Africa must implement a programme aimed at accelerating industrialisation in order to meet the demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is according to speakers from various parts of the continent who attended the eighth African Unity for Renaissance Conference and Africa Day Expo held in Pretoria from 23 to 25 May.

The conference formed part of the Africa Month commemorations and served as a platform for experts from various sectors across the continent and beyond to contribute to sustainable growth and development in Africa.

The event is organised annually by the Africa Institute of South Africa in the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), in collaboration with the Department of Science and Technology and other partners such as the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, Tshwane University of Technology, Water Research Commission, and International Council for Science Regional Office for Africa.

The theme for this year's conference was "Accelerating Industrialisation in Africa: Implications for Job Creation and Poverty Reduction".

"This quest to industrialise is not new," said Prof. Crain Soudien, CEO of the HSRC. "The leaders of the liberation struggle envisioned that the sustainable pathway to Africa's development was to modernise our agricultural sector, industrialise, and build the required human capacity with a strong focus on science, technology and innovation."

While efforts are under way to increase the number of graduates in Africa, the conference heard that 50% of existing graduates were unemployed as at the end of 2016. The challenge is to create jobs for these graduates, or risk losing them to other countries and continents. According to Prof. Soudien, the need for Africa to diversify the productive capacity of its economies through industrialisation is more urgent than ever. "We need to create sustainable long-term jobs," he said.

"Africa today has the youngest population in the world. Seventy percent of our population is below the age of 35 years, and it has been estimated by the World Bank that by 2020 Africa's youth population will increase by 42,5 million. 

"This anticipated youth bulge has led to speculation that Africa is about to benefit from the demographic dividend. Ultimately, the measure of success for Africa's industrialisation efforts should be job creation and poverty alleviation", Prof. Soudien argued.

African leaders recently signed an agreement launching the African Continental Free Trade Area, a single continental market for goods and services to boost Africa's growth. The free trade area promises to open up substantial opportunities for industrialisation, diversification and high-skilled employment in Africa.

By 2030, the continent's market size is expected to exceed 1,7 billion people with a combined consumer and business spending power of US$6,7 trillion – provided all African countries have joined the free trade area by then.

South Africa is the current chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), whose long-term development plan is focused on industrialisation. The SADC Industrialisation Strategy and Roadmap 2015-2063 outlines thematic focus areas for accelerated industrialisation in the region. These are grouped broadly under infrastructure development on the one hand, and value chain development and value addition on the other.

Mr Daan du Toit, Deputy Director-General: International Cooperation and Resources in the Department of Science and Technology, told the conference that Africa is at the heart of the Department's agenda.

"Africa needs to invest more in new research, infrastructure, knowledge, innovation and technology that can play an important role for the unity of the continent through joint funding programmes," said Mr Du Toit.

"A technology foresight exercise in energy, and a 10-year Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Strategy for Africa, are just some of the illustrations that South Africa supports STI-led development both at SADC and at African Union levels."

Mr Du Toit also noted that South Africa has been identified as the host of the southern African node of the Pan African University (PAU). The fifth PAU Institute, focusing on space sciences, will be based at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

However, the conference acknowledged that the skills Africa will need to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in areas such as artificial intelligence and robotics, are still not being taught at most institutions across the continent.