One cannot discuss the present state and future of innovations in Africa without first looking at the history of global technological innovations. In fact, to understand any society one must understand its history and geography. Today when innovators look at the technological landscape of Africa, they see technologies, which exist elsewhere but Africa does not have. With this mindset innovators proceed to (re)create these technologies for Africa. There is a general view that innovation is a new concept that needs to be developed in Africa today. This view was popularized by the industrial revolution period, during which competitiveness of nations was measured by access to production technologies (artefacts) rather than knowledge. What set one nation apart from the other was access to (industrial) production technology. This worldview, in my opinion, is what has made Africans oblivious to the rich history of knowledge and innovations as we continue to play catch up with the rest of the world. Fortunately, in the current landscape characterized by knowledge and digital economies, national competitiveness may not reside only in physical artefacts but in you.
In the history of Africa, the human brain has always been the most critical means of production. Africans have always created and applied knowledge to solve problems they faced – from food, to clothing and to shelter. In fact, this is what every society in history has done. How then and at what point did the technology and innovation gap develop between Africa and the rest of the world? When did our history stop to matter? If you agree with me that innovation is only successful if it finds adoption in society and helps solve problems, then surely innovations in Africa must start with the society – Africa. This is what our forefathers did. We can only build on the history that we have. We must look back to move forward. We know that early Africans invented products and technologies that ensured their survival in the context of the environment of the day. But this knowledge should not be interesting for any African except to understand why the continent lost the leadership in science and technology. We need to be able to understand the history and how we got here, in order to build a better and innovation-driven future for Africa. We need to understand how and why other regions of the world advanced further and faster in not only inventions but also diffusion of innovations. Something else must explain this, than only Africanness. We must look back to move forward.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is upon us. Once again, African scientists, innovators, and educationists are scrambling to create conditions and skills that ensures Africa’s participation in, and contribution to this revolution. 4IR is characterized by scientific and technological breakthroughs that are disrupting industries, blurring geographical boundaries, challenging existing regulatory frameworks. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, drones and precision medicine are swiftly changing lives and transforming businesses and societies, inevitably creating new opportunities for industrialization in Africa.
Africa’s youth today have embraced technologies with which Africa can compete in the new era of global technological evolution. These technologies are finding applications in Education, Manufacturing, Finance, Health, Communication and other sectors of the African environment. At last Africa will not miss out on the benefits of 4IR. The question is, did we miss out on the previous revolutions or did we learn to apply the right solutions to wrong problems? How did we miss the third industrial revolution, and the second and the first?
The First Industrial Revolution involved the introduction of more efficient mechanized manufacturing, powered mostly by steam engine. For Africa, this period also coincided with the period of colonization. Africa’s participation in the First Industrial Revolution was mainly through technological imports and transportation infrastructure, mainly the construction of railway lines. The colonial era was marked by technologies the reintroduction of technologies for the exploitation of natural resources. The importation of technologies was accompanied by building of roads and railways for better access to resources. Colonial governments and European firms invested in both infrastructure and in institutions designed to develop African economies as primary-product exporters. This period was characterized by a relative lack of skilled labour and, coupled with small market size, which did not provide much incentive for manufacturing by the end of the colonial period.
The construction of railway lines (and some feeder roads to resource rich locations) mainly defined the period of the industrial revolution for Africa. The railway lines were constructed mainly for military purposes, access to mining resources or to cash crops. Railroads were often the single largest expenditure item in the colonial budget, in some cases representing up to two thirds of government development expenditures.
The Second Industrial Revolution was the era of science and industrial mass production and started around the early 20th Century. New innovations in steel production, petroleum and electricity led to the introduction of public automobiles and airplanes, ninternal combustion engine, the chemical industries, alloys, petroleum and other chemicals, and electrical communication technologies (telegraph, telephone and radio). As in the Third Industrial Revolution, Africa’s journey into full realization of technologies seems to have been an unfinished business. Perhaps this was the greatest of Africa’s misses in the series of industrial revolutions. Though home to almost 20% of the world’s population, Africa accounts for less than 4% of global electricity use. Over 600cmillion people in sub-Saharan population still have no access to electricity. Just over 40% of Africans have access to electricity, the lowest in the world. The lack of access to energy also means that many of the benefits of the 2nd industrial revolution has not been achieved in Africa.
Africa lags behind the rest of the world in manufacturing value added (MVA) and manufacturing exports. In 2017, sub-Saharan Africa’s MVA was only about $145 billion dollars, manufacturing in Africa has grown 3.5 percent annually from 2005 to 2014. Generally, Africa’s path to industrialization in this period relied on import of technologies to add value to its abundant natural resources, a process which did not include the transfer of technology and knowledge to Africa.
In readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Africa needs to consolidate the gains of the third revolution by building a sustainable and inclusive digital ecosystem. This will help scale up technological solutions for the continent.
The Third Industrial Revolution (3IR) was indeed a digital revolution that was built around Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Starting in the 1950s, 3IR underwent three phases. The first phase was built around hardware, semiconductors, mainframe and personal computers. These technologies were embodied in hardware, the foundation upon which other phases would be built. The Second phase was the software revolution, which included the birth of the internet and other applications designed to enhance hardware effectiveness. This period also witnessed the creation of services that built on this software. The third phase involved the development of mobile applications. During this period, Africa made a lot of progress in the area of infrastructure for mobile telephony. Africa leapfrogged the traditional communications infrastructure that it had largely missed in previous revolutions. The wider access to mobile telephone made it possible for millions of Africans to be connected to internet services. Mobile telephone and internet technologies opened the door for millions of Africans to not only have access to telephone services but also to mobile internet. In 1990, there were only 7, 880 mobile subscribers in Africa but by 2001, the number surpassed the number of fixed lines. By 2025, 84% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa (1 billion people) will have access to a SIM connection, from the current level of 75%.
Growth in mobile telephony has had a positive impact in several sectors in Africa, including finance, health care, agriculture and energy. By far the most successful application of mobile telephony in Africa has been in the financial sector. From the early success of MPESA in 2007, mobile money transactions have exploded in the continent. The total number of mobile money accounts reached 469 million in 2019, with a total of transactions exceeding $23.8. (State of the Mobile Money Industry in Sub-Saharan Africa 2018). Building on the expansion in mobile phone access, Africa has seen an evolution of health care delivery applications for medication adherence, health worker communication, health education, eHealth and medical diagnostics. mPedigree is the global leader in the use of mobile and web technologies in securing products against faking, counterfeiting and diversion. In 2017, there were 202 active mHealth services in the region ( GSM Association report) which was a 58 percent increase from 2016.
In readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Africa needs to consolidate the gains of the third revolution by building a sustainable and inclusive digital ecosystem. This will help scale up technological solutions for the continent. Despite the growth in the “App Economy” technological innovations in the third industrial revolution still remain scattered and mostly undiffused throughout the continent. They remain mostly local projects that continue to grow the markets for which they are created. Due to the lack of market creating innovations and new market discovery, these innovators have unfortunately become “Grantpreneurs”, chasing funding and participating in competitions. According to the Brookings Institute, Africa is seriously lagging in internet penetration, quality, and affordability compared to the rest of the world. Internet penetration in 2019 averaged 39.6 percent in Africa compared to 62.7 percent in the rest of the world. In 2017, Africa used only one percent of the world’s total international internet bandwidth. (Read Vladimir Korovkin’s article on Africa’s Digital Divide for more insights).
Framing the Future
From what we know about the previous revolutions, and Africa’s lack of full participation in each of them, it is obvious that participation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will require a rethink of how we have approached technological innovations in the past. As we prepare for the fourth industrial revolution, this is the Africa we must come to terms with. The Africa where the biggest form of energy is human energy. Most tasks performed in Africa are done manually- pulling, pushing, digging, and carrying – all with human energy. The Africa where the most common agricultural tools are still the hoe and cutlasses (yet we have learned to develop brilliant apps for Agriculture).
We live in an Africa where, at the dawn of 4IR, one needs to visit a mechanic several times with the same issue (either they did not fix the original problem well or will make it worse).
We live in an Africa where patents granted in Africa are about 0.5% of all global patent applications, and 1.5% of industrial design applications. This is our pre-4IR Africa. (World Intellectual Property Organisation). Our Africa seriously lags behind the rest of the world, with fewer than 83 scientists and engineers per million people, compared to, for instance the average for Asia at 783 per million people. It is obvious that we must approach the Fourth Industrial Revolution differently to avoid the mistakes of the past. We need a multi-level, systemic approach to technological developments, and to an extent to our path to industrialisation.
We need a combination of investments, relevant skills and scientific innovations. We need 4IR technologies but we also need to build the infrastructure from previous revolutions. This requires investments in Energy, Agriculture, Health, Transportation and education.
The traditional approach to infrastructural development in Africa is acquiring donor funds, which typically comes with using foreign skilled labour to build infrastructure. Where local skills are used these are usually at the bottom end of the skills chain. Most of our infrastructural projects tend to rely on importation of technologies and tools from elsewhere – again with very little technology transfer. Infrastructure must be linked to innovation and skill development. We need to develop skills that are needed to build our roads, railways and bridges, but also investments in scientific research and development that enable Africa to produce and utilise local materials and tools for the construction industry.
Competences and Skills
The potential for leapfrogging to the Fourth Industrial Revolution is enormous, so developing the so-called 21st century skills makes a lot of sense. At the same time, Africa is at the crossroads because we also need to develop the basic competences that the society needs. As much as I would like to say that we need to focus on building skills for the future, for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, I also think that we must utilise and build upon the development of yesterday’s and today’s skills that our future skills will depend on. We need to develop skills for the airconditioned offices and laboratories, but also skills for the outdoors- carpentry, masonry, cleaning and hygiene, building and construction and vehicle repairs. Africa needs technical skills, but we also need the competences that enable our youth to think innovatively, act responsibly, collaborate effectively, and communicate effectively.
Science,Technology and Innovations
Innovations thrive in an ecosystem with the right innovation infrastructure, innovative capacity and innovative financing. We need a Triple Helix ecosystem, in which universities and research institutions, governmental institutions and private sector actors actually talk to each other and work towards the same objectives. We need an ecosystem, in which our capable scientists chase the frontiers of science but at the same time help solve Africa’s numerous social and economic challenges. Our STI ecosystem should bridge the gap between what is possible and what is needed to be done. For Africa to thrive, we need to recognise the crucial role of the informal sector, in which most of our “inventions” seem to occur, and provide them with the minimum level of scientific and technical knowledge to support their work. It is estimated that about 70% of the creative and innovative economic activities take place in the informal sector.
I remain positive that Africa is on the right trajectory to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution but we must also look back at opportunities we missed on the way, in order to make the Africa we desire achievable.