Last week I had the opportunity to attend the annual GSMA Mobile 360 Africa Conference in Kigali, Rwanda, where I got a chance to participate in interesting discussions on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and interact with a diverse group of telco representatives and partners from all over Africa.
It’s a topic I find fascinating. Africa missed the first and second industrial revolutions, and barely participated in the third industrial revolution, but we have a real chance to actively take part in the fourth.
This time, we can be more than suppliers of raw materials and consumers; we can help drive the revolution, which will be characterised by knowledge and use of advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, robotics, Internet of Things and Big Data, among others.
These technologies will change the way we live, work and interact and they promise to offer the kinds of opportunities Africa needs to catch up with the rest of the world. It is equal parts exciting and intimidating.
The question is: is Africa ready to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
African consumers are certainly leading the way in the adoption of mobile technology, which has been touted as one of the key technologies behind this fourth shift. According to GSMA, over 444 million people in sub-Saharan Africa own mobile phones.
In Kenya for example, there were less than 300,000 telephone lines at the turn of the century, for a population of just under 32 million. Today, the country has almost 50 million mobile subscriptions against a population of just over 50 million.
A similar story is mirrored in South Africa, Mauritius, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, where mobile subscribers had already exceeded national populations by 2017.
For most of our countries, the mobile phone is what the computer was in the developed world in the nineties. Here, this little device has accomplished more in less than two decades than other technologies that have been around much longer.
It is not just a communication tool; it’s a lifeline allowing anyone with a connection to stay in touch with people, send and receive money, pay for goods and services, access education, healthcare and agricultural extension services, among many other things.
But are these successes and the ubiquity of the mobile phone proof of Africa’s digital transformation, or do they simply point to Africa’s potential to participate? Is Africa really ready to embrace the kind of digital transformation that will drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
I’d like to think that we are ready, and not just because so many of us know how to use mobile phones. We are ready because we have one of the single biggest resources required to drive any revolution: labour.
With over 60 per cent of our nearly 1.3 billion-strong population under the age of 25, we have the fastest growing and youngest population in the world; and they are tired of watching the rest of the world develop from the sidelines.
By 2030, it is estimated that Africa will be home to more than 25 per cent of the world’s under-25 population. All over the continent, we have young people who are smart, educated, ambitious, and hungry for a piece of the action.
They don’t want to be handed the crumbs that fall from the tables of developed economies; they want to be in the kitchen cooking the meal and at the table enjoying it. They are ready to use technology to address the economic and societal challenges that their parents and grandparents created and failed to address.
We talk of digital transformation and how we can use new technologies to address some of the most pressing challenges our continent faces today.
But technology is not the (only) disruption this continent needs; a highly educated, youthful workforce comfortable with technology is what we need to propel us fully into the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
We need to look beyond the narrow confines of refining processes and improving operational efficiencies using technology, to how we can prepare this young workforce for the future that will be created by this knowledge and tech-based revolution.
The truth is that our growing youth population needs jobs, and the reality of our current situation is that majority of jobs created are unskilled.
While it’s unlikely that all the estimated 30 million jobs Africa needs to create each year can be in the digital space, I believe that by injecting technology into labour intensive jobs such as agriculture and manufacturing, we can bring these sectors into the digital age.
A solution like DigiFarm, an m-agriculture platform developed by Safaricom in partnership with iProcure, Arifu and Farmdrive, is using mobile technology to provide smallholder farmers with relevant information, access to high quality inputs, affordable credit and insurance. Since its launch in 2017, over one million farmers in Kenya have registered onto the platform, which is now exploring an end to end buyer led model that will guarantee farmers access to ready markets for their produce, and at a good price.
Is farming still labour intensive? It is. But the inclusion of technology is slowly ushering smallholder farming in Kenya into the digital age, and propelling the rise of the connected farmer, who by the way is more likely to be in his or her 20s and 30s rather than in his or her 70s.
This balancing act, how we can begin to inject technology into traditional jobs while at the same time preparing a workforce to take up digital jobs, is something we must be ready for.
We urgently need to invest in skilling our youth to take up new jobs, and reskilling and upskilling others to ensure they are not completely displaced by new technologies, because Africa’s unemployment challenges are not about the lack of jobs; but the lack of employable skills.
A report by the Boston Consulting Group estimates that on-demand services such as ride-hailing and e-commerce delivery are on track to create three million jobs across the continent by 2025, or about one in every 150 jobs.
These jobs, considered disruptive even in the West, hint at the kind of opportunities that exist when people become digitally empowered. However, for Africa to grab these opportunities, there needs to be increased collaboration between various stakeholder groups.
Inasmuch as the private sector has a responsibility to create jobs, it cannot do so for people who lack the skills to fill those positions. Which is why we will need to work together with governments and academic institutions to build a progressive talent pool for Africa’s future workforce, to nurture men and women who are not just ready to work, but ready for work.
This would give more young Africans the ability to create opportunities as much as use them, which would help address what is undoubtedly one of the most pressing issues facing developing countries today: social and economic discontent.
Mallowah is the Chief Business Development Officer at Safaricom.