World trade body urges Africa to stay abreast with new technology

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has warned against the potential of emerging technologies creating a greater digital divide, alienating lower income countries – especially those in sub-Saharan Africa – further from wealthier nation states, if these countries do not invest in the new technologies that have shown tremendous potential for sustainable development.

In its 2021 Technology and Innovation Report, which was released last week, UNCTAD said the frontier technologies – which comprise Drones, Big Data, 5G Network, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Nanotechnology, 3D Printing, Gene Editing and Solar Energy — risk increasing inequality in the world by exacerbating and creating new digital divides between the technology haves and have-nots.

“It is time to ask how we can take full profit from the current technological revolution to reduce gaps that hold back truly inclusive and sustainable development,” wrote Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General in the report’s preamble. “The UNCTAD Technology and Innovation Report 2021 examines the likelihood of frontier technologies widening existing inequalities and creating new ones.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed this dichotomy. Technology has been a critical tool for addressing the spread of the disease, but not everyone has equal access to the benefits. The report addresses the national and international policies, instruments and institutional reforms that are needed to create a more equal world of opportunity for all, leaving no one behind.”

Drone technology though, has emerged as one of the few shining lights from the global pandemic that has wrecked lives and rendered humanity immobile for the whole of last year. Besides spraying sanitary chemicals in public places, delivery unmanned aerial vehicles were used to transport important COVID-19 fighting implements like personal protective equipment (PPE), testing equipment, and also transporting samples to laboratories.

Tragic as it has been, the coronavirus pandemic has raised the profiles of delivery drone companies like AerialMetric, Zipline, Wingcopter, Swoop Aero and a few others that had been quietly making a positive, if understated, impact on the health care needs of rural populations of Rwanda, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Madagascar, Mozambique, and a good number of other countries in the global south.

And now that COVID-19 vaccines are making their way into people’s lives, the drones are on hand again to make the distributions faster – but only in countries that have running infrastructure for drone technology to flourish; Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria and The DRC being a few of them in Africa.

Africa’s frustrating lackadaisical approach to the uptake of frontier technologies was also the subject of a recent report by the African Union’s High Level Panel on Emerging technologies (APET) – a body of technology intellectuals set up five years ago to identify and recommend technologies that the continental body can invest in.

“The African Union High-Level Panel on Emerging Technologies (APET) has recommended drone technology as a transformative technology for Africa’s agriculture,” the APET secretariat wrote in their latest blog post. “However, APET has acknowledged the sluggish uptake and adoption of drones in Africa because of the prevailing barriers, which are preventing Africans from accessing this technology in numerous African countries.

“These barriers to the adoption of drone technologies include their high costs, incompatible infrastructure, unskilled manpower and restrictive regulatory frameworks. Therefore, member states are encouraged to consider the drone technology adoption towards mitigating impacts of disasters through enabling regulatory and infrastructural frameworks.”

The UNCTAD report stated that frontier technologies are already worth an estimated $350billion on the market today, with a potential to grow to $3.2trillion by the year 2025.

Africa has been relying on outside help for the supply of drone technology. Picture: Wingcopter

That is way too much money for Africa to miss out on.

Sadly, that is what is happening right now. With the exception of AerialMetric, which is from Madagascar, all the other drones that have been doing wonderful works in the countries mentioned above are from outside the continent, and there are no immediate plans on the horizon to correct this anomaly.

“The United States is driving drone research,” the UNCTAD report says. “During the period 1996-2018, there were 10,979 publications related to drones with the most from the United States (2,440), China (1,279) and the United Kingdom (631). The top affiliations were the Chinese Academy of Sciences (128/China), Xidian University (103/China) and National University of Defense Technology (102/China).

“During the same period, there were 10,897 patents filed with the top nationality of assignees being the United States (2,995), the Republic of Korea (2,068) and France (1,481). The top three current owners were Parrot (325/France), Qualcomm (280/United States) and SZ DJI Technology (242/China).”

Not surprisingly, China still has a stranglehold on the commercial drone market, boasting of companies like DJI (their current problems in the USA notwithstanding), Yuneec and EHang. Other noteworthy companies dominating the commercial drone space are 3D Robotics (USA) and Parrot from France.

“Growth in the drone market is expected to be modest. Market revenue was $69billion in 2017 and is expected to reach $141billion in 2023, with a CAGR of thirteen percent (this include military drones). On the supply side, digitisation and technological improvements in cameras, drone specifications, mapping software, multidimensional mapping, and sensory applications are driving the growth.

“However, privacy issues and national security regulations are expected to negatively affect the market. One possible competitor is satellite imagery which could impede market growth (unlike aerial imagery by drones, satellite services do not have any regulatory issues). On the demand side, growth is driven by increasing demand for GIS, LiDAR, and mapping services from sectors such as agriculture, energy, tourism, and others.

“The drone job market is heating up. In the United States, more than 100,000 drone-related jobs are expected to be added between 2013 and 2025. The top three drone job locations are the United States, China and France. Most sought after are software engineers, followed by hardware engineers and sales.”

While urging all developing nations to prepare for a period of deep and rapid technological change that will profoundly affect humanity, the UN secretary general also expressed the need for these countries to set up policies and foundational structures that will allow for the pursuance and growth of science, technology and innovation initiatives appropriate to their development stage and economic, social and environmental conditions.

The report also calls for strengthened international cooperation to build innovation capacities in developing nations, facilitate technology transfer, increase female participation in digital the sector, conduct technological assessments and promote an inclusive debate on the impact of frontier technologies on sustainable development.

“New technologies hold the promise of the future, from climate action and better health to more democratic and inclusive societies,” Guterres said. “As this report highlights, the guiding principle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to leave no one behind provides a compelling incentive for harnessing frontier technologies for sustainable development.

Let us use them wisely, for the benefit of all. António Guterres Secretary-General United Nations.”


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