Tracking the revolution: Africa’s 4IR adoption

The pandemic has accelerated the growth of Africa’s digital sector but it’s a long way from the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


A year before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, the president of the African Development Bank made an interesting statement concerning Africa’s economic growth. The interview centred on industrialisation in sectors such as agriculture, energy and infrastructure. Akinwumi Adesina, while acknowledging the then projected over 4% growth, said the continent needed to go beyond its current survival growth and reach what he termed ‘prosperity growth’ by advancing at “double digits”.

However dreamy, there are three reasons this kind of statement should not be dismissed. The first is, it did not confine itself to any time frames. Secondly, it was uttered during a pre-pandemic world in which no one could have predicted the impending devastation which would subsequently cause the continent to contract by 2.1% in 2020, experiencing its first recession in half a century. Thirdly, despite the many challenges of instability facing the continent, it’s the kind of sentiment that’s been articulated by many an expert. Several reports have for over a decade described Africa as the ‘next frontier for investment’, the modern-day land of milk and honey.

Africa’s potential

This level of optimism is backed by the continent’s magnificent potential in incomparable mineral wealth and exponential digital innovation. In 2020, governments and businesses alike achieved some remarkable exploits in the latter. At the height of global lockdowns as the world struggled to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, African countries relied on novel developments to effect crucial protective measures. In the area of AI and robotics, for example, Rwanda’s smart robots read vitals, conducted temperature screenings and created awareness around mask-wearing. Tunisia’s robot police were deployed to deal with those transgressing lockdown laws, while Ghana used theirs in the transportation of healthcare supplies to far-flung rural communities.

Africa’s small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) – which are the greatest enablers of economic progress – offered pragmatic and customised solutions to communities in despair, demonstrating agility and entrepreneurial vigour. They commanded areas such as blockchain and mobile money markets, unlocking avid interest from citizens and driving governments into more decisive policy-making processes.

On the face of it, a step in the right direction for the continent’s Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) initiatives. However, such innovation could just as rapidly diminish if not intentionally secured by a suitably adaptive environment both technologically and in terms of socio-economic sustainability. More importantly, but less optimistically, these initiatives are negligible in comparison to the world’s general pace of advancement in 4IR.

Not there yet

So, what is needed to make ‘double digit’ growth a reality in an Africa which has clearly proven itself to be a hotbed of entrepreneurial innovation? There is no easy answer, but one would need to take into consideration where the continent is in terms of its 4IR prospects i.e. technological infrastructure, education and access. Along with that, an assessment of its heterogeneity – in terms of political instability, infrastructural development, inflation, poverty and inequality levels etc. – without which few, if any, recommendations can be regarded as having merit.

Various credible reports and articles which have factored in these considerations, however, paint a picture vastly different to the ‘Africa as the world’s ultimate destination’ rhetoric when it comes to 4IR.

A Forbes article titled ‘How Africa wins the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ reminds us that the continent “…has essentially missed the opportunities of the second and third industrial revolutions.”

Njuguna Ndung’u and Landry Signé writing for Brookings Research reiterate this by saying “So far, it does not appear that Africa has yet claimed the 21st century as it still lags behind in several indicators essential for a successful digital revolution.”

“Historically, Africa has lagged behind other regions in employing the full potential of the previous industrial revolutions and this has limited its ability to become a truly competitive market,” according to the World Economic Forum’s paper, ‘Attracting Investment and Accelerating Fourth Industrial Revolution’.

Investment incentives to spur 4IR adoption

This World Economic Forum white paper published in January 2022 evaluates the potential for growth through investment incentives, identifying growth potential in areas such as AI, robotics and the Internet of Things (loT). It makes recommendations that could channel policy makers in the direction that encourages 4IR growth through the enablement of SMMEs both regionally – as can be anticipated with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) – and through foreign direct investment (FDI). In particular, it recommends co-investment models, efficiency gain rebates and the upskilling of employees.

Concerning closing the gaping digital divide in Africa, the white paper recommends co-investment as a solution in network infrastructural development and an option for increased access to affordable connectivity. A case study in France and the UK bears reference where co-investment in network infrastructure resulted in ‘high rates of broadband penetration and adoption’.

While Africa has the youngest population in the world, a mere 2% of its labour force is estimated to have IT skills, making skills development a crucial area of focus on the trajectory to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The World Economic Forum proposes measures that may require risk-taking and possible diversions from traditional ideas around education, in order to create a highly-skilled workforce. It encourages African governments to incorporate skills-based programmes in the development of unemployed youth and to “identify digital accelerators that can scale programmes through micro-learning, teacher development, etc.”

“Some of the traditional incentive tools such as tax holidays and special economic zones may be applicable in some settings. Incentives that promote private sector growth through technology transfer, R&D and skills development are likely to drive industrial transformation – with SMMEs and start-ups being important sources of innovation and mechanisms to drive inclusive growth.”

Citing an Asian Development Bank report which indicated that businesses were not always adopting technologies for digital transformation and that when they did, ‘were more likely to hire people with skills than train their existing workforce’, the paper suggests the upskilling of current employees as a counter measure.

“By prioritising skills development as well as infrastructure investment and development, digital inequalities and insufficient ICT infrastructure can be tackled in a sustainable manner.”

The past decade and the beginning of the current one (2020 -2021) seem to show us two reflections of Africa. One, a vibrant hub of entrepreneurial excellence with exponential growth in tech-enabled solutions and a rising economic force, thriving in spite of challenges. The other, an underdeveloped continent under extreme pressure to step up or permanently trail the rest of the world in invaluable revolutions. Whatever the perspective, great work lies ahead for an Africa that lives up to its potential.