Women need to upskill to join the digital transformation revolution

Published On: 31 January 2022|

She grew up in Limpopo, in a township called Namakgale, but her parents never let her forget that “home” was the village. It is why Dr Stella Bvuma, Head of the Department of Applied Information Systems at the University of Johannesburg, has an acute sense of the wider technological gap in rural areas – particularly for women.

Today, she runs the department where she studied technology but says her favourite job is being house mother at a women’s residence. But MaStella, as her students call her, says that it is not just rural woman who need to upskill and embrace digital transformation. So does every woman and every budding woman entrepreneur.

She was speaking at the inaugural Economic Activation Workshop of The Student Women Economic Empowerment Programme (SWEEP).  Launched in October 2021 as an initiative of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, this was the first workshop of its kind, held virtually on FaceBook and Zoom from 25 to 27 January. SWEEP was inspired by widespread concern over the under representation of women in entrepreneurship.

Dr Bvuma, who spoke on Leveraging Digital Technology for Sustainable Participation, believes that underrepresentation extends to women in the technology sector. “Women have made strides in the field of information technology, but when it comes to diversity and inclusion, there’s a long way to go. The scary reality is that we may not see economic gender parity in our lifetime. Women are severely underrepresented in the tech industry and it’s a real problem.”

What is Digital Transformation?

She said people often think digital technology is for IT nerds but underlined the importance of tapping into the digital transformation space for full economic participation. Digital transformation, she said, meant integrating digital technology into all areas of business including how you operate and deliver value to customers.

“It means using technology to enable your day-to-day operations.”

Digital transformation is also about cultural change and requires entrepreneurs to challenge the status quo. “You need to experiment and get comfortable with failure.” She described her initial resistance to abandon a button-pressing Nokia in favour of a smartphone, adding that, now, most people are comfortable with deploying the smart technology. “I train SMMEs on digitisation. You can’t remain competitive and be sustainable if you don’t deploy technology.” She cited Uber as a business accessing the market through technology – “without us going to their offices.”

Women need Upskilling

Dr Bvuma said she wanted to touch a nerve… “When I visit my home in the village, the women are around big pots under the tree while men are doing serious stuff, setting up the agenda. It fascinates me: Who started this nonsense?

“I don’t take pride in that I’m the first black female head of the department of Applied Information Systems at UJ – it’s nonsensical to even mention it in today’s age. It’s not an achievement. It’s 2022 for heaven’s sake.

“Our problems start with how we view women and how we define ourselves. We need to change that perception.  We need to do more to inspire and support women to enter various industries, including the tech industry. If we don’t, we risk closing off a key area of growth from female talent.”  She said women need to upskill.

She strongly believes there is an urgent need to eliminate gender and all other biases from the workplace to encourage fair representation of all groups before it is too late. “Some progress, for compliance, is not good enough. More needs to be done to address economic participation of women, especially as workplaces change due to technological advances. All of us need to connect so everyone can partake equally. Technology has the power to enable that.”

She described UJ’s school of consumer intelligence and information systems, the Technopreneurship Centre, as a place where students from all faculties – law, accounting or engineering – can work in a tech space that enables every sector.

“Technology doesn’t care what the sector is; it will disrupt it.”

Disrupting inequality

On a matter close to her heart, Dr Bvuma said: “We urgently need to disrupt the digital inequality. We need more women in every sector to tap into the tech space, for us to manage the risk of implementing biased technologies.

“We can only do that if we understand the role that technology plays. It is well known that a lot of Artificial Intelligence technology is biased and that is why women must get involved to provide the expertise of what these technologies can and cannot do. It is important for us to have a voice.”

Digital adoption

On digital technology adoption, Dr Bvuma said this depended on stakeholders’ responsibility to make the right decisions. Women, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, those in the university sector all need to participate and have a voice. She advocates for the creation of a non-biased digital environment where the adoption of digital technologies reduces rather than increases the digital divide.

Shifting customer mind-set

Mobile devices, apps, machine learnings or automation all enable customers to get what they want, when they need it. “I can shop while I’m in the kitchen. Technology has changed expectations and customers need to be communicated with differently when providing a service.

“When I ask a question on a FaceBook business page and get an answer after three days, I’m long gone. I need an answer now. That’s the shift.” This shows that today’s constantly connected customers, aware of what they can do with the technology, want quick and efficient answers. Customer ratings are now based on their digital experience – ‘I logged into your App and I tried to do X and nobody responded’ – not someone complaining about a bank teller’s attitude.

Women-led Businesses

Dr Bvuma says supporting women-led businesses is an important element of every country’s economic growth strategy. She applauds SA’s government Ministry of Small Businesses initiative as an acknowledgement that the growth and development lie in supporting small businesses. There is evidence that when a woman-led business is supported, there is a stronger chance of positively improving the entire community.

Emphasising that women-led businesses are the cornerstone of society, Dr Bvuma quoted The McKinsey Global Institute report: when you advance women equally, you can add up to $12 trillion to the global economy – estimated to be seen by 2025. In a best-case scenario, that number could jump to $28 trillion. “Are the women in rural areas and in townships going to be part of this trillion-dollar economy? It is only possible through technology, but how will it happen if they don’t understand?”

This pointed to a need to focus on policies that advance female participation in technology.


That said, the percentage of South Africans who remain unconnected remains a great concern.  Dr Bvuma said historically black people were prohibited from owning businesses, so it is necessary to acknowledge this past and the unique challenges that entrepreneurs face. Otherwise, “there will be misleading conclusions regarding the adoption of technology. “Those who use technology are those who are exposed to the technology.”

She added that entrepreneurs in South Africa are unique and diverse. Environments differ and the issues affecting them could be technological, socio-economic, or of other nature. “We need to keep on searching and learning and finding spaces where there are up-skilling opportunities.”

The Pandemic

She pointed out that the pandemic accelerated the use of technology as entrepreneurs increasingly relied on Internet connections. Said Dr Bvuma: “I trained many SMMEs on how to use the WhatsApp business app to communicate with customers – it was about the businessperson and the world of connectivity.”

She said female entrepreneurs who remain resilient carry the potential to contribute significantly. “We have technology we can utilise. It does not have a gender; it’s for all of us.  Let us take this technology and use it in our classrooms and in our kitchens to create the virtual realities, and to bring people into our business.”

Q&A with Dr Stella Bvuma (SB) facilitated by leading studentpreneurs

Vuthlari Shirindza (right), a sixth-year medical student at the University of Cape Town, was a 2nd Runner-up in Category 3 (Existing Business – Social Impact) at the EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity 2021. She runs a pet telehealth business called Chewi.

VS: How can businesses, especially in under-privileged communities, adopt digital transformation without creating another digital divide where the haves with better access leave the have-nots behind?

SB: As a small business owner you don’t have the luxury of choice. There are challenges such as ICT costs, skills, access to market and the high cost of data and the infrastructure to connect.

All stakeholders need to tap and be part of the solution – we need to simplify things from policy level down to the person who is in that community. My aunty in the village uses a SASSA card. She takes a taxi to withdraw money 60kms away. She shops in the city, bypassing her local spaza shops where she could be using her card. Factor in the time spent and the risks associated with her going to draw money.

In essence, we need to integrate those platforms to enable SMMEs to transact using SMME cards. Its something I’d love to see in my lifetime. Technology must be seen as an enabler, not a nice to have. I used to tell my mum she didn’t need a smart phone because when I called, she answered. Today, she needs a smartphone because she wants to do a video call with me and, that’s how we communicated, given the pandemic.

Chad Lucas (left) is the Deputy Chairperson of the national EDHE Studentpreneur Community of Practice (CoP), and the Chairperson of Sol Plaatje University (SPU) CoP for Studentpreneurs. In 2021 he was a final-year BCom student at SPU.

CL: In terms of the African market, how can we penetrate with SMMEs and create regional growth in the ICT space with technology?

SB: I love that our current government is talking of connectivity. You need all the telecoms to come on board.  Most people are connected through mobile devices with 36% unconnected. The digital economy requires more than a mobile device, it requires high quality, high-capacity internet access.  Connectivity needs to be discussed before addressing the impact of technology in Africa. One of the most common challenges is small businesses’ access to market. Access needs technology which needs infrastructure. Those responsible in that space need to come on board.  As an educator I faced challenges when my students had load-shedding, ran out of data, or had no device. How do we get the country connected?

CL: In January 2022, 58% of South Africans use WhatsApp. Can businesses use WhatsApp to break that barrier?

SB: Again, connectivity is key. But not all tech advancement is automatically helpful. My research into ICT for Development found the development of automation and machine learning still possesses potential risk in terms of gender equality. South African women represent 13% of graduates in the STEM discipline. Nobody should be OK with that. A recent ICT skills survey showed a drop in female practitioners from 27% in 2018 to 16% in 2019.

These stats are overwhelming.

VS: An audience question: What is your view of African countries shutting down social media during elections or unrest, and how does it affect businesses and people’s confidence in technology?

SB: (You are going to get me in trouble with my African brothers.) The pandemic slowed global economic growth and exacerbated mass unemployment, especially for women who are most vulnerable, not just because of their jobs, but because of gender inequalities. I am very grateful that our country is democratic.

Universities need to re-evaluate their role. At UJ, led by the thought leader in ArtificiaI Intelligence, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, we are already modifying our programmes to answer the skills demand of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We are gearing up skills development to serve the changing demands of industry. We advocate partnering with communities: our students are coming up with solutions for them. Technology comes with its own threats that you must embrace as it’s part of this platform.

VS: How do you start?

SB: Upskill, reskill, rethink, do things differently. Be part of the digital economy. Come to UJ. Look at the courses on offer.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.