology have come together to make this happen.

But what of the future? Could Covid-19 permanently shift how we work? Some think so. Already, some companies have announced remote working forever. The implications are significant, not least for those supplying the office-working ecosystem: transport companies enabling the daily commute; office construction companies; local shops and restaurants serving office worker communities, to name just a few.

At Naspers, we believe things happen faster and our culture is stronger when our teams are together. So, while we have adapted fast to continue to effectively run our global business remotely, our long-term intention is to return to our offices when it is safe for our people to do so.

A critical technology debate in recent times has focused on data and privacy. From the right to be forgotten to the security of databases holding personal information to the desire for an unobserved life, it’s no surprise and quite right that data privacy is a hot topic for many people. Data is hard cash in an increasingly digital world. It is the lifeblood of technology companies and often the medium of exchange between them and their customers — customers who want to enjoy ever more personalised products and services that can only be made possible by sharing an increasing amount of personal information to enable that tailoring.

It’s already a delicate balance and an emotive topic, and technology companies have a huge responsibility to safeguard the data they hold and use it responsibly and as prescribed. As a global consumer internet group we take that responsibility very seriously indeed.

Covid-19 is adding a moral dilemma to the debate. We see technology companies working together to build products that help governments track the whereabouts of their citizens so they can trace contacts to control the spread of infections if they test positive for Covid-19. The success of this technology relies on knowing where the majority of citizens have been and who they have spent time with. This could well shape a new perspective and debate on privacy with far-reaching implications for the future: the sacrifice of personal privacy for the greater good.

Covid-19 has also demanded that companies evaluate their position and responsibility in the world order. The corporate response to the pandemic, in general, has been encouraging. From fashion designer labels to alcoholic beverage producers, from supermarket chains to small-town diners, companies are standing up to be counted. These efforts have been well represented as “doing the right thing because it’s just the right thing to do”.

For Naspers this is also true. In addition to our donation to the Solidarity Fund, we felt that through the combination of our teams and our technology we could have an even bigger effect by supporting government’s humanitarian effort with the provision of much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line healthcare workers.

Our promise was to source, purchase, ship and distribute, as fast as possible, R1bn-worth of PPE from China for distribution to healthcare services identified by the department of health. This significant undertaking — resulting in the procurement of more than 12-million PPE units to date — was made possible through tireless collaboration between our SA teams, our long-term partners at Tencent in China, teams in government, and the logistics experts of our e-commerce retailer, Takealot. With the last shipments imminent, this struck me as the perfect example of human endeavour and technology coming together to achieve something very meaningful.

Across our group in other countries, our companies and partners are making their own contributions. For example, in Brazil our food delivery business iFood is providing R$100m of support to restaurants and couriers affected by Covid-19. OLX, our online classifieds business, used its marketplace platform in Portugal to help find homes for healthcare professionals, and in Ukraine and Poland OLX connects volunteers with vulnerable people who require routine help with activities such as dog walking and shopping.

Our online education companies have understandably seen big shifts in users and usage patterns on their platforms with students unable to attend physical classes and newly unemployed or furloughed employees determined to learn new skills — they have made many of their services free to use at this time. The corporate world is standing shoulder to shoulder with governments, communities and citizens to support the response to Covid-19. Could this mark the dawn of a new era of societal awareness and contribution? Something that was already well under way, but perhaps now accelerated by a global pandemic?

While it is impossible today to predict either the exact shape of a new normal or precisely when it will be in place, there is no doubt in my mind that the digital world will be ever more important. Before Covid-19 the world was already shifting dramatically from offline to online. One thing we can be sure of is that Covid-19 will have accelerated that trend and no-one should underestimate the importance of the combination of human endeavour and technology.

• Van Dijk is Naspers CEO.