It was supposed to be Africa’s century. Then the robots arrived.
The dawning of the fourth industrial revolution offered African countries the opportunity to take advantage of technological gains, leapfrogging their developed counterparts. As China did at the end of the last century, Africa could have taken advantage of relatively cheap, semi-skilled labor in its youthful population, finally diversifying the continent’s economies into manufacturing and services as engines for growth.
Instead, everything African workers could have done, robots can do better and faster. Industrial robots and artificial intelligence are increasingly threatening manufacturing in emerging markets. Economist Dani Rodrik calls this missed opportunity “premature deindustrialization”.
Take Botswana, the landlocked country known for diamonds and political stability. It’s also estimated that 18.4% of youth are unemployed, with some estimates rising up to about a third of young people. In mining, the country’s largest sector, robots are already going to depths that humans simply cannot reach, and bringing up tennis-ball sized stones.
In the retail and manufacturing sector, unions are already beginning to fear the coming of robots. They may know how to negotiate working hours and pay scales, but admit they are utterly unprepared for robots on the shop floor. “There’s very little even unions can do,” said Dimpho Nyambe, the national organizing secretary for the Cashiers, Shop Assistants and Allied Workers Union in Botswana.