Ignore 4IR hype, don't ignore its potential for Africa

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Eugene le Roux, chief executive of NEC XON Africa.
Eugene le Roux, chief executive of NEC XON Africa.

The fourth industrial revolution is being hyped up by tech evangelists, the media, industry analysts and futurists.

This revolution does, however, offer the continent a chance to get serious about technology, develop markets, and really compete in the new economy, said Eugene le Roux, chief executive of NEC XON Africa.

Speaking at the ICT solution supply and integration firm's 7th annual summit at Sun City, Le Roux said amid the hype, there is an element of truth that should excite the continent.

There are genuine cases of digital innovation changing lives in Africa, he said, but the pace of change is slow and depends on a calculated, step-by-step approach.

African relevance

He noted there are good start-ups in Africa, and great case studies on applications and innovations that filled a need for users here, but that may not be relevant to somebody in a developed market.

"An example of that is what M-Pesa did for financial inclusion in East Africa. Africa is not known for creating all this stuff.... Africa will be the youngest and fastest growing population in the world and therein lies the opportunity."

But Africa will have to start building a digital economy and digital assets, added Le Roux, who warned that while revenue generation remains focused on natural resources, these resources will play a lesser role in the future economy.

"We really don't want to be in a situation in 50 years where the resources are sold at the mercy of huge international economies. So, how do we innovate and build our business model as Africa to compete and/or be different than the global scale? I don't think anyone has the answer to that."

Looking ahead, the likelihood is that Africa will continue to grapple with challenges such as inequality and corruption. "One thing about Africa is that technology and business model innovation is happening despite this.

"Our advantage is that we are not hung up and protecting an invention or a technology or industry of any sorts. We can start afresh and we can make whatever is relevant to us count."

Invention with purpose

Le Roux believes ICT infrastructure development must be addressed first in order to innovate.

He said innovation is invention with purpose, so to innovate, one must have a purpose. "What is required in Africa, we need to imagine what the possibilities are, and then build from that in order to move forward."

Technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, analytics and the Internet of things are growing in influence, but Africa must target these at challenges and help meet the needs of people.

"This is where imagination comes in. It is leveraging all of this; it is leveraging the platform economy and all these technologies, recombining it with existing assets to solve a problem. It is happening one step at a time, but the movement is being created."

He noted this is dependent on education and the development of a progressive mindset.

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