The future is digital and nigh – SADC Ministerial meeting

Industry 4.0

Clemence is a 45-year old successful livestock farmer in rural countryside of Chipinge, in Zimbabwe. He is a family man with six children, 3 boys and 3 girls, all of them going through primary school. In the past two decades, Clemence has seen enough change in technology for a whole life-time, starting from a time where one had to batter trade a cow for a mobile phone SIM card to now, where the same card costs less than USD 1. Now he does not have to write letters but send text messages. Even transportation has become easy and individuals can bank money wherever they are and whenever they want. Computer science has even been introduced at primary school level. 

The benefits of science in society and the promise it brings have been changed people’s lives in ways that were once hard to even image. It is no secret that developing countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have seen rapid growth in mobile phone subscriptions since the onset of the millennium, as evident from World Development Indicators data which shows that mobile phone subscriptions grew at an average annual rate of 954 percent in South Asia and 208 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. 

It is on this background that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Ministers responsible for Education and Training and Science Technology and Innovation on 20 June 2018 held a Ministerial Policy Dialogue at Zimbali Resort in Durban, South Africa, to deliberate on the position of SADC in relation to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But, what exactly is digitalisation? It is the integration of digital technologies into everyday life from physical form to the digital form. To help to unpack the concept, the ministers had an informative presentation from the former Director of Square Kilometre Array (SKA), Dr. Bernie Fanaroff, with the theme “Digitization and Industry 4.0 Implications for Science Technology and Innovation and Skills Development”.

“The effects of technology are gradually beginning to transform the world and bringing new experiences to humankind. Since technology development is fast while policy making takes long, the SADC region should as much as possible let policy follow the experience of projects. If we let projects respond to policy we, we may miss the boat of the Industry 4.0,” he advised.

Speaking on the application of digitalisation and big data and its impact on agriculture and health, NEPAD SANBio Network Manager Dr Ereck Chakauya is convinced that the future is nigh. “Imagine being able to understand how the human genetics and environment interact to shape how we respond to diseases and environment,” he said.

“What if we would be able to get bioinformatics data of disease pathogens, and design drugs specific for each individual? Maybe in the future it would be possible for the farmer to take a picture of damage on their plants and upload it online and get information on what damage it is, what pest it is and how to treat it. All this is possible through the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning,” he continued.

Some of AI advances around the SADC health sector include the world’s leading drone delivery start-up Zipline in Tanzania. The company delivers not only blood packs, but also vaccines, HIV medications, anti-malaria drugs, and critical medical supplies like sutures and IV tubes to more than 1000 health care facilities around Tanzania, bringing urgently needed medicines and supplies to hospitals and rural clinics.

Still, in the end, it seems the region still has huddles to cross for universal access the benefits of digitalisation. The ministers noted that there is lack of information on the current status of digitalization in terms of strengths, weakness challenges and opportunities; investment into science technology and innovation is still inadequate in the SADC countries, coupled by inadequate sharing of information and experiences on digitalization and STI. There is need for IT infrastructure particularly in the rural areas and involvement of private sector. Most importantly, the ministers were unanimously agreed on the weak or absence of policy and legal frameworks for STIs; and need for recognition of the role of informal sector in in the Industry 4.0. 

“The digital revolution is so powerful that even if oxygen and blood circulation may be necessary for survival of human beings, they may not be adequate for life. Considering the demographic dividend of the mother continent, there is no doubt that Africa can feed and nourish its children, thanks to the universal nature of the power of digitalisation,” Dr Chakauya concludes.