Why Zambia Should Embrace The Fourth Industrial Revolution

South Africa will this week host the tenth BRICS Summit in Durban, Africa’s biggest and busiest port. The BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – represent the world’s leading emerging economies.

Africa’s development will be front and centre of the summit’s agenda as it focuses on “collaboration for inclusive growth and shared prosperity in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

But what is the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how will it impact Zambia?

This latest economic revolution will see a fundamental change in the way we live, work and interact with each other through a fusion of technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres. For the economies of Southern Africa, the opportunities this change presents are enormous.

As I have seen first-hand through the MBI Group, a privately-owned group of companies that operates in Zambia, it is vital businesses embrace this revolution to strengthen our economies and boost food security across the region.  

Improving food security in Southern Africa  

Agriculture makes up 20 per cent of Zambian gross domestic product. It employs nearly 70 per cent of the labour force and remains the main source of income and employment for most of the people living in rural areas. The utilisation of new technology, investing in research and development ,and work with local farmers to help improve crop yields and income are vital steps for future growth of the sector

Neria’s Investments, a business under the umbrella of MBI Group, has supplied fertilizer to the Zambian market since 2015. Southern Africa was facing severe food shortages at the time due to the El Nino weather phenomenon. In part due to Neria’s Investments efficient supply of fertilizer on credit basis under the Zambian Farmer Input Subsidy Program (FISP), Zambia was able to produce a food surplus and export vital produce to neighbouring countries facing a food shortage crisis.

Farmers should get greater access to super crops strong enough to survive the harsh African climate and start to use big data. Kenya’s Techno Brain and Microsoft are developing a Digital Agriculture Platform in Africa which collects a mass of data before sending SMS messages to farmers with tips on everything from crops, sowing weeks and harvesting times to pests, adverse weather conditions and market information. Pilot project are already underway in Malawi and Tanzania, and such platforms would be invaluable to Zambian farmers, demonstrating the value of embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Boosting Zambia’s economic growth

Global brands are driving revolutionary approaches in mining, and Zambia is well poised with some of the largest copper reserves in the world – widely regarded as a ‘futureproof’ metal because of its widespread industrial use in renewable technology and electric vehicles.

The MBI Group is adopting new mining technology to help drive down costs, improve productivity and gain a deeper understanding of potential resource base at exploration stage. This has allowed the group to invest and pursue opportunities which may have previously been deemed economically unviable.  New technology has also brought other advantages such as the creation of employment opportunities for the local work force, providing an additional source of revenue for government through taxes and mineral royalties, as well having a positive knock on effect on other industries such as transport throughout the continent.

New technologies like magnetic resonance imaging scanners and sorting machines can rapidly identify ore grade to ensure large volumes of waste rock can be rejected before it even enters the plant – significantly reducing the amount of energy and water consumed in the process.

Zambia is also constructing its largest ever solar power plant in collaboration with the World Bank’s Scaling Solar initiative, providing 47.5 MW of power. Huge strides are being made in the capacity of solar photovoltaic batteries, with their capacity  set to grow 17-fold by 2050 with investment expected to reach US$11.5 trillion.

As a large, mostly rural country, bordering nine countries, this provides an opportunity for Zambia to supply power to surrounding economies at time of damaging energy shortages throughout southern Africa. Zambia would do well to position itself as a market leader in battery technology and infrastructure.  Advancements in technology has reduced the cost of generating power through solar, and although it is still more expensive than other sources, it is now a viable alternative for countries that have relied on coal and hydro-electric, allowing for important diversification in power generation.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution can also improve connections between Zambian communities. Since 2011, there has been a ten-fold increase in the number of mobile money agents across the African continent—greater than any other region of the world—and this technology will continue to grow as a significant engine of economic growth and inclusion throughout 2018.

East Africa has become a global leader in drone technology with the announcement of world’s largest national drone delivery network in Tanzania. Made up of four distribution centres, 100 drones and up to 2,000 flights a day, it will deliver vital medical supplies and consumer goods across Tanzania. Zambia should follow suit.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution may have a profound impact on the economies of Southern Africa. If Zambia is to successfully capture its benefits, it needs to foster – in the words of Youth for Technology Foundation CEO Njideka Harry – a “culture of production.”

Zuneid Yousuf is the group chairman and a director of MBI Group.

As chairman, Zuneid is devoted to the transformation of the family’s businesses into a diverse multinational company, while upholding the Yousuf family’s core values. MBI Group is a family business, firmly rooted in Zambia.

Zuneid started his business career in the textiles industry, honing his entrepreneurial skills through the import and export of clothes from a base in the United Kingdom. After the family returned to Zambia in the mid-1990s, Zuneid spearheaded the diversification into fast-moving consumer goods, fertilizer, mining and fuels.

Zuneid is passionate about business development in Africa, especially the role that African businesses can play in delivering sustained economic growth and improving food security for millions across the continent. Zuneid has worked extensively with academics and independent specialists around the world to develop new approaches to tackle the challenges the world faces in producing food for an ever-growing population.