By Moses K Gahigi
Africa will have to quickly close its technical and scientific gaps if the continent has a chance to unlock its industrialization potential and compete with other regions of the world, said experts at the launch of Africa STEM Alliance (ASA) at the 2018 WEF meeting in Davos.
Policy makers and business leaders were challenged to invest in deepening the growth of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) knowledge, R&D with clear pathways into industrialization which will enable absorption of the young generation into the labour force and avoid brain drain.
“The rationale behind the creation of the ASA is two fold, first we must quickly close the African technical and scientific gap otherwise our continent will no longer be able to successfully compete with other regions in the world” said Mrs. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of the Republic of Mauritius during the launch.
“ASA will serve as a platform to mobilize governments, donors and multinationals to improve investment in African research, expertise centres and major tech and skill intensive industrial projects,” she noted, adding that African economies should build on what has been already achieved.
“What we need is a clear ambition across the continent to multiply these initiatives – and make Africa attractive again for our youth”, she said.
Africa has already made a head start in several areas for instance Kenya and Nigeria are more advanced in mobile banking than many OECD countries.
Sub-Saharan Africa has over 222 million mobile money accounts, more than all other developing regions combined according to GSMA, while Lonmin a South African company uses smart machinery in its largest platinum smelter.
The 2017 African economic outlook report indicates that investment in STEM will be necessary to develop African robot engineers, industrial engineers, data analysts, cloud architects, software developers, security analysts and health workers.
However, most African countries are not yet equipped to transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution economy, that even the most tech-savvy ones remain behind in adopting ICT technologies, where even management and technical skills are also often lacking.
The current industrial revolution is impacting Africa’s industrialisation through key technologies such as robotics, automation and artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing like 3D-printing, industrial Internet and data analytics.
A global Chief Executive Officer (CEO) survey found that skills are the most important driver of manufacturing competitiveness.
Traditional sectors other than services can also become more productive through applying new technologies and methods of production for instance agriculture.
However, new technologies decrease the demand for low-cost labour in manufacturing and increase the need for skills, Ethiopia for instance risks losing around 44% of current jobs across sectors.
“Industrialization is the challenge of Africa, we need to create tools to advance Africa and make it a driver of global growth, including creating African industrial champions” said Edem Adzogenu, the special Advisor to the AfroChampions Initiative.
The ASA’s 2018 agenda will focus on a major advocacy and fundraising campaign to support ASA qualified projects.
ASA also seeks to accelerate the creation of a genuine STEM ecosystem on the continent; one of its flagship projects is the creation of a STEM fund to support R&D commercialization and STEM start-ups.
Analysts say the continent is not well anchored in terms of the necessary skills to facilitate value addition at the production phase and spur industrialisation, something this initiative is coming to address.
Antonio Pedro the former director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa’s (Uneca) sub- regional office for Eastern Africa said when a country exports raw materials it is exporting jobs.
Noting that the higher you go in the up-stream production stages, the more valuable and rewarding it gets, and the more sophisticated skills and technology are needed, that because Africa lacks these skills it ends up losing a lot.