There is an argument to be made that Africa has to an extent missed out on the opportunity for large scale industrialisation given that many of the conditions that allowed for industrialisation to take place at scale in the West – and in some Asian economies – are in fact structurally absent for most African economies.
The question that then needs to be asked is whether the factory model is even still applicable to African economies considering just how ruthlessly competitive the global trade regime has become. One analysis predicts that Kenya has less than 15 years to develop its furniture manufacturing capacity before the cost of production in the US will be lower using robotic production.
National Sales Manager at PFERD South Africa, Dennis Phillips, points out that many of the technologies characterised by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) provide African countries with the ability to leapfrog development hurdles. However, in order to harness the opportunities presented by the 4IR requires that the continent has the right infrastructure in place.
“A 4IR future requires certain infrastructure to be in place including a reliable energy supply, faster and better Internet connectivity and 5G mobile technology. The latter, for example, will enable the Internet of Things to provide for more productivity and efficiency.”
Accelerated digitisation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, robotics and 3D printing are all key features of the 4IR – and all of them have implications for education and employment.
“The challenge for Africa is that education – particularly in the area of higher education – has tended to lag in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics),” says Phillips. “These subjects are all critically important in terms of utilising 4IR to its full potential. At a basic education level learners need to be learning how to code and programme from an early age. Tertiary education needs to be focused on ensuring a better match between what they teach and the skills businesses need.”
Phillips maintains that a distributed industrialisation model is the most viable option for Africa. Essentially, this model allows entrepreneurs to use technology, including smart machines, to leapfrog certain practices in order to achieve some of the scale typically associated with factories.
4IR technologies have already been successfully deployed in Africa’s financial services sector where mobile money and cashless commerce have been on a growth trajectory even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the past year technology has been successfully utilised in the fight to contain the pandemic. Examples of this include a WhatsApp-based interactive artificial intelligence chatbot providing Covid-related advice which was launched in South Africa and the use of drones to deliver protective gear to medical personnel in Rwanda and Ghana.
The biggest opportunities as far as 4IR technologies are concerned, maintains Phillips, is in the manufacturing sector. “The most significant benefits of 4IR are around automation, including automating routine and repetitive tasks to allow for better productivity and efficiencies. The manufacturing sector is ideally placed to benefit from these advances.”
The 4IR trend is impacting both PFERD and its customers, he reveals. “As a leading manufacturer and supplier of quality abrasive tools solutions, many of our products are now geared for 4IR applications including robotics and artificial intelligence given that many of our customers, particularly in the manufacturing and automotive sectors, are automating their processes and using artificial intelligence to ensure better efficiencies. PFERD has long focused on more than simply providing products – we specialise in providing solutions to enable improved and more cost-effective processes. Increasingly, these solutions are 4IR enabled.”
Sustainable and profitable companies of the future, he says, will be those that have embraced 4IR.