There is a danger that the new technological revolution, which has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution and which is integrating the digital, physical, and biological worlds, will leave Africa behind, never to catch up.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is described by Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, as building on the third revolution, the digital revolution. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is anything from artificial intelligence, machine intelligence and the use of information technology and electronics to automated production, digital manufacturing and gene editing.
These could result in anything from self-driving cars to software that writes media articles and make investment decisions. The Associated Press is using artificial intelligence software to write company results. IBM has announced it has built a computer that can diagnose cancer more effectively than human doctors.
The Economist recently described changes brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as the replacement of old materials with new ones, like carbon fibre replacing steel and aluminium, and the use of 3D printing to reproduce anything from tools to spare parts and nanotechnology, which gives products new features, such as bandages that help heal wounds.
Human identity itself might be changed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The First Industrial Revolution took off in the late 18th century in Britain in the textile industry, when steam and water power was harnessed for mechanical production and the factory replaced tasks completed by separate individuals by hand.
The second revolution was the use of electric power for mass production, starting in the late 1800s, and the introduction of the assembly line by Henry Ford. The third revolution was the birth of the computer age.
African countries are among the least prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There is a danger the impact of technology on the global labour market could increase the inequality between African countries and industrial and emerging markets.
Africa’s infrastructure is the least developed of any continent. Most of its workforce is unskilled. Astonishingly, in the more than a half-century since independence from colonialism, most African countries have never had even a rudimentary industrialisation strategy in place to lift them from colonial underdevelopment to industrial growth.
If Africa’s higher education institutions are not collapsing, they are stuck in pre-digital age curricula or over-focusing on outdated aspects of the humanities, rather than technical skills, engineering and sciences.
Africa’s leaders are among the least aware of dramatic technological changes and their potential impact on countries.
Many are there simply to enrich themselves. Most of their attitudes are frozen in the immediate post-colonial political, economic and ideological paradigms.
Some are still building their dreams on the false hope that former colonial powers will be altruistic after plundering the continent, which will magically catapult African economies into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Others are waiting on emerging powers, such as China and Saudi Arabia, to lift Africa from underdevelopment.
Sadly, most of Africa’s thinking elite in business, civil society, traditional authorities and academia are similarly stuck in a time warp. Some argue to nationalise mines, land and foreign assets – without suggesting how they are going to be different, given the disastrous way post-independence African state-owned companies have been managed.
Some wrongly imagine the West and emerging powers, such as China, are dependent on African resources.
Others call nostalgically for a supposed ancient African “communal” economy and yet others believe a communist nirvana is just around the corner.
Africa’s metals, energy and commodities might become obsolete, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution allows the development of new replacement materials, which is happening in industrial countries and emerging powers.
Most recent research on its impact shows Africa is unprepared. Its model of attracting investment because of its low-wage, low-skills labour might lose its advantage in a world where manufacturing becomes more digital.
Furthermore, Africa’s necessary push to growth through agriculture, because of its available land and low skills levels, is now also in danger. An Oxford University report, done with the Nesta non-profit research group, says agriculture, specifically planting fibre and cereal crops; rearing cattle, sheep and goats and marine fishing, will in the future be taken over by robots.
Most Africans eke out a living in the agriculture and informal sectors. The study research argued the key “challenge for governments is thus to help workers that are made redundant to transition into novel creative professions”.
A recent report by Citibank and Oxford University warned the “benefits of technological change are not being widely shared” and that automation and robotics would increase inequality between the already rich (Western countries) and the poor (African). It predicted 85 percent of Ethiopia’s jobs could become redundant.
Africa will have to speed up infrastructure development as a catalyst to unlock growth and use new technology in smarter ways to boost development.
The continent’s educational systems are obsolete. It will have to transform early schooling, like the East Asians did, to produce the kind of skills needed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
African countries need to steer tertiary education away from the focus on social sciences to engineering, science and technical subjects. They must introduce a mix of artisan, vocational and agricultural training institutions.
Curricula for basic schooling; vocational and technical schools and higher education institutions must be upgraded to meet the demands of the fourth revolution.
At the lower end, Africa needs technicians for the technology-based labour markets of the future; at the higher end, the skilled engineers to unlock new digital manufacturing industries.
Creative industries are among those that will have to weather the fourth revolution.
All of these must be included in coherent industrialisation strategies. These will have to be changed to cope with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
African civil society, business and academics must rewire their outdated pre-digital age modes of thinking – and provide new ideas, approaches and policies to tackle the continent’s challenges.
African citizens must elect leaders and governments fit for the Fourth Industrial Revolution – not those who are stuck in the independence or liberation “revolution” mode.
This article was first published on Pressreader.
William Gumede is chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation. He is author of the best-selling Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times? Tafelberg (http://amzn.to/2eCbDtJ)