A Fascinating Look into the 4th Industrial Revolution in Africa

On Thursday, April 18, the Center for African Studies hosted a dinner and talks for the event “Coffee, Tea, and IP”. (The event was co-sponsored in part by the International & Area Studies Library.) The theme of the two presentations, by Dr. Boatema Boateng and Dr. Chidi Oguamanam, was “Indigenous Knowledge, Intellectual Property, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Challenges and Opportunities for Africa”. The event began with a delicious catered meal and warm discussion, and the attendees gathered with their food to listen to the two speakers.

Adeyinka Alasafe, the Outreach Coordinator with the Center for African Studies, began her introduction with the inequality of the agriculture industries in Africa, explaining that while coffee from Ethiopia is renowned worldwide for its excellence and sells for expensive prices, hardly any of this money and acclaim goes back to the actual coffee growers. The cultivation of tea has followed a similar historical path, being a part of the reason for the establishment of the Silk Road, as well as colonial tea plantations in places such as East Africa and South Carolina. These crops are staples across the globe, but Western imperial powers and modern industries have subjected the indigenous peoples who grow it and cherish it as a part of their cultural heritages and medicinal practices to the “colonization of agriculture”. Considering this past, and the present inequalities that continue to harm indigenous peoples and communities, we must consider: what does colonial agriculture look like under modern capitalism? And as what place could and should African indigenous knowledge and intellectual property take in the current Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Dr. Boatema Boateng explored this history and the modern state of African economies in her presentation, beginning with a deep-dive into IP and patent law. She noted that previous to World War II, the United States was far more likely to disregard or break the IP policies of other nations rather than respect them. Scholars have put forth the idea that piracy is a stage of the United States’ economic development. The United States’ history of piracy should not be ignored or dismissed as we move forward into new economic waters and discussions of IP rights, because this pattern continues to the present day.

In the First Industrial Revolution, Africans and Africa were treated as resources. Slavery was a strong economic establishment, and colonization and the “Scramble for Africa” cut up the continent and her peoples in waves of genocide and imperial evil. This era was characterized by the widespread theft of raw materials from Africa and African peoples.

The Second Industrial Revolution marked a shift to electrical power the transition to democracy. In Africa there were high hopes and ambitions, but also many severe challenges as a result of centuries of subjugation and restriction from economic sovereignty. In what Dr. Boateng called a “sinister turn”, African nations turned away from attempts to reach self-sufficiency in favor of “competitive advantage” and the exportation of raw materials. The dependence of African nations on Western purchase of raw materials has carried through subsequent revolutions to the present day.

The Third Industrial Revolution centered on the emergence of digital technology as the most important industry, and information as the greatest commodity. New questions for IP and patent law arose alongside the Internet, and the adoption of digital banking and mobile money apps characterized new economic flows in Africa and beyond. In thinking about these changes, Dr. Boateng asks us: Who designs the technology? Who has the power and control? How are white, colonial, male, privileged perspectives and biases built into technology and our economic reality?

Dr. Boateng points to both global inequality and the failure of African political leaders to plan for the future as Africa’s great obstacles to economic development. She noted that others have states that, for example, “Ghana is back to the Gold Coast” — meaning that Ghana has returned to economic dependency upon exporting raw materials to Western nations. In addition to exporting valuable materials, African nations have become dumping grounds for the toxic waste of global industries, such as with fast fashion and electronics.

Due to this historical and current cycle of economic disruption and dependence, Dr. Boateng expressed apprehension about the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for African nations. She sees the same potential for harm to indigenous peoples and knowledges as in previous “revolutions”, and wonders whether we can break this pattern and inequality. She posits that in order for Africans and African nations to push their ambition, they must innovate with indigenous knowledge, take control over their data sovereignty, and protect their intellectual heritage.

Dr. Chidi Oguamanam focused more on the technological and scientific sides of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in his presentation, framing the “4IR” as a time of rapid and destructive transformations that focus on a digital revolution. This revolution is one that we are watching unfold in real time, with massive developments in computing possibilities, data science, and AI and machine learning. These technologies are marked by the “melding of knowledge and disciplinary boundaries”, as digital tech fuses with music, art, theater, food, sciences, and other fields to create new knowledge. This development presents the scary potential for “massive decimation” of traditional knowledge through cultural appropriation.

He also explored more closely the concept of “virualization” and papers that have been written about data and traditional knowledge, as well as Africa’s STI (Science, Technology, and Innovation) Framework. He notes that when building this framework, the faith in Western technology was so strong that African nations did not consider the possibilities of innovation with traditional knowledge. Now, the African Union still focuses on Western strategies and indigenous knowledge is “at most, peripheral”. In addition, only a few nations even have official STI and/or 4IR policies.

Dr. Oguamanam also dicussed the fascinating concept of the “bioeconomy” or “biotechonomy”, which is the intersection of life sciences and traditional knowledge in areas such as climate change, food, genetics, et cetera. In this biotechonomy, data has become the “new oil”, as the raw material for the intersection of science and tech. Data is a vastly valuable commodity and contested resource. When you are collecting data about people, communities, or climates, who owns that data? Who profits from it? Who is excluded from the profits? A central concern for indigenous communities must be the ability and legal right to control their own data.

Dr. Oguamanam also discussed the complexities of digitizing traditional knowledge, including asking the question: how do you digitize sacred and secret knowledge? Should it be digitized? Digitization efforts can be, according to Dr. Oguamanam, a “landmine for appropriation”, and present unique difficulties. From even the basic perspective of cost and infrastructure, the actual digitization process meets barriers at every turn. Who is paying for it, with what equipment, and who is doing the work? From a logistical standpoint, it is unclear where even to start with Africa’s vast number of cultures, traditions, and knowledge systems.

Dr. Oguamanam narrowed down his expansive presentation to a central point: It is imperative to rethink STI strategy in Africa across all fields and focus on TK in medicine, science, arts and music, etc. For Africa to compete in the 4IR, there is a lot of work and innovation to be done, and a shift in perspective is necessary.

In the following discussion session, Drs. Boateng and Oguamanam delved more deeply into questions on sustainability, ambition vs. “potential”, infrastructure, and education. It was a fascinating conclusion to a wonderful event!

If you would like to learn more about this topic, try checking out these resources:

Library Books

Landry Signé. 2023. Africa’s Fourth Industrial Revolution. (Online resource).

Wilma Viviers, Ali Parry, and Susara J. Jansen Van Rensburg, editors. 2021. Africa’s Digital Future: from theory to action. (Online resource).

David Mhlanga and Emmanuel Ndhlovu. 2023. The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa: Exploring the Development Implications of Smart Technologies in Africa. (Online resource).

Everisto Benyera. 2021. The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Recolonisation of Africa: the coloniality of data. (Online resource).

Library Articles

Alabi, Adefunke O., and Stephen M. Mutula. 2022. “Human Development for the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Which Way for Sub-Saharan Africa?” Development Southern Africa 39 (4): 528–42. doi:10.1080/0376835X.2022.2098090.

Magagula, M.M., and O.A. Awodiji. 2024. “The Implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on Technical and Vocational Education and Training in South Africa.” Social Sciences and Humanities Open 10 (January). doi:10.1016/j.ssaho.2024.100896.

Malapane, Tshepo Alex. 2019. “An Application of Data Mining in the Fourth Industrial Revolution – A Case of South Africa.” 2019 Systems and Information Engineering Design Symposium (SIEDS), Systems and Information Engineering Design Symposium (SIEDS), 2019, April, 1–6. doi:10.1109/SIEDS.2019.8735627.

Metu, Amaka Getrude, Chekwube Vitus Madichie, Chris Ulua Kalu, and Geraldine Ejiaka Nzeribe. 2020. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Role of Education.” Journal of African Development 21 (1): 116–37. doi:10.5325/jafrideve.21.1.0116.

Nwosu, Lilian Ifunanya, Makuena Clementina Bereng, Tlotlo Segotso, and Ngozi Blessing Enebe. 2023. “Fourth Industrial Revolution Tools to Enhance the Growth and Development of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Institutions: A Systematic Literature Review in South Africa.” Research in Social Sciences and Technology 8 (1): 51–62.

Oki, Olukayode Ayodele, Chinaza Uleanya, and Sesona Fikisi. 2024. “Adaptation to the Fourth Industrial Revolution among Generation Y in Rural Africa.” Africa Review 16 (2): 136–55. doi:10.1163/09744061-bja10088.

Ssekitoleko, Patrick, and Shepherd Dhliwayo. 2023. “Elevating South Africa’s Entrepreneurial Activity in the Fourth Industrial Revolution Era.” Administrative Sciences (2076-3387) 13 (9): 195. doi:10.3390/admsci13090195.

van Vuuren, J.C Jansen, and A Jansen van Vuuren. 2022. “Preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution : Recommendations to Adapt Cyber Security Governance and Skills in South Africa.” Journal of Information Warfare 21 (1): 71–90.

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