OPINION: What will it take for Africa to realise its undoubted potential?
JOHANNESBURG - What will it take for Africa to realise its undoubted potential? That is the question that continues to occupy the minds of many analysts and commentators.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the poorest regions in the world, with poverty and material deprivation commonplace. This is despite the fact that the continent has vast natural and human resources. Furthermore, the UN has warned: "The continent continues to suffer under very rapid urban growth accompanied by massive urban poverty and many other social problems.”
These issues seem to indicate that the development trajectories followed by African nations since post-independence may not be able to deliver on the aspirations of broad-based human development and prosperity for all.
Some have suggested that the continent has suffered because of a lack of authentic leadership, greed, and corruption. And indeed, there is ample evidence of bad leadership and poor governance on the continent. However, while it is easy to point the finger at government and leadership, we also need to highlight the role of ordinary Africans.
Each one of us can heed the call to leadership that our continent demands from us right now. We can all find ways to contribute to the future of this continent. The opportunities for business alone are vast including reducing poverty, increasing access to health, nutrition, accommodation, education and income-earning opportunities. In particular, we need to capitalise on the adoption of new technologies offered by the fourth industrial revolution to catch up with the rest of the world. Much of the world has made major progress when it comes to machine learning which has transformed the efficiency of public and private sector organisations alike. However, Africa has generally struggled to harness these cutting-edge technologies to improve public and private sector operations and boost economic growth.
Instead of reaching for these opportunities, we are wasting valuable time getting lost in anxiety about what these new technologies may bring. This is made worse by news peddlers who still profit from fearmongering. They spin narratives such as: “robots are taking over our jobs”, “there will be no vibrancy for our future workforce … unemployment will reach 130%... Standard Bank is run by robots already, and they have started closing branches… Do we still need MBAs or graduates at all?”
Yes, change should make us uncomfortable, but being uncomfortable is also useful to prod us to take action. These technologies can be the fuel that drives Africa’s growth in the coming years. For instance, imagine if South Africa, which has agriculture as a key industry, could increase its yields to ensure we don't need to import food? What decisions do we need to make differently, earlier, that can prevent loss or improve yield? That's what this technology called the Internet of Things can do for us if we harness and master it. Imagine what happens to our GDP if we are able to produce more with the same, to a point where our people are not left wanting. We would have more nourished souls, more jobs, and more exports even.
In a recent opinion piece, Olusegun Obasanjo and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf the former presidents of Nigeria and Liberia respectively; and Mcebisi Jonas SA’s former deputy finance minister, state that we need to move faster and be bolder to catch up and get ahead. “To create a competitive advantage, African countries must seek to differentiate themselves. Ghana and Rwanda have done this successfully, which is why they are so often cited as success stories. But like South East Asia has managed, we need to do this across our continent, and at scale,” they say.
Politicians, business, labour, and indeed individuals have a role to play in this regard. What should drive each one of us to get out of bed every morning is the desire to be part of the solution. Being part of the solution to a complex problem, no matter how small our contribution, can make a world of difference and can give our lives purpose.
If our current crisis of leadership is due in part to a lack of authenticity rather than a failing of technique, then purpose is the antidote. Authenticity and purpose go hand in hand. And as Kosheek Sewchurran, interim director of the UCT GSB points out: “When you are being authentic, there is direct agreement between what you are feeling and what you are doing and saying. You are also more deliberate about the actions you take. Authentic leaders don't allow hubris to cloud their judgement. They don't mislead or manipulate those around them. And they don't fiddle the books.”
As an African army of purposeful leaders that is uncomfortable with the status quo, we can achieve much, I believe. As one of my mentors, Nic Venter, always says, you get what you settle for. When you settle, that is what you have going forward, whatever was on the table. And right now what’s on the table is not good enough.
Let’s not settle for anything less than a vibrant and flourishing Africa where the quality of life of each citizen is high. Because for me the difference between jumping out of bed and getting out of bed is a purposeful life. I remain uncomfortable because I want to ensure that every little step I take, is one I meant to take.
Phathizwe Malinga is the managing director of South African Sigfox Internet of things (IoT) operator, SqwidNet. This piece is an adaptation of a keynote address at the UCT GSB Class of 2018 Graduation Ball in July.