The Fourth Industrial Revolution: a path to prosperity for Africa

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Right now, we’re at a critical tipping point in Africa’s development. We’re hurtling headlong into The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which has the potential to turbo-charge the socio-economic development of the entire African continent. We’ve got the youngest continent in the world, with 60% of our population being youth. If we make the right decisions in the next few years, we could pave a bold new path of African prosperity.

There’s no doubt that the 4IR’s technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT), can drive a new vision for economic growth, innovation, development and human well-being. Our governments and institutions have a massive opportunity to start using AI and digital platforms to do life-changing things: help us deliver safe drinking water to our people, change education systems, even give people the ability to identify themselves to be able to access government grants, open bank accounts and vote in elections.

We know Africa suffers from a massive infrastructure deficit. But the beauty of 4IR’s technologies is that you don’t need big legacy systems and programmes in place to start rolling them out. We’re already seeing numerous case studies and examples of how developing countries can move quickly to new digital approaches that can transform public service delivery in critical areas like farming, healthcare and education.  

Take agriculture as an example. Today, small-scale agriculture accounts for about 80% of today’s food production, and nearly 70% of all jobs in Africa. Imagine what can be achieved if we use data to help small-scale farmers to improve their production: better use of land and water, less food being imported, improved food security – and the ability for farmers to start generating revenues for themselves by selling surplus produce, and breaking free from subsistence.

In health care, we can use technologies like AI to make diagnoses in rural areas, where there are precious few doctors. And we’re already seeing technology changing the face of education in countries like India, where they’ve launched a national teacher platform that builds teacher capacity by allowing teachers to provide richer content, while giving administrators access to data about student study patterns. Digital platforms are not only transforming teaching, but changing the way we think about learning. 

Another relatively quick win would be digital identification systems, which can play a major role in driving financial inclusion and reducing corruption through reduced fraud and leakages in social benefits payment systems. Once people have digital identities, they can do anything from getting a SIM card to arranging a bank account or pension. 

If you empower people with their personal information and data, they can use this data to get better loans, get better skills, and ultimately earn better salaries. On a continent like ours, developing a high-performing digital ecosystem will provide a unique chance to stimulate the economy and create jobs.  

But the real promise of 4IR is to unlock a new future for Africa’s estimated 700 million young people. We’re going to have to move quickly, though. Today, fewer than 1% of African children leave school with basic coding knowledge. We – big business, governments, NGOs and civil society – must do more to give our youthful workforce the skills they need to participate in the digital economy.

Hopefully, this imperative will get some impetus later this year, at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa in Cape Town in early September. With a theme of ‘Shaping Inclusive Growth and Shared Futures in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, this edition of WEF could be a watershed moment for Africa. It’s up to us to grab the opportunity.

Cathy Smith is the Managing Director of SAP Africa.