Reimagining the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa

By Edmund Terem Ugar, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Philosophy and Research Assistant Centre for African-China Studies (CACS), University of Johannesburg  

In a recent publication titled "The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Techno-Colonialism and the Sub Saharan Africa response", author, Edmund Terem Ugar, outlines his perspective on how Sub-Saharan Africa should respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Ugar suggests that while the 4IR builds upon previous industrial revolutions, its unique characteristic lies in its utilisation of cybertechnologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, and the Internet of things to intensify production.

These technologies offer the potential to address global issues such as climate change and to revolutionize sectors like agriculture, education, and healthcare, however, Ugar also cautions against embracing the 4IR without careful consideration.

He points out that while these technologies hold promises, they are not value-neutral and can potentially perpetuate technological colonialism—a transfer of cultural values and worldviews from one context to another.

Given Africa's history of colonialism, Ugar argues that Africans must critically evaluate their engagement with 4IR technologies and to this end, Ugar proposes cautionary measures for African engagement with the 4IR. 

First, he suggests that African countries should implement policies that prioritize economically relevant technologies and reject those that contradict African values, for example, technologies like sex robots or lethal autonomous systems should have no place in Africa.

Secondly, he emphasizes the importance of tapping into indigenous knowledge systems to develop technologies that align with African needs and economic trajectories.

While Ugar's second cautionary measure holds value, this article contends that Africa's path to development cannot solely rely on the 4IR, the approach taken by African nations to adopt the 4IR seems inadequate, and it is a cut-and-paste approach to technological progress from Euro-America.

While this might not be inherently detrimental, the environment in which this approach is applied lacks the necessary conditions to fully support the 4IR's potential, in fact, Africa's response to the 4IR appears more like a form of plagiarism that leads to subpar outcomes and this kind of plagiarism results in failure.

To underscore this perspective, a historical overview of the previous industrial revolutions is necessary as the 4IR builds upon the foundations set by the preceding revolutions, which originated in Europe and America during the Enlightenment period.

The First Industrial Revolution (1IR), which started in the mid-18th to 19th centuries, marked the advent of steam engines and the transition from manual labour to one that is substituted by technology. 

The Second Industrial Revolution introduced combustion engines and electricity, driving massive industrialization. 

The Third Industrial Revolution saw the rise of digital technologies, like computers, semiconductors, and the internet, in the 20th century while the 4IR is an extension of these preceding revolutions.

The interconnectedness of these industrial revolutions necessitates acknowledging the historical trajectory on which the 4IR rests.

However, African leaders seem to view the 4IR as a mere catchphrase to score political points as their focus on addressing socio-economic challenges using 4IR technologies overlooks the fact that Euro-America has a significant head start in terms of intellectual property and technological designs.

This means focusing on the copy-and-paste measures of the 4IR implies relying on Euro-America for the intellectual property rights of technological designs.

The other option is for Africa to take up the leading role of primary consumers rather than developers of these technologies as the last point is what currently underscores Africa’s outlook towards the technologies of the 4IR.

Additionally, while data-driven development is vital in the 4IR era, Africa lacks efficient mechanisms to generate and control its data.

Data generated by Africans on platforms like Facebook and Instagram are stored outside of the continent, primarily in Silicon Valley and China and this reality casts doubts on Africa's genuine intent to develop technologically through the 4IR mechanisms, as genuine development requires innovation rather than mere consumption.

Furthermore, Africa's eagerness to consume 4IR technologies, including artificial intelligence and robots, has led to increased automation of jobs in the continent. 

For example, companies like Standard Bank retrenched almost 1200 workers and closed 91 branches in South Africa due to the intention of going digital, this approach is considered not just by Standard Bank but by many other companies to allow them to cut down their costs.

This is concerning in a continent plagued by high levels of inequality and unemployment as for instance, South Africa's unemployment rate is alarmingly high, particularly among the youth.

South Africa’s unemployment rate is 32.7%, youth unemployment between the ages of 15-24 is 40.3%, and those between 25-34 are 32.6%. 

In 2022, 18.2 million South Africans lived under $1.9 daily. 

In 2021, South Africa recorded the highest Gini index of 63%, the highest inequality distribution across the population, this inequality makes prioritizing 4IR technologies, which can further displace jobs, a detrimental approach.

Moreover, while countries like China and India have invested in education to engage with technological advancement, Africa continues to grapple with staggering rates of illiteracy and out-of-school children.

For example, in Nigeria, the number of out-of-school children is 20% of the global out-of-school children and in Kenya almost 3.5 million out-of-school children were estimated in 2023, and 1.1 million in Cameroon.

We can go on in all the African countries and find that this is worrisome, we then ask: "How do we expect to develop without education and with the massive illiteracy rate amongst those we consider the continent's future?" 

For the continent to truly progress, education is fundamental and additionally Africa's readiness to adopt Western technologies without innovation of its own reflects a lack of confidence in its own potential for growth.

Lastly, Africa's lack of foundational infrastructure, such as reliable electricity and efficient road networks, presents significant obstacles to effectively harnessing the potential of the 4IR.

The prerequisite conditions for these technologies to thrive are absent and the focus should be on addressing socio-economic challenges, investing in education, poverty reduction, and employment generation.

In conclusion, Africa's approach to the 4IR raises significant concerns because relying solely on 4IR technologies is shortsighted and impractical, given the continent's unique challenges and historical context.

Genuine progress requires a holistic approach that includes foundational development, education, and a strategic focus on African experiences and needs, rather than jumping on the 4IR bandwagon, Africa must prioritize its own sustainable technological growth and development like countries such as China, but with an African outlook.

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