WEF Young International Leader, Telkom Change Producer – Professor Mmaki Jantjies

Professor of Computer Science and CEO of Telkom, Mmaki Jantjies has been named one of the world’s most promising leaders under the age of 40 by the World Economic Forum. She joins 109 other leaders elected for 2022, including four other South Africans: Sumayya Vally, Lesley Ndlovu, Zuriel Naiker and Esha Mansingh. Prominent on the list of former promising young world leaders are Lindiwe Mazibuko, Charlize Theron, Amal Clooney and the footballer Rio Ferdinand. Professor Jantjies – who also works as a researcher at the University of Western Cape, as well as head of the innovation group at Telkom – told BizNews about her passion for the digital participation of all South Africans, how she aims to be a change producer at Telkom, and how she originally wanted to become a mechanic for a Formula 1 team. – Linda van Tilburg

To be a world leader in finding solutions that would impact society

First, consider the group of young international leaders in South Africa to begin with. These are people we often look up to and there are changes, both on a local and continental scale. They spend a lot of time seeing how they can come up with solutions that affect the communities and the community they work with for the better. I think this has been pretty humble for me. The Young Global Leaders have developed a program that empowers young people with leadership. It is a combination of training, guidance and networking. You will be part of a cohort of three-year courses that will allow you to take advantage of all the different training opportunities they have, so you can apply for different management leadership courses. And there are plenty of opportunities for networking, both locally and internationally, and opportunities to meet people with the same mindset who are working on local and international challenges to address societal challenges. When I look at my background, I have always been interested in using my talents to influence the community I am in. So being in a forum that allows me to interact with people to do so on a much larger scale is rather humble.

Technology that enables South Africa to face major challenges

In all the universities or research institutes I have been a part of, I have been very passionate about the great societal challenges we face, the challenges we face as a South African society, and how to use technology to exploit it. Whether it means looking at small and medium-sized businesses and how they can take advantage of basic technology. One of the things I did before was to develop a purchasing system for small and medium-sized businesses that allows them to make automatic purchases of purchases at a much more affordable price; for them to afford that technology. Something that has been very important to me for many years is access to education. I have always been very interested in how we make or strengthen education in the South African context through technology. I spent a few years exploring the edtech platform and how we can develop education to deliver multilingual technology for schools. I spent a lot of time working with the education sector and trying to understand the challenges that schools – especially those living in poor communities – face. I considered their access to connections and telecommunications, and when they have access, how to ensure that children from all walks of life in South Africa can access high quality education? I have always found that technology enables us to face such great challenges.

Telkom, SOE, which adheres to the principles of innovation business, ensured that it did not fail

You know, that’s very true. I think Telkom has always been innovating and ensuring that we address the challenges that South Africans face. I think we ensure a connection to begin with, high quality connections for consumers, that we understand the needs of consumers in development. It has been important for us. In the field of innovation, it is crucial how we think about the Telkom customer of the future and ensure that we address their needs and challenges. We have done this by working in an open innovation process where we invest in start-ups that can help us think about it; but also internally, by activating a culture of innovation that helps Telkom employees bring products for the customer of the future. These range from digital products to enabling small and medium-sized businesses to gain power through the digital platform Yes Yes, one of the innovations released by Telkom that enables SMME companies to display and sell their products through a digital platform. It was mostly aimed at small and medium-sized businesses to be able to take advantage of the platform. Along with electronic communications products, they can move online and transfer the companies to the internet space. We are currently looking at some very exciting vertical aspects of health and education. We offer connections but beyond connections, how do we view South Africa’s challenges of empowering people and access to education products.

Improve collaboration with research institutes

What we have been doing is strengthening our collaboration with research institutes. We are strengthening our R&D as we would really love to expand our intellectual property. But most importantly, we work with academia and academics – who are at the forefront of technology – to help us solve some of the digital problems facing the country through access. So you will see our strength grow in that perspective; we work much more closely together and are strengthening our research, development and innovation processes and organization to produce products that meet the needs of our consumers.

Love of Formula 1 racing and promotion of STEM disciplines

I grew up in the city of Mafikeng. I was very fortunate to go to a school that offered computer science as a subject. However, I was very terrible at computer science. My interest was engineering. I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I’m a big F1 Grand Prix fan and my vision was to become one of the F1 team’s mechanics. That was my vision, actually. It comes from my parents. They were interested in the STEM fields and encouraged interest in these disciplines. So all my siblings went to science. When I was finishing high school, there was a huge technological boom and that’s how I got into this field; there were endless possibilities at the time. We grew up in a family that was always concerned about social impact. I think my mom was a big influence; she believes that as much as you acquire your skills, you should always ensure that you can help the community around you. We were always encouraged to use the skills to think about broader challenges and how we could apply those skills in that context. That’s where the passion comes from geta being able to use it to address these societal challenges.

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WEF Young International Leader, Telkom Change Producer – Professor Mmaki Jantjies

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