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African states remain tech colonies, says 4IR commissioner

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African states largely remain technology colonies, due to the large number of technological-intensive services that are still outsourced from international countries.

This was the word from Rendani Mamphiswana, senior technical advisor on energy at Sasol and commissioner for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Presidential Commission, speaking at the China-Africa Joint Research and Exchange Programme Webinar Series hosted by the South African Institute of International Affairs.

Mamphiswana unpacked the findings of research he conducted in partnership with Meti Bekele, senior project officer at the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences, focusing on fourth industrial revolution (4IR) challenges and prospects in Africa.

Highlighting the low infrastructural development conducive for 4IR initiatives across the African continent, Mamphiswana pointed out that the continent’s status is still that of a technology colony – meaning Africa is highly dependent on other countries for the technological innovativeness required to elevate industries to new levels of growth and competitiveness to ensure 4IR contributes significantly to the continent’s economy.

Among the implications of being a technology colony are that the unemployment rate rises and fewer tech activities are executed by locals in the economic sector, he noted.

“Infrastructure for 4IR is quite low on the continent and in some areas it’s not there at all. We also see that due to non-competitiveness of some of our industries, there is a trend towards de-industrialisation and this makes the continent very poor from an investment potential perspective.”

Referencing Africa’s three most powerful economies – SA, Egypt and Nigeria − Mamphiswana pointed out that all three ranked from the middle to the lower tier in terms of manufacturing activities, in comparison to the rest of the world.

Adoption of modern methods of manufacturing, knowledge and technology transfer of these countries is low.

“What we have observed from the progress made by countries like China is that they have invested heavily in technologies to improve productivity and thus upgrade their existing industries, making them more developed in what has become a dynamic and competitive economy.

“There is a need for African countries to adapt and re-design technologies for local challenges. It’s not enough to have the tech itself and hope it will achieve certain objectives − it’s about the suitable business model that is able to deliver that tech to meet market requirements for a specific country.”

In terms of job creation in the digital economy, Mamphiswana pointed out that if 4IR skills and technologies are not adapted at competitive levels, the revolution might render Africa’s workforce obsolete and reinforce already existing inequalities – with educational sectors such as higher education still being too slow to augment 4IR skills, including in SA.

“Adoption of new technologies is expected to create a balance between the creation of new jobs and the loss of the existing jobs. In Africa there might be a lag in this balance and our skills sets are still quite low, resulting in a low-skilled workforce – making it challenging to deploy most employees in higher-end jobs that will require them to engage with emerging technologies.”

On the other hand, with Africa having the largest and youngest population, 4IR has the potential to spur accelerated economic growth known as the “demographic dividend” – defined as the accelerated economic growth that can occur as a population age structure matures. This could provide an opportunity for Africa’s youth to transition into new and emerging career fields, he continued.

One of the prospects for Africa is the ability to leapfrog because some industries don’t have legacy technologies, which provides an opportunity to use emerging technologies to launch certain new markets and industries, which don’t necessarily have to compete with legacy infrastructure and investments.

“The digital divide is quite strong on the African continent so there has to be a concerted effort to invest in bridging the digital divide to be able to harness technology and enhance informal economic activity and transform it into the formalised economy to enable larger revenue generation within sectors. There is a need to embrace 4IR in new and simple settings where there is an opportunity to launch low-cost infrastructural development, which will impact citizens’ lives and contribute to the continent’s economic development,” he concluded.

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