East Africa:Comesa Region Lags Behind in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence

By James Karuhanga

Countries in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) are lagging behind with respect to robotics, artificial intelligence and technology infrastructure and skills acquisition.

Jean Baptiste Mutabazi, the regional bloc's Director of Infrastructure, noted this during the COMESA Connect Industry Dialogue in Kigali themed "Smart Technologies for Sustainable Businesses."

Held in Kigali, the meeting was organised by the COMESA Business Council and Rwanda's Private Sector Federation of Rwanda (PSF).

While Egypt, Seychelles, Kenya and Mauritius lead in terms of internet penetration and mobile density and in trade in ICT services, Mutabazi said, the rest of the region largely lags behind in a number of ways, particularly with respect to robotics, artificial intelligence and technology infrastructure and skills acquisition.

COMESA member states are; Burundi, the Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Sudan, Swaziland, Seychelles, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Mutabazi said: "It is important that technology is tailored to the African situation, for it to be relevant. The COMESA economies are failing to exploit the potential of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to drive social and economic transformation in comparison to the developed countries".

"The Agenda before us is very timely and urgent, as we cannot continue to exist in the second technology revolution when the whole world has gone ahead of us."

Mutabazi said that is imperative that public and private sector adopt a more aggressive mentality to address the use and workings of those technologies as countries move towards economies and societies based on information and knowledge, digital technologies and the fourth Industrialization.

The COMESA region carries a large market of the African continent, with a population of more than 503 million consumers and total trade of $236 billion in 2016. Intra COMESA trade represents 7% of the total trade.

According to the Chairperson of the Private Sector Federation, Robert Bafakurera, the government of Rwanda introduced the SMART Rwanda strategy 2015-2020 which underpins government transformation agenda using ICTs to ensure SMART Agriculture, Finance, Business and Industry, Health, Education, Government, and Cities.

Kigali is often cited as city with the most affordable internet access in the region, he said, noting that this is just a minute illustration of how the Government has prioritized the need of technology solutions that can improve our economy and enhance our service delivery.

"I can with confidence assure you that Rwanda is at the centre stage of adopting smart technologies in e-government and in private sector development.

Nevertheless, Bafakurera also admitted that "our continent remains lagging in terms of technology; ICT trade, infrastructure, innovation and the creation of knowledge based economies and societies."

"It is important that as a region we bridge the digital divide and harness technologies for the advancement of our economies and regional integration."

Chairperson of the COMESA Business Council, Dr. Amany Asfour, said that various leading reports have highlighted that technology can help catapult Africa into the future at par with the leading global players.

She said there has been a rise in tech-driven solution to address some of the continent's challenges; "where we have seen the rise of tech-startups and entrepreneurs who have begun transforming the way we do business and operate."

She said: "For businesses ICTs boost productivity and reduces transaction and information costs. They allow new models of collaboration that increase workers' efficiency and flexibility along the supply chain. ICTs foster entrepreneurship and create new business models and can provide alternative sources of financing."

On the government side, she noted, it is about e-government services that promote efficiency and providing a good regulatory business environment and the requisite infrastructure which are also a fundamental requirement to promote the infusion of technology to our industries and society.

The competitiveness of "our industries" and economies, she said, will largely be tied to technology, as ICTs are a key enabler to productivity and trade.