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Oct 25th 2021

Africa Aims to Harness the Fourth Industrial Revolution

In what many call the Fourth Industrial Revolution, broadband cellular networks, robotics and applications powered by artificial intelligence (AI) have the potential to raise all boats on a technological tide.

But the remaking of businesses, education and economies to square with a digital revolution isn’t easy. Financial investment, infrastructure readiness and employee preparedness have to take hold evenly so that competition and wages flourish equitably. There isn’t a switch to flip — something many African countries are discovering. Digital transformation is moving forward haltingly as the continent contends with poverty, geographic and environmental challenges, and uneven approaches to democracy. Africa also needs to overcome infrastructural issues that other countries solved the previous century.

“Access to electricity in Africa is 45%,” says Armando Manuel, former minister of finance in Angola and current World Bank director. “You can’t develop in the darkness, and you can’t go to the Moon when you have constraints to go to the next corner.”

On this massive continent with competing forms of government, as well as areas of civil unrest, poverty and agricultural deficits caused by climate change, it’s worth noting no two countries are alike. That’s especially true when considering technological foundations. Kenya has an internet penetration rate of about 90%, advancing the widespread use of applications such as smartphone payments. Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the other hand, have low internet penetration rates, below 10%, while Eritrea sits at the bottom of the list with only about 1% of its population having internet access.

Still, for those very reasons, there is great hope that technology can reshape how Africans live, work and learn. With more than 1.3 billion people spread out over a landscape that covers 11 million miles of land, Africa has numbers in its favor. It’s a population too great for commercial investors to ignore.

A Youth Movement Meets Harsh Realities

Africa does need to find the next corner, and somewhat quickly, if it is to seize the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). As the Brookings Institute reports, African countries lag behind developed and other developing countries. For example, in developed countries, there are nearly as many mobile broadband subscriptions as there are people — whereas in Africa, there are only about 25 subscriptions per 100 people. Similarly, schoolchildren in developed nations get nearly 12 years of technology preparedness, while African schoolchildren receive slightly more than four years of schooling in technology.

Education, job preparedness and employment opportunities stand as formidable challenges before Africa can effectively embrace technology. This could be an acute problem if not soon addressed because the continent is in the middle of a youth movement. According to the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), Africa has one-fifth of the world’s population under 25, and its working-age population could reach 600 million by 2030, which would be the largest such demographic in the world. Young people comprise 37% of that group — a proportion larger than in China.

Right now, less than a third of adults in Africa have finished primary school as opposed to nearly all adults in industrialized countries, according to ACET. When in a classroom, children have a low proficiency in reading and mathematics, and low enrollment in science, technology, engineering and math. Advanced learning also suffers: Africa has a low proportion of university students per population. That points to dim job prospects. In sub-Saharan Africa, for the 10 to 12 million youth who annually join the workforce, only 3 million jobs are created.

Educators and Employers Need to Meet the Moment

Africa indeed has an uphill climb to fully realize the potential of 4IR. According to ACET, “Africa’s youth are both an asset and a time bomb. At current trends, nearly half of these vibrant young people will be unemployed, discouraged or economically inactive by 2025. A well-publicized fraction is migrating, often by dangerous routes, to search for jobs. More disturbingly, some 40% of youth joining rebel and terror groups reportedly cite the lack of economic opportunity as the key motivation.”

While that assessment might seem dire, many in Africa believe that a commitment to education, job training and focused government policy can spur the technological revolution forward and create a productive and fair economy.

Tshilidzi Marwala, a professor of AI at the University of Johannesburg, says his school is already working with businesses to incorporate into the curriculum the skills they seek. As he explains in World Intellectual Property Organization Magazine, employers are partnering with African universities to develop tailored learning programs for employees to prepare them for emerging job opportunities. Students want to choose the courses that will prepare them for 4IR, he wrote, and many schools are, in turn, letting them earn “stackable” degrees by giving them “multiple entries and exit options and by using technology, such as data analytics, to develop customized learning paths.”

Health, Finance and Agriculture Already Notch Tech Benefits

The Brookings Institute sees digital applications already changing how industries deliver services across the contintent.

In Ethiopia, AI technology is helping medical professionals diagnose cancer. In Uganda, 27,000 public health workers use a mobile system to manage medicine stocks. And Rwanda uses autonomous drones to air-deliver blood transfusions to remote regions.

In finance, much has been made of mobile banking empowering Africans to win microloans for their small businesses or to send or receive remittances to family members. But, as the Brookings Institute notes, digital technology also enables those businesses to design and create products and allows governments to more efficiently offer public services. Blockchain, for example, verifies property records and transactions in West Africa and Kenya.

All of these digital tools “cascade,” as the Brookings Institute states. “Increased financial inclusion contributes to greater capital accumulation and investment, hence potential for employment creation.”

A robust digital infrastructure could also remake agriculture. Agrilinks, an online publication of the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative, reported that more than 60% of Africa’s working population makes a living in agriculture, accounting for a third of the continent’s GDP.

Agrilinks already sees African farms melding IoT, AI and data to be more precise and smarter in estimating crop yields, managing irrigation, choosing fertilizers and adjusting for weather. Farmers can also use drones to monitor crops and blockchain to secure contracts and manage their finances. But outdated farming methods and tools slow production, leading experts to view technology as a critical means to reshape the industry and feed as many as two billion Africans by 2050.

Infrastructure Needs Improvement, With No Time to Spare

As experts stress, individual and organizational pursuit of digital technology won’t go far if Africa can’t remake its infrastructure. And it’s not just a lack of electricity, internet density and broadband penetration that is slowing progress. The Brookings Institute notes that a dearth of standardized application programming interfaces and common data languages impede the integration of self-sufficient systems, as does poor cybersecurity.

“Adequate infrastructure development will drive and sustain economic transformation in Africa,” notes the Brookings Institute. “With lower transport and communication costs, countries with suitable agro-ecological conditions can produce high-value products. Closing the internet connectivity and access gap with advanced economies will enable more African countries to enter service export markets. Small-scale manufacturers in Africa may also become more competitive with access to digital platforms for research, sales and distribution.”

The clock is ticking. As the South Africa-based news service IOL reports, manufacturers are waiting for improved internet and 5G connectivity to implement new technologies. Otherwise, in countries like Kenya, industries such as furniture manufacturing have about 15 years to develop new technological capacity before the cost of production will be lower in the U.S. — where it will rely more on robotic production.

Countries such as Mauritius and Rwanda recognize the need to act fast. After setting an AI strategy in 2018, Mauritius created a national incubator program as well as a national artificial intelligence council that offers financial incentives for innovation-driven activities. Even though it ranks 45th globally, Mauritius is the highest-ranked African nation on the Government AI Readiness Index.

Meanwhile, Rwanda has turned to a nonprofit to develop a national strategy for AI technology, a process that will include the creation of policy, ethical guidelines and an implementation road map.

A Call to Develop as a Continent

If Africa is to reap the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, its citizens, businesses, nonprofits and government agencies will have to move together at a rapid pace.

“It took on average 20 to 25 years to make the transition from regular phones to smartphones,” Youssef Travaly, vice president of science innovation and institutional partnerships at the Next Einstein Forum, told U.S. News & World Report. “Going fast enough means at least being able to make a (technological) transition in less than 10 years.” If Africa can’t seize the moment, Travaly says it will have to rely even more on developed nations.

Travaly goes on to add that this gap in skills and technology between Africa and other parts of the world will likely lead to a corresponding prosperity gap if left unchecked. This highlights how important technological innovation is in the ongoing effort to fuel economic equity and prosperity throughout the world.

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