By Tombari Sibe

The world celebrates 1st of May as International Workers Day (also known as Labour Day or May Day in some countries). In most African countries, the day is celebrated with fanfare and colourful parades. The event is an opportunity for the trade unionists to exhibit their comradeship credentials and make robust speeches, while the political-leadership try to seize the opportunity to make populist declarations on staff welfare. This year, social distance left the streets and the stadia distant and empty. The ruthless COVID-19 pandemic did not spare May Day. This was one of the most graphic reminders of the new realities of the unfolding concept of work, workforce and workspace. 

Over the years, the concept of work has evolved. The definition of work changed from what it was in the pre-industrial era when work was just part of living and survival, to the 1st Industrial Revolution, when a foreman checked log registers and manual timesheets, to what it currently is in the 4th Industrial Revolution where technology has altered the definition and scope of work. The Internet of things, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, cloud computing and other emerging technologies have made Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing possible. For smart factories such as this, production can continue while maintaining social distancing. 

 Where is Africa in all of these? Technology has revolutionized the concept of work. It has improved efficiency, reduced cost and disrupted the workspace. Globally, institutions, enterprises and workers have adjusted to this digital shift. Sadly, this is not quite the case in most African economies, still stuck in the pedestrian workspace under the supervision of a “manual taskmaster”. Once COVID-19 pandemic hit the shores of Africa, the economies came crashing to a near-halt. In most countries, the Q1 figures are already out, and economies are bleeding profusely, under the weight of the pandemic. Q2 is forecasted to be worse, with the curve yet to flatten.

With no prior contingent plans for remote workspaces, and little or no technological solutions, IT backbones and digital infrastructure to ensure same, the stay-at-home announcement locked the entire economic space of the continent. With an internet penetration of just about 39% – most of which are slow and inefficient – the continent was not particularly prepared for what hit them in 2020. Government offices and most private entities were shut completely once the lockdown was announced because this risk was not in contemplation in their risk analysis. While American and European Schools switched seamlessly from the classroom to online, most African schools remain closed, because they were totally unprepared. Children are currently stranded at home, with an uncertain future ahead. 

With little or no online delivery systems or digital service outlets, African businesses are facing arguably the most difficult challenge since the turn of the century. Many SME’s may not be able to resume operations, because they have depleted their capital during the lockdown. While the respective countries in the continent work out short term buffers and stimulus to help small business weather the storm, it is important for the continent to adjust to the changing nature and scope of work. To stay afloat, businesses must be creative and embrace disruptive technologies to push beyond boundaries.

The concept of work has changed, and the spatial coordinates of the workspace is now dynamic. The workspace has evolved from the physical to the virtual; brick and mortar to online. This is the emerging reality Africa needs to face and embrace. Most Tech giants have since activated their remote working policies. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, have asked her majority of their staff to work remotely. Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and others have done the same, as well. This is not limited to tech companies. Federal Executive council meetings are held via zoom across the world. Governors are holding meetings and briefings virtually. It is noteworthy to mention that this started long before the pandemic. The United States, Singapore, and many others have flexible work policies. For them, when the pandemic struck, it was an easy switch, with reduced effects. Same cannot be said of the African workforce, who are mostly stuck at home for no fault of theirs. 

In the modern workspace, there are emerging terminologies such as virtual or remote teams, outsourcing, onshoring, offshoring, nearshoring, farshoring, etc. All of these are made possible with innovation and technology. These disruptive approaches come with great opportunities, that the continent can look to tap in. Africa has arguably the “cheapest” workforce in the world. With accelerated technological growth and the right vision and leadership, the continent could become a production hub someday, if strategically positioned. 

However, this comes with challenges, such as the high investment cost in technology; change management; Technology Acceptance; innovation management, etc. There are also challenges of legal complications, and the lack of enabling legislation and legal framework. How many economies in the continent have robust cyber-crime legislation to tackle the emerging risks that come with such switch? How many African economies have an articulated broadband penetration strategy, to deepen access? How many corporations are willing to make the right investment in technology to facilitate this? How many economies in the continent are ready to take on this challenge? Is the continent ready to make necessary adjustments and investments to face the emerging realities? Are African economies looking to position themselves to take advantage of these emerging realities? These are questions the continent must be ready to answer, going forward.

Africa may not have seen the usual colourful displays of May Day, but the unintended message was loud and clear. COVID-19 has changed the world and amplified the new concept and scope of work. African workers and their unprepared employers are the big casualties, with CEOs making difficult announcements of job cuts already. A fortnight ago, a leading aviation company announced a sweeping cut that would affect almost 90% of the workforce. Days back, a leading bank in Nigeria made another announcement of an impending drastic cut. Manufacturing companies are announcing massive cuts. SMEs are painfully disappearing out of the commercial space. The train has left the station already. It is time for the continent to embrace digital disruption to catch up at the next train stop. The workspace has changed; the continent must respond accordingly. As Peter Drucker said, it’s time for businesses in the continent to “innovate or die”. This is the challenge before the continent. Mayday, mayday, mayday! 


Tombari Sibe is an Information Technology Consultant and Development Strategist. He can be reached via: 


Twitter: @rsibe

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