Africa is growing economically and is slowly beginning to compete on a global scale. However, with the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) the speed at which solutions are implemented needs to drastically improve. There have been many factors that have contributed to the slow growth on the continent. Issues include: the scarcity of skilled resources, poor governance, lack of access to quality education, and social dynamics, to name a few. One of the barriers to entry for companies seeking to successfully implement technology in Africa has been the lack of understanding of social dynamics in Africa.

Many of Africa’s countries, especially in Southern and Central Africa, hold large reserves of mineral resources. Nevertheless, these countries have experienced slow growth and poverty. Part of the problem is due to poor governance as well as poor infrastructure and a huge deficit in skilled human resources. For these reasons, problem solvers are required to help these countries to overcome the problems faced and to work towards fulfilling the potential the continent holds. Engineers, at their core, are problem solvers. Engineers have helped shape and drive the innovative inventions that have propelled the human race over the past 200 or so years. According to Tshuma, Sub-Saharan Africa has a shortage of over two million engineers. To solve the problems faced in Africa, more engineers are required.

In the upper echelon of science, fields of engineering such as Chemical, Civil, Electrical, and Mechanical Engineering are well-known and are accredited with many of the advancements of the last 100 years. However, less is known about the relatively new field of engineering, Industrial Engineering. Simply brushing off Industrial Engineers as just “production engineers” or “business engineers” is an injustice to the role they play. Their role has become more complex and it does not fit into one specific category. It is fluid, yet specialized.

IEs are concerned with people, process, and system. At the core of Industrial Engineering is the need to improve and optimize how people, processes, and systems interact. Based on these fundamentals, Industrial Engineers are well placed to deal with the needs and demands of the growth of Africa. One of the keys to the success of IEs has been their adaptability as seen by the presence of IEs in virtually every sector. In the disruptive age of 4IR, big data has become integral to improving operations, customer service and informing decisions that lead to greater revenue increases. In Africa though, big data without social context and understanding is doomed for failure, or rather a long and difficult uphill battle. IEs’ ability to understand big data, their business acumen, as well as their process, people, system understanding, allows them to play a pivotal role in effectively implementing solutions using big data.

Although Africa is growing economically and is slowly beginning to compete on a global scale, one of its biggest downfalls has been the slow approach to move from primary consumer to primary producer. There is a great need to quickly pivot and become a producer in this 4IR. However, there is a large skills shortage. Developing African programmes that produce more educated engineers and attract skilled labour from abroad is what is required. According to US Bureau of Labour Statistics, employment for IEs will grow by up to 14 percent from 2020 to 2030.  An upturn in IEs in the workforce will help alleviate the engineering skills deficit that Africa has been facing.

Pre Covid-19, there had been a lot of concerns in South Africa about the disruptive nature of 4IR and how it would displace a large chunk of the workforce. Because of Covid-19, the country and locals have actually been more receptive to some of the benefits of 4IR. This is proof that a change in circumstances can bring forth necessary mindset shifts. With IEs having the skillset to adapt to changes, and them being integrators who combine different parts of a problem and offer solutions, they can be the necessary change drivers the continent needs. They are able to translate requirements into solutions. Their people-centricity allows them to envision the overall big picture, and map out how it affects the people. This is what is required if we are going to succeed in growing this continent. IEs’ responsibility in contributing to the economic wellbeing of the community is integral in bridging gaps of the past and mapping a brighter future.

Industrial Engineers have become prominent contributors in the private sector with many working in the Financial Services and Insurance industry. Multiple leading multinationals have a process engineering department which work to define, map, and optimise existing and future state processes. Additionally., FNB considers industrial engineering to be one of their most critical skills and called for the public and private sector to invest in it.

This continent holds a lot of history, culture, art, intelligence, and human capital. To forge the necessary bonds and continue to build this continent, we need to bridge the gap, allow for healing, practice empathy, and be bold in our assertations. To achieve our goals successfully and timeously on this continent, business needs to be done at the speed of trust. Taking the time to understand the environment you are in, who you are dealing with and how you deal with them will go a long way to helping individuals and companies make positive strides in Africa.

There is an undeniably large skills gap in Africa and to offset some of the challenges caused by this, Industrial Engineers have come to the fore. With their skills in, process efficiency modelling, process automation and change management they are able to effectively help labourers to get the full value in their work and processes. Industrial engineers are here, they are the present and the future.

Nigel Mehlomakulu is a Senior Consultant at Convergenc3.

All opinions expressed are the author’s own.