Navigating the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR): Insights for African Policymakers
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Navigating the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR): Insights for African Policymakers


Insights from the Tony Blair Institute and ODI Study

By Max Walter and Guendalina Anzolin

Policymakers across Africa are grappling with how to foster economic transformation and job creation in the context of geopolitical shifts, climate crisis responses and rapid technological change. More specifically, recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI) and ongoing progress in automation technologies have aroused concerns for the future of low-skilled jobs and the ability of labour-intensive industries to serve as a catalyst for economic development.

This article delves into key findings from a report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and global affairs think tank, ODI. The “Economic Transformation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution” report offers insights and recommendations for navigating the complexities of the 4IR in the African context. The study, conducted in 2022, gathered primary qualitative insights to gain a rich understanding of firm perspectives in three African countries (Kenya, Ghana and South Africa) and across three manufacturing sectors with different levels of technology adoption (automotive, food and beverages, and textiles and apparel).

For example, Figure 1 shows that manufacturing robots are concentrated in the electronics and automotive industries, but have not begun permeating apparel production. Apparel remains a highly labour-intensive industry, as sewing requires high levels of dexterity and is thus difficult to automate.1

Annual global installations of industrial robots by customer industry

Source: Walter et al., 2024

This spread allows us to disentangle the data and understand the high degree of heterogeneity that characterizes technological change and to study their structural characteristics.

To put the 4IR into context, Figure 2 maps out the key technologies that reshaped manufacturing in earlier industrial revolutions, as well as those currently redefining the manufacturing landscape. A crucial insight here is that 4IR technologies generally constitute a digital layer on top of 3IR technologies.

Source: Walter et al., 2024

Beyond the job apocalypse narrative: a nuanced view of the 4IR in African manufacturing

Contrary to fears of widespread job losses due to automation, our findings confirm that the primary goal of 4IR technologies in manufacturing is not to replace human labour. Instead, most of these technologies focus on improving precision, quality and resource efficiency in production environments that were, by and large, already heavily mechanized. The study finds that, even in the most advanced manufacturing plants, the adoption of digital production technologies has not resulted in net job losses; indeed, these firms are growing and hiring more employees, even as automation increases. This finding challenges policymakers to reframe their approach, recognizing that the 4IR can be a catalyst for productivity gains and value creation rather than job displacement.

The study also identified the most important ecosystem- and firm-level factors affecting technology adoption in each of the three focus industries. As an example, Table 1 highlights the most important factors affecting technology adoption in the automotive sector.

Source: Walter et al., 2024

Despite the high degree of heterogeneity, there are some common challenges across the three sectors and country cases, including access to finance, insufficient demand to justify investment in a new technology, availability of skills, and the necessary productive and organizational capabilities to engage efficiently with 4IR technologies.

The policy trifecta: A three-pronged approach for success

The report highlights three key messages to help African leaders adapt industrial policies to the 4IR era.

  1. Pursue labour-intensive manufacturing with smart industrial policies

The comparative advantage of abundant labour remains relevant in numerous subsectors, presenting a window of opportunity for job creation. Smart industrial policies focused on labour-intensive manufacturing activities can capitalize on this advantage. However, to ensure long-term global competitiveness, governments must invest in upskilling the workforce and developing digital infrastructure, research and development (R&D) capabilities, and technology-related services.

  1. Foster 4IR technology adoption without skipping the third industrial revolution

Embracing 4IR technologies will be crucial for maintaining global competitiveness in the medium- to long-run. However, the foundation for a successful transition to the 4IR lies in a robust industrial base. This is because the 4IR is fundamentally about adding a new layer of digital technologies to existing 3IR technologies.

Using 3IR as a basis, then, smart industrial policies can address technology adoption constraints, support technology-related services and incentivize R&D. At both the firm and ecosystem levels, policy interventions can facilitate technology adoption, generate demand for related services and strengthen key infrastructure.

In addition, the “servicification” of manufacturing, where 4IR technology providers partner with local enterprises, is emerging as a significant avenue for job creation.

  1. Foster 4IR skills and manage the workforce transition

While the adoption of 4IR technologies in African manufacturing has, thus far, led to neutral or positive effects on jobs, it will fundamentally change the skills profile of the manufacturing workforce. Automation demands fewer low-skilled and more technology-savvy workers. To effectively manage this transformation, governments should:

  • Develop relevant 4IR workforce skills: Collaborate with industry and technology leaders to create specialized training programmes focusing on engineering, IT, robotics and data analysis. Public–private partnerships can establish training institutes and technology-transfer agreements to equip the workforce with in-demand skills.
  • Minimize disruption and support those workers in transition: Job-search assistance and retraining programmes can help displaced workers acquire new skills and find new employment opportunities. “Retain and retrain” incentive schemes encourage employers to upskill their existing workforce alongside automation processes. Finally, new forms of social protection may be needed to cushion the income impact on transitioning workers.


As African leaders navigate the challenges of the 4IR, a new policy paradigm is needed for nurturing job-rich economic transformation. The research underscores three imperatives: proactively building labour-intensive industrial sectors, building a strong industrial base, and actively managing the workforce’s transition into the 4IR economy. Embracing these imperatives is crucial for African nations to thrive in the era of unprecedented technological change.

  • Max Walter is a Senior Advisor in Industry & Commerce at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
  • Guendalina Anzolin is Research Associate at the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNIDO (read more).

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