The Fourth Industrial Revolution in sub-Saharan Africa: key to the coronavirus recovery?

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– Prior to the pandemic, 4IR technologies had begun to take root in the region

– Significant challenges still exist, among them ICT infrastructure and education

– 4IR uptake could hold the key to Africa’s Covid-19 recovery

– International bodies, governments and businesses must work together to implement the 4IR

The pandemic has significantly accelerated the global spread of technologies associated with the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), among them artificial intelligence, the internet of things (IoT), big data and blockchain. In sub-Saharan Africa many now see the 4IR as key to the region’s recovery.

Progress towards the 4IR – characterised by the fusion of technologies in the physical, digital and biological spheres – was already under way in sub-Saharan Africa prior to Covid-19. In Kenya and parts of West Africa, for instance, blockchain was used to verify property records, while Ghana-based companies Farmerline and Agrocenta used mobile and web technology to support farmers.

Elsewhere, in 2016 Rwanda became the first country to incorporate drones into its health care system, using them to deliver blood to remote regions.

South Africa is another regional leader in this regard. October 2019 saw the inauguration of the South African affiliate of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the 4IR Network, and in January last year President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the creation of a presidential commission on the 4IR, bringing together start-ups, researchers, trade unionists and cybersecurity specialists, among others.

In an article published by the Brookings Institution, a US think tank, at the same time, Ramaphosa argued that Africa had to leverage the 4IR in order to industrialise, pursue inclusive growth and attract investment.

He also expressed his ambition that, thanks to the 4IR, by 2030 South Africa would be “an economy that uses technological innovation to revolutionise manufacturing and industrial processes, and energy provision and distribution”.

“We want to demonstrate how science, technology and innovation have been used to enhance our food and water security and to build smart human settlements,” he added, highlighting some of the benefits that the 4IR could bring to the continent.

Strengths and weaknesses

Various factors stand the sub-Saharan region in good stead to take advantage of 4IR technologies.

For example, in recent times the region has seen a massive expansion in mobile technology, with consumers leapfrogging traditional development channels straight to digital services, particularly with regard to banking.

Africa also boasts disproportionately high numbers of young people, a demographic dividend which is already bearing fruit in terms of the 4IR.

More than 400 tech clusters have sprung up across the continent, largely thanks to the efforts of young people, with three key centres – Lagos, Nigeria; Nairobi, Kenya; and Cape Town, South Africa – achieving global recognition.

Further to this, a report published at the end of 2019 by the African Development Bank (AfDB) noted that IoT had expanded considerably in Africa, while there had been strong investment growth in technology-led areas. The report deemed this unsurprising, given the transformative impacts that such technologies can have in sectors as varied as agriculture, manufacturing, health care and governance.

But the report also highlighted a range of challenges, among them ICT infrastructure gaps and an undercapitalised start-up ecosystem.

Education is also widely identified as a key hurdle, both in the sense that education systems in the region are often inadequate, with limited numbers of people attending higher education, and in the sense that there is a mismatch of skills, with many people not given the right training to take advantage of the 4IR.

While progress has been made, many challenges remain. Released earlier this year, the UN Conference on Trade and Develoment’s "Technology and Innovation Report 2021" found that Africa as a whole was the world’s least-prepared region to take advantage of 4IR technologies.

South Africa is the continent’s most-prepared country, but it ranks far below fellow BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India and China. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Gambia and Sudan number among the continent’s least prepared.

4IR and Covid-19 recovery

While the onset of the coronavirus pandemic stalled progress in many industries across sub-Saharan Africa, it also provided a major fillip to a range of technologies, as OBG has extensively detailed.

For example, Covid-19 triggered an e-commerce boom in sub-Saharan Africa, and it is anticipated that growth in this field will be sustained moving forwards: according to a report launched by Google and the International Finance Corporation at the end of last year, Africa’s digital economy could contribute $180bn to the continent’s GDP by 2025, an increase on the $115bn for which it is currently responsible.

Meanwhile, international bodies have prompted African countries to develop 4IR technologies.

Last June it was announced that the continent was set to receive a total of $50bn in support from the World Bank. The bank encouraged Africa to invest in digital technology through the introduction of new digital platforms, the installation of digital infrastructure, the development of digital skills and the establishment of an enabling regulatory environment.

A belief in the importance of the 4IR remains prominent among global organisations.

Cristina Duarte, special adviser on Africa to the UN secretary-general, wrote in March this year that, “to address the myriad challenges facing Africa in the areas of food security, education, health and energy, as well as bridge the digital divide, it is essential for African policymakers to harness innovation and the potential brought by digital technologies. This will be crucial for the continent’s recovery from the current Covid-19 pandemic”.

Ongoing 4IR initiatives

With the benefits of such developments abundantly clear, the question is: what is being done to ensure that 4IR technologies are used to help sub-Saharan Africa overcome its Covid-19 economic slump?

Various international bodies are playing a part. For example, the World Economic Forum’s Africa Growth Platform – launched in Cape Town at the end of 2019 – brings together governments, investors and entrepreneurs to create new employment opportunities and support Africa’s digital transformation.

Development banks are also key players. The AfDB, for example, runs the Coding for Employment scheme as part of its Jobs for Youth in Africa strategy. The programme provides equipment and training to give young people the soft and interpersonal skills required in many 4IR sectors.

In addition, the AfDB’s investments in agriculture are expected to quadruple to about $2.4bn by 2024. Much of the funds will go towards the transformation of food systems, with 4IR technologies to play a major role in this.

Elsewhere, the recently ratified African Continental Free Trade Area agreement is an example of national governments taking proactive steps to accelerate development across the continent.

Indeed, increased collaboration between the private and public sectors, as well as between national and international bodies, will be key to the growth and successful management of the 4IR going forwards. In short, if Africa can begin to bridge its infrastructure and education gaps, it will be able to continue leveraging the 4IR, both as a driver for recovery and as the foundation for a successful and inclusive future.

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