Africa and the Third Industrial Revolution – We Are in Deep, Deep Trouble!

By Riel Malan
CEO and Founder of The Unlimited Group
YPO member since 2010 and 2016-17 YPO Africa Regional Chair 

“The world is running out of time. Governments won’t effect change. It’s up to business to do that” — Dean Kamen, Inventor and Founder of Deka, at YPO EDGE 2017

In March 2017, about 80 YPO Africa Region members attended the YPO EDGE in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, which was themed “Sharpen Your Edge.”

We were privileged to be part of a select 2,700 YPO members that heard from leaders in all fields of business, with an emphasis on technology and how it will change the way we live and do business in the next five to10 years. As YPO, we had the luxury of hearing from the best minds in the world as to what the future holds, before it happens.

What was very clear, is that the pace of change is now accelerating at such a speed, that it makes even the most tech savvy of us struggle to keep up. I have attended seven YPO EDGE events in a row, and never-before have I sensed the pace of change being so significant as I did this time around in Vancouver.

With this tremendous acceleration goes comes advances in healthcare, nutrition and the longevity of the human race. Amidst all this fast-paced change, we are getting much better at living longer, higher-quality and more productive lives.

With this comes a much larger and older global population with all the additional accompanying challenges.

So many of the messages shared at YPO EDGE, ultimately, all point to a comment by the opening speaker, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems: “Disrupt or be disrupted…everyone needs to start thinking like a tech startup.”

He went on to say that most likely 40 percent of companies in the 2,700-strong audience will not make the transition to the digital economy and will most likely not be here in five to 10 years from now.

Everything we heard over the course of the two days pointed towards the digitisation and disruption of almost every part of the global economy (e-commerce taking over the position of traditional retail, new digital channels of distribution, changes in the hotel and hospitality industry), automation and labor reduction across the board (artificial intelligence, drones, self-driving cars, robots etc.).

In short, the future we saw unfolding holds:

  • A faster developing, much larger digital economy (that brings opportunity for those who can exist in it)
  • With fewer physical jobs than ever before (but more digital jobs)
  • An increasing global population due to improvements in health- technology and nutrition.

And as I discussed the impact of these development with my fellow YPO members, we all realized that the ugly truth is that Africa is simply not prepared for what is to come.

As I boarded the plane to return to South Africa, my perception was confirmed by a tweet that came through from the World Economic Forum referencing a McKinsey report that predicts that 50 percent of global jobs will be automated in the digital economy by 2055; and this number includes parts of the world that has good, functioning education systems.

We will soon see a massive shift towards digital and away from physical. This is happening — it’s not a prediction anymore.

Where does this leave Africa?

Africa is in deep trouble, I am afraid. With a population that is close to one billion and set to hit two billion by 2050, we simply do not have the skills to take part in a global digital economy. We will at best be users of it…functioning outside of the new economy that will not be employing people without the necessary skills.

Googling a few historical facts about the first industrial revolution, quickly shows that social unrest, Communism and Fascism raised their ugly heads after the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Ultimately, the economic consequence of industrialisation led to the emergence of populist leaders and, eventually, resulted two world wars. Leaders that promised “to make things great again,” that made hollow promises of jobs to people who didn’t have the education or skills necessary to fulfill them, who wanted take productive land and hand it to people who did not have the skills to cultivate it. Does this sound familiar?

People who live in poverty because they do not have jobs, burn cities and countries to the ground. They simply have nothing to lose. Everything we heard over the course of the two days in Vancouver points to Africa going in this direction if we do not intervene and create the skills in Africa to participate in the third industrial revolution.

So back to Dean Kamen’s parting words: “The world is running out of time. Governments won’t effect change. It’s up to business to do that.”

This statement is even more true for Africa!

We need to find ways to bring Africa into the digital economy.

As business in Africa, it is up to us to find ways to bring Africa into the fold in the new economy. Our time is fast running out. If we don’t, we as businesses may face a very uncertain future on a continent with many unemployable and unhappy people.

The message is clear: the global economy will enlarge significantly over the next 10 years (figures of as much as three times were quoted during the conference). And as much as it is threatening us in our current position, technology can also be our savior. With the advances in technology, our ability to distribute top notch education to the masses in Africa, is equally unparalleled and disruptive.

Chambers gave the examples of countries like Latvia, Israel and France, that are taking a lead in technology—all from a relatively weak initial position. With the right education and opportunities, our next generation in Africa can take part in, and even lead the technological third industrial revolution that we will see unfolding.

But we need to create the environment as leaders in which our next generation can thrive and learn. There are more than enough learning resources out there to educate young Africans to become disrupters and not merely be disrupted. We just need to make sure it finds its way through the digital highway to the pavements of Africa.

It is time that African leaders in business come together, acknowledge where the world is going and do what business does best…solve the problem in order to thrive.

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