Picture: 123RF/HASLOO
Picture: 123RF/HASLOO

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?

In these unprecedented times even the most experienced analysts and commentators would be hesitant to give a view on what a post Covid-19 world could look like. Bringing certainty to such an uncertain period is proving to be one of the main challenges we face in financial services and across the economy in general.

However, history continues to remind us that during great periods of uncertainty there are anchors we can always rely on to lift us out of the socioeconomic depression we find ourselves in, and to keep us moving forward. Not only that, but uncertain times have been known to spark great insights and innovations, challenging stale thinking and bringing in a blast of fresh, new ways of looking at the issues of the day.

I believe the grim challenges of 2020 can hold potential positives for the world. The consensus is that the world is heading for a “new normal”. There is no going back to the way things were. This means accelerated transformation on a whole range of fronts. As organisations that are driving empowerment in this country, we see our role as helping usher in a new world that is better, braver and more beautiful than the old one.

Therefore, whether we are talking about discrimination or bias based on race, age, gender or disability, we say the time is now to reimagine the world we want. To reinvent the rules and tools to ensure the new empowered world is much more inclusive, free of discrimination and united in effectively eradicating issues such as gender-based violence.   

The main thing to building this future is, of course, education and skills development. As a company that has achieved level 1 broad-based BEE status, with a radically transformed management team and controls in place to keep moving the transformation agenda of our businesses forward, we know that by channelling our resources and energy wisely we can begin to overcome crippling social issues such as poverty, inequality and unemployment.

In addition, by strengthening our investment in education and skills development we know we can build a more prosperous future for the generations of tomorrow.

So what exactly are we striving to achieve, or at the least what are the barriers we need to break down as a collective? The challenges are many. The official unemployment rate in SA climbed to 30.1% in March, and with the impact of the pandemic on jobs, experts predict this will soon be closer to 50%.

Things do not look good on the education front at present either. Unesco reports that of all regions, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of education exclusion. More than one fifth of children from about 6-11 years old are out of school, and one third of youth from about 12-14 years. Data also shows that almost 60% of youth from 15-17 years are not in school.

The need is real and the challenge seems great, but through sustained investment, innovation and collaboration, we believe we can play our part in creating opportunities for sustainable change in the education space across the continent. An old quote says, “The best way to eat an elephant is to take one bite at a time”.  The size of this problem seems enormous at face value, but if we break it up, I believe that it can become manageable.

Collaboration & partnerships

Across the sectoral divide, many organisations are already heavily invested in building societies that are more inclusive. The main barrier is not a shortage of funds or a deficit of effort, it is that we are working apart instead of together. Many companies have pre-existing education and skills development programmes in place, some that span decades and resources into the millions. Yet how often do we take the time to come together and ask “is this working, and can we do it more effectively?”

We must realise that working alone is the same as working apart. We must forge partnerships so that all of this work is not in vain and has the intended impact on the communities we serve. The urgency for us to collaborate to tackle our shared problems has in fact become a matter of life and death for millions of people across our continent.

Embracing technology

Disruptions to business, education, health, and generally every aspect of our daily lives because of the Covid-19 pandemic have forced us to ramp up our adoption and deployment of technology to keep our economy going.

For many of us, embracing technology is now less about a future focus than what we can do now with the tech we have available to us, so that we can create continuity, access and some semblance of normality for those we serve.

We are using tech to reach our customers, but also in the education space to connect, build and create greater access to learning for communities across the continent. We have launched an ambitious project to create Africa’s biggest digital classroom, harnessing technology to bring pupils, teachers, entrepreneurs and all other interested stakeholders together onto a platform of shared learning and shared value that we intend will become a valuable resource for the continent.

As a leading pan-African financial services company we certainly have the scale and the will to make this work, but we realise that without the right partners and the enabling technology the risk of failure is still high.

Purpose-led leadership

To give effect to the words and plans we all have in place, we need to encourage our organisations to become more purposeful in strategically adopting a shared values approach to operating in this new world. It is no longer good enough for us to do charitable things. We should be using our organisations as part of a broader strategy to deliver on our purpose. The main thing is turning purpose into something real and tangible.

For Old Mutual this is about growing our business through the work we are doing in the education and skills development spaces. By continuing to invest we create societies that are financially more literate and entrepreneurs who are able to create jobs for many more. This in turn creates more opportunities for our business to grow.

• Williamson is CEO of Old Mutual


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