Africa and the 4IR: The way forward.

The fourth industrial revolution(4IR) is no longer a new trend!

For the most ‘part of Europe and America, it is already becoming a cliche with several conversations on how societies will leverage the technology advancement. Africa has also joined the fray, but I have a concern because, despite the speed at which the world is advancing, the continent is moving twice as slow and it may be delusional to think that we are at par with the rest of the world.


This is not to make us sound inferior as some will already begin to conclude, neither is it an effort to throw shades at the continent. Rather, it is to drive reality before our eyes and help us focus on the major angle —developing Africa.

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Klaus Schwab, the World Economic Forum founder, holds his book about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Reuters/Denis Balibouse

If you’re not totally aware of what characterizes the fourth industrial revolution, it is sometimes termed as the age of artificial intelligence and robotics. It also encapsulates Virtual and Augmented reality, 3D printing and blockchain. It discusses an age where the machine will gain high intelligence to work independently and make decisions for themselves. Now, this sounds like a huge threat to the work positions of humans generally and there are conversations flying around the corner about what solutions or preventive mentions should be put in place to checkmate this.


Funny enough, as much as it is of great concern, it is also of great concern to Africa who will not experience this in the next thirty years if we keep moving at this pace. I’d quickly mention that there are four industrial revolutions and we as Africans have not successfully completed any of this revolutions. The fourth which is the current one should still be kept aside. 

Let’s talk about the first three and why we should all stop bellowing about “THE FUTURE OF WORK” because obviously, there’s no such thing in Africa and even if we try to force our way into it, it will be more disastrous. The western world has been able to get to the fourth industrial revolution not because they just thought it all out but because it was obviously the next phase to get to—reading between the lines of technological advancements. 

When you’ve been able to successfully build machines, make them undergo tasks, studied what causes their faults, studied what makes them weak, tried, tested and experimented what could make them work faster, gather the data, what do you expect? Implementation of course!! This implementation is what we can refer to as Artificial Intelligence because it is an advanced form of solving the problem you’ve spent so long trying to figure out with the machines. 

Now, let’s take a quick dive back into the main point. 

Big question; Is Africa really ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution? 

Before you answer this question, remember I simply analyzed that the 4IR is a product or advancement of the first three. Now let’s talk about how we have not crossed any of the three ages. We are just a half baked product of the previous phases. 

The first age which is the age of manufacturing is the age where we can also call the age of industrialization and it is characterized by some important activities, one of which is production. We do not need to propose an argument at this point if Africa is a producing continent or a consuming continent. It is so obvious with the rate of importation we do on the continent compared to exportation. 

This shows we are not putting enough machines (that we do not even have in sufficient capacity) to use. For example, the agriculture sector is a good example; It’s funny that we see so many start-ups coming up with solutions on how we can use artificial intelligence on our farms to increase production without asking questions around the business side to see if such business models are currently scalable. 

The reason is simple. We don’t have machines, we don’t have the equipment, we are not producing any of these, we import them which is pretty expensive so the concurrent cost of production will reflect on the price of the products and remember, most Africans are middle class. Let’s leave that point and stick to the real issue. Whenever I hear AI, what comes to mind my mind is a set of sophisticated data accumulated overtime which is now used by machines to carry out actions overtime. 

But what happens when we have not in the first place used these machines to the point of gathering data from them? What happens when we’ve not gathered enough data from our farms? Matter of fact, how are we gathering these data? 

Time Lapse Photography of Blue Lights

The next age is the age of assessment and we also do not feature well here, we just took a piece of this and jumped straight into the age of information (the internet). Another interesting age to be in. While we look so much in a hurry to escape this age, we have not mined more than 1% of this age in Africa? This is the age where data is being gathered. This age has not produced so many million-dollar companies in Africa as it is supposed to. Guess the companies that are making it huge in Africa at the moment? 

Basic products companies.

 Companies that solve Africa’s basic needs. Food, clothes, transportation etc and this is simply because there’s a huge gap to fill in manufacturing and production and just a few occupy this space so they get the gold. Back to the internet age. This is the age where we operate based on data, where data is stored. How many data companies do we have? Where’s the database for our security system for the past twenty years? 

How accurate is it? So how do we hope to solve crimes using robotic police like Dubai? Where’s the accurate data in health for cancer patients? This data cannot be data gathered in months. It is most likely something that will take a few years. So how do we hope to solve accurately cancer disease with AI and not complicate matters? While we long and clamour for this age to come, we sure are not ready, the market is not ripe and this is not to say we shouldn’t make preparation for it, it is to say whatever we’re doing should be in respect to the past. 

Our future solutions should be from the past and not the future. A lot of people are also advocating for electric cars in Africa and driverless cars. I bet you if a company would start electric cars business in Africa, it would close down in a short time. Should we talk about how you need to recharge your battery in an hour time but the bad roads will help you get your car towed after spending five hours or how you cannot truly bank on the consistency of power supply. 

Well, that’s not AI, right? Let’s talk about driverless cars which is artificial intelligence. A lot of sophisticated, analysed data have been carried out for years. People’s behaviours on roads, nature of toads during different hours of the day, car performances and so much more. Do we have such data or do we import them? Impossible!! 

While we’re busy racing for the 4IR and training our kids for such which is very important, it is however much more important to always consider the business angle. When they start-up companies in this line, will they thrive here or the goal is to leave the continent? When we train people with these skills, will they work here or get jobs outside the continent. If the goal is to create products and manpower for the western world, then it’s fine. However, we should not forget that Africa in itself still has a long way to go.

Whatever technology we want to work on should be used to solve “Now-Problems” so we can know the future problems.ç

Written by: Ajayi Joel (Business Strategist)