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Turning challenges into opportunities: Africa’s industrial development in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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When world leaders gathered in New York for the 70th session of the General Assembly in 2016, and proclaimed the period 2016-2025 as the Third Industrial Development Decade for Africa (IDDA III), it reaffirmed the importance of industrialization in supporting Africa’s own efforts towards sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and accelerated development. Since the launch of this Decade, and the call for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), to develop, operationalize and lead the implementation of IDDA III together with our partners, the African Union Commission, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the Economic Commission for Africa, much has evolved in the region.

The continent’s collective GDP is expected to stand at $2.6 trillion, and consumer spending estimated at $1.4 trillion in 2020, with 50 per cent of Africans living in cities by 2030. These figures show the astounding prospects for a continent that is the most youthful. Digital transformation is also growing – the World Bank has estimated that digital transformation will increase growth in Africa by nearly 2 percentage points per year and reduce poverty by nearly one percentage point in Sub-Saharan Africa. The potential of digital technologies for socio-economic development is being taken up and has led to many technology-based start-ups and tech hubs in Africa.[1] The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the largest free trade area in terms of participating countries, is expected to lead to greater exports, higher value-addition in manufacturing and services, and to bring about a more diversified intra-African trade opportunity for the continent with benefits spilling over to small and medium-sized enterprises in Africa.

Despite growth rates in Africa still not having reached the 7 per cent that would be required to pull the continent’s populations out of poverty, optimism for Africa has not diminished. Extreme poverty in Africa has started to decline, and it is anticipated that if the trend continues, the number of Africans living in extreme poverty will reduce by 45 million by 2030.

The rapid deployment of advanced technologies through the Fourth Industrial Revolution provides a window of opportunity to help transform the landscape of manufacturing in Africa.

At the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), we believe that it is crucial for Africa to be prepared to address its digitalization challenges and to seize the opportunities brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution in pursuing inclusive and sustainable industrial development (ISID) to attain the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Sustainable Development Goals.

The UNIDO Industrial Development Report 2020, a forthcoming flagshippublication on the Fourth Industrial Revolution,to be launched in November this year will show that advanced digital production technologies applied to manufacturing production offer huge potential to advance economic growth and human well-being whilst safeguarding the environment. This study taps into existing knowledge on the priorities for digitalization for Africa and highlights a two-pronged approach for manufacturing to remain a valid and feasible development path: one of which refers to the need for Africa to enhance readiness for the more digital future, whilst building industry capabilities, through improved access to broadband and developing technical skills and technology hubs.[2]

The limitation in basic infrastructure, including access to clean, reliable and affordable energy, human capacities and skills will need to be addressed.Autonomous systems in manufacturing are likely to bring about higher demand for human capital qualified in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Such growing demand polarizes the labour force by increasing the share of employment in high-wage jobs and decreasing the share of employment in middle-or-low wage jobs.[3] It can deprive Africa of job opportunities, where low-paid jobs are concentrated and human capital with strong digital skills is in shortage. Due to the lack of access to new technologies, knowledge, information, and infrastructure, the technology and skill gaps between Africa and developed countries could be widened with the rapid onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, potentially implicating local small and medium-sized enterprises that will also require more support in technological training and enterprise innovation to be competitive in the global market.

UNIDO will aim to support its Member States in Africa to transform into “more diversified knowledge-based economies” through cooperation in technology transfer, innovation, and infrastructure development.[4] We will further leverage on our ongoing Programme for Country Partnership (PCP) to mobilize resources for inclusive and sustainable industrial development. This includes supporting the development of necessary physical information and communications technology infrastructure, which is pivotal for the digitalization requirements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

As we support the development of Africa’s industrial base, working in collaboration with our partners in the United Nations development system, such as FAO, ILO, ITC, UNCTAD andUNEP, we will continue to support the creation of green and decent jobs through initiatives such as the Green Job Programme. Drawing on our knowledge base and expertise in industrial development, there is scope to further explore the application of digital technology and mini-grids to support clean, reliable and affordable electricity access in Africa, which will not only serve electricity demand for households as well as for productive use.

We will also learn from our experiences in digital learning platforms to support human capital development. In Southern Africa, UNIDO and the Government of Finland have piloted programmes in virtual reality training, which are being replicated in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. By using mobile 3D teaching platforms, virtual reality is helping forestry students learn to operate chainsaws in a safe environment. In Liberia, UNIDO, with the support of the Government of Japan and in partnership with the Japanese company Komatsu, has deployed connected technology and innovation in its production facilities, which has enabled labour market-oriented training programmes in excavator operation and basic service training to be provided, particularly for youth and women.

As world leaders gather in New York again for the General Debate of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, alongside the historic SDG Summit, to take stock of where we are and what we need to do to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UNIDO together with its key development partners, the African Union Commission, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the African Development Bank, the AfroChampions Initiative, the African Export-Import Bank and the International Telecommunications Union will leverage its partnership to support innovation and infrastructure development in Africa.


[1] UNIDO (2017). Accelerating clean energy through Industry 4.0: manufacturing the next revolution. Nagasawa, T., Pillay, C., Beier, G., Fritzsche, K., Pougel, F., Takama, T., The, K., Bobashev, I. A report of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Vienna, Austria.

[2]Banga, Karishma, and Dirk Willem te Velde. 2018a. “Digitalisation and the Future of Manufacturing in Africa.” Overseas Development Institute and UKaid. https://technologyatwork.itcilo.org/digitalisation-and-the-future-of-manufacturing-in-africa/.

[3] IDDA III 4IR Concept Note, page 3

[4] IDDA III 4IR Concept Note, page 5


LI Yong, Director General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), has had an extensive career as a senior economic and financial policy-maker. As Vice-Minister of Finance of the People’s Republic of China and member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Central Bank for a decade, Mr. Li was involved in setting and harmonizing fiscal, monetary and industrial policies, and in supporting sound economic growth in China. He pushed forward financial sector reform, and prompted major financial institutions to establish corporate governance, deal with toxic assets and strengthen risk management. Mr. Li gave great importance to fiscal and financial measures in favor of agricultural development and SMEs, the cornerstones for creating economic opportunities, reducing poverty and promoting gender equality. He played a key role in China’s cooperation with multilateral development organizations, such as the World Bank Group and the Asian Development Bank.

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Africa

‘Full scale’ humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia’s Tigray

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Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

A “full-scale humanitarian crisis” is unfolding as thousands of refugees flee ongoing fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region each day to seek safety in eastern Sudan, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported on Tuesday. 

More than 27,000 have now crossed into Sudan through crossing points in Kassala and Gedaref states, as well as a new location further south at Aderafi, where Ethiopian refugees started crossing over the weekend, according to UNHCR

The scale of the influx is the worst that part of the country has seen in over 20 years, according to the agency. 

“Women, men and children have been crossing the border at the rate of 4,000 per day since 10 November, rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground,” said Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesperson, briefing reporters in Geneva. 

“Refugees fleeing the fighting continue to arrive exhausted from the long trek to safety, with few belongings”, he added. 

According to news reports, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has indicated the military operation that was launched in response to the reported occupation of a Government military base by Tigrayan forces nearly two weeks ago, would continue, although he said it was now in its “final phase”.  

‘Needs continue to grow’ 

UN agencies, along with relief partners have ramped up assistance – delivering food rations, hot meals and clean water, as well as setting up latrines and temporary shelters. They are also supporting the Sudanese Government in its response. But the needs continue to grow.  

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is also supporting other humanitarian workers in its response, providing fuel for vehicles and generators in remote locations. The UN Humanitarian Air Service, managed by WFP, has also increased flights from three times per week to daily flights for aid workers. 

Since Saturday, UNHCR has relocated 2,500 refugees from the border to Um Raquba settlement site, in eastern Sudan. There is however, a “critical need” to identify more sites so that refugees can be relocated away from the border and can access assistance and services, said Mr. Baloch. 

UNHCR has also issued an emergency fundraising appeal, through which people can help provide urgent, lifesaving assistance to refugees. Click here to make a donation

‘On standby’ in Tigray 

Meanwhile in the Tigray region of Ethiopia itself, lack of electricity, telecommunications, fuel and cash, continue to severely hamper any humanitarian response, the UNHCR spokesperson said.  

“After nearly two weeks of conflict, reports of larger numbers of internally displaced grow daily, while the lack of access to those in need, coupled with the inability to move in goods to the region, remain major impediments to providing assistance,” he said. 

UNHCR and partners are on standby to provide assistance to the displaced in Tigray, including basic items, when access and security allow. 

The conflict is also a major ongoing concern for the Eritrean refugee population of nearly 100,000 in Tigray, who are reliant on assistance from UNHCR and partners.  

“Potential for further displacement of refugees inside the country is increasingly a real possibility … The humanitarian situation as result of this crisis is growing rapidly” he warned, reiterating UNCHR’s call for peace and urge all parties to respect the safety and security for all civilians in Tigray.

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Russia to Build Naval Facility in Sudan

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Emerging from the first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi a year ago, Russia will make one huge stride by establishing a naval facility in Sudan. This marks its maritime security presence in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea region. Sharing a northern border with Egypt, Sudan is located on the same strategic coastline along the Red Sea.

According to the executive order, the published document says “the proposal from the government of the Russian Federation to sign an agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Sudan on creating a facility of the Navy of the Russian Federation in the territory of the Republic of Sudan be adopted.”

It also authorizes “the Defense Ministry of Russia to sign the aforementioned agreement on behalf of the Russian Federation.” The document stipulates that a maximum of four warships may stay at the naval logistics base, including “naval ships with the nuclear propulsion system on condition of observing nuclear and environmental safety norms.”

Earlier, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin approved the draft agreement on establishing a naval logistics base in Sudan and gave instructions to submit the proposal to the president for signing. The draft agreement on the naval logistics facility was submitted by Russia’s Defense Ministry, approved by the Foreign Ministry, the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee of Russia and preliminary agreed with the Sudanese side.

As the draft agreement says, the Russian Navy’s logistics facility in Sudan “meets the goals of maintaining peace and stability in the region, is defensive and is not aimed against other countries.”

The signing of the document by the Russia president shows the positive results of negotiations, the possibility of constructing a naval base in the region, over the years with African countries along the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean.

During a visit by then-President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir to Moscow in November 2017, agreements were reached on Russia’s assistance in modernizing the Sudanese armed forces. Khartoum also said at the time it was interested in discussing the issue of using Red Sea bases with Moscow.

On the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Russia had a naval base in Somalia during the Soviet days. Currently, Djibouti hosts Chinese and American naval bases. China’s military base in Djibouti was set up to support five mission areas. India is another Asian nation that has increased its naval presence in Africa. In order to protect its commercial sea-lanes from piracy, it has established a network of military facilities across the Indian Ocean.

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Will South Sudan follow its northern neighbour’s lead?

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As the world watches to see whether President Trump accepts the US election results, few have noticed thatcivil war is looming in Ethiopia, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he was sending troops to the Tigray province. This imperils not only Africa’s second most populous state but its neighbours, Sudan and South Sudan, as well.

Sudan has had a good run recently and is in a better position to weather any regional conflict. In a surprise movelast month, President Trump announced Sudan’s removal from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SST)in exchange for normalising relations with Israel. The US is understood to have sweetened the deal with a raft of economic and political incentives, including humanitarian assistance and high-level trade delegations. It would also support Sudan in its discussions with international finance institutions on economic and debt relief.

Since the toppling of President Bashir in 2019, the new transitional government, led by Prime Minister Hamdok, has focused on reviving Sudan’s economy and managing its $60bn debt burden. Hamdok faces a severe economic crisis, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, high inflation and the worst flooding in decades, that has affected more than 800,000 people and destroyed homes and large tracts of farmland just before the harvest. Food, bread and medicine are in short supply.

Thesanctions removal means that Sudan can now expect substantial assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bankand unlock investment into its fledgling economy.

This is good news for Sudan. But where does it leave its neighbour, South Sudan?

The international community had high hopes for South Sudan when it announced independence in 2011. But its optimism was misplaced. It never understood the Sudanese conflict that began with British colonialism and erupted after the British left in 1956. It wasn’t just a war between the Government of Sudan and the southern Sudanese rebels. Nor was it a fight between the Islamic North and the Christian South. It was a fight over resources and power.

South Sudan continues to fight. After its first post-independence civil war in 2013 and its endless cycle of violence and retribution, South Sudan is now as unstable as it was before it seceded from Sudan. To accommodate the different factions and keep old military men in power, the South Sudanese government and bureaucracy is peopled with those loyal to the former rebels.

Few have the skills needed to manage the country properly. They have squandered their oil opportunity, through mismanagement and corruption. With falling oil growth demand, oil is unlikely to remaina sustainable revenue source. This will challenge the South Sudanese economy which is 90% reliant on oil.

South Sudan is also facing multiple sanctions. In 2014, the international communityimposed travel bans and asset freezes, as well as an arms embargo. In 2018, the EU designated sanctions against individuals involved in serious human rights violations, alarmed  by “the outbreak of a destructive conflict between the Government of South Sudan and opposition forces in December 2013.” Most recently, the US added First Vice President of South Sudan, Taban Deng Gai to its Global Magnitsky sanctions list for his involvement in the disappearance and deaths of human rights lawyer Samuel Dong Luak and SPLM-IO member Aggrey Idry.

If US foreign policy towards Sudan was driven by religious and ideological interests in the 1990s and 2000s, what we are now seeing is a shift to transactional diplomacy. There is no reason to think that President Biden would change course.

South Sudan is watching closely. It may be why it has instructed a US lobbying  firm to allegedly lobby for their own sanctions removal. It is also why it welcomed a peace deal between Sudan and five rebel groups in September, paving the way for increased oil export cooperation with its neighbour. 

But stability in the youngest African state is fragile. Even with a recently signed peace agreement between former foes, President Kiir and Vice-President Machar, violence is always lurking. South Sudan is plagued with the same environmental challenges of flooding and poor harvests.  The fighting in Ethiopia will not help. 

As South Sudan looks to the North, it will see a New Sudan, unshackled by the weight of its history and benefitting from international goodwill. Will this encourage South Sudan to look forward instead of back? Or will it unleash demons from the past? 

Let’s hope that the international community pulls itself away from Trump’s horror show and starts paying attention to East Africa. It may be a long winter.

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