Mxolisi Mgojo on the future of work in Africa

Exxaro's CEO recently spoke at a summit about how businesses should prepare for the age of mechanisation and automation.

“South Africans need to consider the future of work from a perspective that addresses the challenges the country faces,” said Mxolisi Mgojo, CEO of Exxaro Resources, speaking on the future of work in a technological age at the Singularity University South Africa Summit. The summit – which was hosted in collaboration with Standard Bank, Deloitte, MTN and SAP – addressed key issues relating to the rise of exponential technologies, how they may help solve the continent’s greatest challenges, such as a lack of education, unemployment and the evolving nature of various industries with the introduction of automation and mechanisation.“The reality in our country and across the continent is high unemployment, issues around great disparities in terms of poverty levels and the lack of quality education that are failing to create a new type of work force we can take advantage of in the future,” he continued.

Mgojo, who has been in the mining sector for close to two decades, was appointed as president of the South African Chamber of Mines in June 2017. He understands that the work force is the bedrock of not only his industry but most economic sectors. 

Africa will have the second largest work force in the world after Asia by 2030, according to the WEF 2016 Human Capital report, which also states that 41% of all jobs in South Africa are susceptible to automation.  “South Africa’s work force is highly unionised. Innovation is a must if South Africa is to remain globally competitive, but the fear of innovation is fuelled by the fear of the displacement of labour. The minute we talk about mechanisation and automation there are strikes, that is our reality,” he said. 

Many industries are currently at a junction whereby they need to ask themselves difficult questions about whether they will protect jobs or whether they will create new job opportunities that are enabled by technology. Mgojo noted the importance of leveraging innovations and technological tools to create relevance and prosperity for people and transform the workplace to create new economies.

That vision, however, needs to come from businesses leaders, who have the foresight to see past the false assumption that uneducated or inexperienced people can’t learn new things and complex processes. “Transform a worker into one that is multi skilled and you will have a sense of the new reality for them in the work place,” Mgojo told an audience of over 1 300 senior executives, corporates, bankers, innovators and investors attending the summit. Simulators and augmented reality have enabled Exxaro to train and reskill their work force to operate complex mining vehicles and repair them with the help of a remote online expert.

He also noted the necessity for businesses, such as those in the mining sector, to adopt a long-term approach. “We need to relook at our business operations. Once we finish mining in an area, we have to consider how to create employment opportunities for the nearby communities that were dependant on mining.” Naturally, there will be those who will be too old to be reskilled and will be left behind and “The government has to recognise the need for a safety net for those casualties,” he urged.

Mgojo predicted that micro enterprises, enhanced with the rise of technology, are going to show the greatest potential to create new jobs and hence prosperity. In his presentation, he quoted that 60% of South Africa’s labour force is employed by Small-to-Medium Enterprises (SMEs), and that the sector contributes 36% to the country’s GDP. Furthermore, according to the South African National Development Plan, 90% of new jobs will be created by SMEs by 2030.

But first and foremost, South Africa needs to establish an education ecosystem, whereby value is not merely placed on a university degree, but also on vocational training like in other countries. At the subsequent press briefing, he noted the flaw of our education system, in that it places too much emphasis at a young age on subject and career choices and aims to produce narrow specialists, instead of producing emotionally intelligent and holistic individuals with problem-solving skills and an understanding of world issues.

Mgojo encouraged other senior executives to help their organisations understand that the work place will be disrupted in the future and to provide support during the transition, “Otherwise they will fight against it and will see millennials as a threat”. Your business culture needs to see the transition as a journey that embraces technology as an ally that will aid productivity.

“You have to introduce the youngsters into the work space because it is their future,” he said. Mgojo conducts monthly two-hour meetings with the millennials employed at Exxaro. “Millennials may add a new dimension to your meetings. How do I define a future when I’m not even going to be around? They wear a different lens, be sure to create a space for them to contribute,” he advised.

Just as it is important to reconsider the structure of the work force, so it is vital to look at the work space environment. There are no individual offices at Exxaro’s new head office, where construction will begin in September 2017. “I don’t even have an office as the CEO – it’s about work teams, it’s about spaces where people can move around, wherever you are you can plug in because we want to allow that social interaction.”

Collaboration between the work force, the private and the public sector will help create economic freedom. “We have seen how technologies have been absorbed in Africa where new economies have been created as a result of deploying new technologies,” said Mgojo.