WEF young global leader and Telkom change-maker – Professor Mmaki Jantjies

Written on 05/22/2022
Linda van Tilburg

Computer science professor Mmaki Jantjies has been selected as one of the world’s most promising global leaders under the age of 40 by WEF.

Computer science professor and Telkom executive, Mmaki Jantjies has been selected as one of the world’s most promising global leaders under the age of 40 by the World Economic Forum. She joins 109 other leaders chosen for 2022 including four other South Africans: Sumayya Vally, Lesley Ndlovu, Zuriel Naiker and Esha Mansingh. Notables on the list of previous promising young global leaders are Lindiwe Mazibuko, Charlize Theron, Amal Clooney, and footballer Rio Ferdinand. Prof. Jantjies – who doubles up as an academic at the University of the Western Cape, as well as the Group Executive Head of Innovation for Telkom – told BizNews about her passion for digital inclusion of all South Africans, how she aims to be a change maker at Telkom, and how she initially wanted to be a mechanic for a Formula One team. – Linda van Tilburg

Being a global leader finding solutions that would impact society

First of all, to consider the cohort of the luminaries of young global leaders within the South African context to begin with. It’s people who we often look up to and who are change makers, both on a local and on a continental scale. They dedicate a lot of their time to see how they could bring about solutions that impact the communities and the society that they work with for the greater good. I think that was something quite humbling for me. The Young Global Leaders have structured a programme that empowers youth through leadership. It is a mixture of training, mentorship and networking. You become a part of a cohort for a three-year programme that enables you to leverage all of the different training opportunities they have, so you can apply to different executive leadership programmes. And there are a lot of networking opportunities, both locally and internationally, and an opportunity to meet like-minded people working on local and global challenges to address societal challenges. Looking at my background, I have always been keen to use my skill set to impact the society I find myself in. So, to be in a platform that enables me to engage with people to do that on a much larger scale is quite humbling.

Technology as an enabler to deal with South Africa’s grand challenges

In every university or research institution that I have been a part of, I have been quite passionate about the grand societal challenges that we face, which we have as a South African society, and how to use technology to leverage it. Whether it means looking at SMMEs and how they are able to leverage basic technology. One of the things I did previously was to develop a procurement system for SMMEs that enables them to automate the purchase of procurement at a much more affordable rate; for them to afford that technology. Something that for many years has been really important for me is access to education. I was always quite interested in how we enable or empower education within a South African context through technology. I spent a couple of years looking at edtech platforms and how we can develop education to deliver multilingual technology for schools. I spent a lot of time working with the education sector, trying to understand the challenges that schools – especially those in underprivileged communities – face. I considered their access to connectivity and telecommunication, and once they do have access, how to ensure children from all walks of life in South Africa are able to access high-quality education? I’ve always found technology enables us to deal with these sorts of grand challenges.

Telkom, a SOE that embraced innovation business principles ensured it did not fail

You know, that is very true. I think Telkom has always been innovating, ensuring we address the challenges that South Africans face. I think ensuring connectivity to begin with, high-quality connectivity for consumers, that we understand the evolving consumer needs. That has been important for us. Within the innovation division, what is crucial is how we think about the Telkom customer of the future and make sure we address their needs and the challenges. We have done this by working in an open innovation process where we invest in start-ups that can help us think about this; but also internally, by enabling a culture of innovation that helps employees within Telkom come up with products for the customer of the future. These range from the digital products that enable SMMEs to be empowered through the digital platform Yep, one of the innovations that Telkom released that allows SMMEs to showcase and sell their products via a digital platform. That was largely targeted at SMMEs to be able to leverage the platform. Along with telecommunication products, they are able to move online and transition the businesses to the online space. Right now, we are looking at really exciting verticals in areas of health and education. We provide connectivity but beyond connectivity, how do we look at South African challenges of empowering people and access to education products.

Improving collaborations with research institutions

What we have been doing is strengthening our collaborations with research institutions. We are bolstering our R&D as we would really love to grow our intellectual property. But most importantly, we work with university communities and the researchers – who are on the cutting edge of technology – to help us solve some of the digital problems the country faces with access. So, you will see our strength growing in that perspective; we have a much closer collaboration and are strengthening our research, development and innovation processes and the organisation to bring out products that cater for the needs of our consumers.

A love of Formula 1 racing and promoting STEM subjects

I grew up in the city of Mafikeng. I was very blessed to go to a school that offered computer studies as a subject. Although, I was really terrible at computer studies. My interest was engineering. I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I am a huge F1 Grand Prix fan and my vision was to land up as one of the mechanics for an F1 team. That was my vision, actually. It comes from my parents. They were enthusiastic about the STEM fields and encouraged interest in these subjects. So, all of my siblings went into the science fields. When I was finishing high school, there was a huge technology boom and that is how I landed up in this field; there were endless possibilities at the time. We grew up in a family that was always concerned about societal impact. I think my mum was a huge influence; she believe that as much as you gain your qualifications, you should always make sure you are able to help the society around you. We were always encouraged to use the skills to think about the broader challenges and how we could apply those skills within that context. That is where the passion comes from … being able to use it to address these societal challenges.

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