Insufficient 4IR skills to impede Africa’s AI revolution

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 14 Jun 2024
The advancement of GenAI will lead to industries requiring cycles of skilling, reskilling and upskilling.
The advancement of GenAI will lead to industries requiring cycles of skilling, reskilling and upskilling.

While artificial intelligence (AI) and generative AI (GenAI) will herald new career opportunities in Africa’s future, the skills shortage and employment disruptions during the transition could prove difficult to navigate.

This is according to the “AI and the future of work in Africa” white paper produced by Microsoft and a collective of industry experts from across the continent.

The paper examines how the growing tech scene on the continent offers opportunities for AI-driven job creation, and discusses how the continent’s lower exposure to AI due to a larger agricultural and informal sector may delay the impact.

It calls for a more nuanced examination of the possible impact of AI on jobs and skills development initiatives.

According to the white paper, Africa has a unique opportunity to influence what the future of work looks like in these early phases of GenAI, as large language learning models (LLMs) are evolving and the environment for applications is still new.

However, the effectiveness of LLMs will depend on the quality and relevance of the data they process, it cautions.

While GenAI is a catalyst for innovation and is expected to contribute significantly to Africa’s gross domestic product, its potential to transform industries such as agriculture, healthcare and services hinges on equipping the youth with the skills needed for an AI-disrupted labour market, to ensure they are not left behind in this technological shift, it says.

The white paper points out that the most critical priority on the continent is to address the increasing unemployment burden and create employment opportunities at scale, to meet current and growing demand for digital economy jobs.

“GenAI is forecast to drastically change knowledge worker jobs, especially in terms of the type of work done, the skills required and the outputs produced,” notes the white paper.

“It is therefore important to build skills across the spectrum, from how to deploy and use GenAI tools effectively at work, to how to build appropriate and innovative applications and technologies on top of these models. Even with exceptional training and capacity development, the unpredictability and uncertainty of AI disruption renders millions of currently stable employees at risk.”

To effectively harness and interact with GenAI systems, other non-technical and transferable skills are also essential, the white paper reveals. These include problem-solving, creativity, adaptability and critical thinking – requiring a different approach to digital skills development.

Opportunities for youth

Only half of African countries have computer skills in their school curriculum, compared to the global average of 85%, notes the paper.

To put a global perspective on this, in 2022, African countries scored between 1.8 and five on the Digital Skills Gap Index, lower than the global average of six.

Up to 12 million young Africans enter the labour market annually, but according to a report from the International Labour Organisation, more than 20% are neither in employment, education or training.

“We see a significant role for GenAI to not only transform work environments, but also foster opportunities for the youth to create jobs, innovate and help drive economic growth and stability across the continent,” says Ravi Bhat, chief technology and solutions officer at Microsoft Africa.

“While it is not necessarily the case that Africa’s role will be relegated to the last mile in the value chain, significant obstacles such as cost, computing capacity, reliable power and a lack of investor confidence will need to be overcome for African countries to reap the full benefits of GenAI.”

According to the white paper, ensuring a beneficial outcome with GenAI involves proactive governance, inclusive design, investment in education and a commitment to regulatory and ethical standards. This is a collective responsibility, requiring engagement from policymakers, technologists and citizens alike.

“Technology alone cannot solve the challenges our youthful continent faces. We need to create policies and practices to ensure GenAI, and AI in general, is deployed responsibly with AI-related labour being valued and dignified. It requires the macro-economic, labour and regulatory markets to adapt and be capable of supporting positive change,” adds Bhat.