Then and now: How smart technologies are changing life in Africa-

The fifth Forum of the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET), was held from 20-22 May 2019, in Kigali, Rwanda, a city I am proud to call home, and one of the smart cities in Africa.

The theme of the Forum was: Implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and Digital Economy on Higher Education and Skills Development in Africa. The 4IR is a period of rapid, simultaneous and systemic transformations driven by science and technology expected to impact all industries, sectors, and economies across the world. Advancements such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, automation, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, among many others are set to disrupt traditional systems and processes, institutions and all aspects of society.

Noel Gahamanyi

Attending the highly energizing PASET Forum, I was inspired to compare and contrast life before and after the onset of smart technologies across Africa in general and in my country, Rwanda, in particular.

Faster and more reliable communication

I remember 30 years back, when the only way to send messages to people in rural areas was via public transport buses. The bus drivers would hull the packages in central locations, for example church compounds, as they sped past. Some of the packages would get lost in the process, while others hilariously ended up being integrated into Sunday sermons. I would estimate that 90% of the messages were outdated by the time they reached recipients. Nowadays, at a touch of the phone button, we can connect with people across the country, promoting social cohesion and friendship. Users of smart phones can do what was unimaginable back then; they can record and send audio and video messages, emails, and scanned documents, among others.

Education and skills development

Have you, like me, searched in vain for a book on the library shelves? Have you drafted a scientific manuscript only to realize that someone else has already published the same information? Just 10 years back, when I was an undergraduate student, I would spend copious amounts of time in the library, laboriously taking notes by hand. Today, from the comfort of my desk, I can access any literature I need via e-libraries. I can also keep track of progress in my field, which helps me to be innovative in my research. And I am aware that many scholars, like me, are able to benefit from experts in their field; a professor located in USA can teach millions of students at the same time all over the world.

Banking and finance industry

Manual operations in African banks resulted in millions of money being lost due to inefficiencies, or as a result of money laundering. Governments also lost revenues because of tax evasion. Smart technologies have strengthened and streamlined banking and finance sectors, with substantial benefits for individuals and national economies. In addition, many people in Africa now have access to mobile money transactions, which is enabling to bank the unbankable.

E-government and public services

There was a time when obtaining public services, like applying for birth certificates, required one to travel long distances,  for example to their place of birth.  Smart technologies have made life easier; allowing access to information from anywhere, and thus reducing wastage of time, energy and money. Such technologies have led to reduction in civil or criminal activities, which are now more traceable than before.

Health sector

Rwanda provides a good example of how smart technologies have improved the health sector. In Rwanda, a mountainous and land­ locked country, transportation is tough, and hospitals struggle to procure blood and vaccines in emergency situations. Fortunately, the country has put technology at the heart of its economy and development. Therefore, Rwanda was one of the few African countries to open its space to Zipline, a company that transports blood to remote areas in emergency cases. Since its launch, Zipline drones have dispatched thousands of units of blood across the whole country. This technology prevents expiration and stock­-outs of critical medical items by providing rapid delivery based on request.

The fifth PASET forum was a good and interesting opportunity to be reminded that we are the engine of the transformation taking place in Africa as a result of smart technologies. Participants from African countries were inspired by examples from Singapore, China, and India, and committed to advocate and strengthen 4IR in their respective countries, especially in education and government sectors.