Dr. Evans Woherem is the chairman of Digital Africa. In this exclusive interview with NKECHI ISAAC, he talks on the upcoming revolution and why it is important for Nigeria and Africa as a whole to build their capacities and invest in emerging technologies to be able to partake in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The excerpts.
Can you give us a brief background on Digital Africa?
It is an organization geared towards bridging the gap between Africa and the rest of the world with regard to Information Technology. Digital Africa started some 10 years ago by a group of individuals from different parts of Africa and the western world. We started this because we realise that the gap between Africa and the rest of the world with regard to IT is huge and given the importance of this technology as we move in the 21st century it is imperative that Africa should play a bigger role not only in terms of the use of this technology but also with regard to the development of this technology.
The Digital Africa exhibition and conference is one of the flagship projects of the organisation. You’ve had series of this event in the past, how has it influenced Africa?
Well, it has done things that are influential and have changed how we do things in Africa. When we started the march to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the march for the exponential technologies that are fuelling the revolution were not much recognized in Africa. We started talking about it and today they have become very topical issues even here in Africa. When we started talking about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the fact that they are going to become like electricity it was not so topical but today I believe everybody in Africa realizes the importance of this technology and the fact that we have to do something about it.
We come up with a report and communique after the meeting every year. We also come up with some goals and action points that should be implemented for the relevant stakeholders and key players. The fact that we have a Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy (FMoCDE) in our country shows there is also synergy with what we have been preaching for a very long time. We are saying that AI is important and for our economy to become a digital one is also important. However, our economy cannot become a digital one without efforts at making sure our country takes very important all exponential technologies including AI.
So, for that reason we believe we are making an impact. In countries like the UAE they have a ministry of Artificial Intelligence. They also have another ministry of possibilities. We believe we should also have a similar ministry – one that is there towards making sure that all kinds of new technologies, new ideas have a place where they can be properly looked into and used to develop the country one way or the other.
At the AU level, we’re making sure that the whole of Africa is connected because currently we have a situation where most African countries have an intra- connection within their own respective countries and not with other African countries and this should be changed to a situation where the whole of Africa is really interconnected and this can be brought to bear through the activities of the African Union. We have given these as goals and action points for the African Union.
The ninth edition of the conference and exhibitions is just a few days away with the theme building a new Africa using AI and Blockchain. Africa has missed out on previous revolutions and AI and blockchain play a big role in the upcoming revolution, do you think we are ready for these technologies and 4IR?
Definitely we feel Africa needs to embrace this new revolution and therefore needs to embrace the technologies that are fueling the revolution. Is Africa at par with the rest of the world, with Europe, UAE, Asia, America today in terms of preparedness? The answer is no but has Africa had what it takes to become part of it as quickly as possible if we are willing to do so, the answer is yes. We have youths, Africa today has the biggest number of population made up of youthful people and these technologies we are talking about are technologies of the future, technologies the youth even understand better, and since the continent has a huge population of youthful people, it goes to reason that Africa also is going to play a lot of role and that they are very aware of what is happening but the government still needs to do more to empower the youths and make sure they are skillful in these areas.
Of course, for us to truly be part of the 4IR, there’s a lot that need to happen in terms of planning, making sure we also carry out research in our unique areas. That being the case I believe the government needs to do a lot to make sure we are heavily involved in research and create centres across the whole of Africa to teach our people and enable them to practice bricolage to facilitate invention.
We have companies like IBM and Red Hat and countries like the USA, Japan, Canada, UAE investing heavily in AI, blockchain and technologies that come with the 4IR, how can we get investors to support emerging technologies in Africa?
You are right, a lot of these countries are investing heavily on emerging technologies despite the fact that they are well ahead of us even currently. We that are behind ought to be investing more heavily than all these other countries. In order words we ought to be running even faster than they do in order to catch up with them. That is not happening so far, even though we are making a level of progress, ICT now contributes almost 18 per cent to our GDP and this was achieved within 18 months, if we invest more it is going to be something more remarkable.
I am happy government is recognizing this sector to the point of creating a Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, which singularly aims to promote the concept of a digital economy. However, governments in Africa have to realise the importance of this technology in each of the respective countries in Africa and set targets on how to move forward. On a continental perspective there are things we need to do together which need to be spearheaded at the AU level. There has to be a concerted effort to say this is where Africa is today and this is where we want to take Africa in a truly digital path of the world. For us to do so these are action points and actual investments we need to make.
As I always say it is not only government that owes us development, we as individuals owe it to ourselves to train ourselves, master this technology and venture into new businesses and innovations that will help us to make progress. By doing so, we will be making contribution in terms of investment in time, money, expertise, skills and knowledge that will enable us pull Africa to the next level within which it would be almost at par with the rest of the world regarding what we are desiring.
Which sectors of the Nigerian economy can technologies such as AI and blockchain be deployed especially now we are looking at diversification of all sectors to contribute more to national GDP?
Well, AI which deals with technology that infuse technologies into themselves, those things done by humans which are called intelligent behaviours are transferred into machines, robots or any other thing with embedded technologies. So, today we have smart cities, smart health, education, transportation and so on. This means that AI technology, some sort of intelligence is being inputted in such things transforming the way they are able to do things. When you infuse this intelligence, you see in humans into machines they are called Artificial Intelligence.
Blockchain on the other hand is basically a new technology that has come to make sure that almost everything we put into a system can be organised into some sort of ledgers in such a manner that everybody that plays a role in that particular system is connected to it and every modification made is seen by every other person on the same system. So, that way it becomes very difficult for anybody to cheat, or do anything that is not permissible. So if that is the case, blockchain technology can go a long way to streamline how we do things in Africa, to streamline our civil service, organisations to make sure things are done in such a manner we can see properly, open board with objectivity. This can bring down corruption almost to zero position in a place like Africa and all our respective organizations.
This means that blockchain can be applied in the civil service, public sector and the private sector, which means it almost cuts across all the sectors of the economy. It is a promotia technology which can be used to do almost everything. So, it can be useful in almost all segments of our economy whether it is in agriculture, healthcare, transportation, mining and all others. We only need to identify which area we want to apply the technologies to get the maximum benefit for the country.
Won’t adopting these technologies lead to job losses, how do we balance this?
Not many people can tell you the exactitude of how it is going to be but we can only anticipate what is going to happen based on all the indices we’ve seen in the past. We can also make conjectures about what is going to happen in the future. In the past there’s always been this fear that technology will deskill and displace workers, but in the UK in the late 19 to 20th century there were people who felt technology was no good but their fears were unfounded because when technology deskills and displaces in one end it creates many more job at the other end. So net/net you find out more jobs were created than the ones that were taken away. That has been the case since we started adopting technology till date, technology deskills and displaces but it creates much more.
What can you say is the expected outcome of this year’s conference?
Well, digital Africa for this year 2021 as you rightly said is building a new Africa with AI and Blockchain. As I explained these two are very important, AI and Blockchain are some key components of exponential technology that are bringing about the 4IR, the ship of the revolution is already moving. It is taking most of the countries of the world to the era of 4IR and we’re saying Africa must make sure it becomes part of this train, not only as users but also as producers. Africa must industrialize. We have to wean ourselves of that curse of being only resource providers into becoming manufacturers and developers and ultimately an industrialized continent.
AI and blockchain are key components of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As a result of that we are going to make sure Africa understands that. We are also going to come up with some action plans that we can give to countries in Africa and the AU because we believe what needs to be done is not only at the country level but also at the AU level. So that at the end of the day Africa will know what it really needs to do at different levels to be part of the upcoming revolution.
More information on the upcoming Digital Africa conference and exhibition can be gotten from https://www.digitalafrica.com.ng