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Africa’s future is innovation rather than industrialization

The continent must also overcome significant hurdles if it is to grab the 4IR opportunity

| THE INDEPENDENT | Africa has taken three significant steps in recent months on its journey to a stronger economic future.

In March, the African Union launched the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). This landmark agreement aims to create a single market expected to generate a combined GDP of more than $3.4 trillion and benefit over 1 billion people.

In April, the South African government announced the launch of a new Affiliate Centre of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR).

The Centre will act as a focal point for dialogue and co-operation on the challenges and opportunities presented by advanced technologies, which are merging our physical, digital and biological worlds. These include a number of tools that, combined, will disrupt Africa’s dominant agricultural, extractive and manufacturing industries, offering the continent an unparalleled opportunity to transform and thrive.

And the World Economic Forum has just launched the Africa Growth Platform, an initiative aimed at helping startup enterprises grow and compete internationally. With early-stage entrepreneurial activity 13% higher than the global average, Africa is well placed to get startups off the ground, but it also has a higher-than-average failure rate due to insufficient support and infrastructure. The Africa Growth Platform will bring together governments, investors, and businesses to help startups thrive and become sustainable.

These are important steps forward. Because despite recent economic growth, Africa remains subject to lingering challenges–including inequality, relatively poor agricultural productivity and significant youth unemployment. It is also about to witness a population explosion, with 2.4 billion people expected to call the continent home by 2050. Job creation is essential, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – underpinned by forward-looking trade agreements and support systems for entrepreneurs – has the potential to supply much of that demand.

Africa’s digital revolution

Africa has definitely grasped the promise of the 4IR. More than 400 tech hubs have sprung up across the continent, with Lagos, Nairobi and Cape Town emerging as internationally recognised technology centers. These cities now host thousands of startups, along with the incubators, accelerators, innovation hubs, maker spaces, technology parks and co-working spaces that support them.

Notable successes include the mobile lending app Branch International, which recently raised $170 million in one of the largest funding rounds achieved by an Africa-focused startup, and a billion-dollar IPO for Jumia, the largest e-commerce company on the continent and the first African tech startup to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Elsewhere, pockets of proactive government policy, like Tunisia’s Startup Act, are helping foster this culture of innovation.

Efforts like these will become increasingly important to help a hyper-connected and entrepreneurial youth population on its way to a digital future. However, with one or two exceptions, these initiatives are largely being driven at a city or enterprise level, rather than an integrated national level, to Africa’s detriment overall.

One illustration of this can be found in the World Economic Forum’s Readiness for the Future of Production Report 2018, which analyzed countries’ preparedness to capitalise on emerging technologies.

Of the 25 African countries assessed, 22 were classified as having a low level of readiness for the future, due to lack of the necessary enabling conditions. Beyond tech platforms and innovation capacity, these include a robust institutional framework, the right skills, and talent, the ability to attract global trade and investment, availability of sustainable resources and a thriving demand environment.

Although the Middle East and North Africa region fared better on average than sub-Saharan Africa, readiness across each driver varies considerably by country, indicating the absence of co-operative action. As we have seen from other global tech hubs from Bengaluru to Berlin, Beijing to Boston, this spurs the chances of success even more than the technology itself. Policy, regulation, finance, infrastructure, education, and talent must all come together in an innovation ecosystem focused on an integrated agenda and propelled by unconstrained collaboration.

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