Words by Opal Masocha Sibanda (Lawyer)
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, social media, and the ‘black’ market have exposed many African countries’ inefficiencies with dealing with the consequences of the 4th industrial revolution (4IR). While some countries and institutions have embraced digital technologies and others are hastily preparing for a digital future, Zimbabwe (despite it’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs, mobile money facilities, and significant reserves of some “minerals of the future” – is lagging behind due to some old-fashioned notions about new technology. The introduction of any new technology is often met with apprehensions because modern tools are viewed as complex, expensive, and would lead to unemployment. However, in a country characterized by highly educated citizens, high unemployment, and a widespread ability to encompass new things like Zimbabwe’s #2ndRepublic – there is no reason why the possibility of an African 4IR should be inconceivable. Let me explain my viewpoint.
First a brief history lesson. Three industrial revolutions have swept mankind thus far. The 1st Industrial Revolution (1IR) began in the 1760s; it was the one with coal, steam engines, and textiles. This was followed by the age of science, mass production, cars, and electricity, aka the 2nd Industrial Revolution (2IR), from 1870 to 1914. The 3rd Industrial Revolution (3IR) was the Digital Revolution of the 1960’s; it is also known as the age of the Internet. The 3IR set the foundation for the 4IR which is currently being experienced by most countries. The 4IR is characterized by the combination of the digital, biological, and physical worlds, as well as the increasing use of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, 3D printing, cloud computing, nanotechnology, and other advanced wireless technologies, among other things. Klaus Schwab (Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum), believes that the 4IR “will profoundly alter the way human beings live, work and relate” – and I agree. In my opinion, the 4IR technologies have the potential not only to put Zimbabweans to work but also make Zimbabwe work by reshaping the economic and industrial infrastructures. The first step, of course, has to be education. Currently, when one looks at our traditional system of education, it is mono-disciplinary; meaning a person goes to school, obtains specialized education and a set of defined capabilities within a particular profession. In the 4IR this shouldn’t be the case.
We live in the information age, where the average millennial exhausts copious amounts of data online viewing and uploading user-generated content. The information we are exposed to online is characterized by variety, therefore education in the 4IR must reflect this diversity and adopt a multidisciplinary approach to teaching. While I appreciate that the Zimbabwean National Industrial Development Policy under the subsection ‘fourth industrial revolution’ directs “government [to] ensure that all education institutions are oriented toward producing the high-end scientific technological, research and engineering skills that can capacitate local industry to compete globally”. I believe that policy reforms should cut across all levels of education including Early Child Development, Primary, Secondary, Higher Education, Informal (Internship, Apprenticeship), Free Education, and Personal Development. What we really need is a composite educational curriculum that merges communication skills, technology, commerce, and life skills; and it should be available both in the urban and rural areas.
The 4IR requires re-skilling programs that do not replace but supplement our current educational system. This can be done by an amalgamation of online and offline programs that integrate STEM with the Environment; Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) with Recreation; Commerce with Politics; Food Security with Health and Safety; and Education with the Creative Arts. This hybridization of the educational system would require physical and digital libraries, free Wi-Fi hotspots, skill-sharing centers, health and counselling facilities, mentors, teachers, instructors, lecturers, psychologists, nurses, on demand technologies, and IT specialists – not just in the urban areas but the rural areas too. The result will be a new kind of student that is able to discover new niches. To ensure dynamic learning opportunities and enable learners to enhance their “tech” and life skills, the 4IR students, while specializing in their areas of expertise, will also have sufficient knowledge of different departments that complement their particular field of interest. Therefore, we will not only be creating jobs via the new workforce required to fill these positions, but also a future generation that can either find lucrative employment opportunities or create employment opportunities as entrepreneurs.
As different as that sounds, this is nothing new to Zimbabweans as entrepreneurship is increasingly becoming a mode of survival for young adults. However, in the 4IR this new student’s interests would have been fostered through mentorship and life skills training and his / her business opportunities will be heightened by increased local and regional cooperation, accessibility of literary resources, virtual assistances, availability of electricity, and more transparent service delivery. This new student cannot however thrive without the complimentary support of state and private enterprises in areas such as literature, storage capacity, infrastructure, educators, equipment, technology access and cyber-security; especially in the business sector. Looking at the business sector, it is critical for the government to develop and invest in policies, systems, and infrastructure that supports both physical and virtual business environments. Government and private sectors need to invest in financial and digital literacy for companies to enable individuals to adopt new technologies that will make the buying and selling process more convenient and safer for Zimbabweans.
There are two things that the pandemic has taught me: 1. less is more, and 2. cash shouldn’t be the focal point of our lives. With that being said, establishing a dynamic physical and virtual business model allows a business owner to extend trading hours through virtual transactions, and decentralize services such as bill payments, and the purchase of goods. Just imagine being able to check the rate or stock availability or prices of goods and services at your local supermarkets in real time, online. Imagine having an online account / App that allows you to buy international goods from online shops or your local spaza from the comfort of your home. That same App could also let you buy groceries for, say, Sekuru kuMusha, to be collected at a designated spot, which you can track on the GPS like an Uber or a drone. How efficient, time-saving and convenient! These scenarios are actually not that hard to imagine because breakthroughs in technological and digital innovations are now commonplace elsewhere, but unfortunately they haven’t gained traction in Zimbabwe as people still insist on using traditional methods to conduct business.
Ultimately, Zimbabweans need to embrace the 4IR because there are numerous benefits in terms of innovation, productivity and quality of life beyond those that have spawned from my limited imagination. As the WEF founder pointed out, “while the Fourth Industrial Revolution may look and feel like an exogenous force with the power of a tsunami, in reality, it is a reflection of our desires and choices”. So with that outlook in mind, try imagining how the 4IR can solve some of the problems we have now and your fears of new tech will subside. After all, some countries are preparing for a 5IR, so it’s high-time we catch up.