Fourth industrial revolution: A force for stability or volatility in Africa?


The fourth industrial revolution has begun. Will vast amounts of data, emerging digital marketplaces and advanced robotics revolutionise our lives or instigate revolutions? The recent World Economic 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 now in the infrastructure for tomorrow.

Stakes are high in Africa: technology will either exacerbate or alleviate inequality. The World Economic Forum predicts 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. Charisma D Kakuru has observed we are on “a collision course with the developed world, and the fourth industrial revolution will either reverse this trend or exacerbate it”.

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. Boston Consulting Group has predicted that over the next 10 years, robots may perform up to 25% of manufacturing tasks. 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. How do we ensure the people likely affected by these technologies are given the opportunity to evolve their skills apace with it?

Africa’s past offers inspiration for how it can adopt for the 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. A recent Financial Times special report on Africa’s entrepreneurs observed how “a growing pool of mostly young, successful entrepreneurs are creating a technological buzz and often improving the lives of millions of Africans – while making a tidy profit, too”. This virtuous circle of innovation inspiring innovation is the ideal forecast for the fourth industrial revolution.

Having outlined the implications of the fourth industrial revolution, let us turn to what can be done to ensure it confers stability, not volatility. First, employers like me have a responsibility to help our staff evolve their skills apace with innovation. For example, at Paramount Group, we are expanding our existing bursary and mentorship programmes, creating an in-house university so employees of all ages can train for higher-skilled roles and continually increase their employability. This is not only good practice, it is good business. As McKinsey warns: “The degree to which executives embrace [automation] will influence not only the pace of change within their companies, but also to what extent those organisations sharpen or lose their competitive edge.”

But business alone cannot determine the outcome of the fourth industrial revolution in Africa; it will succeed or fail primarily by political action. While it is beyond the scope of this article to offer detailed policy recommendations, I urge 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, then we must provide the same stable conditions that permit innovation to flourish.

Africa cannot afford to ignore the fourth industrial 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.