Navigating AI revolution to advance Africa's labour landscape

To capitalise on the potential benefits of AI while mitigating job displacement, Africa must invest in education and skill development. [iStockphoto]

The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) has sparked widespread debate about its potential impact, particularly on jobs, in recent years.

Africa is on the verge of a transformative era that has the potential to reshape the continent’s labour landscape. To be sure, the potential benefits and challenges of AI in Africa’s labour markets are complex and multifaceted, necessitating a nuanced approach to capitalise on the opportunities while mitigating the risks. One of the potential consequences for Africa is the possible displacement of jobs.

As AI technologies improve, entire industries will find new ways to work in collaboration with AI, potentially with a reduction in the routine and repetitive clerical work done by people.

While this disruption is a global phenomenon, it has special implications for Africa because the continent has the youngest population, which will continue to enter the labour market over the next few decades.

However, it is critical to recognise that AI has the potential to be a driver of job creation in Africa. As the burden of routine work is reduced, human capital is freed up to engage in more complex, creative, and high-value activities.

Additionally, the development and implementation of AI technologies will create a demand for skilled workers ranging from AI specialists and data scientists to technicians who can maintain and optimise these systems. To capitalise on the potential benefits of AI while mitigating job displacement, Africa must invest in education and skill development.

By prioritising STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, governments and private entities can ensure that the workforce is equipped with the skills needed to thrive in an AI-driven economy. Furthermore, initiatives to reskill and upskill existing workers will be critical in transitioning to future workplaces where workers and AI together get work done.

 As new technologies emerge, reskilling initiatives should be agile and responsive to the changing demands of industries, ensuring that the workforce remains globally competitive.

Furthermore, a wealth of skills and technical capabilities is likely to drive additional African participation in the development of AI tools that are more appropriate for the African context. This includes creating generative AI that incorporates African perspectives and is fluent in African languages – in both text and speech. This requires the incorporation of high quality African materials into the training data in order to create more inclusive and representative AI models.

The impact of artificial intelligence on African labour markets goes beyond traditional employment structures. The majority of people work in the informal sector.

The pandemic kickstarted a mobile-first digital transformation journey for many in the informal sector. The ease of use of this new generation of AI technologies brings with it the potential for further positive worker-driven transformation of this sector.

However, as we have seen with the gig economy, digital platforms and AI-driven technologies can result in centralisation and are not necessarily beneficial to workers – raising concerns about job security, benefits, and equitable pay.

To address these challenges, African policymakers must proactively shape regulations that balance innovation with social responsibility, such as implementing frameworks that protect workers’ rights, ensuring fair compensation, and providing access to social safety nets.

Additionally, fostering an entrepreneurial culture and supporting micro and small enterprises can empower Africans to create their own opportunities in the digital economy.

To summarise, the integration of AI into Africa’s labour markets is both an opportunity and a challenge. While concerns about job displacement and the implications of the gig economy persist, proactive measures in education, skill development, and policymaking can position Africa to capitalise on AI’s transformative potential.

African nations can navigate the AI revolution and pave the way for inclusive and sustainable progress in the job market by adopting a holistic approach that combines technological advancement with social responsibility and a commitment to reskilling and upskilling.

Dr Jacki O’Neill is the Director, Microsoft Africa Research Institute

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