Building Africa 3 ways to navigate the ambiguity of growth

Amid global economic uncertainty, here are three levers for topline growth.

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Not a day goes by without news about a slowdown in the world economy.

Yet paradoxically, a recent Pricewaterhouse survey revealed that while 70 percent of global executives said it is more difficult to find profitable growth opportunities now than 10 years ago, 74 percent also said there are more profitable growth opportunities now a decade ago.

In other words, people on the frontlines of the world economy – executives in leading companies – know opportunities exist, but can’t see them. Growth is like a needle in a haystack.

Fortunately, amid the fog are three clear opportunities, opened by what is called the 4 Industrial Revolution and what I call Globalization 4.0:

1. Embrace the digital revolution.

Digitization is revolutionizing the economics of global production and trade. Digitization unlocks for companies new efficiencies, markets and innovations — without necessarily upsetting companies’ core business. Often, it makes it better:

  • GE saves as much as 75 percent in manufacturing costs by shifting to 3D print fuel nozzles.
  • UPS, using algorithms to route its trucks to avoid left turns, saves 3 million gallons of fuel per year.
  • Adobe ‎gained over 6 million subscribers in only 4 years shifting to a subscription-based Cloud service, and now and makes over 60 percent of its revenue from it.

These efficiency gains are far from fully harnessed even in advanced economies, with McKinsey finding that the U.S. economy is only realizing 18 percent of its digital potential. Some of the largest sectors — healthcare, construction, manufacturing — face the biggest gaps.

We found that U.S. middle market companies are only marginally satisfied with their own digitization practices, in a new study sponsored by Magento and co-authored by Nextrade Group and the National Center for the Middle Market. These companies — a key engine of economic growth and job creation, with $10 million to $1 billion in revenue — gave themselves a “Digital Grade Point Average” of 2.8 on a scale of 0-4. That’s the equivalent of a C+.

In Europe, while almost all companies have broadband Internet access, according to the World Bank, only 19 percent use the Cloud, 15 percent have online sales, and 4 percent use RFID technology.

These low numbers imply tremendous opportunity: the coming embrace of digitization is poised to generate hundreds of billions of dollars in efficiency gains.

2. Go Mobile with Emerging Market Millennials

The second growth lever is mobile — specifically, the nexus of mobiles, Millennials and emerging markets.

Today, 98 percent of people in advanced economies own a mobile phone, as do 80 percent in the developing world, according to World Bank. However, just 31 percent of people in developing countries use their mobile phones to get online, versus 80 percent in advanced economies.

This is changing, with the number of smartphone users expected to more than double by 2020 to 6.1 billion. Thanks to phone upgrades and cheapening 4G subscriptions, most smartphone users will hold the Internet in their hand — before they ever have used a PC. Mobile-wielding netizens globalize globalization. Sales channels leading straight to the shopper’s handheld mean that companies can sell to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Meanwhile, 85 percent of world’s workforce will be Millennials by 2025. Socialized by B2C social media, ecommerce and the sharing economy into mobile purchases, Millennials will also make B2B searches online. Already, Millennials account for nearly half of all B2B purchases, and 42 percent of searches for B2B purchases come from mobile phones — a three-fold increase from 2012.

As smartphones proliferate, B2B companies have great opportunities to translate Millennials in new markets into sales.

3. Drive for Better Policy

The Internet may seem ubiquitous, but we are still in the early days of achieving its full potential — something that savvy public policy and public-private partnerships can help unlock.

One area is digital protectionism — countries censoring websites, blocking the flow of cross-border data flows or mandating that foreign companies set up servers in-country for market access. These policies cost up to 2 percent of national GDP – for the country imposing the restrictions.

Narrowing digital divides would also spur growth. Only 46 percent of people globally use the Internet, and most of them are in advanced economies. Emerging markets still significantly trail advanced economies in Internet connectivity and technologies riding on the Web — as do rural areas behind urban centers, the old behind the young and women behind men.

‎Bridging certain “digital disconnects” could yield giant gains:

  • Harmonizing mobile spectrum in Asia could save the region $1 trillion each year.
  • Making the many national online payment platforms interoperable would boost cross-border online sales by billions.
  • Establishing regional Internet exchange points in Latin America would save the region 33 percent in cross-border data transit costs.

The long-term growth of companies and countries alike is largely determined not only by the amount of labor and capital, but also total factor productivity (TFP) — magic pixie dust that includes human capital, technology, good institutions, rule of law and other such hard-to-measure variables. At some point, labor and capital hit diminishing returns. Indeed, today’s concerns about secular stagnation owe partly to the fact that capital investments have run their course in China and other emerging markets.

‎TFP, meanwhile, is limitless. With determination and imagination, executives can take advantage of new technologies and better policies to draw out more TFP — and keep expanding topline growth. Global growth will follow.


Kati Suominen is the Founder and CEO of Nextrade Group, LLC and TradeUp Capital Fund. She is also Adjunct Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and Adjunct Professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management. She is authoring her 10th book, Globalization 4.0: How Disruptive Technologies Reshape Business and Policy in the Hyperconnected World.

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