At the beginning of 2020, the Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings launched its annual Foresight Africa publication. This year’s report, a special edition, highlights the accomplishments of past years and focuses on six priorities for the next decade. The fifth chapter, Capturing the Fourth Industrial Revolution: A regional and national agenda, explores how groundbreaking technology—such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain—can, hand-in-hand with enabling and empowering policies, improve business, health care, and the livelihoods of all.
In their essay, Njuguna Ndung’u, executive director of the African Economic Research Consortium and former governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, and Landry Signé, senior fellow at AGI, discuss strategies for Africa to capitalize on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The 4IR, characterized in part by the utilization of disruptive new technologies such as AI, the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and 3D printing, among others, has uncertain socio-economic consequences for Africa. As Figure 5.1 shows, the continent still lags behind both developed and other developing countries in several indicators essential for capitalizing on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, especially in infrastructure, technology access, and education.
Furthermore, as Figure 5.3 shows, the majority of African firms report moderate to very low levels of business preparedness for five key 4IR technologies: AI/robotics, IoT, big data/data mining, 3D printing, and blockchain. Notably, firms are least prepared for AI/robotics and blockchain technologies. Experts from the African Development Bank say that the low levels of preparedness stem from the inability of firm leadership to develop effective digital strategies, as well as low levels of education and skills of employees.
Clearly, a key issue for African policymakers is to position their economies to benefit from the 4IR while also managing the challenges that it presents. Ndung’u and Signé suggest three strategies that leaders should prioritize in order to capitalize on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. First, they recommend that African governments invest in education and reskilling programs to ensure that new technologies supplement, rather than replace, labor. Second, they argue that state and institutional capacity—including in cybersecurity, regional cooperation, and service delivery—must be reinforced to drive and support innovation and create an enabling business environment. Finally, they argue that African countries must improve access to physical and digital infrastructure that supports advanced technology, such as electricity and broadband internet. These steps will allow African governments and firms to occupy new niches in industry brought about by the 4IR and achieve sustainable, inclusive growth.