By Babatunde Okunoye
With a population of over 1.2 billion people, more than half of global population growth will happen in Africa (1.3 billion out of 2.2 billion projected for the world by 2050). Sub-Saharan Africa is also home to 13% of the world’s working-age population; a number that is set to increase to more than 17% by 2030, the world’s second-largest after Asia.
With more than 60% of its population under the age of 25, Sub-Saharan Africa is already the world’s youngest region today – and, by 2030, will be home to more than one-quarter of the world’s total under-25 population. Over this period, the region is projected to expand the size of its workforce by more than the rest of the world combined, as its young population, the best-educated and globally connected the continent has ever had, enters the world of work.
The Challenge and Opportunity of Automation and Artificial Intelligence
There’s, however, a silent threat (or opportunity) in the corner, challenging the future jobs and economic security of some of the millions of Africa’s teeming working population: the emergence of Automation and Artificial Intelligence. Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to simulated intelligence in machines that have been programmed to mimic human action and rational thought, while automation is the use of control systems for the control of various equipment and processes. All over the world, scientific teams have made considerable progress with Artificial Intelligence, so that tasks which can be reduced to series of steps and can be taught to computers through algorithms are now being done with more efficiency and speed than humans can possibly match.
Think of a basic task such as identifying and sorting parcels in the warehouses of logistics companies. In the past, this task might have required a team of humans to accomplish over a considerable period of time given the size of warehouses. Today, however, in innovative firms, this task is now accomplished with intelligent drones with more efficiency than humans. Although this is just one example, the idea is the same: if there are tasks we understand intrinsically enough to teach machines, eventually machines will replace humans in these tasks. A few of these tasks will still require some human supervision – hence human workers will soon learn to have machine colleagues, but even this development will reduce the number of human workers on the payroll.
Although it has been put forward that the job losses occasioned by automation and AI will be offset by gains in productivity in other sectors, this does not change the fact that many people will lose jobs, and will need to find new jobs through reskilling or employment change.
Much as in more economically advanced world regions, concerns have recently been raised regarding the potential impact of automation on jobs on the continent. It has been estimated that, from a technological standpoint, 41% of all work activities in South Africa are susceptible to automation, as are 44% in Ethiopia, 46% in Nigeria, 48% in Mauritius, 52% in Kenya and 53% in Angola.
The Timid Government Response
The World Economic Forum’s analysis in its May 2017 “The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa” report finds that Sub-Saharan Africa’s region’s capacity to adapt to the requirements of future jobs—measured by assessing the quality and extent of its education and staff training systems, post-basic education attainment and breadth of skills, leave little space for complacency.
And some countries are more vulnerable than others.
For instance, on average, Sub-Saharan Africa exhibits a high-skilled employment share of just 6%, a contrast to the global average of 24% as South Africa, Mauritius and Botswana lead the way in the local availability of high-skilled jobs while others, such as Ethiopia and Nigeria, maintain large proportions of workers in lower-skilled jobs – which are more susceptible to automation.
On average, Africa only currently only captures 55% of its full human capital potential, compared to a global average of 65%, ranging from 67 to 63% in Mauritius, Ghana, and South Africa to only 49 to 44% in Mali, Nigeria and Chad.
Consequently, it is reported that large numbers of African employers are citing inadequately skilled workforces as a major constraint to business expansion. This situation can, however, be remedied by the better synergy between employers and education providers.
Governments across Africa are however not responding well to the challenge thrown by AI and automation, given the threat to jobs of thousands in sectors such as manufacturing and services. Africa budgets for education (e.g. Nigeria budgeted only 7.04% of its 2018 budget for education) are not keeping up with the rest of the world. UNESCO’s recommendation is for the allocation of 15-20% of national budgets to education, according to its “Education for All: Achievement and challenges” document. Even in the OECD, with much higher educational standards, emerging technologies are already a challenge, with only 10% of adults in these economies are deemed as competent as AI, according to an OECD sponsored study. For Africa, increasing the budget on education to UNESCO standards improves the quality of teachers, curriculum, and teaching tools, and might prepare the continent for the evolving world of work.
- “The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa: Preparing the Region for the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. World Economic Forum Executive Briefing, May 2017.
- Abdi Latif Dahir, “The future of work in Africa is uncertain despite technology’s promise or perhaps because of it”, Quartz Africa, January 26, 2018.
- Elliot SW. “AI and the Future of Skill Demand”, October 27, 2017. http://www.oecd.org/going-digital/ai-intelligent-machines-smart-policies/conference-agenda/ai-intelligent-machines-smart-policies-elliott.pdf