Will AI Take Our Jobs in the Emerging Economies of Africa?

“No one can expect to do the same thing for life.” Jing Bing Zhang

Daily, we are being reminded of how artificial intelligence (AI) would render many jobless in the nearest future. Simple reasons; cost is reduced, efficiency is better.

As much as 137 million people are about to lose their jobs in Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia, as reported by a recent report of International Labour Organization. That is about 56% of their workforce.

A Swedish firm has invented a technology to milk cows. McDonalds is starting to use automated kiosks at their eateries to take orders via computers. Can you imagine how many jobs would be eliminated if that happens to all the McDonalds eateries?

Conversely, AI also creates jobs for humans, but maybe not exactly in equal number as they have removed. That’s why the disruption is real.

As I try to understand and answer the big question, would AI take our jobs in Africa? I reflect on the following scenario.

Automated Waiters in Tokyo

About 3 months ago, I facilitated a session generally aimed at honing the creative skills of the participants during an environmental festival. In my illustrations, I mentioned how a restaurant in Tokyo uses AI to eliminate the job of waiters. The only people working at the restaurant are the cooks and someone to facilitate your payment. Food orders and delivery are done via a tablet computer found at every table and delivered via conveyor belts respectively.

The creative lesson in that illustration is using an idea that has worked somewhere and applying it in your work. The idea of the restaurant is a borrowed one from the way Amazon works. When someone browses for a book on Amazon’s website, after a while, the website suggests items similar to what he/she has searched for earlier. For the restaurant, when you order a food with a particular taste, the tab suggests to you other meals that have similar tastes. That’s really innovative.

However, as our festival was promoting sustainability, environment wise, I was trying to promote use of innovative ideas for solving environmental challenges. The takeaway point is to borrow ideas that have worked elsewhere and apply it in solving an environmental challenge.

A participant was not comfortable with the use of AI though as she thought it defeats sustainability. It doesn’t promote a strong pillar of sustainability, people. That’s quite right.

Sustainability is relative. What is sustainable in Japan might not be a sustainable solution in Nigeria. The societal, social and economic conditions are hugely different. Very true.

Whatever be the case, AI means a lot of economic sense, and since entrepreneurs are expected to provide solutions that would create jobs, they would go for efficient services.

Phone Airtime Resellers in Nigeria

I cannot ignore but share this same message I regularly get on WhatsApp. To ignore buying airtime using hot naira codes from our banks and walk outside to resellers wherever they maybe to purchase one so they don’t go out of jobs. A clear case of passion over strategy.

This wouldn’t work. Its tedious, inefficient and costlier. Those resellers should become innovative and see AI as a tool they can use. They should manipulate how they can still resell airtime and make profit. How does this fit into this era which cashless transactions are continuously promoted?

Simply asking people to be passionate without putting a sound strategy of achieving a result would not yield good results.

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What Should We Do

Should we advocate for non-application of AIs in some places or promote people get the skills needed to survive the future of work?

It is time to start creating jobs that would not be overtaken by AI. “Automation and robotics will definitely impact lower-skilled people, which is unfortunate. I think the only way for them to move up or adapt to this change is not to hope that the government will protect their jobs from technology, but look for ways to retrain themselves. No one can expect to do the same thing for life. That’s just not the case anymore.” Mentioned Dr. Jing Bing Zhang, a renowned leader in the field of AI.

The necessary employable skills one needs to possess in the future does involve elements of AI, to have digital/IT skills. What one needs to is to carry out a SWOT analysis of oneself. In your threats section, does AI have the potential to overtake your job? If yes, I think it’s time to redefine your strategy and improve your strengths and most importantly, your weaknesses. Especially since your digital skills are weak.

And on a general note, Nigeria, as a federal government should promote digital literacy in secondary schools to make sure it is preparing its citizens for the future of work.

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What To Do With Abandoned Buildings in Our Cities

Lagos and Abuja are homes to many abandoned buildings and undeveloped plots of lands for the latter. These buildings are not part of the 50% of the residential estates in Abuja that are not occupied due to no buyer or rent demand. The buildings I refer to are mostly old abandoned uncompleted or completed buildings and a bit dilapidated at times. Although some are in good conditions, but haven’t been occupied for a very long time. As long as 5 years or more.

They are unused for many reasons; closure of the business/company that occupied it, inaction by the property owners either due to insufficient funds or lack of ideas of what to do next, court orders due to many reasons such as establishing rightful owner of plot (such disputes are common in real estate booming Nigeria) etc.

In Abuja, surprisingly, there are many undeveloped plots of land in the inner core of the city; Maitama, Wuse and Central Area. This is hard to come by in Lagos though.

The data is hardly available for the number of such abandoned buildings or pieces of lands in Nigeria. In Lagos, there could be as much as 200 on Victoria Island alone, Engr. Mohammed who resides in Lagos confirmed to me as we drove on the island. A Daily Trust article published November last year stated that the Lagos State Government confiscated 89 abandoned buildings in Ikoyi/Victoria Island axis alone. In a growing Abuja, city council recently did a survey and came up with about 436 abandoned buildings. For cities in the US like Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit, there are 54, 000, 15, 000 and 10, 000 abandoned buildings according to an article posted on CBS News website.

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Abandoned building in Victoria Island

Why Abandoned Buildings Shouldn’t Be

Newspapers frequently reports such buildings are normally used as hideouts for criminals. Others engage in other acts like preparing hard drugs, rituals or even rape minors. Unfortunately. I recently got a forwarded message from a resident in Lagos thats says Lagos just got a new Commissioner of Police. Part of his action strategies to curb criminal activities is to comb abandoned buildings regularly. See how serious the situation is.

These two major reasons of redundancy and using it for illicit acts by criminals should propel city officials to take a regulatory stand on it, especially Abuja where crimes are on the rise. Such regulations should spur economic benefits for the owners and the citizens, especially now that jobs are hard to come by in Nigeria.

What To Do: Innovate

How can building owners leverage their unused buildings as they wait for bigger funds to do as they wish or simply an idea to do something?

Innovations like that of the Northeast Investment Cooperative (NEIC) of Minneapolis in the US is a great source of inspiration. NEIC buys abandoned buildings in their neighbourhoods and lease them out to businesses. Not gentrification by the way. In 2011, the residents, 90 of them, pooled in $1,000 each to acquire a building. They repeated same in 2014 with more than 200 members now as part of the cooperative. They later rented it out to 2 companies; a brewery and a bakery and sold one of the buildings to a bike recovery shop.

It is a common characteristic of cities to have such unused spaces and ‘abandoned’ buildings. Innovations in the form of urban agriculture have brought back life to unused plots of lands and buildings in cities like Malmo in Sweden. Urban agriculturists go into a lease agreement with land/property owners of say 5 years and thereafter move in to start growing food, either from the ground or in containers.

With such assurances, urban agriculturists can easily settle and move to plan a business with anticipation of moving after such agreement.

It is a win-win-win for city council, property owners and citizens. City owners do not have to deal with the eye sore of dilapidated or undeveloped pieces of land and also curb the probability of crime. Property owners earn some money while waiting to take a decision of what to do with the building. Citizens can start a business or grow food in the city or start any business saving them cost of traveling to rural areas.

In hustling vibrant Lagos, security officials guarding abandoned buildings provide accommodation to many people at night only and charge them a fee, without the permission of the owner. This shouldn’t be.

Unfortunately, the typical attitude of asserting authority of public servants had hindered them from providing innovative solutions like the ones mentioned above. Instead, Lagos State Government is confiscating properties. What did they do with it? To whose benefits? Why can’t there be an amicable discussion with property owners and authorities to find a win-win situation for both parties?

Property development code in Abuja says you should complete your construction in 2 years. There are opportunities of extension though. However, what is not allowed is change of use from say residential to commercial. Property owners must apply for a change in use.

An initial conversation with the department of urban planning for the city of Abuja showed that farming is not allowed in the city. But is already going on, informally. The good thing with urban agriculture is it can be done in beautiful ways even the city officials would crave to include as part of future districts designs.

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We can have these indoor plantations and it cant hurt the city

For cities like Lagos that have no land to build or farm, it is a great opportunity to advance sustainability in the city. Growing food in the city is a great part of ensuring food security and quicker access to healthier food.

A different mindset was assumed when designing our cities. With sustainability advocated in all spheres, especially cities, we should incorporate in all our design and development thinking. SDG 11 is about sustainable cities and communities.