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Driving digital transformation in South Africa IN ASSOCIATION WITH


Driving digital transformation in South Africa WRITTEN BY





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Head of Data Insights Management at Telkom, on the challenge of navigating the South African market amidst a digital transform


elkom is a leading communications service provider in South Africa, operating in more than 38 countries across the continent of

Africa. Founded in 1991, it has transformed from the only telecommunications provider in South Africa to the diversified organisation delivering end-to-end 04

solutions to consumers and enterprise customers that it is today. Telkom serves a range of business and residential customers and has all the key components of true convergence, allowing the organisation to provide integrated voice, data, fixed, mobile, IT and data centre solutions. Zjaen Coetzee is Head of Data Insights Management at Telkom. He affirms his organisation has significantly changed the way it operates over the last decade. “In the last 10 years, Telkom has transformed from a fixed line operator to a mobile operator,� he says. “We own and operate several subsidiaries; we do property management through gyro as well as the traditional Yellowpages, but we now have a complete digital platform incorporated specifically called Telkom SMB. We have a retail business that does mobile


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and fixed line for consumers. We also

in other countries in packaging and

have BCX, which is the largest ICT

delivering solutions that don’t work in

company in South Africa, and has an

South Africa. However, this isn’t unique

international footprint specialising in

to us and is also the case for many

everything ICT-related. We really have

other telecom providers in the country.

become a fully diversified platform.”

South Africa is extremely diverse and

Coetzee believes there are sub-

it’s important that whatever you do in

stantial hurdles to overcome in the

packaging, it adds value and your ser-

South African market. “Navigating the

vice is reliable.”

market is the biggest challenge that we


In a bid to address a skills short-

face. There’s a big drive to cut down on

age in the country, the Explore Data

costs because people obviously want

Science Academy (EDSA) was estab-

cheaper services,” he says. “There’s

lished to increase local data science

also the cultural challenge because

skills through partnerships and spon-

there are things that typically work

sorship from large organisations to tap

“We really have become a fully diversified platform” Zjaen Coetzee, Head of Data Insights Management, Telkom

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07 into this resource pool. Since its incep-

Engineer at Telkom, believes there has

tion in 2016, over 1,000 students have

been significant focus on developing

gone through the programme. “The

the role of the data scientist. “It has

EDSA has grown to become a massive

worked very well and injected lots of

learning platform that caters for data

resources into the marketplace,” he

science training in several ways, as well

says. “Telkom has benefited con-

as for individuals to use it to change

siderably as we see data scientists

career or pursue their passion in data

appointed into different divisions, as

science,” says Coetzee. “It has short

well as assisting with other types of

and long courses and ranges from

workloads that are powering Big Data.

high school programmes to executive

We’re also centred around enabling the

training. The prime aim was to invest

data engineering type of training and

back into the South African market

providing for those roles too.”

and get a running pipeline of skills to tap into each year.” CJ Smit, Lead Data

Smit understands the importance of leveraging Big Data into operations w w w.te l ko m . co. z a



and affirms harnessing value remains

People don’t always understand that

the key. “The traditional way in which

Big Data isn’t just the only technology

we produced customer insight and

that they use but is also one of the

recommendations was to simply

necessary technologies to enable

analyse transaction activity in a data

quicker time to value. It’s important to

warehouse,” he says. “However, the

deploy the right technology at the right

limitation is that only transaction

time in order to produce the quickest

activity is analysed. It doesn’t include

time to value.”

analysis of other high value data that

Thembani Phaweni, Senior Data

when pieced together offers a much

Scientist in the BCX division, believes

more complete understanding of a

Big Data has brought significant ben-

customer’s DNA. Therein, lies the

efits to countries such as South Africa

problem. We have to understand the

that have vastly different speaking

customer from a holistic perspective.

cultures. “There are many advantages.

“Navigating the South African market is the biggest challenge that we face” Zjaen Coetzee, Head of Data Insights Management, Telkom 09

As a retail focused business, distrib-

that while no one can successfully

uted technology personalisation and

predict the future accurately, instead

autonomous or smart technology have

you can take a view on the kinds of

all been key drivers,” says Phaweni.

technologies that seem promising.

“Personalisation is possible with deeper

“Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR)

insights into customer behaviour and

is one of those promising technologies

their preferences. This means more

especially in a market as diverse and

granular segmentation and user driven

culturally rich as Africa,” he says. “The

product development. Autonomous

challenge is that speech requires good

and smart technology means fibre

and large datasets many of which don’t

networks and towers that report their

exist and others are simply too small

own faults and eventually autonomous

for commercial tools. Of course, the

agents that can repair them without

ASR does not standalone, it requires a

risking human lives.” Phaweni believes

plethora of natural language tools.” w w w.te l ko m . co. z a

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“Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) is one of those promising technologies, especially in a market as diverse and culturally rich as Africa� Thembani Phaweni, Senior Data Scientist, BCX

When beginning its data science journey in 2016, the first partner that Telkom collaborated with was Cloudera for a formal Big Data platform and the alliance remains strong today. “Cloudera has played an influential role and assisted in shaping the roadmap and strategy for expansion, as well as increasing capabilities in tandem with BCX. As part of that, there is a strong partnership with BCX and Cloudera from an external marketing facing perspective” explains Coetzee. “For our cloud-based solutions we use Google Cloud Platform to develop and host most of our data science and analytics cloud-based applications and proprietary tools. Paired with this and the drive to rapidly prototype and deliver solutions faster we required a strong local partner that can assist with leading technology and for this we use Slipstream to manage our Tableau and Alteryx licencing, support and training relationships.” Coetzee understands the importance of forming sustainable and mutually beneficial partnerships. “We’re typically seeking a collaboration with someone that has the capabilities to support us, because if we do run into w w w.te l ko m . co. z a




any issues such as licencing then they

overall digital literacy within the organi-

can be easily resolved,” says Coetzee.

sation across the business,” explains

“We must always ask ourselves: is it

Coetzee. “We’ve been pushing data

affordable and does it make sense?

literacy for some time but people aren’t

Ultimately, it must be a company that we

always aware of the true value of data.

can go on a journey with and they must

This is one of the biggest challenges

be open to offering continuous support.”

that we face in terms of Big Data

Over the next few months, Coetzee affirms that Telkom will focus on data literacy. “Data literacy is a massive

because if you forget about the value of data then the platform won’t work.” With the future in mind, Thembani is

driver and over the next few months,

excited about the impact that speech

we will be focusing on increasing the

technology could have on the South

“It’s important to deploy the right technology at the right time in order to produce the quickest time to value” 15

CJ Smit, Lead Data Engineer, Telkom

African landscape. “We’re invested in

for English does not work very well on

technologies that provide a richer user

South African accents. We’ve since

experience,” says Phaweni. “We are

realised that we need to build our own

very passionate about computer vision

ASR. We are starting by building a large

and natural language processing. The

dataset with thousands of hours of

future of autonomous technology is

transcribed audio. We’re excited about

very promising. Speech technology is

the potential that this has.”

a fascinating and important area going forward. We recently built a prototype meeting assistant for the South African market. We quickly realised that Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) w w w.te l ko m . co. z a



Profile for Business Chief Europe

Telkom - July 2020  

Telkom - July 2020