How Africa adapts to the coming revolution in new technology will determine its future. The continent must not limit its potential.
Understanding what the Fourth Industrial Revolution is, and how to respond to it, was a central theme at this January’s Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Core questions arose, including: Will vast amounts of data, emerging digital marketplaces and advanced robotics revolutionise our lives or instigate revolutions? The Forum offered predictions from the dire to the sublime. As an African industrialist, I believe in technology’s potential to bring peace and prosperity to the continent – but only if government and business invest today, in infrastructure for tomorrow.
The stakes are high: technology will either exacerbate or alleviate inequality. The Forum predicts that the three most important skills for an employee by 2020 will be complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. Without adequate training, potentially only a diminished minority of the continent will possess these skills, while others will see their value diminished by automation. Africa’s pace of development is already fractured; we must ensure access to technology extends to farmers in Liberia and not just app developers in Lagos.
As the Chairman of Paramount Group, an African-based advanced manufacturing company, I am especially sensitive to the likely impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the continent’s middle-skilled jobs. The global decline of manufacturing has already exacerbated divisions between the highly skilled and their less-fortunate counterparts. According to research by the Boston Consulting Group, robots may perform up to 25% of manufacturing tasks in the next 10 years. This will have a disproportionate effect on poor countries; the University of Oxford estimates that Ethiopia could lose up to 85% of its jobs to automation and robotics.
Africa’s past offers inspiration for how it can adapt to this uncertain future. For example, in five quick years Guinea has introduced clean energy technologies that light up homes and power schools. In 15 years, Africa has grown to become the world’s second-largest mobile phone market, offering millions of families access to banking services, public health information and the internet. Even more impressive is how many young people have used this technology as a platform for their own entrepreneurial ambitions.
What can be done to ensure the Fourth Industrial Revolution confers stability, not volatility? First, employers have a responsibility to help workers evolve their skills apace with innovation.
But business alone cannot determine the outcome in Africa; it will succeed or fail primarily by political action. It is vital for our continent’s leadership to finally invest in a cohesive, functional infrastructure. Most of Africa still struggles to implement the advancements from the first Industrial Revolution; we are held back by inconsistent electricity, food and water insecurity and political conflict. White papers and calls to action are an insufficient response. If we are to finally catch up with industrialised nations, we must provide the same stable conditions that permit innovation to flourish.
Africa cannot afford to ignore this coming revolution; it has already begun. Rwanda’s use of advanced drones to deliver basic medical aid demonstrates technology’s power to engender peace and prosperity. But without sufficient investment in our skills and physical infrastructure, advanced robotics also has the capacity to disadvantage many for the advantage of few. If the continent is to collectively benefit, then we must not let unequal access to today’s technologies limit our future potential.
Ivor Ichikowitz, founder and executive chairman, Paramount Group.