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The gains of 4IR in Africa

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File picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA) – Components of the ZACUBE 2 diagram are shown at a previous plenary briefing hosted by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, South Africa. The ZACube2 was designed as part of leading South Africa’s 4th Industrial Revolution.

By Tshilidzi Marwala

Is Africa on par with the rest of the world where the 4th Industrial Revolution ( 4IR) is concerned?

We are certainly not on par with the rest of the world when it comes to the 4IR.

4IR is about physical infrastructure and software infrastructure and it is about people. If we are to claim success we need to look at it as three components. Let’s start with people. Do we have enough people with expertise in Artificial Intelligence in the African continent? Absolutely not.

Do we have universities that are training people at a PhD or Master’s level, we are certainly not where we are supposed to be.

If I come to the second dimension which is software, we are developing software for 4IR but we have limited resources. Johannesburg, South Africa may have made some strides but if you go to Zimbabwe and many parts of the continent, much more still needs to be done when it comes to 4IR.

Now let’s come to infrastructure and internet connectivity. If South Africa as advanced as it is still struggles with bandwidth, imagine what happens when you are in the most under-developed parts of the continent. Plenty lot of work needs to be done. Are we making any of the devices that are used in the 4IR, computers, or smartphones? No. Do we have pockets of excellence in the African continent? Yes, we do.

This is why companies such as Amazon are setting up divisions on the African continent. Cape Town in South Africa for instance is where they are actually putting infrastructure. You go to Rwanda, they deliver blood supplies and other medication in rural areas using drones. That is quite advanced. You go to Kenya and you look at the start-ups that are coming out of that country, the ICT ecosystem there is impressive. If you go to Nigeria, you have start-ups that are valued at billions of US dollars.

So while we have some action taking place, there is a need to accelerate our efforts in ensuring that we operate on the same wavelength as other countries.

How do we frame the concept of 4IR for rural communities?

It depends on where people are based. I am quite amazed that when I go to rural Venda in Limpopo, South Africa for instance, where I come from, people often tell me about 4IR. I once conducted a lecture and gave 4IR a Venda name and popularised a concept which you now hear about in the media. The question is what Living Standards Measure constitutes the people who are well versed in 4IR? Is only the working class? Is it the upper middle class? These things have economic bearings. The more a person is economically well off, the more they know about these concepts and the more they go to better schools.

So again it’s a case of communities operating in a mixed bag. There are certainly points of excellence where people are participating in the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki also once referred to the concept of ‘two-nations-in-one.’ This is where you would for instance have one class of excellent schools in Silicon Valley where you would also have the poorest elsewhere. It’s always been a tale of two cities. It speaks of an age of hope and the age of despair at the same time. What we need to do as Africans is to establish how we use the capacity of the developed parts of the various countries to pick up the under-developed parts of economies, so that we leave no one, absolutely no one behind.

Can we ever bridge the digital age gap between baby boomers and Generation Z?

My mother was telling me the other day that she was watching a video on Youtube. I was impressed that a 73-year-old lady from a rural part of the world is just as well versed in technology as someone from Tokyo, London or New York. I was glad to see what my mother was doing with technology. This indicates that there is a willingness by the older generation to catch up with the young ones who already know how to operate many digital gadgets.

Are we winning in the digitisation of African schools?

I was in my hometown not so long ago and showed a couple of acquaintances where I used to live. I pointed them to a mango tree that was being cut down. This tree used to be my class. Out of the first seven years of my schooling, I spent only two years in the classroom. For the rest of it, I studied under that particular mango tree.

The tree spoke of the resilience of the African spirit and how we, as Africans, have transcended all of these disadvantages to claim that world. We need to see more of that going forward. It’s not only about developing infrastructure at our schools. There are issues with computer literacy.

Are teachers computer literate? I ask this because 10 years ago, I went back to my primary school and donated up to 15 computers. A few months later when I went back there, those computers were still inside the boxes. I had missed the point completely and had forgotten that these people had not used computers before. It occurred to me then how do we train people to be able to operate in 4IR, especially teachers.

How do we train our parents so that they can assist their children with homework? What is the role of the local government in creating environments that are conducive to 4IR? Is the local government even thinking about doing so and if not, are we punishing them at the polls?

All these elements are very important in our quest to create a culture that will promote a level of excellence.

How does 4IR contribute to job creation?

There are also good things that are happening in this space. The question we need to ask ourselves is, how do we turn the good knowledge we have around 4IR into something that we can monetize and turn into businesses and economic opportunities as well as job creation? This is where entrepreneurship comes in. We need to establish how we can transform hawkers selling products on the streets into people who can use their products well and open new markets as well as expand their business so that people can come to buy from them even possibly franchising their businesses. That is what still needs to be done.

Marwala is a South African artificial intelligence engineer and Vice Chancellor the University of Johannesburg.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.