The rapid advancement of technologies has become a distinctive characteristic of life in the new millennium. Humans and robots work side by side to deliver excellent products and services. Artificial intelligence (AI) creates a new context for the industrial and workforce evolution, where smart technologies manage complex industrial processes, often with minimal or no human involvement. While the global community is praising the benefits of robotics and advanced technologies, their impacts on different areas of human activity remain obscured from the public eye. What matters is the effect which AI and robotics have on job creation, growth, and security, and the results which they will have on the job market in the near future.
Ethiopia is a developing economy, which has been particularly attractive for global firms due to the availability of low-paid workforce. Manufacturing has become the primary source of Ethiopia’s economic advantage. AI and robotics can erase many of these jobs and potential jobs opportunities, but they can also create new ones. Everything depends on Ethiopia’s economic policy and its implementation by the country’s institutions in light of its ongoing quest for development through manufacturing.
When it comes to the development of robotics and AI and its implications for the Ethiopian economy and workforce, the first question to ask is whether the threat is real? The answer is a clear yes. AI and robotics have a powerful potential to erase manufacturing jobs, in Ethiopia or elsewhere in the world. According to Karsten and West, the Great Recession has taught multinational firms to manage their operations without relying on too many workers. Besides, the costs of robots and AI solutions continue to decline, making them an attractive alternative to humans.
These changes are likely to be felt in the manufacturing sector that has historically relied on a complex combination of industrial technologies and the human workforce.
In the past decade, Ethiopia has embraced the manufacturing sector as the key driver behind its economic development. Coupled with the cheap labor force, this reliance on manufacturing has been part of the country’s “marketing pitch to foreign investors, promising high returns”. Labor-intensive industries have been sprouting in Ethiopia and the rest of the African continent. Human capital-intensive activities have also been part of its economic growth. All these activities are likely to be displaced, as robotics and AI become virtually omnipresent. The recent study by the University of Oxford and the World Bank suggests that 85 percent of all manufacturing jobs in Africa could be gone. This grim reality is a vicious sequence of changes: low-paid unskilled workers improve organizational productivity in the manufacturing sector, increasing revenues and profits that are further invested in promoting automation and replacing the jobs held by these low-paid unskilled workers.
On the other hand, no one can say for sure how pervasive and dramatic the effects of robotics and AI will be in the near future. Experts lack any agreement as to whether automation can replace all human jobs in a short time. Some believe in the looming unemployment, whereas others are confident that AI and robotics will create new jobs. In Ethiopia, agriculture remains the biggest employer. Therefore, millions of citizens still have a chance to retain their jobs. As for those involved in the manufacturing industry, the results of the technological revolution will depend mainly on how the government and responsible institutions choose to act.
Ethiopia can remain on the front lines of the domestic and global economic advancement if it is ready to embrace the opportunities presented by AI and robotics. AI sector can blossom in Ethiopia, all it needs is a good policy guideline that fosters a conducive environment for AI research and development. Apart from creating a thriving area for economic growth, AI and robotics can promote the creation of entirely new jobs. After all, even the fully automated manufacturing sector will need someone skilled to keep robots and technologies running. However, this is possible only if the country moves from being home to unskilled and low-skilled personnel towards building a new generation of high-skilled specialists.
The Ethiopian government and institutions can make AI and robotics one of the leading industries while opening new opportunities for continuous education and learning across all sectors of the national job market. Ethiopia may no longer be in a position to sustain its economic growth by shifting its workers from low-paying agriculture to higher-paying manufacturing facilities due to automation. However, it can shift its focus toward AI and robotics as a potential new industry that will attract hundreds and thousands of promising specialists. Besides, it can follow the economic model of other successful Asian countries where service-led growth has recently become a priority. Education opportunities and investments in high-tech industries can create a new competitive advantage for Ethiopia. Ethiopia should grasp this opportunity and upskill its workforce since skilled jobs are much less vulnerable to the adverse effects of automation. The success of these changes will depend on the extent to which federal and local institutions articulate coherent and viable policy towards AI and robotics.
Ed.’s Note: Samuel Alemu, Esq is a partner at the ILBSG, LLP. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and Addis Ababa University. Samuel has been admitted to the bar associations of New York State, United States Tax Court, and the United States Court of International Trade. He can be reached at [email protected].
Contributed by Samuel Alemu