The African tech sector taking flight and with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) upon us, the continent has to harness all its resources to benefit from the opportunities therein.
While the 4IR offers immense prospects which could turn the continent’s economy around, a lot needs to be done to ensure that the decade-long lament of a poor Africa does not continue.
The 4IR technological revolution has important implications for education, employment, and the future of work on the continent which will have 1.6 billion people by 2030.
4IR is characterized by accelerating digitalization and the use of new technologies— including Artificial Intelligence (AI), cloud computing, robotics, 3D printing, the internet of things and advanced wireless technologies.
According to the African Economic Outlook 2020 by the African Development Bank (AfDB), Africa needs to prepare for the implications of the 4IR just like all regions globally.
“As automation complements human workers, these 4IR technologies can increase productivity because fewer people will be needed to perform the same tasks. The 4IR may also mean the end of export-led manufacturing, as automation enables more advanced economies to bring manufacturing home again,” notes the report.
Reimagining education, employment and growth strategies
The report notes that 4IR technologies can also create new types of activities.
However, modern technologies increase skill premiums and thus can worsen income inequality by replacing low-skilled manual jobs and complementing the work of high-skilled workers.
Noteworthy is that Africa lags far behind in 4IR technologies, with many countries digitally under-connected.
Before 2017, South Africa accounted for nearly all the robot installations in Africa. Since then, all reported robot installations of more than 100 units have been concentrated in North Africa, roughly 75 per cent of them in the Moroccan automotive industry and the others in Egypt and Tunisia (International Federation of Robotics database).
And South Africa, while the most advanced country in robotization in Africa, is one of the least prepared countries globally for the age of intelligent automation, with a score of 41 of 100 on the Automation Readiness Index, which assesses policy and strategy in innovation, education, and the labour market.
At the same time, the 4IR can create tremendous opportunities for creating jobs in Africa and for leapfrogging development hurdles.
A 2018 study for Kenya documented the new jobs created through digitalization, including in response to demand for technology experts to enable the expansion of digital services.
The use of transaction and savings data to price microcredit and assess credit risks has not only created new jobs but has increased savings and access to credit for informal traders and poor households, spurring investment, growth of small and medium-sized enterprises, and employment.
Digital platforms are also stimulating entrepreneurship and self-employment.
To take full advantage of such opportunities for turning technological disruptions into opportunities, African countries need to reimagine their education, employment and growth strategies in light of the 4IR.
Africa underinvesting in skills training
The report adds that the technological disruptions caused by the 4IR are also affecting the skills needed in the labour market, in particular along three dimensions: demand is rising for no repetitive cognitive and socio-behavioural skills, which make employees more adaptable; demand is falling for skills that are routine and tied to particular jobs, and having a mix of different kinds of skills is increasingly valuable.
This skills evolution is affecting both new and current jobs.
In particular, World Economic Forum surveys indicate that companies in Africa expect certain skills to be in increasing demand between 2018 and 2022: active learning and learning strategies, technology design and programming, complex problem-solving, critical thinking and analysis, leadership and social influence, reasoning and ideation, emotional intelligence, resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility.
The changing demand for skills over 2013–17 was reflected in hiring trends in Africa.
Demand rose for jobs that require cognitive and socio-behavioural skills, such as software engineers, marketing specialists, writers, financial advisors, and data analysts, while demand fell for jobs that involve repetitive actions, such as mechanical technicians, administrative assistants, and accountants.
In Kenya for instance, more than 40 per cent of workers using computers perform complex tasks with advanced programming requirements.
Developing the cognitive and socio-behavioural skills needed in today’s and tomorrow’s labour markets must start in early childhood. Building the necessary foundation requires investments in early childhood in nutrition, health, social protection, and education.
But Africa has been underinvesting in these areas, particularly for the poorest children who need them most.
Higher education is also more important than ever in “futureproofing” the workforce. Developing the complex cognitive skills that are in increasing demand requires education beyond primary and secondary school.
Continuous learning will be necessary to prepare adaptable workers who are able to master multiple careers and jobs.
Higher education is evolving to meet this demand by offering a wide array of courses and degrees through multiple access points, from classrooms to online platforms with flexible attendance modes (part-time as well as full time and self-paced learning online).
Universities are also major centres of research and development, contributing to innovation in the economy.
Yet across most African countries, less than 10 per cent of the population has a university education, and the average for the continent is 3.8 per cent.
With the shortage of engineering, scientific, and digital skills in Africa, human capital remains a key constraint in preparing for the future of production shaped by the disruptive technologies of the 4IR.
Absent major changes in education and training systems, this problem is likely to worsen. University education is concentrated in business administration, social sciences, education, and humanities, while the STEM studies that are crucial in a 4IR world are under-represented.
For example, enrolment is under 10 per cent in engineering and in natural sciences, mathematics, and statistics, and under 5 per cent in information and communication technologies.
To better prepare for the future of work, education and training institutions in Africa should give more emphasis to STEM subjects, with enhanced public-private sector collaboration to ensure that skill development is in tune with labour market needs.
With a workforce that is unprepared for the digital age, Africa’s economies will fall further behind in global competitiveness.
At the same time, new technologies offer opportunities for Africa to innovate and leapfrog in education and training, and many countries, including Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda are hotspots of education innovation.
The ability to leverage technology to boost the quality of education will become increasingly important as population growth strains education infrastructure and resources.