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Opinion piece by Phumza Dyani, Pan African chamber of Commerce Chief Innovation Officer

Africa needs to make use of 4IR to upgrade its position in the global market place

Innovation is crucial to driving economic growth of countries as we can see how countries that have focused on innovation like China and the United States that have industrialised and upgraded their economies. Africa is an innovative continent with all kinds of problem solving invention that could potentially help improve not only the standard and quality of life, but also upgrade Africa’s position in the world economy. However, it seems, Africa has not taken advantage of this in driving its innovations at a global competitive level and thus sadly cannot advance. According to the African Development Bank, Africa’s economic growth stabilised at 3.4 per cent in 2019 (and is expected to be highly affected by the Covid19 pandemic in 2020) with slower growth in the continent’s “big five” economies Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa.

That said, there is no shortage of innovation in Africa as the social fibre of Africa rests on resourcefulness as an economy that lives on U$D2 per household, but manage to stretch it to feed its large households. Practical innovations have originated from Africa, I can count the smart jackets from Uganda which were created for immediate diagnosis of pneumonia in order to address a social challenge of deaths due to misdiagnosis of pneumonia. Closer to home for example in South Africa surgeons developed 3D Printing to restore a patient’s hearing by reconstructing the patients broken bones middle ear after it was severely damaged in a car accident. With these examples, Africa’s economic growth stabilised at 3.4 per cent in 2019 and is expected to be massively affected by Covid19 in 2020.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics report 2019, the Sub-Saharan Region spends 0.4% of its GDP in R & D, whilst East Asia Region (China, Mongolia, North & South Koea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau) invest about 2.1%. The Global Innovation Index 2019 which measure countries Medical innovation, places South Africa at number 63 out of 129 participating countries, with South Africa and Kenya seen as performing at a higher level of innovation for the level of development. Unfortunately, innovation inputs and outputs are still concentrated in very few economies and a global innovation divide persists with some economies getting more return on their innovation investments than others.

Nothing has spurred innovation faster than the outbreak of Covid19 in Africa, with countries like Senegal, developing ventilators as well as low cost testing devices in order to support the testing and containment of the pandemic. Back in South Africa, we have never seen collaboration and alignment across Government Ministries in order to roll out a country plan for the management of the pandemic. This tell us that developing countries can fast track their development and comparative advantage in the market – place given there is a positive stimulus to drive towards a united goal. Equally, the shortage of resources require the continent to collaborate more and utilise capacity efficiently in order to position the continent advantageously. Intelligent country and continental policies are imperative, especially in alignment with the AU – Africa we want. We have to learn that individualism and trade liberalisation has produced many losers in the past two decades as it comes with challenges such as lack of funding, scale, commercialisation effort and market access, but it can be done.   

The Fourth Industrial Revolution should be viewed as a potential for a great equaliser and an opportunity to position Africa in competitive industries. Mass industrialisation using technology to position the continent as a critical player in the World’s value chains whilst ensuring inclusion and sustainability. This will require Africa’s Think Tanks as well as mass co-ordination with Government

Playing a role of a facilitating state to assist countries. The government is core as a major investor in infrastructure, resources, human capital, skills and education. All of these are instrumental ingredients to countries’ development and need to be prioritised with focused intention. Governments are also instrumental to driving bold economic policies that can cultivate innovation as well as smart protectionism in order to protect the local industries.

Never has it been more important for Africa to innovate than now. The most encouraging part is that Africa itself recognises this, if we do not innovate, our existence is doomed especially at the cusp of 4IR. This is why our role, the Pan Africa Chamber of Commerce seeks to bring together innovators, leading thinkers and actors from industry, Government, Academia and Non-Governmental Organisations, to advise African Governments through the AU and other regional economic communities on how to best meet their objectives to build the digital economy and eliminate digital divides is that much more important.

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Issued by: On Point Enterprises

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