Is the industrialisation that Africa so strongly advocates just taking time to happen or indefinitely postponed? Is the continent today likely to enter a new industrial era, without any prior expansion of manufacturing? These questions should be asked. By focusing on a model that dates back to the rise of manufacturing in Europe with electricity at the end of the 19th century, we would almost forget to see what is happening before our eyes. Africa, which has moved directly to mobile phones without developing the fixed-line network, has made a unique technological leap. His invention of the electronic wallet has changed the daily lives of millions of mobile phone users who are not necessarily banked.
The “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, as defined by Klaus Shwab, a German economist and founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), is driven by artificial intelligence, 3D printing, virtual reality, blockchain and “cobotics”, the interaction between a man and a robot system. It follows the three previous revolutions, induced by the advent of the steam engine in 1760, then electricity and mass production at the beginning of the 20th century, before the advent of computers in the 1960s.
Today, there are countless remarkable African inventions such as Askwar Hilonga’s, the Tanzanian who solved the problem of access to drinking water by setting up the NanoFilter. Indeed, this is a cheap water filter based on nanotechnologies, or the Zimbabwean service that “uberises” household waste collection. In other words, a truck platform travels to 32 cities across the country at the request of users who want to dispose of their waste for a small fee. From Dakar to Djibouti, logistics hubs are being developed throughout the continent.
Some Experts such as Carlos Lopes think it is mistaken to complain about the lack of factories in Africa. Because industrialisation also takes place in the services sector, the one that dominates most of the continent’s fast-growing economies. This is not bad news in itself: tourism, for example, is part of the industry, as are the creative industries, which also create jobs. The proof? Nollywood, this huge Nigerian film factory, is the second largest employer in the country after agriculture with 1 million people.
“Industrialisation is not limited to manufacturing. It refers to a whole ecosystem of modern transactions, capable of serving sophisticated economic fabrics and value chains”
Manufacturers no longer provide jobs in Europe, nor in Africa, as robotics develops. It is therefore necessary to consider this secondary sector, which is often considered as a “necessary step”, a required condition for development. Do we know what impact artificial intelligence will have tomorrow, as well as new technologies that are still beyond our imagination today? The “leapfrog” that has occurred in telecommunications could be replicated in many areas, including those on which current delays act as barriers – such as access to electricity and refrigeration.
Industrialisation is not limited to manufacturing. It refers to a whole ecosystem of modern transactions, capable of serving sophisticated economic fabrics and value chains. From this perspective, several countries are already industrialised in Africa, apart from leading countries such as Egypt and South Africa. Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Mauritius, Rwanda, Togo… These are all countries that have undergone structural transformation of their economies, with massive investments in a more modern and partly industrialised productive fabric. As for countries with large rural populations, which will remain so for the next 30 years, any industrialisation will necessarily involve the diversification of the rural economy.
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