RPA: Implementing Robotic Process Automation in Africa

Let me say this at the start: I’m by no means an expert in Robotic Process Automation (RPA). But I do have deep experience and some scars from actually implementing RPA.

The best way to explain the lessons I’ve learned during an RPA implementation is by sharing a case study of an RPA deployment at a large consumer goods company. My team was tasked with harmonizing a set of supply chain processes across the operations in Ghana and Nigeria in the West of Africa, Tanzania and Uganda in the East, and Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique and Mauritius in the South.

Driven somewhat by cost reduction goals, but mostly by governance and reputation requirements, we set out to harmonize the various supply chain processes across different ERP instances. The goal was to enable remote transacting-as-a-service from one of the African countries, as opposed to embedding standardized processes in each of the 13 countries individually. At the time we had no idea that RPA would be the answer. So how did RPA come to be an option for this pan-African project?

My team had project experience in the SA, UK and Asian markets, but we quickly realized that our ”natural go-to solutions” e.g.  client-server architecture, was not going to work for the vast majority of our African countries. With limited electricity and little or no broadband connectivity, we had few options.  The optical character recognition (OCR) technologies that we considered had to have the ability to handle dot matrix print feeds as well as hand written sales, procurement, financial, manufacturing and logistics documentation. We could have opted to simply upgrade to more modern information capturing methods across all countries, but the cost was prohibitive.

In addition to that a hand-written signature was often a tax, legal or statutory requirement imposed by local authorities. Plus, 90% of suppliers paid in cash or by cheque. Only 10% were able to process EFTs. We also had to contend with snail mail and the personal collection and issuance of receipts and advices.

So, all in all, we were faced with an expectation to overlay integrated advanced technology onto a manual input system. This was clearly a challenge. However, our prevailing attitude was that challenges and innovations are just two sides of the same coin.

That was when we turned to RPA. It was a relatively new buzz word at the time and many stakeholders considered it hype that would soon blow over. Industry research seemed to conclude that Africa was too low on the technology maturity curve to successfully implement such futuristic solutions. What swayed the decision, however, was how incredibly inexpensive RPA was compared to other traditional business process automation (BPA) options.

This comparatively low cost was the single most important factor that made RPA a game changer for markets in Africa. It also trumped traditional BPA in the Africa context owing to its ability to be implemented at the presentation layer.

We soon learned that artificially intelligent cognitive capture acquisition (CCA) was more important than robotic transactioning for the Africa market.

Consider a process, which per definition is usually viewed as more than a single conversion step. Popular uses of RPA assume the inputs to that process are consumable by a bot. Yet, we found that this is often not the case in the African markets. Very few transaction inputs were digitized. It therefore became evident that RPA and cognitive capture had to work as one integrated building block – as a standard feature – in any RPA solution. We therefore built our development operations around that principle. In Africa, RPA without CCA is little more than robotic task automation (RTA).

To complete the roll-out, in some instances we had to use the global might of the client organisation to negotiate last mile connectivity with service providers ahead of schedule. This had the added benefit of making a lasting difference to people living in those markets. They were now connected at relatively high speeds. We also overcame client-server network challenges by using virtual private networks (VPN) and terminal services.

Our conclusion? RPA can be a game changer for Africa if designed to fit with the in situ processes. Very soon our project sponsors were talking about how Africa was the ideal place to leapfrog across traditional technology maturity stairways. And I couldn’t agree more.

Next time I’ll be sharing some thoughts on the general suitability of Africa as a candidate for RPA. In the meantime, please get in touch if you’re considering RPA as a solution for your business. Or, join one of our future tech roundtable discussions by adding your name to the invitation list.

Laureen van Aswegen the Pétanque NXT Global Director for Value Engineering.

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