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Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa’s Transformation and Growth

February 27, 2019

Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa’s Transformation and Growth

Article by Philip Thigo

The continent of Africa has often been invisible in the annals of history. There are few, sporadic mentions of Africa’s technological prowess, save for the Great Kingdom of Mali, the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt and the Library in Alexandria. While it is widely acknowledged from the theory of evolution that life began in Africa, the continent has been left behind throughout the periods of enlightenment.

This is about to change.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution brought about by the rapid spread of interconnected web and mobile technology brings about a moment that shows promise for the continent. According to the United Nations, the median age in Africa is 19.5 years, making it the global capital for millennials who have grown up in the age of mobile.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has taken root in the continent, primarily through mobile phones. The mobile revolution has swept across the developing world, enabling countries like Kenya to leapfrog the challenges associated with technology infrastructure and to connect, for the first time, vast populations that have often been excluded from connectivity.

Mobile telephony has enabled countries and companies, especially in Africa, to disrupt how mobile products and services are delivered to citizens from all walks of life, continuously shaping how educational content and other essential services are delivered. The ubiquitous nature of mobile telephony, enabling the regulatory environment and entrepreneurial nature of young Africans, has allowed them to harness its capabilities beyond imagination.

Mobile Telephony Leads to Mobile Business

In less than 10 years, we have seen the rise of Mobile Money (M-Pesa) that has disrupted the financial sector, beginning with mobile money transfer and permeating into our everyday culture of financial transactions. This service accounts for over 80% of the Global Money Transfer. And, as a response to the inability of financial services to meet the demand from Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), we are seeing value added services harness machine learning and big data analytics in order to create mobile lending services. ‘Fuliza’ an overdraft service via mobile money has lent over $620 million in just one month since its launch.

“Mobile telephony has enabled countries and companies, especially in Africa, to disrupt how mobile products and services are delivered to citizens from all walks of life.” ~ Philip Thigo, Nairobi tech leader - Click to tweet

We are also seeing innovators leverage the mobile platform to develop health applications that assist mothers giving birth at home. The apps help mothers register their newborn for specialized healthcare backpacks, which are essentially mobile clinics. These backpacks mean that community health workers, not doctors, are able to help mothers and newborns who live in hard-to-reach areas or regions with poor infrastructure. Mobile services have helped the African continent experience a renewal of extension services to farms, in particular critical weather information, seed variety and pesticide information and, most importantly, economic empowerment of Kenyan small businesses and small farmers. These knowledge-based services offer information that leads to decision making and action.

While progress and to some extent prowess is impressive, this mobile revolution does not come without risks. We have seen the rise of fake news and misinformation, new forms of online threats and cyberwarfare, increased transnational crimes, and commodification of personal data of individuals for financial gain by companies. There are new challenges to intellectual property rights, new challenges for skills and competencies around this new terrain. The permeation of technology into everyday life, such us food systems, health, banking and education, means that Africa must always stay ahead, including mitigation of threats.

Thunderbird Opens First Hub in Nairobi

While threats are real, the African continent is also grappling with the need to understand technologies, their risks and also their transformative capabilities. Data that drive evidence is often recognized as the “new oil,” and countries in Africa, must be bold enough to harness this revolution and mitigate emerging challenges, not by fear, but by understanding through knowledge and continuous collaboration.

“Through a new international hub system, Thunderbird School of Global Management provides opportunities for understanding technology through knowledge and continuous collaboration.” ~ Philip Thigo, Nairobi tech leader - Click to tweet 

The Thunderbird School of Global Management in my view provides such opportunity for the African continent. The innovative capability of faculty, alumni, and its immersive technologies to impart knowledge is a natural ally.

It is therefore not only timely, but also necessary that Thunderbird has opened its first hub in Nairobi, right at the heart of “Silicon Savannah,” the hotbed of innovation. This collaboration must at the outset address the following and perhaps many other key challenges:

  1. Interoperability: Technology is rapidly changing and evolving. Governments and companies have invested heavily in infrastructure, which does not seem to match with this rapid change. How do we ensure that our systems continue to remain interoperable, with seamless integration or transition from old to new data systems that are essentially mobile?
  2. Capacity and Capability: With these rapid shifts, we need to scale-up capacity and capability of our institutions both in the public and private sector to remain competitive through a Global Mindset, a trait that Thunderbird is known for. Technology has shrunk the world and therefore, Africans must remain competitive, if we are to harness the energies of the youngest continent in the world into opportunity. A majority of young people in the Africa technology ecosystem does not have degrees of college credential: simply driven by passion and commitment. There is to stack credentials, skill, re-skill and up-skill in all aspects of technology within a context of the everyday challenge of running a business or keeping a day job.
  3. Infrastructure: All previous revolutions have left Africa behind because of the cost and technical capabilities to build resilient infrastructure that powers these decisive moments. We invest in critical data infrastructure, with deliberate investments in hard-to-reach areas. How we will enable Africa to harness Big Data, Earth Observing Systems Data without the need to invest in its own satellites, harness proxy indicators and analytics from fast moving consumer goods and logistics companies. In this mobile revolution, let no one be left behind.
  4. Data Stewardship: While it is easy to point out challenges, we also need governments, private sector, civil society, and young innovators to take their rightful place in leading the mobile revolution. To be a global leader, Africa will need to equip its leaders across public sector and industry through executive education. Data stewardship is necessary to consciously create a talent pipeline that is competent and conscious of curating a cadre of leaders of the revolution that will ensure Africa adapts and iterates almost in near real time, in consonant with the changing nature of technology.

The Thunderbird School, through Dean Sanjeev Khagram, seeks to be a global leader in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and what better place to begin this revolution that in Africa!

Thunderbird’s Hub strategy and recognition that context must be at the core of innovation is a welcome addition that will build resiliency of this revolution. The co-creation approach towards knowledge is essentially what Africa has been yearning for. The Thunderbird Hub strategy is in itself disruptive and aligns with the mood of the continent, if Africa is to grow and transform in earnest: “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis” which translates from Latin: There is nothing for us without us

Author bio

Philip Thigo, Snr. Advisor on Data & Innovation at Executive Office of the Deputy President, Kenya  He is the Head of Data & Innovation at the Executive Office of the Deputy President, a member of the World Economic Forum Global Councils on Food Systems Innovation and recognised as one of the World's 100 most influential persons in digital government in 2018.  Connect with Philip on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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