Industrial revolution: first, second, third, now fourth. It is Africa’s time to shine
It is 2038 – exactly 20 years from now – imagine an interconnected world where computing is truly pervasive and everything is automated; we are once again enslaved. Just this time there are no visible shackles; our shackles are virtual. We don’t own our digital infrastructure, we don’t own our data, our developers write code for the rest of the world and foreign investors largely own our digital private sector. We are at the mercy of the developed world, tied into long-term agreements and deals that favour the providers of capital, a self-inflicted digital colonisation.
A scary, yet very possible future for our continent. How did we get here you ask?
When the world was uniquely describing Africa as the last frontier and speaking about the impact of the 4th Industrial Revolution and the advancement of Africa into a truly developed continent, through cutting edge technologies such as mobile, artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain etc., it appeared we were fast asleep, in a deep slumber, oblivious to what was happening around us. Oblivious to the fact that it was time to take intentional action towards ensuring that we needed to play an active part in this revolution.
We did not realize that he who builds the infrastructure determines its purpose and use, determines its security and engagement protocols but most critical of all – access. We did not realize that data and technology ownership is the foundation of every digital nation and that both infrastructure and data must be protected with all our might.
The same way we have signed land and resources away to the Chinese in exchange for infrastructure development and funding, instead of looking within and coming up with strategies that will not only develop our nation, but also empower our people, that same way we signed away our technology infrastructure development and intellectual property, leaving the digitalization of our continent in the hands of anyone who could throw buzzwords like artificial intelligence, blockchain, identity management, virtual and augmented reality around and of course the greatest need of all, provide the much needed capital and ideas.
We signed on the dotted lines, took pictures profusely smiling, thinking we had just hit the jackpot, because the deal seemed too good to be true. My deepest desire for this continent, my continent, is that we act and collectively awaken from the slumber before it’s too late. You may ask why this topic is relevant now, you may say our leaders have much bigger fish to fry and whilst all of this may be true, we must understand what is before us. A revolution is truly only identified once it has taken root – in retrospect. It’s inception and life is described like it came to being suddenly. The reality is that the 4th Industrial Revolution is here. It’s happening! We are already late to the party.
Every tech conference I’ve spoken at this year has focused on digitalization and innovation – the corner stones of this revolution. At the Digital Africa Conference in Abuja last week, there was an interesting panel on the role our history plays in our current technology development. It was interesting to hear speakers reference the innovations and technologies of the Benin Kingdom and how they were wiped out when the city was invaded and burnt to the ground hundreds of years ago.
I sat and I wondered how we lost our competitive edge and never thought about getting it back. I wondered when we became comfortable with mediocrity, when low standards became the norm. We accept the poor state of our nation; refer to ourselves as a third world country. We go out cap in hand asking for aid, subsidies and support, albeit the fact that we have all the resources and all the brains to get our nation back on track. What do we lack then? Is it the vision or is it the drive and motivation to do better, be better? Is it probably a bit of both mixed with self-interest that surmounts the collective good? We must become part of the on-going conversation and re-ignite the spark we once had.
Our journey ahead: I have spoken at 4 international conferences in the first half of this year – Africa and the 4th Industrial Revolution were the focus of all of them. In the course of the last few months it has become crystal clear to me that the only ones who are not seriously looking at the digitalization of Africa collectively as an opportunity are Africans. This realization made me very sad, but also made the sense of urgency for transformation of our continent more obvious than ever before. We need a structured plan that we can implement in order to not get left behind. At the conferences I spoke at, I made recommendations towards this plan, which I would like to share with you – so here I go:
* Nigeria and Africa need a future proof national / continental strategy that is driven by innovation, technology and digitalization and forms the cornerstone of all economic development plans and policies.
* Policy Makers need to educate themselves and ensure that they are able to actively engage in the discussions that are currently going on. They must furthermore embrace disruption instead of being afraid of it. Without disruptive technologies we will not be able to survive in the 4th industrial revolution.
* We need a Ministry of Innovation & Digitalization that drives the 4th Industrial Revolution in Africa and is lead by a young Minister from the tech industry. All technology acquisitions, deals and developments should be vetted by this ministry to ensure complete alignment with the above-mentioned national strategy.
* Our educational systems need to be reformed – making technology and innovation the cornerstone of learning and not just another subject. Without a skilled digital workforce we will not only depend on the West, but also remain in poverty. We must use technology to create enabling environments and teach practical skills. Virtual reality offers a huge potential to teaching practical skills without heavy investment in infrastructure / labs or equipment.
Online learning environments and content from both the educational sector and the private sector are key. Heavy investments in Research and Development facilities are key. We must also ensure that lecturers are fit for purpose. Any lecturer who cannot produce digital lecture notes should not be teaching or must be up skilled with a matter of urgency.
*Policy makers must create policies that accelerate the growth of the tech and tech driven economic ecosystem and spur digitalization, not hamper it. Our aim should be to scale existing tech and tech driven businesses to create more jobs. Part of these policies should focus on tax breaks, elimination of additional charges / unnecessary license fees, establishment of minority bids for Government procurement, provision of infrastructure through tech hubs / innovation centres, support of locally made technology solutions, grants etc.
*Local Investors need to be encouraged to invest in locally created technologies, tech and driven companies. They must also be educated on disruptive technologies and the potentials in order to ensure that local Investors revise their investment strategy in line with the above-mentioned national strategy.
* Government must engage the local tech ecosystem and hand in hand create a digitalization plan that is sustainable and most importantly future proof. Intimate Private – Public – Partnerships will be required to leapfrog our nation into the future.
*We must set up Think tanks and research groups that study and research new cutting edge technologies and see how we can localise them, align them with our own cultural values and seamlessly integrate them into our society. Nigeria and Africa must exploit the comparative advantage of her Diaspora Tech Knowledge resources as a fundamental strategy and imperative to accomplish the accelerated and sustainable delivery of the promise of the 4th Industrial revolution and global competitiveness.
* We must find ways of leveraging existing technologies in unconventional and innovative ways in both the public and private sector.
*We must ensure women and youth inclusive policies are made to ensure that women and youth exploit and fully embrace technology and the opportunities it brings.
I strongly believe that Africa with a well-articulated path to digitalization and focused implementation and engagement that sees traction over the next 20 years will lead to a continent vastly different to what we currently envision with the contribution of all sectors (agriculture, mining etc).
A truly first world is possible. Let’s not get left behind! The success of this continent lies with our generation.
Nkemdilim Begho is the Founder/CEO Future Software Resources
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.