The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) recently hosted a webinar unpacking how the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) can support the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
AfCFTA aims to create a single market for goods and services to deepen the economic integration of Africa with a combined gross domestic product of around $3.4 trillion. “Trade integration across the African continent has been limited by outdated border and transport infrastructure and differing regulations. Intra – African exports were only 16% of total exports in 2017, whereas the European countries are 68%, and intra – Asian countries around 60%”, said event facilitator, Peter Webb, Director at Technocad.
Why should we establish the AfCFTA? “The World Bank predicts that the agreement could lift an additional 30 million people from extreme poverty and 68 million people from moderate poverty while the volume of total exports would increase by almost 29%,” added Webb.
The need for accessible, less restrictive trading across Africa is evident, but how can engineers support this momentous initiative?
Engineers need 4IR skills
Edmund Nxumalo, Acting CEO at the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA), explained that ECSA has researched 4IR and its impact on engineering studies.” “We discovered that we need to include 4IR technologies into the engineering technology curriculum, including data analytics; big data; artificial intelligence; robotics; nanotechnology; additive manufacturing; and 3D printers.”
He called on CPD providers to offer 4IR courses to enhance the engineering profession. “ECSA will play the role of ‘Big Brother’ for Africa’s engineering professional board and is committed to ensuring that we [ECSA] continue to encourage professional bodies to consider the inclusion of 4IR.”
In putting 4IR to work, Shuaib Yunos, BIM Technical Specialist at Baker Baynes explained that 4IR technology aims to make our lives easier and solve complex problems faster and more accurately. He said: “The first step towards achieving 4IR and wielding it, is to digitise what you currently have in infrastructure. We must attach metadata to our infrastructure.”
For example, in terms of the recent flooding in KwaZulu-Natal, Yunos added that a digitalised map of the province could be used as a replica (digital twin) with plug-in technologies to assist in predicting and being more prepared for natural disasters. “The possibilities of 4IR are remarkable and will help us greatly as a country when dealing with pertinent issues related to natural disasters or mitigating their impact – flood routing analysis is possible; predicting the extent of floods is possible; and flagging areas as dangerous and being able to analyse whether we need to declare a state of disaster in a specific zone is possible. We can also determine how best to evacuate civilians using the safest and fastest route and avoiding certain danger zones. This technology can be applied to any scenario across Africa and is readily available.”
How will increased trade across Africa be funded?
“Our goal is to contribute towards improved quality of life for everyone in the continent”, said Nangamso Maponya, Principal Investment Banking and Project Finance Professional at the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA).
“To reduce the infrastructure gap in Africa, which is estimated to be $100 billion, infrastructure services need to be delivered faster and more efficiently using 4IR technologies. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the African continent because quality healthcare facilities and services were not readily available. Maponya added: “We couldn’t respond quickly during the pandemic because we take time in providing service delivery, so that infrastructure gap has continued to widen as a result.”
The DBSA has increased its focus on its information and communications technology mandate to ensure that technology is used across different sectors to deliver infrastructure faster. “We need to take a long-term view of the AfCFTA and accept that our investment will not have a quick return in some cases. We’ll have to build the capacity within Africa to reduce dependency on other regions.”
Maponya explained that traditionally the DBSA, like many other organisations, did not perceive 4IR technology as tangible infrastructure; however, over time, it recognised the role of technology in delivering infrastructure services to the people. “We’ve been involved with the development of smart cities. We’re working with municipalities across South Africa to understand and to further develop the concept of smart cities; and understand their requirements in terms of capacity with regard to skills and developing, operating and maintaining a smart city.”
Maponya highlighted the importance of 4IR in terms of AfCFTA: “If we’re still trading traditionally, if people are still going to spend hours at the borders or ports trying to move goods, then we are working against our aspirations. You won’t be able to move fast enough to get things done because it is one thing to produce, sell, and trade with one another but another thing to have systems that enable that. So, 4IR has a huge role in enabling the African Continental Free Trade Area.”
Tankiso Moloi, Professor of Accounting at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and Vice-Chair: AICPA-CIMA Africa Regional Advisory Panel, believes that for AfCFTA to succeed, there must be a political willingness from all countries across the continent. “It must make sense. If a country can produce goods or services better than we can, and cheaper than we can as South Africans – then let that country do what it is good at, and we focus on our strengths.”
“However, no one has a crystal ball to foresee the future, and the best indicator of the future, is the present. The success of AfCFTA belongs to those that can leverage the 4IR technologies to solve societal problems in Africa,” Prof. Moloi concluded.