The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in Africa: A Dialogue on Policy Perspectives and Investment Options April 18, 2021

It is a pleasure to represent the International Development Research Centre, or IDRC, and speak at this important policy dialogue, organized by the African Academy of Sciences, on the 4th industrial revolution.

Africa was largely left out of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd industrial revolutions.[1] In the 4th, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship will be the norm in all sectors of society.[2] This could greatly benefit the people of Africa, however, any deep societal inequalities will be reproduced. If, on the other hand, inequalities are consciously brought forward and addressed, I anticipate an inclusive 4th industrial revolution that contributes to the Africa We Want.

That is why I argue for applying a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens to all policies and programs at national and regional levels. I would like to humbly share some experiences from IDRC in this regard.

First, who are we at IDRC? The one-of-a-kind organization was created by an Act of Canadian Parliament. We have a diverse group of about 350 staff persons around the world. We fund participatory applied research in the Global South. In Africa, IDRC has supported, for over 50 years, hundreds of African research organizations, and thousands of African researchers.

Women in research and innovation

Let’s start with a discussion of women. They need to be integral to Africa’s 4th industrial revolution journey. This means facilitating their participation in all spheres of life.

We need women in science and technology, for example, if the continent is to benefit from their perspectives, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Too many women get into science and abandon it. We need, with great intentionality, to create environments where women can thrive in science.

At IDRC, we are trying to understand and address systemic barriers that keep women from advancing in science. One study of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA)[3] is assessing the policies and practices that its 16 member universities have put in place to support the participation of women in science and technology, and in leadership.

We are also supporting the work of the African Leadership Centre to develop a framework to guide training in inclusive leadership at universities and in African science systems.

These are two important pan African organizations and initiatives that will mobilize knowledge and action to get at the root causes of discrimination and help liberate the human potential needed for Africa to reap the benefits of the 4th industrial revolution.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, plus “a” for the “arts” gives us STEAM. Bringing a creative approach to STEAM education and research can make the sciences more attractive to women and help make the science more relevant to context. This has been proven in other parts of the world, and IDRC is supporting advances in STEAM in Africa. For example, researchers at the University of Rwanda are integrating women’s experiences to improve the design of housing and public spaces, knowing women are usually left out of such processes. Researchers at the University of Mauritius are involving women in the design of small wind turbines, to respond to different energy needs in rural, urban and coastal areas of the country.

Promoting collaborative science

At IDRC we promote collaborative science and open data. Worldwide cooperation and the sharing of genomic sequencing led to the development of vaccines against covid-19 in just one year.[4] What could Africa gain for its 4th industrial revolution through more scientific collaboration and the more strategic use and sharing of data?

Collaboration in science is necessary to bring quick solutions to shared and complex challenges. That is why IDRC and other partners support the Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI). In fifteen African countries, councils that fund research collaborate to strengthen science in the national interest and encourage cross-border collaborations. The councils have promoted the concept of open science in Africa, to spur technological and social discoveries.

Open science is based on open data and open access to the results of scientific inquiry, to enhance efficiency, the rate of discovery, and the understanding of complex systems. Science is part of the backbone of the 4th industrial revolution, and scientists need to work in collaboration across their fields and across countries in integrated ways, sharing experiences and learnings across borders, as encouraged in the Science Granting Councils Initiative.

The Free Trade Agreement is promoting more intra-African trade. Open science promotes more open sharing of data and scientific discoveries and more collaboration across borders. Both these dynamics – intra-African trade, and open science – have the capacity to boost Africa’s benefits from the 4th industrial evolution, if an equity and inclusion lens is continually used.

Using a gender and equity lens must be intentional and continuous

Using a gender and equity lens is not easy. It requires commitment, expertise, and tools. It might be inspiring if I share a bit about what has helped us at IDRC.

We made a name for ourselves in gender and inclusion going back at least to the first woman President of IDRC. She inspired us to integrate concerns for gender and inclusion in all IDRC work. Since then, we have publicly shared IDRC’s Equality Statement and developed a gender and inclusion framework to support the implementation of our Strategy 2030, which was launched just this month. We are excited about this Strategy for a more inclusive and sustainable world and hope you will share in our excitement.

No IDRC-funded work will be gender blind. It will be gender and inclusion aware, sensitive, or responsive. And some will be transformative – meaning that it asks questions that get at the root causes of discrimination, is designed in highly inclusive and participatory ways, ensures that concerns for gender and inclusion do not “fade” over the course of the research, and sees the beginning of structural change in the life cycle of the project.

What else has helped us at IDRC? We have a working group that looks not only at gender and inclusion in the research we fund but also at issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the organization. We allow ourselves to be introspective and even critical, identifying where we need to improve and building and resourcing a roadmap for change.

We have integrated concerns for gender and inclusion into our strategy, our outcome pathways, and our monitoring, learning and evaluation framework. We have encouraged staff to complete a learning module called Gender Based Analysis Plus (GBA+), which is available on the web and suggests how to account for intersectional issues, such as age, race, socioeconomic status, religion, or ability, when designing initiatives. We also developed a tool called Research Quality Plus (RQ+) which helps us, and many others around the world, know when research is of high quality and how quality research can be cultivated. It shows that the integration of gender and inclusion is one of several factors that makes for high quality research.

We also engage with other partners and learn from their experience – for example from the gender team at the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa and the CGIAR[5] Generating Evidence and New Directions for Equitable Results or GENDER Platform.

We work with the International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI) to support researchers to use the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index or WEAI tool. And when it comes to education, we learn from the expertise and approaches of the Forum for African Women Educationalists or FAWE, which has chapters in over 30 African counties and almost 30 years of experience working with schools and governments to promote equity in education

So, there are important resources on the continent to learn about using a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens. If we do not, the 4th industrial revolution will serve some people but not all Africans.

Including women and youth in business

and in transitioning to greener economies

Back to the discussion about women. Not only are they needed in science. We also need them in business. What can help women in manufacturing benefit more from the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and contribute to the 4th industrial revolution? The Kenya Association of Manufacturers is using evidence to improve the competitiveness of women industrialists,[6] [7] something to be emulated elsewhere.

The Africa office of the International Center for Research on Women has shown the importance for businesswomen of healthcare, childcare, access to information and financial resources, and protection from violence.[8] Accounting for these factors in policies and programs will go a long way in enhancing women’s contributions to the 4th industrial revolution.

The current global pandemic has accelerated entry into the 4th industrial revolution. It is estimated that 52% of agricultural enterprises are now using technology as an indispensable tool, to beat covid-19 challenges and thrive going forward.[9] Boosting the skills of various groups of people to integrate and optimize technology in their businesses is the way to go for the 4th industrial revolution.

The Director of Research at the African Development Bank stressed how youth will be one of Africa’s most important assets in meeting the 4th industrial revolution.[10] Youth need educational opportunities, entrepreneurial outlooks, technological savviness, and skills for the jobs of the future.

With Africa and the rest of the world facing the impacts of climate change, an opportunity presents itself to transition to greener economies and renewable energies in the 4th industrial revolution. South Africa is positioning itself to use hydrogen for its domestic supply of energy and even export green hydrogen on the global market.[11] The success of such efforts depends both on smart regulatory frameworks and the skilling of youth to work in these emerging sectors.

With regard to skilling for greener economies, IDRC is supporting teams in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Kenya to strengthen engineering research and education.[12] In Senegal, IDRC and the company Meridiam are collaborating to explore best practices for training engineers and technicians for solar energy.[13] Such skilling and reskilling, of people of all genders, will support Africa’s youth to contribute to greener economies.

I have one more thought about inclusion. I think about how Africa is home to a quarter of the world’s refugees. This represents millions of people. I have not seen the research on this, but I know the importance of connectivity[14] for the 4th industrial revolution. I wonder if connectivity for refugee communities and their role in the 4th industrial revolution is considered. We need everyone participating. What will happen if we leave people behind? How do we reduce the structural inequalities that limit participation? How are internally displaced people and refugees integrated into national development plans as we move forward?


In conclusion, I invite us to imagine policies and programs developed with the most marginalized, the most forgotten, in mind. Imagine infrastructure and technologies – from roads to software – that truly consider and integrate the needs and aspirations of diverse groups of people. Resilient inequalities must be confronted to realize the 4th industrial revolution in Africa and globally.

Africa has incredible ingenuity and immense capacities for innovation, which will inspire the 4th industrial revolution and make it matter for Africa.

Grand merci.

If you were to speak with a head of government today, or a key funding partner concerning Africa’s 4IR, what 3 to 5 major actions would you ask of them and why?

  • I hope that all African Union member states, as they agreed in 2006, will invest each year 1% of their GDP in research and development.
    • We need to promote women scientists and inclusive leadership in universities and science systems, to liberate capacity for creativity and innovation.
    • It is also important to use an equity and inclusion lens to ensure access to information and capital for the development of small and medium-sized businesses.
    • Finally, mainstream concerns for gender and social inclusion into the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTA), with a view to promoting intraAfrican trade and investment and transitioning to green economies.

Who should we be working with to realize the priorities for 4IR in Africa?

I have my biases. I think the research community in Africa has an important role to play in informing how Africa harnesses the 4th industrial revolution for its 1.2 billion people. But research is not an elite activity. Science needs to be close to people and to communities. And people and communities need to be in the science. Researchers need to collaborate across national, linguistic, and disciplinary boundaries and work with governments, private sector actors, and civil society organizations.

Ensuring the generation of contextualized knowledge and solutions will help leverage the incredible creative capacities of communities across the continent.

*Dr. Kathryn Toure is Regional Director, Eastern and Southern Africa, International Development Research Centre (IDRC).Speaking notes presented at event organized by the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) Thursday, February 25, 2021, 16:00-18:00 East Africa time

[1] Enhancing the Digital Transformation of African Universities: COVID-19 as Accelerator

[2] The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Africa needs to keep up – IT News Africa

[3] ARUA brings together 16 of sub-Saharan Africa’s research-intensive universities. As globally connected and respected institutions, these universities are trailblazers and role models for other African universities.

[4] COVID-19 vaccine: How was it developed so fast? (

[5] CGIAR = Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research

[6] KAM, ICRW Announces First Women in Manufacturing Study in Kenya (

[7] Women in Manufacturing report


[9] Agribusiness in Unprecedented Times

[10] How Africa Can Harness the Fourth Industrial Revolution by Hanan Morsy – Project Syndicate (

[11] South Africa is well positioned to export green hydrogen ­– PwC (

[12] Rethink the engineering ecosystem in sub-Saharan Africa

[13] Meridiam and IDRC announce training and research program in renewable energies | IDRC – International Development Research Centre

[14] How Africa Wins The 4th Industrial Revolution (



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