Defend Truth


Africa at the crossroads — elections, innovations, and the path to resurgence


Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution offers Africa untold opportunities. But the continent also faces serious challenges, challenges that are partly symptomatic of an overreliance on extractive resources, poor governance frameworks and institutions, political factions, and a shaky economic context.

This year is seminal in Africa’s history — over 19 countries on the continent will host elections in 2024. These elections have the potential to usher in significant change.

Joseph Siegle and Candace Cook outline that citizens across Africa have expressed a strong desire for their voices to be heard. This resounding call represents a collective aspiration for more democratic and responsive governance.

This is unsurprising considering Africa’s current context. It is no secret that the “Africa rise” tale that seemed so pervasive prior to the pandemic has lost currency. But this need not be our story.

As we reflect on Africa Day on 25 May, there are possibilities to resuscitate this very narrative. As Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s words remind us, “Africa’s story has been written by others; we need to own our problems and solutions and write our story.”

To understand the way forward, it is imperative to understand where the troughs lie.

There are stark challenges that the continent faces — and these are not challenges we can gloss over. Some challenges Africa contends with include infrastructure gaps, limited access to education and technology, soaring youth unemployment, poor-performing economies, corruption, fraud, and climate vulnerability, just to scratch the surface.

These challenges are partly symptomatic of an overreliance on extractive resources, poor governance frameworks and institutions, political factions, and a shaky economic context. There are also immediate economic concerns.

For example, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) outlines that while growth is expected to increase from 3.4% in 2023 to 3.8% in 2024, with projections reaching 4.0% by 2025 in sub-Saharan Africa, challenges persist. The region faces a funding squeeze and remains vulnerable to global external shocks, political instability, and frequent climate events.

As the UNDP states, “these challenges threaten to undermine decades of development gains and cast a shadow over the continent’s immediate future. While crises can bring disruption and devastation, they also have the potential to inspire ingenuity and solidarity.”

However, with a youthful population and vast natural resources, the continent has the potential to leverage innovation as a catalyst for sustainable development. There are clear opportunities to be found in leapfrogging traditional technologies, embracing sustainable agriculture, harnessing abundant renewable energy sources, and fostering economic diversification.

The IMF calls for a reframing of policy priorities oriented towards improving public finances without hindering development, focusing monetary policy on price stability, and implementing structural reforms to diversify funding sources and economies.

Plugging the skills and development gap 

Additionally, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) offers untold opportunities. Numerous examples on the continent already demonstrate this. For instance, Hello Tractor in Nigeria uses precision farming through the Internet of Things and drones to boost agricultural productivity; Zipline in Rwanda uses drones to deliver medical supplies to remote areas; and Andela in Nigeria trains software developers and connects them with global tech firms.

As these examples demonstrate, the 4IR could drive economic growth and offer solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Nevertheless, we also have to keep up with these shifts. Studies are increasingly finding that there are thousands of jobs available that have gone unfilled because of the skills gap, and according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), half the global labour force might need reskilling by 2025.

This calls for us to reimagine systems and structures on the continent to evolve alongside this revolution, as it is estimated that Africa’s potential workforce will be among the largest in the world by 2030.

According to the Africa Transformation Index by Acet, much of Africa is also experiencing setbacks in economic transformation. This index, which assesses 30 countries that account for 86.5% of the continent’s GDP, highlights significant challenges.

One major issue is low labour productivity, primarily due to inadequate skill levels. This problem stems from a mismatch between the skills provided by education systems and the needs of businesses.

In response, African nations should prioritise inclusive policies, investing in education and research, fostering international collaborations, and creating supportive environments for innovation.

These considerations are all particularly pertinent in an election year as citizens hold political leadership accountable, engage actively in the democratic process, and potentially spur policy shifts. Leapfrogging is undoubtedly a distinct possibility.

Indeed, the “Africa rise” narrative is still a narrative within our reach. To borrow Maya Angelou’s turn of phrase, still we’ll rise. DM


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  • ST ST says:

    Thank you Prof. a century from now, future generations will find the story of Africa bewildering. The richest continent that somehow is home to the poorest populations. Plagued by endless internal and external wars. Seems some evil extraterrestrial force refuses to see it succeed. And yet, you still find the miracle of an African child, stomach empty, body full of dust, face beaming with a smile and dancing to a tune like a professional. School across land and water, over mountains. Patched up hand-me-down clothes, an ‘exercise book’, a broken pencil and ruler. And then one day he or she is a professor, a judge, a doctor, a lawyer. What miracle!

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