To catch up with 4IR, we need our own systems

Thursday December 26 2019

All aspects of Africa’s future megacities will be technologically driven.

All aspects of Africa’s future megacities will be technologically driven. SHUTTERSTOCK 

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A young Alliance High School graduate, Tony Githinji, travelled to the US for further education in the 1990s. He embarked on a career path as an engineer in the world of high-vacuum electronic chip fabrication and nanotechnology, and over the years ascended to the position of CEO of a company called 4Wave.

Tony Githinji’s company has highly specialised research and development (R&D) and production capacity for the generation of new functional material-based devices deposited atomic layer by atomic layer onto silicon-based electronic wafer substrates. 4Wave implements these technologies onto chips for tech giants like Samsung and Microsoft.

Tony is currently on the verge of opening a branch in Nairobi from which he plans to not only make components for vacuum deposition machines for his global customers, which will be a first for Africa, but also to engage in cutting-edge R&D with faculty and students in Kenyan universities.

Tony’s vision is to create the foundation for semiconductor manufacturing in Africa that will spawn innovations in chip technology to meet the African market—Africa will be the largest consumer market in the world by 2050.

Then there is Washington Yotto Ochieng, a highly esteemed professor at Imperial College London, who is credited with directly leading efforts that have culminated in some of the world’s most sophisticated navigation systems.

In Silicon Valley there is Charles Mwangi, who until recently was a senior director of engineering at Tesla Motors. Charles reported directly to Elon Musk and led a team of over 400 engineers in the creation of one of the world’s most sophisticated automobile manufacturing plants.


Osh Agabi, a Nigerian, has founded one of the boldest biology-based technology companies in Silicon Valley ( Koniku Kore produces chips, and I don’t mean potatoes, that are integrated with live biological neurons.

Their first application is sensing – they have fabricated a device that can “smell” chemicals kilometres away and is fed with glucose to stay functional.

These are only some of the bright African minds impacting the world of technology globally. I will revisit these stories later in this article.

Technological change

Someone recently said that never in the history of humanity has technological change been as rapid as it is today, and conversely, will likely never be this slow again. These situation is often referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), terminology first used at the World Economic Forum.

What exactly is 4IR? At a certain level of abstraction 4IR may be described as the convergence of the physical, biological, and cyber worlds through massive connectivity and automation.

Previous industrial revolutions brought us steam-powered mechanised productivity in the 1700s, mass production through the advent of electricity in the 1800s, and the digital boom in the later half of the 1900s. 4IR has come about with staggering rapidity during the past 50 years.

Underlying 4IR are familiar more basic technologies such as electronics, control engineering, computer science, data science and statistics, and increasingly molecular (and other forms of) biology.

The continued convergence or integration of these fields in numerous complex ways gives rise to a composite of technologies exemplified by robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), digital fabrication, artificial intelligence and machine learning, systems biology, blockchain, embedded systems, and nanotechnology.

Inter-disciplinary approaches to the basic natural sciences and mathematics are manifestly at the heart of 4IR. Take, for example, certain statistical manipulations of data using Bayes’s theorem and Hidden Markov Models. These represent a powerful instance of machine learning that predates the modern popularity of artificial intelligence by decades and allows the prediction of certain non-evident phenomena by analysing observable events.

An example is the observation of people’s clothing as a predictor of changes in weather patterns (the hidden phenomenon). These methods are used in seemingly unrelated applications such as robotics, self-driving cars, weather forecasting, disease surveillance, and financial credit scoring.

So what does all this mean for Africa? At first glance the broad signs are not good. Africa’s economy is still stuck somewhere in the first three industrial revolutions, often closer to the first. From a dystopian perspective, this may mean increased marginalisation and dependence on aid. With the current trend in demographics, which projects that Africa’s population will double from its current 1.2 billion to 2.4 billion by 2050, one may extrapolate that this will result in catastrophe.

In spite of its mounting debt burden due to the acquisition of traditional factors of production (infrastructure, schools, hospitals) by dubious layers of bureaucracy (read graft), Kenya is widely seen as a case study for ways in which 4IR technologies can create opportunities for leapfrogging, being home to the first broad-based application of mobile money on earth.

The confluence of mobile money and IoT has meant that almost one million homes are now solar-powered through the implementation of a pay-as-you-go model of retail, which is akin to hire purchase on steroids.

Pioneers M-Kopa, for example, make possible the acquisition of solar panels with lights and appliances for which Ksh100 ($1) or so is payable each day. Failing to pay means the equipment will not work as the mobile money server will communicate with the equipment in the home not to switch on, thanks to IoT technology.

Similar pay-as-you-go functionality means that we’re also on the cusp of widespread access to domestic cooking gas with the attendant benefits of reduced respiratory illness, reduced environmental damage due to overdependence on biomass, and greater productivity of the population by reducing the time spent on low-efficiency cooking practices.

Embedded systems are now in almost everything we buy – our fridges, cars, microwave ovens, industrial machinery—leading to the use of the term “ubiquitous computing”, and we can “talk” to them all through IoT.

Local telcos, like their equivalents globally, have all created special data networks to enable Internet of Things solutions which are predicted to grow into billions of dollars’ worth of business in the near future.

Data collected by all these devices, once stored in the cloud, are part of “big data” which, in turn, can be analysed and milked for valuable insights using artificial intelligence. In the retail space disruption is rife as market efficiencies through the likes of Uber, Airbnb, and newer companies like Twiga Foods and Copia push out traditional players.

World-class achievers

So, back to the stories I shared at the start of this piece. The most striking thing about them is not that Africans can be world-class achievers; rather that they are making waves out of the continent and not in it.

In fact, the infiltration of 4IR technologies through the market place is happening all over Africa through diffusion from industrialised countries, not by means of bilateral assistance or even World Bank loans and other traditional routes, but rather through foreign start-ups.

The upside is that the general populace stands to benefit from higher standards of living as a result, regardless of who owns these companies. But over time we need to develop our “national innovation systems” on the continent so that local investors understand and invest in local technology-based ideas, local universities teach in ways that stimulate a regular supply of great ideas, and government policies encourage rather than stymie such efforts.

How many Tony Githinjis, Washington Ochiengs, and Charles Mwangis are stuck in dead-end situations somewhere on the continent, forced to abort their God-given talents? Africa’s greatest resource is its people, and policies need to be designed and applied to reflect that.

Kamau Gachigi is chief executive officer of Gearbox.