African leaders pay lip service to technological change, but much more needs to be done to provide training and opportunities in the new digital age.
Africans are ready for the fourth industrial revolution, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa confidently asserted at the World Economic Forum conference in Davos earlier this year.
But, he argued, their leaders are moving slowly and have yet to fully embrace this “new bright and brave world that young people live in today”.
Ramaphosa said that if leaders do not keep up with Africa’s youth, they will be left behind.
But as the digital divide grows, it may not just be leaders that are left unprepared.
The concept of a fourth industrial revolution was coined by WEF founder Klaus Schwab.
While the first industrial revolution relied on water and steam, the second on electricity and the third on electronics and IT, Schwab sees the fourth industrial revolution as being shaped by the emerging digital technologies that will “fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another”.
The concept is increasingly underpinning discussions about how to tackle the major challenges facing young Africans today, including unemployment and a lack of opportunity.
The truth has finally dawned that young people – about 60 per cent of Africans are under the age of 30 – face a gloomy future if the continent’s leaders do not up their game.
But the new skills and competencies promised by the fourth industrial revolution are not yet being created in public schools in Africa, where millions of children don’t have classrooms or access to electricity, let alone computers.
Instead, education tends to be content driven, with children fed information by teachers.
The new world of artificial intelligence, which requires the cultivation of independent thought and self-learning skills at the school level to prepare children for a world where life skills are critical, is conspicuous by its absence in Africa.
Africa is stuck in the second industrial revolution, with governments still prioritizing industrial programmes and skills that will be disrupted, and even marginalized, by current technology trends.
The notion that China will move millions of low-cost manufacturing jobs to Africa as its own production costs rise is proving to be elusive as many of the jobs that may have been exported to the continent are rapidly becoming automated.
But all is not lost. The continent is awash with Africans eager to engage with technology, and there are many companies, venture capital funds, international entrepreneurs and non-governmental organisations creating opportunities in ICT.
Ironically, Africa’s underdevelopment provides a clean slate for technology and innovation.
Energy is an example. With millions of Africans still far from a power grid, renewable energy and micro-grid innovations are reaching across the continent, changing people’s lives.
The mobile revolution highlighted the enormous appetite for technology and entrepreneurship among Africans.
This is also increasingly being shown in the banking sector. The UN says 12 per cent of adults in Africa have mobile bank accounts compared with 2 per cent globally.
And while the job bonanza from China may not live up to earlier predictions, it nevertheless has momentum where the incentives are right.
An example is Ethiopia, where China is building industrial parks that may employ up to 150,000 Ethiopians.
Multinational companies are also coming to the party. For example, IBM has, with the UN, launched a $70m initiative to create jobs in Africa, focused on digital literacy.
It aims to train 25m youths over five years. Technology hubs are driving innovation across the continent.
Currently, internet connectivity in Africa is just 24.4 per cent, which shows the opportunity that technology offers the continent to move into the digital age.
What about business? Analysis shows that African companies are not moving into the digital age as fast as the hype would suggest.
Although many companies regard the adoption of emerging technologies as being critical to future success, skills shortages and cost constraints have slowed this down.
There are other reasons for this. Companies in emerging markets are under pressure to maintain a balance between mechanisation and jobs.
There are high social and economic costs, and even security implications, of high unemployment in low income markets.
High unemployment also doesn’t make business sense for global multinationals and local companies which rely on consumer demand to grow profits in these frontier markets.
Ramaphosa is correct in saying that African leaders are holding the continent back.
Many pay lip service to “future proofing” their countries, while stuck in a past that has not delivered development, let alone knowledge-based economies.
Policymakers, rather than stimulating entrepreneurship, are regulating it. A lack of enabling policy is a handbrake on progress.
Governments tend to be complacent about technology, treating it as something on the margins of the economy rather than a transformational tool.
There are exceptions. For example, Rwandan leader Paul Kagame chairs the Smart Africa initiative, which aims to put ICT at the centre of the continent’s national socio-economic development agenda.
He maintains that the mindset is changing, slowly but surely. Smart Africa is the result of a realisation among Africans that their future is, or should be, a digital one, he says.
The initiative aims to get political leaders to align their efforts and policies with this goal.
Africa is not short of young entrepreneurs with good ideas, ambition, energy and talent, which can be harnessed to drive more inclusive growth.
They are also impatient for change and as access to information increases, they will have more power to hold their leaders accountable and to push for a new political agenda that will allow them input into the processes and policies that shape their lives.
This opinion first appeared on African Business Magazine