The Challenge Ahead – Africa Must Prepare for Labour Dislocation by Technology

The Challenge Ahead – Africa Must Prepare for Labour Dislocation by Technology

I have received questions on the impact of technology and the future of labour in Africa after a piece this week. One community member noted that he will like to ask questions on that during my upcoming webinar (click to register). Yet, there are people on denial, disputing any elemental construct that technology can affect employment in Africa. Their core hypothesis is that a displaced person in one area can find opportunity in another field.

COMMENT: This argument is the same argument people were saying about computers when they emerged, that people would no longer need to or be able to write. It’s over the top and kids are still learning to write.

MY RESPONSE: Could you provide any reference: “would no longer need to or be able to write”. I am curious how someone would say that computers would eliminate writing. What people said that computers would eliminate typists, some secretaries etc because anyone could do those things efficiently and consequently would not need another person.

Yet, even on the writing, if you attended school in 1970s, 100% of your education and testing happened on paper.  Today, it is likely that only 50% on paper. Possibly by 2050, it may be 10%. That prediction on reducing writing is happening but no one said it will kill writing. Show me a job on this LinkedIn that has personal typist on it. In 1980s, a personal typist was a hot job – computer has killed it.

Finally, 100 years ago, more than 50% of Americans worked in farms. Today, less than 3%. That is automation at work. It does not happen one day!

Source: LinkedIn Feed

First, let me make it clear that Africa has about 2-3 decades ahead of it before we can reach the inflection point. You cannot run AI without electricity. So, our best defense is really that our infrastructures are not optimal.  That reminds me a conversation I had in Moscow, few years ago, where some hackers told me that hacking Nigerian banks was hard because the networks were always timing out! So, for our banks, the network being slow was probably a defensive mechanism! Of course, nothing like that.

Simply, we cannot expect to defend low-paying jobs in Africa because we do not have electricity for AI and robots to operate. If we use 65% of working population to mass produce hunger while America uses less than 3% to make enough to feed the world [if it desires], it is evident the game has changed.

Yes, while technology will cause realignment of careers, the fact remains that technology does not usually create as many jobs as it distorts. The paralysis in media business around the world because of Facebook, affecting thousands of jobs, is evident: Facebook has not created as many jobs as its impacts have lost worldwide!

This post has received the highest interests from African policy leaders. Simply, Africa cannot copy the Chinese developmental paradigm because what made China successful will not be relevant in this era because of AI. The cheap manufacturing jobs of the 21st century belong to AI and not human beings. So, anyone pushing the path of industrialization to create low-level jobs is already disrupted. Yes, a farm in England has no single farmer, from planting the crops to harvesting them. Simply, no one is sending you cheap labour from the Western world to Africa because machines will do them!

As I noted in a Harvard Business Review piece few years ago, GM in 1979 employed more than half a million workers in U.S. But due to automation, that number has dropped to 170,000 as at 2018 even though it is making more cars and serving more customers. After the recent cuts, GM may be about 120,000 workers in few years. Simply, it takes lesser number of people to make cars, and revenue per staff has gone up.

In Nigeria, the high youth unemployment cannot be uncorrelated with the continuous march to automation in our industrial sectors. With ATMs everywhere, banks are making more money with smaller number of workers and those displaced have not found jobs in other areas as those areas are also automating. The impact is one thing: mass unemployment. Certainly, we cannot go back to the old era of paper entries where banks employed legions of people and yet customers would waste hours in bank halls just to collect their monies.

All Together

Our continent must plan even though we have about 2-3 decades ahead of us. We cannot move into this era of immersive technology-enabled automation without a strategic plan.  If we just dance without a plan, we would certainly have growths but with high unemployment. Yes, competition is no more localized because the web has created a new equilibrium where labour can move easily across boundaries. I am scheduling an interview with a major global TV station to explain what we need to do. So, I will leave those points here. That interview is planned to take place this month; I will share the time ahead with the community here.

LinkedIn Comment on Feed

We still have time to get a lot of heads and hands busy, only if we can invest massively in infrastructures and then open the economy. You cannot have a population that is hovering around 200 million in Nigeria, while we have practically only three sectors (Oil and Gas, Banking, Telecom) with capacity to pay decent salaries every month, without defaulting. It’s a joke to think we can survive with such a narrow economic space.

There’s so much space for development, while we realign our education sector to deliver the kind of knowledge that is relevant in Industry 4.0. At the moment, we are nowhere, and we do not seem to be bothered; just politics, and more politics, nothing more!

Africa’s Cheap Labour Comparative Advantage Has A Major Disrupter: AI (Artificial Intelligence)


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