OPINION: How can Africa benefit from fourth industrial revolution?

Africa needs to do two key things to benefit from the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

The first is to invest in the infrastructure to enable fast and reliable data access across the continent and secondly, to invest in people in the form of education to enable them to be part of the growing technology sector.

Fortunately for African governments, the private sector has been building the infrastructure, which is largely led by the mobile telecommunications sector.

Many African mobile operators still invest close to 20% of their revenues in expanding and enhancing their networks, with the recent focus on data rather than voice capability. This is key because 97% of internet access in Africa is via mobile broadband. There are governments that have also invested significantly.

Rwanda has rolled out a national fibre-optic backbone network, which links to all 30 districts of the country and nine border posts. For Rwandan companies the improved ICT infrastructure reduces the cost of operating countrywide businesses and improves their ability to do business globally as the network is connected to an undersea cable.

Education is surely important to making sure that the skills levels are available for Africa to benefit from new technologies. Although investment in education should be a driver for economic growth and therefore an important focus for African governments, we have seen that the take up of services and the use of telecommunications has not been limited by current education levels.

By way of example, almost 90% of Safaricom's clients use its mobile money platform, M-Pesa, with many of them rural and not having had much senior schooling. The technological innovations that are being developed in the expert hubs across the continent show that there are many skilled people available. New applications are also becoming more user-friendly and therefore the skills level of the user should not be a limiting factor in their take up.

Will unskilled people be left out in the dark?

There is always a concern that the relatively unskilled African workforce will be left out of the knowledge economy. Technology advances, however, make it possible for niche businesses to access their clients efficiently. The use of social media as a marketing tool for the myriad of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that Africa is well known for can enhance sales without excessive costs. New applications also create new opportunities. Uber, as an example, has increased the number of people using taxi services and also made it possible for entrepreneurs to start a small business, leading to more employment. If SMEs are going to be the driver of jobs and economic growth in Africa, technology will be a key enabler of the continent's future.

We strongly believe that Africa will be a willing and able participant in the new developments that the fourth industrial revolution brings to the global economy.

Paul Clark is portfolio manager and Africa specialist at Ashburton Investments. Follow him on Twitter: @Paul23Clark

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