South Africa

The Gathering 2020

4IR in Africa: The reality, opportunities, and risks

Lesley Williams moderates the panel Grassroot problems, Grassroot solutions with speakers including businesswoman Emma Kaye, General Manager for Uber Sub-Saharan Africa Alon Lits and Head of Financial Services Technology, Nevellan Moodley during Daily Maverick’s The Gathering on Friday, 6 March 2020. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Africa is battling to contextualise the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The burning question is, can 4IR be applied to solve Africa’s problems?

If Africa is to catch up with the rest of the developed world in terms of understanding and unpacking the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), it needs to start with defining it the “African way”.

This was a common thread in 4IR panel discussions at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering, at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on Friday. 

Nevellan Moodley, a financial services partner at BDO, said it is about understanding African problems and framing them with African technologies. 

Head of Financial Services Technology, Nevellan Moodley during Daily Maverick’s The Gathering on Friday, 6 March 2020. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

“The typical projects that come out of the more developed world in order to bank the unbanked will not work in South Africa. Our South Africans that are the unbanked need to contribute in terms of how they want to be banked and how they want to be looked after from a technology perspective,” he said. 

An example of a major development project would be investing in Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency, a move that Moodley called “risky”. 

“That is a huge risk from a fiscus perspective in South Africa, purely because a global provider could possibly end up banking South Africans, which has a lot of economic impacts downstream,” Moodley said. 

Digital entrepreneur and former executive director of the Cape Digital Foundation, Emma Kaye, warned that careful consideration needs to be given as to how 4IR is translated to the South African reality. 

Emma Kay says we need to think about the digital divide and we should be thinking about smart townships, not only about smart cities during Daily Maverick’s The Gathering on Friday, 6 March 2020. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

“Our megacities are our fastest-growing population which is our townships. If we are talking about our megacities being our townships, why are we not talking about smart townships?” said Kaye. 

Although smart cities have become a major talking point in government, Kaye raised a concern that the concept of smart townships has not yet been mooted. 

“If we don’t make our townships smart, the bulk of our growing population is not going to be part of any Fourth Industrial Revolution. I suggest that we look at grassroots as being our growing urban population, and we be a bit more vigilant about what the fourth industrialisation actually means to those people.” 

For Alon Lits, general manager of Uber Sub-Saharan Africa, 4IR is more about skills than technology. The focus should be on equipping people with the right skills, he said. 

Uber Sub-Saharan Africa Alon Lits during Daily Maverick’s The Gathering on Friday, 6 March 2020. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

“The world is going to change at a rate we haven’t seen before. People are going to have to deal with uncertainty and change in a way that they haven’t had to previously, and Coronavirus is a good example,” Lits said. 

Yanesh Naidoo, Jendamark Automation’s director of digital strategy, sales, and design, pointed out that 4IR is a solution for developed countries to become more efficient but if developing countries copy and paste 4IR that is meant for developed countries, it would create a massive social issue. 

“Our pyramid is completely the opposite. We have a massive amount of youth coming through, we have far more people than what we have opportunities at the moment. The youth is the opportunity for Africa. We need to use the technologies to solve our African problems,” he said. 

Yanesh Naidoo,speaks at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering on Friday, 6 March 2020. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Karen Allen, a BBC foreign correspondent based in Nairobi and Johannesburg, warned the audience that as much as 4IR can provide Africa with the opportunity to unlock its potential, cybersecurity remains a concern. 

“I would caution against rushing headlong into 4IR as a solution to all our problems. We need to be aware of the vulnerabilities and we do have vulnerabilities here in South Africa,” she said. 

Allen said that the protection of data should be a priority in government policies and regulations. 

“[There will be] instances of data theft… as we embrace a system where there is going to be more data swirling around. We need to find smart ways of being able to protect that data, but we also need to be able to accommodate those people who won’t want to be known and not be part of that data set,” she said. DM

Gallery