Artificial intelligence (AI) is being used successfully in a range of practical applications in the supply chain. These include demand forecasting, risk, inventory and quality management, and transport and distribution optimisation. It is making roads safer. In healthcare, it is enhancing the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, and helping to ensure that lifesaving medicines are available where and when they are needed. AI will not replace people, but some people will be replaced by people using AI.

These were some of the key messages delivered at the 2023 SAPICS Conference by experts who shared their insights in a compelling panel discussion on the practical use of AI in supply chains. Cobus Rossouw, head of Road Freight Systems globally and technology business partner for sub-Saharan Africa at DP World; Janet Sawari, founder of AI research and innovation lab, TAIR Labs; Retief Gerber, CEO and co-founder at Spatialedge; Farayi Kambarami, head of Central Planning and Data at Woolworths; and Kosta Kontos, founder and managing director of Kontos Databases, discussed AI’s applications and the benefits that it is delivering in a range of sectors, from healthcare and retail to transport and logistics. This panel discussion was moderated by Dr Iain Barton, founder of Health 4 Development South Africa.

The annual SAPICS Conference is Africa’s leading event for the supply chain profession. This year’s 45th SAPICS Conference was co-hosted by The Professional Body for Supply Chain Management (SAPICS) and the South African Association of Freight Forwarders (SAAFF). More than 700 supply chain practitioners from 32 countries across Africa and around the world gathered in Cape Town to share knowledge and network. The 2023 conference took place at a critical time for global supply chains, which have been stretched and strained in recent years by the COVID-19 pandemic and a host of subsequent chaotic disruptions, from the blockage of the Suez Canal, the container shipping crisis, and the power crisis across Asia and Europe, to riots and unrest in parts of South Africa and issues at the Port of Durban.

AI is proving a very useful tool for supply chain practitioners, the SAPICS Conference panellists concurred. AI can focus demand based on many inputs. It is enabling better informed decisions about pricing, and shaping how organisations respond to their competitors in the marketplace. Using AI to have near real-time decisions, supply chain managers can optimise supply chains, ensuring better product availability, lower costs and lower inventory.

The “coolest” AI applications, according to the panellists, include tracking and improving driver behaviour in real time to make roads safer, and enhancing medical diagnoses and treatments by optimising medical coding. Panellist Farayi Kambarami cautioned, however, that large language models, like ChatGPT, have a problem with hallucination. The AI chatbot has fabricated information entirely, including fake court cases that are the subject of one high profile legal wrangle. He cautioned SAPICS delegates not to use ChatGPT for anything related to facts.

Panellist Janet Sawari said she was excited about computer vision models being used to improve driver behaviour in real time. “These tools give us the ability to track if someone has road rage, if they’re speeding, if they’re falling asleep, or if they are fatigued. The vehicle could be sent a signal or even stopped. That’s something I think is really interesting and is highly scalable and practical for the supply chain and logistics space.”

Kosta Kontos told SAPICS delegates how AI is being used to capture vast numbers of ICD-10 codes, along with the diagnoses and treatments used. This data is being shared by specialists around the world. “We are now seeing machine learning being used on data at scale to link ICD-10 codes with medicines and mortality to get a sense of what’s actually working and what isn’t. That is incredible.”

“I think that one of the exciting applications of AI is the use of automated robots that are autonomous and intelligent for picking in warehouses. This is improving pick accuracy in the distribution centres,” said Farayi Kambarami. He noted that there is a question around whether AI should be used in the same application in countries like South Africa, with its high unemployment rate.

Retief Gerber reported that in a project with the Western Cape Government, AI had reduced road traffic fatalities by 30%. The project was aimed at assisting the traffic department to deploy their resources, including ambulances. AI was used to predict where accidents were going to happen.

While the panellists agreed that AI has the potential to enhance supply chains and other business areas, they stressed that organisations should not get distracted by the hype around AI. Businesses need a clear plan of what they want to do with the technology, what problems they want to solve, what they should be automating and modelling, they stressed. Good quality data, not AI, is the differentiator that will give organisations a competitive advantage. While AI models will propose decisions, humans will still make the call on these, and the skillset of the organisation is critical. AI is a promising new technology, but it is not taking over all processes and all decision making, they said. “We are nowhere near the singularity or Terminator’s Skynet,” concluded Gerber.

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SAPICS’s mission is to elevate, educate and empower the community of supply chain professionals across Africa.

Since its foundation in 1966, SAPICS, The Professional Body for Supply Chain Management, has become the leading provider of knowledge in supply chain management, production and operations in Southern Africa. SAPICS builds operations management excellence in individuals and enterprises through superior education and training, internationally recognised certifications, comprehensive resources and a country-wide community of accomplished industry professionals. This community is ever expanding and now includes a multitude of associates in other African countries as well as around the globe. SAPICS is proud to represent the Association for Supply Chain Management (ASCM) as its exclusive premier channel partner in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The annual SAPICS Conference is the leading event in Africa for supply chain professionals.



The South African Association of Freight Forwarders (SAAFF) was established in 1921.  For more than a century, SAAFF has played an essential role in freight forwarding and international trade, with members facilitating these activities through their dedicated involvement in the management of transportation, customs clearing, documentation, third-party payments, and many other elements of the international supply chain.

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