The fourth industrial revolution is here; Africa must take a lead

Phyllis Wakiaga
By Phyllis Wakiaga

The Industrialisation Practice Senior Private Sector Development Advisor at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Posted on Wednesday, 7 September 2022 17:01

Visitors explore the World Robot Conference 2022 in Beijing, China. Anna Ratkoglo / Sputnik/

Two weeks ago, I participated in the 10th KenGen Global Innovation Seminar whose theme was ‘Innovating Beyond the next Decade’. The discussions struck a deep chord as they highlighted energy-related technological innovations for the continent, on the backdrop of an escalating conversation on climate change adaptation.

The technological revolution is the primary force reshaping our world today with software and the internet forming the foundation of the modern economy. The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) has ushered in a new era of economic disruption with uncertain socio-economic consequences for Africa. The revolution is characterised by the fusion of the digital, biological, and physical worlds, as well as the growing utilisation of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, robotics, 3D printing and the Internet of Things.

Currently, most countries in Africa are not producing or importing advanced digital production (ADP) technologies.

The 2020 ‘Industrialising in the Digital Age’ report released by UNIDO speaks to the digital divide within which the revolution is taking place. In this study, just ten countries are frontrunners and account for 90% of all global patents and 70% of all exports, directly associated with the advanced digital production (ADP) technologies driving the 4IR. None of the frontrunners are African countries.

Currently, most countries in Africa are not producing or importing advanced digital production (ADP) technologies. According to UNIDO, even among countries with some activity in ADP technologies, a large number are importing the capital goods associated with these technologies, with very little or no domestic innovation.

These new technologies will be at the heart of enhancing industrial competitiveness and expanding manufacturing production. Technology will also transform key sectors like agriculture, finance, and health through Fintech, AgTech and Healthtech. This provides an opportunity for developing and exporting tradable services by African countries and in turn expanding opportunities for job and wealth creation.

How to capitalise on the technological revolution

First is the development of a strategy for Africa and African countries to embrace the 4IR technologies. Germany, for example, developed “Industrie 4.0” (Industry 4.0) – a national strategic government initiative to drive digital manufacturing forward by increasing digitisation and the interconnection of products, value chains and business models.

The second is the need to develop the right policies to increase productivity gains from the use of digital technologies. Identifying the right mix of policies will enable countries to maximise the benefits of an increasingly digitalised global economy and adequately address the resulting challenges.

Data is at the heart of the technological revolution and the lifeblood of the economy.

The third is the need to upgrade our human capital. Amid the many opportunities associated with the use of digital technologies, the impact on labour remains a major concern. The deployment of digital technologies and robotics in the manufacturing sector will change many jobs while simultaneously creating new jobs such as production and supply of parts for the new machines, among others.

We, therefore, need policies that encourage industries to invest in their workers to meet the new 4IR industrial skills demand. For instance, The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change is currently working on an Automation Monitor to be released by the end of 2022. This will support African governments navigate the challenge of driving job-rich economic transformation in the context of disruptive global technological change.

There is a need to turn around this narrative of being left behind as a continent and take our place at the table.

Fourth is ensuring that governments harness the technological revolution by building and strengthening their national digital infrastructure through public and private financing.

National digital infrastructure is as critical as roads, water, and energy infrastructure in the 21st century as it drives up government efficiency and provides a platform for innovation, growth and jobs. Central to this architecture is the cloud, which shifts complex and disconnected systems into a common and unified platform, potentially saving governments billions of dollars. The cloud is the fastest, most efficient and sustainable way to run government today.

Data is at the heart of the technological revolution and the lifeblood of the economy. The management of digital security risks with systems and policies to manage, analyse and protect data will be necessary to foster trust and confidence in the digital environment.

As Victor Hugo famously said: “No force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.” There is a need to turn around this narrative of being left behind as a continent and take our place at the table. Africa needs to mobilise financing and technical support for the adoption and production of these technological breakthroughs and invest in digital infrastructure delivery of public goods like health, education, and justice. Without this deliberate lobbying and international support, Africa runs the risk of remaining a laggard and failing to achieve sustainable development and inclusive growth.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options