Industrial revolutions, whether propelled by steam, assembly lines, or computers, have historically been slow to sweep the African continent. The era of Industry 4.0, clean energy, and artificial intelligence promises to be different—and it has the potential to unleash a surge of innovation that could transform industries and improve well-being across the region.
That’s because unlike previous waves of industrial change, competing in the digital age doesn’t require deep scientific expertise or massive capital investment. Instead, innovators and entrepreneurs in emerging markets are in a position to tap into flows of talent and digital knowledge and convert them into novel goods, services, and business models.
Granted, Africa still has a long way to go before it can take full advantage of the digital industrial revolution. Despite impressive progress over the past decade, in virtually every metric—from internet penetration to venture capital investment to skilled workforces to “ease of doing business” rankings—the continent as a whole lags behind the rest of the world in its capacity to widely deploy cutting-edge knowledge in fields such as artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and advanced robotics.
From the ground level, however, the view in parts of Africa is encouraging. Several global growth hot spots are emerging. Morocco’s 200-company automotive cluster, for example, is launching R&D initiatives linking manufacturers to universities. Nigerian startups have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in equity funding, and Kenya has emerged as a hotbed for fintech. South Africa’s dynamic health technology ecosystem includes more than 120 companies. Incubators, entrepreneurship training, and investment funds are making Egypt the region’s fastest-growing startup ecosystem.
The challenge is for African innovation leaders to scale up—and to spread the action beyond a handful of countries. That will require a big push from the region’s governments, working in collaboration with the private sector and academia.
Realizing the immense potential for innovation in Africa in the digital age will require each of its 54 nations to adopt a holistic approach that fits its own circumstances and needs. Each should articulate national innovation strategies in specific sectors, enact policies that will stimulate innovation activity, and strengthen the enablers of innovation, such as digital infrastructure, skills training, investment, public-private R&D partnerships, and a robust and welcoming business environment.
As a continent, Africa has been making steady progress in its digital maturity and in improving the key drivers of technological advancement and innovation. Internet access and mobile phone usage has grown dramatically, as has science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. From 2015 to 2020, the number of startups receiving venture capital funding in Africa soared around sevenfold. New public-private African innovation hubs anchored by some of the world’s leading technology companies are proliferating.
Still, the region lags in most important measures of innovation capacity. Although Africa has 18% of the world’s population, it accounts for only 0.3% of global R&D spending and 0.5% of patent applications. Trade statistics paint a picture of a relatively low-tech, low value-add region: Africa produces 0.4% of global high-technology exports and 0.8% of middle-technology exports, such as industrial machinery, autos, and chemicals. (See Exhibit 1.)
Regions with low per-capita GDPs tend to also rank low in such benchmarks as the Global Innovation
Even the progress Africa has achieved has been concentrated in a handful of nations: Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tunisia. These six countries account for half of all African mobile communication subscriptions, for example. Four nations receive around 85% of the continent’s venture capital investments and 70% of STEM graduates. South Africa, Egypt, and Morocco account for 70% of public R&D spending in Africa. By our analysis, only two nations—South Africa and Kenya—have comprehensive regulations related to innovation.
The good news is that workers in the region who are trained in the skills needed for fields like AI and advanced analytics are proving they can integrate seamlessly into global value chains. Freelance workers in such digital disciplines are in high demand, and the COVID-19 epidemic has made leading corporations far more receptive to remote work. This means that, for once, governments that invest in training can create jobs at home that will contribute to socioeconomic development and innovation in Africa—rather than a brain drain.
Given the region’s diverse markets, there is no uniform approach to building and nurturing an innovation-driven economy that will work in all of Africa. The most appropriate strategies and mixes of policies will depend on which types of innovators—such as MNCs, domestic companies, or startups—are being targeted. There are, however, three basic steps that African governments need to follow to activate their national innovation system: build a national innovation strategy, stimulate domestic innovation activity, and enable the new national innovation ecosystem. (See Exhibit 3.)
For nations to compete and prosper in the new globalization environment characterized by rapid geopolitical, technological, and societal change, governments can no longer rely on economic development paths championed in the 20th century, such as moving up the ladder of basic industries and export manufacturing. They need to set their sights on knowledge-intensive, innovation-driven fields that can create value well into the future. Governments should begin by taking two steps:
Nations that have successfully launched new innovation clusters have used a number of tools to stimulate innovation activity and attract foreign partners. African governments should consider the following measures:
Public-private partnerships with MNCs at the technological forefront of their fields can be particularly valuable in strengthening national innovation systems and enhancing connections with global ecosystems of partners. Morocco’s automotive cluster offers several good examples. In 2018, Renault established an R&D partnership with the Mohammadia School of Engineers in the automotive, energy, and environmental fields that included an academic chair and degree programs for hundreds of students. Groupe PSA, whose brands include Peugeot, Citroën, DS Automobiles, Opel, and Vauxhall, also opened a technical and R&D center in Tangier that employs more than 500 engineers and technicians and that has built relationships with nine Moroccan universities. A number of global technology giants also have been helping to develop innovation hubs in several African countries, including Rwanda, Ghana, and Nigeria.
Governments can also help local innovators by opening their markets to greater competition. And they should push local champions, such as powerful state enterprises or private monopolies, to develop their own innovation ecosystems for startups.
A well-designed policy framework can lay the ground for a thriving innovation economy. But governments—especially in developing economies such as those in Africa—must also play a lead role in driving the investments that are needed to build innovation capacity. Governments can leverage the success of leading-edge companies to support the development of innovation ecosystems by collaborating with the private sector in the following areas:
IBM Digital and the United Nations Development Programme, for example, have launched a free initiative that hopes to train 25 million African youths over five years in digital, cloud, and IT skills. South Africa has established mLab, a youth-focused, technology-enabled skills development program to promote startups, and has launched a training initiative for digital health workers. In Egypt, which has the fastest-growing startup ecosystem in the Middle East and North Africa region, entrepreneurship training is now a requirement in several public universities.
It’s key that governments adopt a holistic strategy that ensures coordination of skills programs with initiatives for attracting investment so that training opportunities are tailored to jobs being created. If the focus is digital media, for example, visual effect and animation modules might be required in some local STEM-related degrees. If e-commerce is targeted, broad digital literacy and customer service programs could be offered. To promote startup entrepreneurship, governments should ensure that there is a vibrant, international standard living environment that will attract and retain global talent.
Mobile money took off in Kenya, for example, after the partially state-owned telecom company Safaricom launched M-Pesa in 2007. Safaricom had raised funds from a UK Department for International Development program that supports public-private partnerships devoted to improving access to financial services. Among Egypt’s pro-innovation investment initiatives were the establishment of the $57 million Fintech Fund and the creation of a company with $30 million in capital to make direct and indirect investments in startups and small enterprises.
While there is no single strategy that can work across such a diverse region as Africa, the basic approach of defining national strategies, stimulating innovation activity, and enabling the new innovation system applies. Success will require collaboration among all actors in the innovation ecosystem: MNCs, academic institutions, investors, and local companies of all sizes, from small enterprises to national champions in the private and public sectors. The specific policy formula should vary according to each country’s level of economic maturity, existing innovation capacity, competitive strengths, market ambitions, investor demands, and national needs. Also, the policymaking and regulatory processes must remain agile enough to enable swift adjustment to technological change and the shifting dynamics of the global economy. As African nations continue to aggressively invest in their innovation capacity—and implement the right blend of strategies and policies—we believe the continent is poised to write a new chapter in its economic history. But Africa should move now, while there is still ample opportunity to get in on the ground floor with innovation cycles that are redefining the future.
The authors wish to thank Emna Bellagha and Reshma Jayaprabha for their contributions to this article.