Scary thoughts on what awaits Africa (with the fast approaching Fourth Industrial Revolution)

By June 26, 2016 No Comments


Author: Dr. Mayuri Odedra-Straub, Digital Africa

Digital Africa Global Consult (of which I am part) recently hosted its 4th International Conference with the theme, “Accelerated Development of Africa with Internet of Everything”, in Abuja, from 1-3 June 2016. A number of African and international speakers spoke about Internet of Everything (IoE – connecting people, data, processes, and things to make networked connections relevant) and Internet of Things (IoT – linking smart objects to the Internet); what these technologies are all about, how they are being used in the West, what kind of a role they can play in the African development process, and so on. However, being made aware of what awaits us in the future left many more scary thoughts on my mind (as far as Africa’s future is concerned) than IoE or IoT.

Acclaimed international speakers including Robin Raskin, Stephen Ibaraki and Andy Chen spoke about the 4th Industrial Revolution (that follows the Green/Agricultural, Industrial and Information Revolutions) that has already begun in the West, and probably also to some point in emerging markets. This new (technological) Revolution is supposed to be about physical (digital printing, robots, etc.), biological (biological printing, designed humans and animals, etc.) and digital (IoT, sensors, etc.) systems coming together to achieve “things” never imagined before.

The new Revolution is/will be about extreme automation and connectivity. These technologies will not only provide opportunities (such as prolong life, cure diseases, predict the future, help manage scarce resources, improve work-life balance, care for the old, improve production, grow crops using minimal water and light, produce perfect children, and much more) but are also bound to cause disruptions on, or reshape, economies, industries, cultures, labour, security, politics, life, and many more aspects of life globally. They will change the way we live, work and interact with one another. As Stephen Ibaraki, an expert in this field, put it: “there is a digital quake waiting to happen”, sooner than we think.

The 4th Industrial Revolution has already begun in the West where profound changes (with more dramatic ones to come) are already taking place on the above listed areas. The big question is where does Africa fit into this Revolution? Does Africa have the time to prepare for it or even the capacity/capability to participate in it, considering the “miserable” circumstances and conditions the Continent faces (poor infrastructures, inappropriate or missing skills, corrupt, unaccountable and incompetent governments, limited innovation culture or research facilities, lack of venture capital, and much more)? I personally am not that optimistic about Africa’s “readiness” to participate in this Revolution either (just like it surpassed the industrial revolution), or its ability to leapfrog into it (which some Conference participants optimistically saw happening). This Revolution may create even a bigger digital divide between Africa and the developed/emerging countries than other revolutions before.

Those already part of this new Revolution, and those who gather at events such as the annual World Economic Forum to promote and discuss it, talk about this Revolution’s ability to “empower people and transform societies”, that the technologies at play here have the potential to enable an “equitable world”, and have the potential to meet the “basic needs” of all people in this world. This to some extent may be applicable to the developed/emerging nations, but I am not as optimistic for Africa as these experts tend to be. Unless something dramatic happens, or the developed/emerging countries willingly transfer their know how (about these new technologies at play) to Africa to solve some of its severe problems (of diseases, draught, poor agriculture yields, malnutrition, unemployment, poverty, and so on), there is no way the Continent can be part of this Revolution or enjoy the advantages/optimism listed above (at least not for the majority of the population). It is naive to think that the African economies, largely based on agriculture and ground resources (mining, oil), can leapfrog into a highly intelligent and digital-based Revolution or benefit from it in the near future.

The developed/emerging countries are already involved and working on virtual and augmented reality (simulated environments), digital health (ways to cure diseases and prolong life), robots (that have reached a point of being “nearly human”, those that are capable of looking after the old or taking over mundane jobs in factories), highly intelligent machines (such as Deep Blue, AlphaGo and Watson that are nowadays more intelligent than humans, and are not only able to beat humans at their game, but are capable of answering any question one may have in a matter of seconds, help plan your life (Google Home), and even able to predict and help cure serious diseases such as cancer), drones (often used in warfare), wearable technologies (from iWatch to gadgets monitoring your blood pressure), machine learning (not only learning with the help of machines, but where machines can teach themselves – with some having reached a point where they know everything there is to know in this world, and can even predict things going to happen in the future!), driverless cars, Cloud economies, biotechnology, nanotechnology, lab developed creatures (work is going on to produce a designer human in the lab and China is said to have already produced some small animals in their labs), and much more. Yet, what percentage of the African population is aware of these technologies or has even heard of them? It may be premature to think that the Africans can jump into this new Revolution, something that is supposed to impact us sooner (5-10 years) than we think and is going to have an impact greater than anything we have ever seen before. There is a consensus that Africa, with very large young population, plenty of land and “fairly good” Internet connectivity (mainly in major cities), has the potential of jumping generations of technology – just as it did in the mobile telephony sector. An Africa, that largely missed out on the industrial revolution, is optimistically supposed to jump straight into the approaching Revolution (after its short spin in the information revolution).

As mentioned earlier, Africa currently lacks the required “environment” to be part of the above-mentioned developments, or to benefit much from any of them, unless a miracle happens, African governments change their priorities, and those with the knowhow genuinely take action to help apply this to deal with some of Africa’s severe problems. I beg to be proved wrong but Africa will most likely surpass this Revolution for the following reasons (in no order of importance).

There is large-scale poverty in Africa, partially as a result of fast population growth, widespread diseases (HIV, Malaria, TB, Cholera, etc.), lack of employment opportunities (few large-scale industries exist that could provide jobs to the millions without work, and farming no longer able to sustain large families), poor farming techniques (little use of fertilisers or rotation of crops, growing crops that require a lot of water), mass migration to bigger cities, dependency on the outside world (for advice, aid, manufactured products, skilled people, investments, etc.), governments little interest in dealing with problems of the masses, poor commodity prices, and so on. Many of these countries do not have the “spare cash”, or the Governments a will, to invest in technologies that could solve some of the listed problems.

Poor infrastructures are a norm in many African countries. Major power (electricity) cuts, even in wealthier countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, are a daily occurrence, partly due to poor maintenance of existing systems, high demand and little new investment in energy, high reliance on fossil fuels (little use of natural energy such as sun and wind), and so on. Mobile telecommunications are fairly good in most countries but fixed line connections and uninterrupted Internet access still a problem in many places. Roads infrastructure a shamble (apart from a death trap) and transporting things from A to B could take forever. Water shortages, even in cities where water is available at the doorstep, in the form of a lake as in Kisumu, Kenya), are a common problem largely due to poor maintenance of existing systems, little rain water harvesting, few new investments to make water an instant luxury for the masses, and so on. Some of these problems may be due to lack of funds but at the end of the day the buck lies with African governments little interest in doing something to improve the situation for the majority of their populations (often due to mismanagement, corruption, politics, tribalism, and so on. Africa has many serious issues to deal with before it can face the new Revolution or even benefit from it.

Despite a large young population in Africa, the availability of skilled/experienced individuals is a major challenge. The education establishments churn out thousands of students seeking a job every year but what they have learnt at such places is often inappropriate/insufficient for the changing job markets. The curriculums used to teach students are often out of date or inappropriate for that particular environment, and graduates often lack practical experience. There is very little major innovation or research taking place on the Continent, especially in ICTs. Apart from a few products such as mPesa, there are hardly any major ICT innovations that have come out of Africa recently. As already mentioned, Africa is still to some extent a Continent dependent on agriculture, mining and oil, and these areas have never supported much research and innovation (that industrial nations would allow or instigate), especially in digital and biological fields.

Broadband has finally arrived in Africa, and there may still be 90% capacity available for use, but very few Africans are able to go “online”. This is due to lack of widespread Internet access (cities may be connected but the rural areas, where much of the population lives, is often neglected), very high cost of access where Internet is available (much of which is beyond the reach of the majority who survive on $2 a day), the unreliability of service providers, maintenance issues, power blackouts or outrages (being a norm), and much more. All these reasons combined make Internet access, like the way we are used to in the West, a privilege for the very few and doesn’t allow an environment where Internet can be used for research, knowledge gathering, collaboration, learning, improving business processes, and so on.

The Africans may have jumped the communication revolution (moving straight to mobile technologies and surpassing landline telephones) and widely embraced mobile technology (with the availability of cheap Chinese-made phones and reduced communication charges due to competing service providers) but mobiles are still largely used for communication and not necessarily Internet access. Mobile technologies have however revolutionised a lot in Africa (allowing finance and banking to the unbanked, increasing social awareness and contact, empowering the underprivileged, helping farmers, and so on), and there is great scope for this technology having a wider impact on the African development process (more than any technology before) once mobile-based Internet access is a common place.

All the above factors put together provide a bleak environment for Africa to take advantage of the approaching new Revolution. However, all is not lost if a serious effort is made to apply some of the major innovations that have already been made (in the developed world) to Africa’s problems in the health, energy, skills and agriculture sectors for instance. Improvements in these sectors could then possibly lead to better economies, job creation and some form of participation in the new Revolution.

Africa needs more health applications that are able to identify diseases and illnesses at an early stage and help suggest a cure. Applications that use mobile devices, such as xRapid for malaria diagnosis or mobile health services such as Nova Doc Mobile medical service, should be available to many more. If it is already possible to create “creatures” in the Lab, it should not be impossible to tackle some of the illnesses that cost millions of African lives each year.

A Continent that has 365 days of sunlight, abundant potential for wind, thermal, and hydraulic power, and plenty of oil, cannot afford regular energy shortages. Where power/energy induced blackouts are a norm, few businesses or industry can thrive/survive, unless they have the means to buy a backup power generator (which many are forced to do). The developed world, with its knowledge of alternative means of energy, urgently needs to help Africa deal with this hurdle in their economies (otherwise there is little scope of these nations developing).

Africa is still highly dependent on its agriculture sector, both for feeding itself and for exports to earn some foreign currency. With farms/plots becoming smaller, climate change bringing irregular rains, fertilisers not widely used, farmers having little knowledge about what is best grown where and when, and so on, some of the available knowhow in this field (smart and precision farming) urgently needs to be transferred to Africa so that the Continent can at least feed its growing population. Some of the IoE/IoT technologies can be applied here (know when and how much to water, how to store and transport agriculture produce, and so on). Crops that are resistant to drought, heat, infections, need less water and phosphorous, and those that are nutritious, should be encouraged. More applications such as Esoko are also required to empower the small farmers. In short, the priority should be to find ways to deal with Africa’s poverty and feed its people, and this is where developments in the new Revolution (such as Smart farming) can help.

Without major investments in re-training teachers, updating curriculums, labs and equipment (for practical skills), and without job opportunities for those who graduate, the current serious situation of unemployment (often due to inappropriate skills) is going to get worse over the coming years. Without skilled manpower or an innovation mind-set, participation in any form of a revolution is impossible. There may be plenty of free online education and training courses now available online but these require uninterrupted Internet access and power (not always a norm in Africa, at least not for the majority) for individuals to benefit from them. At the end of the day, appropriate education facilities and an empowered, trained, workforce for whom there are plenty of job opportunities available, are the keys to participation in any revolution and to development. Without industries (lacking at a large scale in most countries) or job markets that can absorb skilled manpower and give them jobs, unemployment (already a severe problem) is going to continue in Africa. The international high-technology companies are on a look out for new markets and already have their eyes on Africa, with its large young, growing middle class, population. Such companies should be welcomed with open arms, not just for their investments and job creation, but especially for the knowhow they bring with them. Some of these companies may have vested interest but at least they bring in technologies that could help with the African development process and allow some form of participation in the new Revolution. Governments have to be more receptive to such investments from high-tech companies.

The missing culture of research, development and innovation in Africa is partially due to lack of funds for such purposes, but also a result of use of out-dated teaching methods. Rote learning is common and students are usually not encouraged to think independently, question things, or have a curious mind. If Africa is to “develop”, or be part of the new Revolution, it needs many more curious minds trying to search for solutions to local problems themselves, and not relying on some foreign company or consultant to do that for them. This lack of an “innovation culture”, combined with lack of funding/interest in implementing an idea, has also led to Africa’s high dependency on imported products and equipment (including most of ICTs). However, without a partnership between governments, business, industry, academia and research facilities, and the availability of funds, developing an innovation culture is going to be difficult in Africa. Few young “innovators” in Africa are aware of the many sources of funding (including Crowd), now available worldwide, that they could apply for to realize their brilliant ideas.

I may be skeptical about Africa’s ability to leapfrog into the 4th Industrial Revolution but seriously hope that some of the technologies being developed in the better part of the world will filter down to the Continent to help it deal with some of its urgent socio-cultural and economic problems. Africa is very slow in changing or developing, and at end of the day the mostly incompetent African Governments are to be blamed for caring little about their populations or economies. Unless the masses demand change, and the Governments meet some of these requests, there is no way the Africans will be able to participate in any Revolutions. No industry is able to thrive anywhere without Government support. Some of us have been promoting the use of ICTs for African development for nearly three decades now, and can slowly see the widespread use of this technology, especially at the government level. There is therefore some hope that once the benefits of ICTs are seen, Governments (together with industries, academia, institutions, private sector, policy makers, etc.) may make an effort to provide an infrastructure suitable for its successful application. Participation in an Information Revolution (currently on-going) is a good start for the Continent and a serious effort should be made to prepare for the forthcoming 4th Industrial Revolution (that would address the needs of the majority of the population and not the minority) for African peoples’ sake. Running to the new Revolution is also an option to leapfrogging into it!


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