skip to Main Content

South Africa, The Fourth Industrial Revolution & The Skills Gap

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has sparked interesting debates across the globe. The conversation ranges from fear of rampant job loss due to increasing degrees of automation to the possibilities of greater market share and greater revenue due to the efficiency gains that emerging technology can enable. In the South African context, the slow rate of adoption has been a concern for many. So much so, that an entire panel discussion at the recent IoT conference at the Manufacturing Indaba sought to get to the bottom of it.


From what we at Seedlab have seen the major obstacles come down to two key factors

  1. A lack of collaboration and knowledge sharing regarding local Industry 4.0 developments.
  2. The deficit in our education and training infrastructure.


Collaboration is Key 

The first point became apparent to me at the aforementioned IoT conference. At Seedlab a large part of our work is staying on top of developments both globally and locally in the Industry 4.0 space. We are constantly researching to find the latest insights and experience from companies who are trying to make headway using Industry 4.0 principles. The bottom line is that visibility around the work that is happening in South Africa simply doesn’t exist. Even the panellists at the conference were not at liberty to name names, their clients choosing to fly under the radar.

Coming from a mineral processing background I completely understand issues around intellectual property. I know first-hand the lengths companies will go through to protect their hard-won know-how.

But what many fail to realise is that technologies like IoT and Machine Learning are simply tools. It is up to companies to apply these tools in innovative ways. Sharing insights on how to use these technologies is like sharing insights on using any tool from a computer to a drill. It’s up to the different companies to develop the business models that allow them to use their tools and skills to maximum effect. And you don’t have to share your business models with anyone. (Pinky swear.) Creating more visibility about local developments does two very important things. Firstly, it shows the world (especially foreign investors) that South Africa has the wherewithal to make strides in this very important phase of manufacturing history. And secondly it gives other local companies the confidence to try.

Aerosud’s OCTi forum recently kicked-off with the goal to stimulate conversations around South African adoption of Industry 4.0. They are looking to create a working forum that will allow newbies, novices and experts to throw problems and ideas around in order to help the manufacturing sector gain some real traction in this space. It’s a great initiative and I for one am confident that it will be a tremendous value-add to companies and individuals that engage with the forum.


Current and Future Skills Gaps

So now on to the second, and more complicated of the challenges affecting Industry 4.0 adoption. The skills gap is not a new problem in South Africa.  South Africa’s global ranking in literacy and mathematics clearly show the weakened state of our education system. South Africa is plagued with rampant unemployment, with those under the age of 24 being the hardest hit. A combination of low economic growth, a deteriorating education system and a lack of guidance and mentoring for scholars and students is resulting in even university graduates who cannot find employment.

Cuts to the basic education budget are not helping and we find ourselves in a position where our youth are poorly prepared for the job market with bleak long-term prospects.

Even graduates have often received too little training in the skills and knowledge that employers perceive as valuable. The private sector frequently has to resort to in-house training in order to bring new-hires up to speed. A culture of high expectations and tight budgets makes this an undesirable step for many employers.


The Responsible Business Forum

Seedlab attended the Responsible Business Forum from the 25th to the 27th of June 2018. The discussions covered a myriad of social impact topics. The Sustainable Development Goals formed the basis for many of the topics up for discussion and were frequently referred back to during the Forum Agenda.  A particular focus on youth and technology resulted in discussions around education, unemployment and solutions that technology can enable.


The RBF was structured around several parallel sessions discussing important topics. Shafika Issacs, UNESCO Technical Advisor hosted one such plenary discussion on Scaling Access through Digital Learning.

 The main challenges highlighted in the session were:

  • Scalable models
  • Zero rating education platforms
  • Creating standards around recognition of credentials

 The zero-rating debate was the most contentious. Shafika Isaacs went on to explain that, “Whilst it is important to recognise the complex arguments against zero-rating data costs in the name of a free and inclusive Internet, it is also imperative that we consider strategies to make digital learning content accessible to all, from the perspective of education communities in Africa. Here high costs of digital learning data has been prohibitive for the poor. It is in this light that we are compelled to consider strategies to lower education data costs. The idea of zero rating open education resources by all network providers, becomes an avenue for making equitable education access for all, a reality in Africa”.

Another parallel session handled the topic of Connecting Africa through mobile technology. One of the challenges highlighted was coverage by Telecoms companies specifically how users had to have more than one data bundle available as they moved from one area to another. Zero-rating was again highlighted, this time extended to collaborative forums like GitHub which would allow inexperienced developers to engage with experts to solve problems.

An interesting point that was raised was the fact that even though Internet access was recognised as a human right and that Africa’s population is a mobile first user group, the smart phones and mobile devices that the African continent uses are considered luxury goods with an ad valorem tax of up to 9% in South Africa. There are clearly several obstacles to meeting SDG 4 and 8.


Further Investigations

Following up on our experiences from the IoT Conference and the Responsible Business Forum, Seedlab set out to find out more.

Through some very informative discussions, we achieved a high-level view of the key issues

  • Standards around recognition of qualifications/credentials
    • The negative impact of lack of standards on end user’s job prospects
    • Time required to go through the SAQA application process.
    • Achieving Global/Continental recognition through digital platforms
  • Access
    • Data costs
    • Cost effective delivery of content
    • Zero rating of educational and collaborative platforms (GitHub)
    • Universal use of data bundles across service providers

Conversations with Resolution Circle’s Gideon Potgieter and JET Education Services’ James Keevy further highlighted some of the challenges we face in terms of creating scalable, relevant and cost-effective training and education interventions.

A recent publication released by UNESCO, “Digital Credentialing – Implications for the recognition of learning across borders” looks at the limitations of the current qualifications framework and how this framework in itself limits our ability to scale and innovate around educational interventions. The report also puts forward some thoughts on how to address the current status quo to enable broader inclusion.

Without a doubt the best way to achieve scalable interventions is through digital channels. We need to create the means to enable the delivery of educational content beyond our brick-and-mortar solutions of the past.

Digital Channels with a focussed approach have several benefits.

  • Cost-effective compilation and delivery of content.
  • Ability to use digital as a first introduction for unskilled/semi-skiled workers to help funnel them into the system correctly.
  • The potential to create platform dynamics that place employers and the unemployed on one platform by driving policy that gets the private sector engaged – for example make it compulsory for HR staff to be members of the platform, as well as recruitment companies. In other words, create a skills ecosystem.
  • Create digital CV tools for job-seekers.
  • Encourage self-driven groups to engage and plan their own development (For example, using the groups model).
  • Create an experts hub to facilitate mentoring programs on an adhoc basis.


Concepts vs Reality

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to the RBF discussion on Connecting Africa through mobile technology. The discussion included a brief demo of Vodacom’s e-school. A web interface populated with DBE content that includes videos and tutorials for learners. Surprisingly, even though the site is zero-rated for Vodacom users there were only 25000 active users on the site. There are many potential reasons for the poor uptake of this free, government approved intervention. Design elements, lack of interaction with fellow learners, insufficient marketing may all be playing a part. This suggests that it’s not just as simple as giving away approved educational content through digital channels – there is also a culture dynamic that will need to be addressed.

It is clear that teachers and trainers still have a role to play in face-to-face interactions with learners. A hybrid model of digital and physical will be the most likely solution.

There is also the need for significant change in mindset. The global senior workforce is happy to learn how to cook a steak, bake hot-cross buns, embroider (guilty as charged) and treat leather with natural ingredients through the Web and YouTube videos. Yet we are not willing to accept this form of learning as valid way for job-seekers to upskill themselves.

Aizatron provide a great example of what the youth can achieve when given access to resources and content.

Courtesy of Ansu Sooful aizatron


We need to critically assess the entire education, training and employment ecosystem. The balance between sensible alternatives and rigorous standards is going to be a moving target as the solution(s) and ecosystem continues to evolve.

The truth is at this point; and let’s face it, you’ve been reading for a while; we have only started scratching the surface of the challenges that we face. 


Thought Starters

Since this can’t be tied up with a nice little bow I’d like to pose a few questions. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or email me.

  • What educational and training content do we need to be teaching?
  • How do we quickly deploy updated educational content?
  • How can we achieve the fastest possible skills transfer in a meaningful way?
  • How do we access the right stakeholders to ensure that discussions are channelled to the right people and that appropriate action is taken?
  • How do we open up lines of communication for industry-wide knowledge transfer pertaining to Industry 4.0 principles?

From what we’ve seen in recent weeks, it is clear that the critical steps are

  • Standards around education interventions to create easily recognisable learning levels around which we can assign credentials for learners.
  • Zero-rating education platforms
  • Employer input on PSET and TVET
  • Development of content to prepare workforce for the future.

Apologies for all the lists.


Some reading/links that you might find interesting:


Final Note: If you would like to know more about the Aerosud OCTi forum please drop me an email on

Back To Top