"Data is the new oil" and "robots and automation will take over 50% of jobs by 2040" are phrases which once sounded like a distant echo but now seep into conversations across the globe. Predictions are flying left and right, and every day new articles spring up on the full impact of robots and how people can protect their spots in the eventual shrunken workplace. It would appear that technology, which was once touted as the platform to ‘leapfrog', is taking on another coat, one that is not as progressive.
In April, I joined a debate convened by The Africa Report on the sidelines of the Ibrahim Governance Weekend held in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire to discuss "The 4th Industrial Revolution: job-killer or job-creator?" I argued that technology is more an opportunity than a threat for Africa as a collective and quite frankly, the continent has much bigger problems staring it in the face than robots taking over our jobs.
To be fair, there is cause for concern, isn’t there? The period for transitions between each industrial revolution have reduced drastically, and with every new unwrapped technological advancement, we draw almost closer to empyrean. Fluid absorbing cement for roads, electric trucks designed to carry 36,000 kilos for up to 300 miles on one charge, 3D printed limbs, stationery, even fully functional houses; the question is, what haven’t we done with technology yet?
[su_highlight]Unfortunately, Africa trails the rest of the globe in technology adoption. This means exclusion from the global stage and value chain, and skill flight for an already deficient continent as production processes get left behind leading to downward pressure on wages.[/su_highlight]
Back to the robots, as highlighted in the 2019 Ibrahim Forum Report, there are approximately 2.6 million in use globally, with 1.4 million expected to be in operation before the end of the year, putting a big question mark on half of the current jobs in existence by as early as 2022. And it could be sooner. So yes, maybe there is cause for concern.
What about the potential? Have we considered the tremendous opportunities that the 4th Industrial Revolution brings in its wake? For employment, for improved services for outliers and the underserved, for education, and for solving the new challenges the planet faces.
I have always wanted to own a farm, fantasised about ‘eating out of my garden', and dreamt of maybe even going commercial with my produce. So, when an older colleague offered me plush land in one of the communities in Abuja, Nigeria, it appeared the answer to my prayer had dropped in my lap. This was until I made a few trips to and from the farm and tried to fit that into my job and current commitments and failed woefully. Enter Farmcrowdy, Thrive Agric, AgroPartnerships, and the growing number of digital agriculture platforms that allow people to partake in the farming journey from the comfort of their mobiles, as well as empower rural farmers and make a profit while strengthening the agriculture food chain.
I think of the Zipline team in Rwanda and now Ghana, delivering blood, vaccines, and life-saving medication to upwards of 12 million people via drones. And Lifebank in Nigeria, addressing critical logistics issues around access to blood via artificial intelligence and blockchain technology to connect blood donors, blood banks, and hospitals in a record 45 minutes from the time a request is made.
What about the potential for inclusion? According to the 2018 Mobile Economy Report, mobile internet as a market has been projected to add 1.75 billion new users by 2025, with growth driven by sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and some Asian countries.
Once upon a time, Africans in need of financial services visited bank branches armed with limitless doses of patience. Staff would look through ledgers to find names and confirm bank balances before effecting transfers of any kind, which took days to reflect for the recipient. Today, banks compete with each other to offer a wide spectrum of services, including reducing visits to branches, and single or repeat instantaneous transactions. In Nigeria, they also have to compete with Fintech start-ups like PiggyVest, CowryWise, and others for customers' savings and investments. PiggyVest, for instance, claims to have processed over one billion naira in savings in January 2019 alone.
Like I said at the debate, technology is spreading like wildfire around these parts, fuelled by cheaper mobile devices and a new wave of youth-led entrepreneurship that is solving a plethora of problems the continent's leaders seem either unaware of or unable to solve. It is changing the way people transact business, how they choose and engage with their leaders, how they access health services, and especially how they talk with one another.
So, while automation brings with it new demands, it also brings the need for new skills and sounds the alarm on the need for critical infrastructure that will allow innovation to scale seamlessly. This, my friends, is what we should be concerned about.