By Charmaine Mabuza, Group CEO of ITHUBA Holdings
Every functional business has business continuity plans in place, ready to implement in a time of crisis. However, the truth is very few of us imagined a disruptive pandemic such as the COVID-19 virus to be a likelihood occurrence.
On 27 March 2020, a countrywide lockdown was announced in South Africa, a necessity that had to be implemented in order to save lives. But as many businesses shut their doors, the livelihood of many South Africans were at stake, some still are as businesses propel to get back to their feet.
As an employer, I can relate to the anxiety of fellow corporate and business leaders, to be uncertain of the future and worrying about the work stability of your staff and their families who depend on their income, has become a hard reality. We really do exist in an extraordinary time, which some business experts describe as the VUCA World. ‘VUCA’ is an acronym for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. How fitting is this description of today’s business world and especially the economy!
The President took bold steps in implementing measures that aim to preserve our health and safety as citizens of this country. However as employers, we have to take it a step further and safeguard the livelihood of the people we employ. We have an obligation to keep business afloat by being innovative and proactive, amid the crisis — our economy depends on it.
For ITHUBA, the South African National Lottery operator, innovative technology is what has kept our ship sailing. Looking back, I am so glad that we made a decision to move the National Lottery to a digital realm. Players can access Lottery products on the National Lottery website, the Mobile APP and through the digital platforms of our banking channel partners namely Absa, FNB, Standard bank and Nedbank. We implemented the Random Number Generator (RNG), in line with international best practice, as the procedure of selecting winning numbers, which are televised in a form of a digital draw show. This process has remained uninterrupted throughout the lockdown period. We saw a significant increase in on-line participation and 4 jackpot winners including the winner of R153Million PowerBall PLUS jackpot from the Friday 10 July 2020 draw. This player, who played via the Standard Bank App, became the biggest on-line winner in the history of the South African Lottery, and Africa at large.
I am not oblivious to the fact that there are many South Africans who do not have access to the relevant resources and the required digital literacy to be able to play on-line, I fully comprehend the challenges faced particularly by communities in previously disadvantaged areas. The National Lottery belongs to the people and it has always been ITHUBA’s intention to offer equal access to the National Lottery for everyone. To come to terms with the reality that during the lockdown restrictions, there was a group of people that could not play the Lottery, really unsettled me.
However, some of the best ideas have been born out of the most challenging times. On 30 June 2020, ITHUBA was excited to announce its partnership with 1Voucher – a card less, bank less top-up payment solution that allows customers to turn their cash into an on-line balance. This partnership is part of ITHUBA’s strategy to offer players convenient access to the National Lottery products. It enables players who do not have access to on-line banking infrastructure to top up their National Lottery wallets to purchase Lottery tickets via their mobile devices. We could not sit back and give up on our mandate because in-store ticket sales were paused. In fact, growing on-line gaming is one of the best things we can do for our economy. The global on-line Lottery market has seen significant growth and is projected to generate a revenue of $183.1 billion by 2026, growing at a healthy CAGR of 11.7% throughout the forecast period. Africa deserves a piece of this pie.
E-commerce is certainly one of the most innovative ways to keep trading. But for e-commerce to thrive, businesses must be willing to go an extra mile and address elements that hinder the growth of e-commerce platforms. Digital literacy is one of the factors affecting on-line participation. But the good thing about customers is that they are teachable, and once they understand the convenience of on-line shopping, it becomes their new norm.
One way in which ITHUBA addresses digital literacy, is by rolling out educational marketing campaigns. Once the new on-line players are on our e-commerce platforms, they are met by chatbots who assist them on a step by step basis.
The second biggest factor that affects on-line shopping is the fact that not everyone has credit cards that allow for on-line payment. It is therefore critical that we become flexible in our payment options in order to help bridge the digital divide.
I advocate for e-commerce as part of the innovation that will save us. South Africa’s on-line retail industry accounts for just 1.4% of total retail, while the United States and China is close to 20%. We have a long way to go. As leaders in our respective industries, we need to play our role in advancing e-commerce and ensuring that we catch up with the rest of the world.
A lot of industries around the globe suffered a loss as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown, with no exception to the Gaming industry world-wide. In South Africa, National Lottery sales declined by 18% during the time in-store ticket sales were paused, while countries such as China for an example, recorded a dreadful decrease of 64.5% in Lottery sales, according to the research conducted by the World Lotteries Association (WLA). This is alarming, considering their advanced technology and a generally higher e-commerce participation in that country. On our side, we recorded an increase of 11.5% in on-line participation, where new players registered and played across all National Lottery on-line platforms. This peak is not too far off from the 16% increase in European countries such France and Norway – one of the leading countries in the digitization of Lottery games globally.
I know that there had been arguments that allowing e-commerce trading during the COVID-19 regulations is unfair to smaller, informal businesses such as spaza shops and other businesses that rely on face to face trading to make sales. In my view, we are better off utilizing e-commerce than we are when we don’t. Our first priority should be saving our lapsing economy and preserving the livelihood of our employees – that is our role and mandate as business owners.
I urge my fellow business leaders to think out of the box and push the innovation boundaries. Let us not forget to integrate women and youth entrepreneurs, whose wisdom and revolution should not be taken for granted. It is our combined efforts that will help bring back to life the deteriorating economy.