By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Africa’s representation at the 2018 World Economic Forum (WEF), themed “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”, was small. The forum has always been primarily focused on America and Europe anyway. Last year, China stole the spotlight. And a few years ago, Africa got its chance. With regional forums now, the Davos meeting is increasingly focused on global themes and issues. And the major attraction this year was none other than Donald Trump, the American president. Once he arrived (thank goodness, it was on the last day), everything became about him. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi was probably delighted he gave the forum’s keynote speech on the first day (23 January); long before “The Donald” arrived. Mr Modi made some deep points. But the part that resonated with me was that about data. He posited that in today’s world and in fact the future one, data is the biggest asset. And he who controls data controls the world. He is ahead of the curve. It was also a veiled boast, I think. India is firing ahead on the technological front. Like China, it is racing ahead to ensure that it would be an active participant in what would entirely soon become a digital world economy. China has a date for when that time might be upon us: 2025. That is the target year for its ambitious technological plan, which if realised, would put it at the forefront of technological leadership globally. There is the pertinent question, of course, about whether that digital future would not be exclusionary. Ever-evolving tech skillsets would be required by anyone who desires to be an active participant in the digital economy. So steps need to be urgently taken by African countries to ensure their citizens are able to compete in that future world. The mastery of basic technologies has to be the least qualification for anyone who passes through the education system. Technology has to be seen in the same way as English (or French and Arabic in other countries) is regarded as a foundation subject for basic education.
Technology as language
Technology is a language. If you do not know how to speak a language, you cannot participate in a conversation in that language. If the language of the future world is technology, what then would be your fate if you cannot speak it? You hear talk about up-skilling and re-skilling. What I think the focus should be on is what I call “dynamic skilling.” It is not entirely novel; you may have heard of “continous learning.” It is similar. But my concept of dynamic skilling is premised on how if the world of work would likely continue to change as technology evolves, then the individual that desires not to be changed (i.e., replaced) must also ensure that his skills are similarly dynamic. The foundation for any such eventuality is basic knowledge about technology. Thus, vocational skills of the future are not likely to be how to be a good plumber, carpenter, or electrician. Instead, it would be “simple” things like being able to code an app, use a digital currency, and so on. Any country which is not thinking in this manner, right now, would again be left behind. Fortunately (for African countries, at least), the extraordinary thing about emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, big data, and so on, is that they are equalizers; up to a point. Vintage is an advantage. One who starts early may remain ahead because of the advantages of experience and ownership of data acquired in the process. Even so, African governments could, for instance, momentarily start to insist on the ownership and control of the data of their citizens and all digital activities in their domain. That way, they would be able to ensure that their citizens benefit from whatever technological progress happens on the back of their data assets.
Benedikt Sobotka of the Eurasian Resources Group, in an interview with CNBC Africa during the WEF, made a point that all African governments need to muse on. Electric vehicles (EVs) rely on cobalt-based batteries. Where is cobalt found in abundance? The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia. In the next decade or so, EVs would probably replace all fossil-fuel vehicles. That future can be Africa-led if the relevant governments put in place policies that ensure the cobalt mined in their jurisdictions would be used to build an African EV industry; as opposed to a mining one just for the taxes. By insisting on the batteries being built on the continent, or adding some meaningful value to the cobalt at least, before it is shipped to China and elsewhere, the DRC and Zambia would be able to participate in what is likely going to be a very lucrative global value chain (GVC). What is happening now? China is buying up the precious mineral. Cobalt is being mined and shipped abroad to build batteries that would power EVs the future world would use to wean itself of oil and gas that some key African countries rely on and failed to build industries around. African countries can be part of the new world right now. By the way, did I travel to Davos to arrive at these insights? Go figure.