[Column] Cathy Smith: Why revolutionary technologies will drive African prosperity
Right now, we’re at a tipping point in Africa’s development. We’re hurtling headlong into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which has the potential to turbocharge the socio-economic development of the entire African continent.
We’ve got the youngest continent in the world, with 60% of Africa’s 1.25 billion people under the age of 25. If we make the right decisions in the next few years, we could pave a bold new path of African prosperity.
In Africa, 4IR’s potential is limitless. Its technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT), offer a new vision for economic growth, innovation, development and human well-being. It can solve a host of business and societal challenges, from providing better healthcare and basic services to creating more efficient governments, and helping businesses become intelligent enterprises that drive growth and prosperity.
Our governments and institutions have a massive opportunity to start using AI and digital platforms to do life-changing things: Like delivering safe drinking water to our people, improving the quality and reach of education, and even giving people the ability to identify themselves, to be able to access government grants, open bank accounts and vote in elections.
We know Africa suffers from a massive infrastructure deficit. But the beauty of 4IR’s technologies is that you don’t need big legacy systems and programmes in place to start rolling them out. We’re already seeing numerous case studies and examples of how developing countries can move quickly to new digital approaches that can transform public service delivery in critical areas like farming, healthcare and education.
Take agriculture as an example. Today, small-scale agriculture accounts for about 80% of food production and nearly 70% of all jobs in Africa. Imagine what can be achieved if we use data to help small-scale farmers to improve their production: better use of land and water, less food being imported, improved food security – and the ability for farmers to start generating revenues for themselves by selling surplus produce, and breaking free from subsistence.
We can use technologies like AI to improve access to healthcare across the continent for the most vulnerable and needy communities. It can even help make diagnoses in rural areas, where there are precious few doctors. And we’re already seeing technology changing the face of education in countries like India, where they’ve launched a national teacher platform that builds capacity by allowing teachers to provide richer content, while giving administrators access to data about student study patterns. Digital platforms are not only transforming teaching, but changing the way we think about learning.
Another relatively quick win for Africa would be to roll out digital identification systems, as India has done with its Aadhaar system, which can play a major role in driving financial inclusion and reducing corruption through reduced fraud and leakages in social benefits payment systems. Once people have digital identities, they can do anything from getting a SIM card to arranging a bank account or pension.
If you empower people with their personal information and data, they can use this data to get better loans, get better skills and ultimately earn better salaries. On a continent like ours, developing a high-performing digital ecosystem will provide a unique chance to stimulate the economy and create jobs.
But the real promise of 4IR is to unlock a new future for Africa’s estimated 700 million young people. We’re going to have to move quickly, though. Today, fewer than 1% of African children leave school with basic coding knowledge. We – big business, governments, NGOs and civil society – must do more to give our youthful workforce the skills they need to participate in the digital economy. This is vital if we are to avoid a situation where millions of people are unable to participate in our brave new technology-driven world.