This piece first appeared in Open Africa, a custom digital publication by Ornico that features interviews, insights and business lessons from some of Africa’s leading CEOs, innovators and decision makers. Download your free digital copy of Open Africa here or go to and share your feedback on social media using the hashtag: #OpenAfricaMag

Can Africa use the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” to leapfrog into a position of technological superiority? asks Ornico CEO, Oresti Patricios

Ornico CEO, Oresti Patricios
Ornico CEO, Oresti Patricios

It’s a wave that has already begun to break, and we need to get ready to ride it… or be bowled over by it. It’s the next era, the technological revolution that will change society as much as the invention of the steam engine did back in the 18th century
Klaus Schwab calls it “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” — which is also the title of the book that he has written on the subject. Technology is changing so fast, with such breadth and depth, and with such transformative power, he says, that society will be transformed fundamentally.

Jobs once done by humans will be done by robots. Entertainment will become immersive with advanced virtual reality. Artificial organs will prolong life and improve health. Diseases will be fought by nanobots on a cellular level. A surgeon in Cape Town will be able to operate by ‘remote control’ on a patient in Venezuela. These are some of the breakthroughs that are starting to happen today, but who knows exactly how this future will play out.

What it is

Why is it called the Fourth Industrial Revolution? In history class we were only taught about one — the Industrial Revolution. Not so, says the professor, who is the founder and executive chair of the World Economic Forum and who has been at the centre of global affairs for over four decades. According to Schwab, the first industrial revolution was created by the transport and mechanical production technology of the late 18th century — the era of the textile factory, and the steam engine.

The second industrial revolution was the mass-production revolution in the late 19th century. The invention of the microchip and the computer revolution that began in the 1960s was the third industrial revolution, allowing many things to be automated and speeding up many aspects of life.

In the fourth industrial revolution, technological breakthroughs in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy production and storage, and quantum computing, are just ‘a few’ of the technologies that will work in concert to reshape human society. As Schwab says: “The changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril.”

Still fledgling

In the greater scheme of things, these are still fledgling technologies — we haven’t begun to see the full effects, both positive and negative. Will the Uber phenomenon result in fewer cars being purchased? Will virtual reality cocoon us in our living rooms, seldom to reach out and physically touch another human being? Will the shopping mall be replaced by online purchases, delivered by drones? And this is just the tip of the iceberg — tomorrow’s everyday technology is yet to be invented.

And what does this mean for Africa?

Africa 4.0

Taking a leap

The idea of ‘leapfrogging’ technology is not new. In recent years, the mobile phone system has proven to be a ‘leapfrog’ technology. What this means is that, for people who previously had no access to telecommunications via conventional means — ie landline telephony and DSL — cellular phones provided an alternative (albeit more expensive) option for communication.

For a small business this means being able to find the best marketplace for its products — for example, a fishing boat with a catch of yellowtail can now call ahead to see which port will give him the best price for his catch. In developed countries, landlines and cellular technologies coexist; in developing countries, the mobile phone obviates the need for landlines, and 3G (combined with the smartphone) now provides the internet connectivity that puts the internet in everyone’s hands.

In a way, technology lets governments off the hook, as the private sector steps in to provide essential services that would otherwise have been provided by the state. It’s a source of income for the private sector, but it can also be a cost-saver; internet banking and online payment systems such as M-Pesa allow banks to have a presence without needing to install a branch and ATM in every village.

There is no reason Africa cannot take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution, climb aboard and ride that wave to a brave new future. In fact, it’s essential that we do because, if we don’t, we will simply be consumers of goods and services provided by the countries that master fourth revolution technologies.

It will take a few basic conditions, however. Education is a big one: these technologies are reliant upon software engineers, data analysts and other engineers who specialise in some pretty hard-core science. To misquote the Matt Damon character Mark Watney in last year’s hit movie, The Martian, “In the face of overwhelming odds, [we’re] left with only one option, [we’re] gonna have to science the shit out of this.”

Power to the people

Second on the list of must-haves is energy. Fibre-optic cable, satellite communications, 3G, 4G, 5G — all need consistent, clean electrical power to work. Without it, a trillion dollars worth of ICT infrastructure is like a Porsche without wheels — it ain’t going anywhere fast.

The president of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina, emphasised this at the World Economic Forum on Africa in May 2016. “Africa cannot industrialise, it cannot be competitive unless we solve the energy problem,” he said, adding: “Today, 645m people have no access to electricity in Africa.” Electricity powers industry and ICT, so this is an urgent need. Adesina said the Bank would invest US$12.5bn in five years to boost the continent’s energy capacity.

The third must-have is, naturally, ICT infrastructure.

A leading light when it comes to technological and telecommunications infrastructure in Africa is Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. The Rwandan president’s policies have enabled his country to become ranked as one of the countries with the highest internet penetration on the continent.

At the May 2016 WEF Conference, Kagame said: “We have 4 500km of fibre-optic cable running across the country, and wide 3G mobile coverage. We want to avail internet for all.” He noted that ICT alone cannot transform the continent, saying: “It has to be backed by financial technology which guarantees deep, efficient capital markets that will invest in infrastructure, to achieve the much-needed development.”

ICT everywhere

Every single sector can benefit from a leapfrog approach to solving problems, according to Dominic Barton, global MD of McKinsey & Co, speaking at the same conference. “In almost every single industry or sector that you look at in Africa… including agriculture… [there] is an ICT business,” he said.

Healthcare is another area that needs attention, Barton says. “In some economies it is only 2% of the GDP and in other economies in western Europe and the United States it is 12% to 14%. ICT and the fourth industrial revolution, I think, [are] going to allow us to revolutionise that and provide healthcare, by the way, in a profitable manner,” he explains.

Already, Africans have shown their readiness to be innovators in the space. In Kenya, researchers, agriculture inspectors and seed specialists created a digital platform called MbeguChoice, that helps farmers determine the best seed for their land. Startup UjuziKilimo provides real-time soil analysis using sensors to measure and analyse soil qualities, giving feedback to farmers via SMS. According to the WEF, more than 70% of African farmers have used information and communications technology, with 90% seeing increased overall output.

By leapfrogging constraints in communication, transportation and affordability in the healthcare industry, mobile technology such as the Clinic Communicator enables doctors to provide advice even when face-to-face communication is not possible. A Ugandan startup has created a device called Code 8, which uses a sensor attachment on a smartphone to diagnose malaria without a blood sample. In South Africa, surgeons used a 3D printer to manufacture a jaw implant, when conventional options proved too expensive.

The next generation

With this explosive growth in technology, it is important that we equip the next generation with digital intelligence, or DQ. The DQ Project, at, presents parents, educators and policy makers with an eight-fold approach to preparing our children for the pitfalls and opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution, looking at aspects such as digital literacy and digital safety.

It is a brave new world, indeed. Now it is up to us, all of us, to do everything we can to own it.

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