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Opportunities and challenges for Africa in the next decade

Monday January 6 2020

By BITANGE NDEMO
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The decade of 2020s is here with us. It will be like no other. Many opportunities abound but few will exploit them. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) will change the face of the world. It will break language barriers, transform education with new pedagogies and disrupt the financial sector as well as media in ways we never anticipated in our lives.

It will solve many other problems in healthcare, agriculture and transportation.

There will also be challenges including infrastructural ones, cybersecurity, and gene editing. Machines will also become more intelligent than people, and there will be misinformation and polarisation by social media. 

COMPLEX WORLD

The world is simply becoming more complex, requiring new skills to deal with emerging challenges.

AI uses machine learning to solve many problems including language barriers. There are thousands of languages spoken across the world but only a few that are recognised.

Language, especially for poorer communities, is a basis for exclusion from economic advancements. However, that could change. AI will translate such languages by leveraging repetition, pattern recognition and build data bases to boost inclusivity.

Using technology to remove language barriers is a monumental achievement that will bring millions of people who have been hitherto discriminated into the global economy, enabling them to learn and participate in political and social transformation of their communities with full knowledge. 

New pedagogies such as adaptive learning will make education simpler and allow people to learn at their own pace.

DIGITAL MONEY

The global shift into digital currencies is inevitable. In spite of the push back by regulators, it is only a matter of time before the world transitions into new forms of currency that is compatible with emerging forms of enterprises.

With the expansion of e-commerce and increasing crime around cash, Central Banks will have no option but to issue their own stable coins to facilitate trade while at the same time cut cost on printed fiat currency.

The end of cash is nigh. This is the decade when Central Banks will come to the realisation that cash is a costly affair to banks and burdensome to governments trying to fight corruption and money laundering. 

Kenya, the foremost economy in utilisation of digital money, could lead the world into a cashless economy. The country has at least demonstrated that digital systems are safe. We have the opportunity to leapfrog into the future.

The benefits of a cashless economy are abundant, including effective circulation of money in the economy to unlock new opportunities and enabling banks with new opportunities for expansion while reducing administrative costs of cash.

Media consumers are under siege, with giant platforms after their eyeballs. Barely twenty years ago, we all watched local news.  There were no choices. If you didn’t have television, you listened to radio.

That era is no more. Families no longer congregate to watch or listen to anything. Music, games, movies and all manner of videos are being streamed for our attention.

Multiple devises in homes mean that some are playing games, others watching comedy or listening to music while mom and dad are fighting over whether to watch news or food network.

CONSEQUENCES

These changes have consequences. We may end up liking other people’s lifestyle over ours or liking their foods, clothing and films and forgetting that we have work to do as a people to produce our brands to aid our economy.

AI will help us provide better healthcare and make our agriculture more productive but we must build the capacity to apply this technology appropriately for our benefit.

In food and medicines, we should track and trace to end the menace of counterfeiting. Improve our predictive capability while building the culture of embracing technology to understand the future.

In my view, African regulators may not be up to speed with the emerging changes as well as the intentions of multinational tech companies. 

If they were, they would do something about infrastructural investments being made by tech companies. Soon, they will have monopoly of undersea cables and virtually all cloud services.

Some of the interventions they are making will take time to understand the monopoly power they are building.

TECH INFRASTRUCTURE

There is no secret that tech companies are building their own infrastructure across the world while at the same time perfecting their streaming platforms.

Interestingly, they are promising poor countries free broadband. This isn’t a good will gesture. Tech platforms, as noted earlier, want our eyeballs and the likelihood of gathering our data on what we need, how we need it and when we need it. Local media companies may be decimated.

They will also control the African narrative and effectively recolonise the continent.

I am glad though that transportation is undergoing the greatest transformation that could help reduce emission levels. From electric cars to micro mobility (scooters or personal electric scooters) transportation is changing.

CAPACITY BUILDING

Governments must keep up with access routes for new transport solutions. This may perhaps become the decade of transportation.

As they say, “No good deed goes without punishment.”

There are many challenges ahead, including cybersecurity as a result of increased digitisation, fake news to mislead vulnerable people, social media polarisation, audience fragmentation, designer human beings through gene editing and intelligent machines. 

All these will require capacity building to deal with future challenges.

The new decade promises to deal with many problems the world faces today but we need to also build enough capacity to leverage emerging technologies for better outcomes in the days to come.

The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.