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Industry 4.0 – Africa's opportunity to get real about technology

Industry 4.0 – Africa's opportunity to get real about technology

The fourth industrial revolution is being hyped up by tech evangelists, the media, industry analysts and futurists, but the reality is that there are genuine cases of digital innovation that is changing lives in Africa – but the pace of change is slow and depends on a calculated, step-by-step approach.

This revolution does offer the continent a chance to get serious about technology, develop markets and really compete in the new economy said Eugene le Roux, Chief Executive NEC XON Africa.

Speaking at the ICT solution supply and integration firm NEC XON's 7th annual Summit at Sun City in South Africa's North West Province, le Roux said amid the hype, there is an element of truth that should excite the continent.

"There are good starts in Africa and there are great case studies of where we really got it together – in applications and ways that is relevant to us here, but that may not be relevant to somebody in a developed market. An example of that is what M-Pesa did for financial inclusion in East Africa. Africa is not known for creating all this stuff.... Africa will be the youngest and fastest growing population in the world and therein lies the opportunity."

But Africa will have to start building a digital economy and digital assets added le Roux, who warned that while revenue generation remains focused on natural resources, these resources will play a lesser role in the future economy.

"We really don't want to be in a situation in fifty years where the resources are sold at the mercy of huge international economies. So, how do we innovate and build our business model as Africa to compete and or be different than the global scale. I don't think anyone has the answer to that," le Roux continues.

Looking ahead the likelihood is that Africa will continue to grapple with challenges including the proliferation of inequality, regulation and corruption, "one thing about Africa is that technology and business model innovation is happening despite this."

"Our advantage is that we are not hung up and protecting an invention or a technology or industry of any sorts. We can start afresh and we can make whatever is relevant to us, count. A good example is landlines to mobile...no-one was ever hung up on the transition from fixed to mobile. Africa still today has the highest mobile to fixed conversion ratio in the world. I have travelled the world and our networks are pretty good because of that. So the question is really 'where is our entry point' – our entry point is not going to be at the bottom, our entry point needs to be where its relevant for us in order to get the curve up and try get ahead of the curve," le Roux explains.

He believes ICT infrastructure development must be addressed first in order to innovate.

"What is innovation? Innovation is invention with purpose... so, in order to innovate, it needs to have a purpose ... it needs a job. We understand the job to be done, but we are probably starting to hit the curve right now is imagining the possibilities. This is exactly what is required in Africa, we need to imagine what the possibilities are and then build that in order to move forward."

Technologies like AI, robotics, machine learning, analytics and IOT are growing in influence, but Africa must target these at challenges and help meet the needs of people.

"This is where imagination comes in. It is leveraging all of this, it is leveraging the platform economy and all these technologies, recombining it with existing assets to solve a problem. It is happening one step at a time, but the movement is being created."

This is dependent on education and the development of a progressive mindset.

Craig Wing, Partner FutureWorld International, added, Maybe it's not fourth industrial revolution, maybe it's fourth industrial imagination where we give hope. We say the ability to dream is Africa's biggest currency that we have, because it's not a question around youth, not enough jobs, it's the ability to inspire a generation and say 'guys, this fourth industrial revolution as it is in developed countries, we will only get there if we have the imagination to be able to do it. If we can dream we can compete on a global scale, where we don't follow linear progression (first, second, third, fourth) but we imagine a world that is beyond fourth industrial revolution to fifth industrial revolution – in my mind, the merging of man and machine to allow human beings to be more human. Can we shift away from the concept of revolution to the concept of imagination?"