Surviving the digital era

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BY Antony Mutunga

Continued advancement of technology has shown that the rise of the digital era has no plans of slowing down. Although still nascent, the fourth industrial revolution is already underway. According to Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, and also the one who coined the term, Industry 4.0 is characterized by different new technologies that are combining the different physical, biological and digital innovations as well as impacting sectors and economies.

Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and augmented reality are changing the way industries operate. The fourth industrial revolution has also brought about automation on a global scale. It is disrupting every industry and even though it brings about new opportunities, it also makes humans its victims. As more organisations embrace automation, they threaten job opportunities.

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the regions to be highly affected by this as the continent is already facing a major employment challenge. Every year, more and more jobs are required to meet the rising labour force. Additionally, with a rising youth population which is expected to increase from 628 million as of 2017 to 945 million in 2050 according to the Goalkeepers report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the majority of the youth can expect to find itself with little to no opportunities. 

Large scale manufacturing has been crucial to the region as it has been a step in its development process. Access to a large labour force at low wages has given Africa a comparative advantage over other continents. However, thanks to new technologies, this is becoming a thing of the past as organisations shift from outsourcing jobs to relying on upgraded technology. Recently, there has been a rapid uptake in robotics and artificial intelligence which in turn is causing developing countries to struggle in establishing a manufacturing base.

As technology advances and the cost of technology falls, organisations in Sub-Saharan Africa and most developing countries are expected to follow suit and automate as well. This is because it will be more profitable for them to rely on technology in production than on labour force. According to Gerald Muriuki, an analyst at Genghis Capital, the manufacturing and banking sector are the most affected due to the shift from reliance on human labour to the adaptation of technology. “More jobs will be lost especially in the banking sector as banks embrace agency banking and automated systems,” he added.

In Kenya, this is already being felt as banks have jumped on the automation bandwagon as they lay off staff. According to the Central Bank of Kenya, banks will continue laying off staff as they continue to embrace the use of new technologies such as blockchain as well as artificial intelligence. Does this mean that the region of Sub-Saharan Africa is headed to a future where a large number of the population will be unemployed?

This is the clear truth when looking at the situation from the sharp side of the sword, on the other side, things are different. Automation has indeed caused layoffs in some sectors but it has also brought about new opportunities. These new technologies have created new opportunities for technology experts and agents. Thanks to them, a majority of people in developing regions are now enjoying their fruits as they have taken up opportunities presented by digital platforms such as Uber and Taxify that have disrupted the taxi industry. Airbnb, an online marketplace, is another example that has benefited homeowners by letting them rent out their unused rooms to travellers. 

The new opportunities will require a different set of skills. Therefore, it will be crucial for the region’s young population to acquire these skills from a young age. Some countries in Sub-Sahara Africa such as South Africa and Kenya have been focusing on the ICT sector for a while now. However, apart from technical skills, there is a need for cognitive skills such as critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving. 

Training programs and education systems that promote these skills need to be adopted and encouraged all over the region. Additionally, the training of these skills needs to happen at all levels of education. The region needs to borrow a leaf from Singapore which has invested in skills training at all levels as well as focusing on retraining of low-skilled workers.

Governments from the region also have a vital role to play, there is a need for them to understand these new technologies and have a strategy in place to enjoy their benefits fully while at the same time understanding the challenges they present. In doing so, lawmakers will be able to come up with regulations that complement the new technologies and thus making it easier for them to adjust to an economy. 

African governments also need to step up in terms of digital infrastructure and access. There is no doubt that internet penetration has gone up in the region especially as a result of an increase in mobile users. According to the Digital 2019 report by We Are Social and Hootsuite, Africa has gotten an additional 38 million Internet users since last year. Despite the increase, internet penetration in Africa is still low at 36 percent as compared to the global which stands at 53 percent.

African governments need to support the new opportunities coming up as a result of the new technologies. In doing so they attract more investments to develop the infrastructure and increase access to the people. Also, the government needs to ensure internet access is more affordable. In Kenya, network operators have tried to reduce their charges on data bundles so that there are more people online. With the right infrastructure, connectivity and affordable charges, the Internet will be readily available all over the region which in turn will create new opportunities for the growing population.

The digital era is transforming the world for the better, developing regions can’t allow themselves to be left behind. Africa, for instance, with its surfeit of labour cannot afford not to shift and adopt new technologies. Failure means a future whereby more than half of the young population is unemployed. With the African population expected to double by 2050, the time for change is now. If Africa does it right and embraces this new technology, it will have an enormous highly skilled labour force ready to compete with the rest of the world.

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