More than it was 4 years ago, when the 4th industrial revolution was first discussed in a Foreign affairs article by Klaus Schwab, the term is gradually weaving itself into our day to day life. Today the buzz word is used in many circles and has established itself in science and industry. Industrialization in the 21st century now goes beyond the manner in which the first and second revolution took place. Heavy machinery is replaced by smart and intelligent machines. Today our society requires re-organization in a manner beyond what the steam engines or automobile assembly lines required. For most sub-saharan African countries, the struggle is in producing what we consume and consuming what we produce. Systematically ending the consumption-only cycle as we know it today.
On the continent
On the continent of Africa, in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa, governments struggle to design definite plans and actions for industrialization. Many things are left to chance. In the manner that the Japanese have 20-year goals, and Americans set 50-year goals, there is little or no intentional effort by African Heads of States to provide visionary leadership that prioritizes manufacturing, creates a massively encouraging business climate or that prepares youth for the future of work. Despite increasing youth population, and huge demographic potential; inability to harness talent through education, incubate ideas through industry linkages and scale up production for small scale manufacturing sets us back.
Where do we start
Power! Yes, electricity or energy is the backbone for industrialization. Accelerating growth starts with getting it right with power. In the Nigerian context, manufacturing companies struggle both with huge bills from burning fossil fuels (diesel and petrol) over small production lines and the business justification for the ‘made-in-Nigeria’ campaigns. Recent efforts by the government show that there might be some progress in that sector over the next four years. That progress will be crippled if the privatization of the sector remains as it is. Aggressive investment and stronger regulation is a critical prerequisite. The made in Nigeria campaign should continue, but it must be hand-in-hand with the policy that ensures that ‘making-in-Nigeria’ is both possible and profitable. When energy is sorted, and barriers to entry for small players are removed, the climate for manufacturing will clearly become friendlier.
Micro-production is a critical alternative in such ‘unique’ environments like ours. 3-D printing, laser cutting and other disruptive prototyping methodologies can help small scale production and impact large scale manufacturing in the medium to long term.
The Role of Universities
As the pillar of innovation, universities must stand true to the purpose for which they have been established. Partnering with industry to solve age-long problems and investing more in research and development (not just more ‘buildings’) is certainly a great way to start. Hiring qualified faculty and retraining existing faculty will ensure that the cistern of knowledge remains fresh. Creating endowments has been difficult for many Nigerian Universities for a number of reasons. Should we be able to scale this hurdle Universities may be able to depend on another source of funding that does not depend on long bureaucratic approvals from government ministries or government established funds. Students must be given the chance to participate in multiple internships, visit and contribute to manufacturing companies and evaluate how traditional businesses can leverage disruption for growth.
Shaping the Agenda Locally
Local, sub-regional and regional efforts must be in place to set ambitious goals, design joint actions, metrics for measuring growth in the short, medium and long term. It requires multi-sectoral dialogues and consultation from time to time with key players. These key players are in the public as well as private sectors.
The possibilities that existed 10 years ago within confines of how countries can reorganize to shape the industry, is now exponentially increased by technologies like IOT (Internet of Things), Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and 3-D Manufacturing. How all of these connect together to impact on the future of our workforce is a necessary symposium discussion. Federal, states and local governments must set up mechanisms to support local nonprofits as well as private organizations who have proven programs to empower tomorrow’s workforce as we position for the 4th Industrial revolution. Intentional tax incentives should be provided to small scale manufacturers. Significant government and private sector joint funding must go into setting up industrial parks that employ millions of future-ready employees. An AI policy framework for automation of industrial parks must be put in place, that considers the socio-political effects of automation such as massive unemployment, as well as its huge benefits such as heightened productivity and speed.
While this is a really brief expose on the subject, it is needless to say that the potential for industrialization on the continent is massive. Getting it right is crucial, and making it sustainable is not debatable. Energy remains a key bottleneck, and multi-sectoral approaches will work better than silos thinking. Education must be re-invented to accommodate changes going on in the industry, and small scale manufacturers must be incentivised. Technology remains a fundamental backbone for accelerating industrialization and must be given deserving attention in its creation, acquisition and deployment.
(Engineer, Evangelist and Artificial Intelligence Leader, Founder and CEO Coven Works Inc.)