How Africa can master the Fourth Industrial Revolution

It was my great pleasure to attend the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, which examined the implications of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. The Fourth Revolution refers to a world where machines interact and respond intelligently to the physical environment. As Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, writes, it will be driven by ‘a fresh wave of innovation in areas such as driverless cars, smart robotics, and a manufacturing process built around 3D printing’, which will have the seismic effect that steam power, electricity and digital technology had in earlier centuries.

I believe that the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is a tremendous opportunity for Africa. First, breakthroughs in emerging technologies such as robotics have the potential to disrupt the way business is done on the continent, and enhance the region’s economic competitiveness. For example, companies can deploy robotics for underground mining tasks that are unsafe for humans, and enhance productivity and efficiency levels within the environment. In addition, smart systems- factories, farms and grids- can help tackle some of our greatest development challenges such as climate change.

Yet we need to be mindful that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has important and concerning ramifications for labour markets on the continent. The World Economic Forum’s recent Future of Jobs report predicted that 65% of children entering primary school today will take jobs that don’t yet exist. In addition, advances in robotics could wipe out jobs in our economies, as they rely more heavily on low-skilled work that can be most easily replicated by robots. Ultimately, reaping the rewards of this transformative era depends on a skills revolution, especially in sciences, technology, and innovation, in the words of HE Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union. In other words, we need to work fast to equip our people with high-level scientific and technical competences.

As the leading source of job creation, for-profit businesses can work with African countries to invest in the capacity building and skills development needed to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. First, businesses can help African universities create STEM graduates. For example, they can help cash-strapped faculties design and deliver high-quality STEM curricula. Global players such as IBM are doing just this with its Africa University Programme, in which 80 universities across the continent participate to enhance their curriculum. These universities provide their final year students with a range of training including business analytics, data management, cloud and mobile technology training via the technical role based model applied in the IBM Technical Academy. Academic staff and students also receive support from IBM’s team of experts and an IBM training and information portal. Such initiatives will help create more resilient higher education institutions that are better able to respond to the evolving needs of industry. Furthermore, more African graduates will have the skills needed to work productively with emerging technologies and ensure that they can compete in a fast-changing job market.

Second, businesses can also provide talented young scientists with financial assistance so that they can pursue postgraduate and postdoctoral training in African universities by providing industry-focused scholarships and placements. For example, I chair the Africa Business Champions for Science, a group of influential figures from industry with a passion for STI on the continent, which is contributing to the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund with the Governments of Senegal, Ethiopia and Rwanda. The Fund will contribute to the World Bank’s Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET) programme, which seeks to award 10,000 African PhD scholarship over ten years, to strengthen research and innovation in applied science, engineering and technology.

As a businessman, I want to stress that these programmes are not gifting. They are beneficial to all parties: companies are investing in the infrastructure that they need to operate successfully, and our most talented scientists and researchers are encouraged to stay on the continent.

As a final point, the Future of Jobs report suggests that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will call for a different suite of soft skills than employers are currently seeking. Again, businesses can work with educators and governments to ensure that our populations develop these competences. For example, local and international businesses on the continent could learn from the example of Google, which has long encouraged its employees to spend a certain percentage of their time working on projects that they think will most benefit the company. This kind of culture can empower employees to be more creative and innovative, which will help them benefit from an onslaught of new technologies and ways of working.

Ultimately, Africa’s survival in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will depend on its knowledge base. I call up private sector companies operating across the continent to work with African governments, universities and the broader civil society to enhance scientific research, train STEM graduates, and encourage the development of soft skills in local labour forces.1-KLTuWY1F0tvDU5H8mKzt0Q

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