Kathy Gibson is at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town – Is Africa ready to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR); or should it be focusing on more basic imperatives?

That’s the question that got emotions running high at a panel discussion on the way forward for the continent.

Dr Alison Gillwald, executive director of Research ICT Africa, cautions that policies around 4IR need to have an African perspective.

As with any new technology – or industrial revolution – she warns that the 4IR could coalesce around big capital and fail to improve the lives of the poor.

History teaches us that disruption and evolution are continuities – but that equality also tends to be continuous; and new technology could exacerbate this inequality.

This feeds into he policy challenges that every nation, but especially developing countries, need to formulate.

“The gap gets bigger the more we overlay technologies,” Dr Gillwald says. “And the way 4IR is marketed has preoccupied governments, and distracted them from addressing existing poverty and inequalities.”

While agreeing that 4IR shouldn’t be the only practical focus for governments, Flutterwave CEO Iyinoluwa Aboyeji points out that it could help developing countries create new exports in the form of their people.

“You need to understand that the relationship between 4IR and inequality is that the critical factor of production now is simply labour. The most important element that people miss in the conversation is talent.”

With very little investment, Aboyeji says talented young people can now be trained up quickly; start-ups are able to scale; and 4IR is able to give more people than ever purpose and prosperity.

“We are able to quickly generate revenue, train people and open them up to the global economy,” he says. “Software engineers can now sit in their bedrooms and do work for multi-national companies.

“With 4IR technologies, you can service anyone, from anywhere.

“I think its paternalistic to say that 4IR exacerbates inequality. We have the talent in Africa. Why are we not elevating this talent and creating a global market?”

In fact, Aboyeni says, the focus on 4IR is often misplaced. “The leaders are not government and academia – they are the talented young Africans.”

Anne Githuku-Shongwe, founder of Afroes Transformation Games, believes that is 4IR goes ahead in its current form, it will increase exclusion, particularly of women.

“Many young women in Africa are not participating by any means in this conversation,” she says. “And the exclusion of women is something we need to pay close attention to.

“The inequalities in society are pervasive and play out regardless of technology.”

David Sunway, chief innovation officer for the Sierra Leone Office of the President, argues that there is nothing more appropriate or better equipped to stop inequality than 4IR.

“The idea that African governments shouldn’t promote 4IR is almost repulsive,” he says. “I sit in the presidents office and we talk about artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, 3D printing and more to help marginalised men and women access services.

“There is nothing that is more important for us than African governments and leaders that understand how to use these technologies. Where will we be in 50 years if we don’t do it?

“We realise it is the only way we will solve Sierra Leone’s problems,” Sunway adds.

“The only reason technology is not more widespread is because we second-guess people.”

Aboyeni points out that the issues are evolving quickly, and Africa has to find ways to leapfrog ahead to solve them.

“You cannot solve maternal mortality with big data,” he points out. “So we have to be absolutely clear about what problem we are solving.”

Githuku-Shongwe adds that we should aim to simply technology so that it’s accessible to everyone. “We need to simplify and structure the systems in a way that people can use it.

“That way, it is possible to meet the inequality with technology.”

The bottom line, says Sunway, is that Africa need to believe in its people. “As poor as we are, as bad as we are, it is precisely because of this that our people have to learn how to code, how to use technology.

“We need to use technology to reimagine our education system.

“Most of all we must believe in ourselves. This is about us.”

Aboyeni agrees with the concept of broadening human capital management.

“We need to liberalise the universities so we can grab the pipeline of 4IR talent.

“We only have people in Africa – there are no longer any natural resources that the world wants. We only have young people eager for opportunities, so we need to position ourselves as a pool for talent.”