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Published On: Wed, Nov 25th, 2020

Manufacturing sector and the challenge of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR)

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By Abachi Ungbo

It was not pre-planned. However, a drive through the sprawling Kakuri industrial estate in Kaduna alongside a septuagenarian with whom I have enjoyed an avuncular relationship morphed into an excursion of some sort. Wherein a beautiful picture of socioeconomic life supported and sustained by the pool of industries was masterfully painted. It was a moment of effusive rhapsodies of life in the 70s, 80s and early 90s.
The Kakuri industrial estate is a telling epitaph of a glorious past. The pool of industries teemed with workers of diverse skills and from different parts of the country conferring the city with the status of a melting pot and microcosm of Nigeria.
Interestingly, it was a period in our history that many were ill-disposed to taking up jobs in the public sector. The foregoing illustrates the state of de-industrialisation that has remained commonplace across Nigeria. It has been an uphill struggle in being faithful to the many industrialisation policies of our country.
There were ‘shoot of promise and flowers of hope’ at the formative stages of our development. And, like a beautiful bride we were the cynosure of all eyes. Just when we lost momentum, our Asian counterparts kept theirs in the drive towards industrialisation.
Regrettably, we have become an execrable example of how a nation can shoot itself in the foot in attempting to develop. We were consumed by the Dutch disease and thus became indifferent to committing to our development roadmap.
Manufacturing matters. It has been at the heart of economic transformation for centuries. However, the conditions that underpin vibrant manufacturing have eluded us despite myriad attempts.
China articulated policy that shrank the industrialisation process under leader Deng Xiaoping which begun in 1978 something that took many economies centuries to achieve leading to its status today as the manufacturing capital of the world. Also, Vietnam after 20 years of bitter war was able to lift about half of its population out of poverty between 2002-2018. it has now emerged as a vibrant manufacturing base. It is the 3rd largest exporter of textile and garment in the world.
Nigeria like many other African countries has a lot of catch up to do having expended humongous resources without commensurate results. As a result, many development experts are of the view that African countries may skip the industrialisation phase in their development process on account of the velocity of the fourth industrial revolution(4IR).
The 4IR is characterized by the “fusion of the digital, biological and physical worlds as well as the growing utilization of technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, robotics, 3d printing, the internet of things and advanced wireless technologies among others.” According, to World Economic Forum (WEF) it is a new chapter in human development enabled by extraordinary technological advances commensurate with those of the first, second and third industrial revolution.
The first industrial revolution was mechanization leading to the invention of steam engines; the second give rise to electricity while the third was marked by the era of the computer.
Nigeria like many countries have had the manufacturing sector falling behind other sectors with unemployment still making frightening upward climb. With the potential of having one of the youngest workforces in the world, leveraging technology and innovation presents an opportunity for massive growth.
It will be a challenging growth path to follow by side-tracking the traditional export oriented manufactured goods due to the significant role of the service sector. This will translate into the erosion of the small wins already recorded in the industrialisation drive by developing countries like Nigeria. Also, it will serve in the facilitation of re-shoring especially from countries with foreign direct investment in their manufacturing sector as it will become cheaper for foreign investors to produce domestically with the use of technology induce by 4IR.
The industrialisation and digitalisation led developments are not mutually exclusive. So, mainstreaming the new technology into manufacturing is pivotal in significantly enhancing global competitiveness, efficiency and productivity. The future of the manufacturing sector will be marked by machines interacting with skilled labour.
The unintended consequence will be the loss of jobs not least by low skilled labour which are in preponderance in the manufacturing sector and this is antithetical to the goal of industrialisation. However, solution lies in the formulation of policy that will ‘complement’ technology instead of the outright supplanting of human labour.
The nature of manufacturing is changing apace with the introduction of techniques inspired by the game changing technologies. Manufacturing has changed for the sites that are leading the 4IR technology adoption and are willing to undertake necessary organizational, operational and financial transformation (Helena Leurant, et al.)
The comparative advantage in low cost labour will be vitiated by automation which further place the need for Nigeria to embrace the new technologies in enhancing competitiveness. Already, a World Economic Forum (WEF) report says 46% of work activities in Nigeria are susceptible to automation.
The automation would not come in one fell swoop but the impact of 4IR should add urgency to a quick transformation in order to maximize the inherent advantages and potentials. Also, by 2030, Artificial Intelligence (A.I) is forecast to contribute 15.7 trillion dollars to the global economy. Therefore, it is apt to quote Malcolm X that, the future belongs to those who prepare for it today.
The new era will either be a threat or opportunity depending on the policy path we choose to tread and the quantum of political will. Attention needs to be focused on human development and overcoming the poor state of infrastructure as well as poor quality and coverage of utilities like electricity, internet, telecommunication.
Our educational systems need to direct attention to important areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Juliet Ehimuan, Country Director, Google West Africa pointed areas where youths need to develop skills to be competitive in an evolving global economy to include Big data, cloud computing, Internet of Things (IoT), Advanced security systems, virtual and augmented reality, Artificial Intelligence in machine learning.

ABACHI UNGBO can be reached at abachi007@yahoo.com

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