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Will the 21st Century Be African? Part 3 – Uses of Technology

December 12, 2018



This is the third in a series of blogs on the factors that might make Africa the most important continent by the end of this century. In this blog we look at the ways in which technology could help Africa to match its population growth with economic and social progress.

By the end of the 21st Century, Africa’s population is projected to be over 4.1 billion (today it is 1.2 billion).  It will be the most populous continent on earth.  By 2050, the African population will be 2.4 billion, and, more strikingly, one third of the world’s youth population will be African, according to a report prepared for the EU Institute for Security Studies (ISS). This growth will be greatest in West, Central and East Africa.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a global phenomenon involving the rapid evolution and (importantly) the interaction between new technologies including: big data, artificial intelligence (AI), computing, connectivity, robotics, genetics, biotech, nanotech, and sustainable energy generation and storage.

In this blog, rather than simply rehash what has been written many times before about the huge potential of these technologies, we identify how some of them might work in a specifically African context, help to address some specifically African problems, and help to bring about an African transformation in this century.

Smart megacities

In the previous blog we described how the population surge would mean that Africa was projected to have 13 of the world’s biggest 20 megacities by the end of the century, including the three biggest: Lagos, Kinshasa and Dar-es-Salaam.  It is likely that those cities will grow in a chaotic, sprawling and largely unplanned way, as was the case with many of the megacities of the 20th century.  Technology will be critical in determining how well these cities can function, and their effectiveness in fostering African economic growth and competitiveness.  Key challenges will be:

  • Reliable energy supplies – probably based on renewable, locally generated and stored power
  • Reliable connectivity – a 5G infrastructure will be critical to Africa’s success
  • Reliable transportation and distribution networks – using clean vehicles, a sharing infrastructure and extensive use of drones to mitigate the inevitable road congestion
  • Access to education and health care – using mobile technology and AI to make these services more accessible and more economical
  • Improving public health and hygiene – using advances in biotech to help with the task of purifying water and genetech to combat insects and other pests that spread disease
  • A thriving business environment – based on property law, with verifiable and enforceable rights
  • Resilience – the capacity to guard against, and mitigate natural and other shocks

Below are some specific examples, but before looking at these, it is important to recognise that Africa’s success or failure: whether Africa emerges as a global leader over the century, or remains subject to the greater economic power of others, will depend crucially on the extent to which it is able to harness the technologies of the 4th Industrial Revolution both to tackle existing economic, social and environmental challenges, and to build strength, resilience and self-sufficiency for the future.


But turning to the positives, in Rwanda only a just over a third of households has access to mains electricity.  Although Rwanda has useful natural resources – it derives 56% of its electricity from hydro – it would have major physical and geographical problems in building a traditional national grid, given the mountainous and often sparsely populated nature of the country.  Instead, Rwanda aims to deliver off-grid electricity to a further 22% of households using thermal, methane, peat and solar energy.  And as the price of generation and storage falls, it will progress further.  Energy without a grid will be more resilient, easier to repair and maintain, and better suited to Rwanda’s geography.  It will also be cleaner and more sustainable.


Just as Rwanda has the potential to “jump the shark” by building an electricity infrastructure that does not depend on a national grid, so the opportunity exists to take health care and education to people without the need for an expensive physical health infrastructure.  80% of sight loss is avoidable.  Andrew Bastawrous, CEO and co-founder of Peek Vision, has established in Kenya, where he lives, a system that allows state of the art eye screening to be available to a poor and widely dispersed rural population via smartphones, carried by health care workers on bicycles and recharged by the use of solar rucksacks. Test results can be sent to central collection and analysis points and results communicated back to people and their families.  This could apply equally well in Africa’s teeming megacities of the future.  In addition, the ability to pinpoint those who need help, and link to local leaders is a vital tool with potentially wider adaptation for both health and education.


Genetics & Biotech

Turning to the application of genetics, throughout Africa, sleeping sickness, which is spread by the tsetse fly, has in the last century killed hundreds of thousands of people, and 70 million people are at risk of the illness.  The genome of the tsetse fly was successfully mapped by a coalition of Western Universities in 2014, and now scientists are using that genetic information to reduce or eliminate the spread of the disease. The aim is to eliminate sleeping sickness as a problem in parts of Africa as early as 2020, and transfer knowledge and establish research programmes in Africa itself to allow Africa to lead the fight.  In the same way, companies are now bringing to market new biological treatments to purify water more effectively and more cheaply than ever before.


In a later blog we will look at the economic drivers of change in Africa.  In the context of this one, it is important to recognise the potential value of blockchain technology in helping to establish effective and enforceable property rights, and facilitating online access to finance and commercial activities – such as retail and peer-to-peer lending.  The big Corporations are already starting to investigate the opportunities.  The Blockchain Africa Conference is now an annual event.  But African actors as well as international corporations are entering the lists.  As Africa moves into the future in technology, blockchain represents a decentralized and largely incorruptible ‘truth engine’, and has the potential both to facilitate easier payments, promote SME business, and mitigate a number of identity management and transactional problems that have bedevilled Africa.


These examples all provide grounds for optimism that Africa can overcome the challenges, and seize the opportunities of the continent’s rapid growth in this century.  But, inevitably, there are risks inherent in technology that could move things onto an altogether less happy trajectory:

  • Technology may exclude and/or exploit those who need it the most – the poor, women and girls, people migrating to the megacities in search of a future
  • Technology opens up greater opportunities for crime, in particular cyber fraud and theft – hence the importance of blockchain as a defence against this
  • It may also become more an instrument of war and insurgency – intensifying internecine conflict, and exploited by powerful elites to bolster their dominance
  • Genetic and biotech experiments may go wrong – for example attempts to use genetics to “modify” the malarial anopheles mosquito might backfire, and lead to more dangerous and resilient strains of the insect
  • Megacities could become choked by unplanned developments and traffic, and choked by toxic air and water, as well as sinks of crime and human exploitation.The putative cities of 70- and 80-million are an unprecedented experiment in human society

And of course, the effects of global warming, and other environmental catastrophes, such as regional water and food shortages, could throw Africa’s development off course, and towards the negatives listed above.  In our next blog we will look at the environmental drivers of change, and the massive challenges Africa will wrestle with, as it grows.

Written by David Lye, SAMI Fellow and Director and Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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