Innovation Lessons from an Aspiring Martian

For theoretical physicist and aspiring Martian, Dr Adriana Marais, a chance meeting at the Cape Town Science Centre sparked a career change from academic to innovation leader.

Now charged with helping African businesses and governments understand how digital transformation can accelerate their innovation and success. Marais is putting all her knowledge and expertise into action across the continent.


The astonishing rate of development in technology, business, and science is forcing us to think in new ways.

It’s now impossible to predict what will happen with any measure of accuracy in five or ten years’ time, especially if you’re basing your predictions on historical data.

One of the great benefits of working for one of the world’s largest software companies is that, as a cloud company, they have incredible technology that can collect and analyse huge volumes of data in real time, and produce key insights at an unprecedented rate. This creates immense opportunities for the development of new innovations across industries.

Predictive maintenance in a factory environment is an example. By using sensors embedded in the machinery, and collecting and analysing the data created by the sensors using a technology platform in real time, operational staff can be alerted as soon as one or more parts are not working at an optimal rate.

This helps to avoid larger issues – for example if one malfunctioning part starts damaging other parts of the machinery – and directs technical staff directly to the source of the problem. This has the potential of saving millions in maintenance and repair costs, while also giving productivity a boost.

Digital transformation

Africa has the distinction of being the fastest-growing digital consumer market in the world.

With 360 million smart phone users predicted by 2025, and as many as 40% of African businesses in the planning stages of a Big Data project, the continent is undergoing unprecedented digital transformation.

There are still some barriers to achieving the full potential of Africa’s digital economy, and that’s where we play a role.

We are currently constructing the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope in the Northern Cape, which once operational will be the most powerful of its kind on the world by a factor of 50. The amount of data generated by the SKA – as much as 160 terabytes per second – would be impossible to imagine even 20 years ago. For us to unlock the secrets of our universe, we’ll need the skills to analyse and extract value from the data.


Africa is projected to have the world’s largest and most youthful workforce in the next few decades, with 122 million people joining the workforce by 2020.

At the same time, the global economy will experience a severe digital skills shortage, with up to 45 million ‘missing’ jobs – medium-skill positions that companies seek to fill, but for which qualified applicants are unavailable – in developing economies, including Africa.

Africa Code Week, is a continent-wide digital skills development initiative that aims to foster a love for and basic understanding of coding skills among Africa’s youth. Last year we reached more than 400 000 youth – this year we aim to train half a million. The initiative is all about mobilising the collective expertise and resources at the local level; unlocking people’s potential and desire to serve as resources for each other.

Emerging technologies

There are numerous examples of companies that were leaders in their field, but failed to embrace digital transformation in order to stay relevant – Nokia and Kodak come to mind, but there are many more.

In today’s economy, the speed at which you are able to transform becomes increasingly critical. Far too often, great ideas are lost, so businesses are looking for smarter, quicker, and more efficient ways to innovate.

The emerging technologies of blockchain, machine learning, IoT, and big data as key focus points for business leaders. Simply implementing these new technologies in your business does not equate to innovation; it’s no more than keeping up with current trends.

Innovation lies in using and combining these technologies in new ways and bringing them to market in a way that delivers value to the business and to the end-user.

To truly unlock innovation, you need to collaborate with a diverse group of people and develop entirely new ways of seeing and solving business challenges.

Dr Adriana Marais | Head of Innovation | SAP Africa | adriana.marais@sap.com | www.sap.com |