Sunday, June 16, 2024
CommentaryAutomation and its impact on Ethiopia

Automation and its impact on Ethiopia

With a population of more than 100 million, no matter how wonderful our government is, if the country is not able to create enough jobs for its young population, we will never have peace and stability.  Automation will soon start taking jobs from our young population so each one of us should start to sound the alarm, writes Senay Mikre.

Throughout time, the world has seen so many drastic changes in human dwelling. Counting from the European industrial revolutions of the 1820s until the emergence of the internet to the smartphone revolution of the millennium, people were able to improve their lives to the better relying on the technologies and innovations of each era they lived in. Most part of the world became the primary beneficiaries of these positive industrial-technological revolutions and some countries are still trying to catch up.

In general, the human race have greatly benefited and greatly improved their own livelihood to the better using advancements of science and technology as a core of growth. However, the time for all this to end is closer than anyone has ever thought it would be thanks to technological revolution called automation.

What is automation?

The term automation was derived from the word automatic; it is used to describe the use of computers and/or machines to complete a task. It generally means using machines to replace humans for work. Yes, the main phrase is machine-replacing humans. As we all are aware that day by day humans are getting more and more dependent on the help of computers and automated systems even to complete very simple tasks like shoe shining and house vacuuming. More and more industries are being filled with machines rather than human labor, mostly for one simple reason; humans get tired while machines do not.

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Even if the industrial level of automation started a long time ago with robot car factories in Japan; the most visible part of automation started 4-5 years ago with the release of Tesla’s self-driving cars, Google’s Waymo auto-piloted cars, Uber’s auto-drive taxis and military/non-military/ unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. 10 years ago, many people believed that driverless vehicles were nothing but a dream, today many auto and truck manufacturers are pushing to have fully automated vehicles for sale by 2020. Self-driving cars are still a rare thing to see on the roads but the volume that these companies are selling self-driving cars and the volume of the population that is ditching the manual car to buy the autopilot capable cars is surprisingly huge. Uber, the ride sharing (taxi) company, in most part of the world is refining and polishing its thousands of NO DRIVER taxis to be released by 2019.

DAF, Daimler, Iveco, MAN, Scania and Volvo just rolled out their own non-human self-driving battery electric operated trucks in 2017. They all will start to sell by 2018. Google’s Woymo self-driving trucks are already on the road with human drivers attached for now; Google predicts that within the next 10 years 1.7 million trucks will be self-driving with no drivers. The electric car company Tesla, unveiled its 100 percent machine run electric car battery factory in Reno, Nevada last year. The CEO stated: “When it becomes fully operational by 2018, the factory will produce car batteries with speed too fast for the naked eye.”

On another front, American fast-food giant MacDonald’s just replaced cashiers with touchscreens for its 2,500 stores in the US. The fast-food franchise expects to fully automate (replace humans) in its restaurants within the next 5-0 years. When looking at the trends, anyone from waiters, to accountants, real estate agents to drivers, cashiers to factory workers will be replaced by machines within the next 10-20 years.

According to an article posted on, which is entitled ‘The fourth industrial revolution” (they call Automation 4th industrial revolution), is already happening in China. Chinese domestic economy exploded in the last two decades thanks to investment from Western companies that moved their manufacturing operations to China. These same factories are now turning to machines as replacements for human labor. Take, for instance, Foxconn, a factory that manufactures iPhones for Apple Inc., which recently replaced 60,000 workers with machines in its single factory. These examples are far from anecdotal. China already purchases far more automated industrial machines than any other country in the word. By next year, China will have outpaced the two leading manufacturing nations the United States and Germany in terms of the number of industrial robots used in the country.

 What does this mean for Ethiopia?

Most African countries including Ethiopia have agricultural based economy with little industrialization. Thanks to Chinese investments and their will to share technology with Africa, we are witnessing a dramatic shift in transforming the African populace to a manufacturing-based economy. However, the impact of automation is also coming to our continent in full force, it is expected that Africa will be negatively hit. 

Most developed countries or countries with private business-led economies will transfer their manufacturing and service giving sectors to automated form of production or service within the next 10-20 years. Let us say a Western garment manufacturer based in Asia, and or now in Africa, starts to produce the same garment in its own country with factories only run buy machines. This will dramatically lower price of a product produced in automated factories. Since they do not have employees, automated factories produce, non-stop, with no or few errors, in very high volume within a very short period. Products produced with human labor will not have any chance of competing with price and quality.

Ability to profit more from products made in their own country will make companies have no incentive or need to come all the way to Ethiopia to invest; this obviously will slow down or even stop any investments that comes to Africa and Ethiopia. The main reason investors come to invest in Africa is because of cheap labor. Automation will make them lose any reason to invest here, without foreign direct investment (FDI) and technology transfer it’s almost impossible to achieve industrialization in any country. Investors even get discouraged that they have to pass through all the bureaucratic hurdles to invest in Africa. Robots will do it almost for free in their own country with a “Made in a Western country” tag. This means we Ethiopians have a very limited amount of time to transfer our population from an agricultural-based economy to an industry-based economy that can withstand the lack of foreign direct investment.

How much time do we have?

We only have a maximum of 20 years. Martin Ford, the author of Rise of the Robots, in his interview with PC magazine stated: “I tend to think this (automation) will become a really big issue within 10-20 years. That may be playing it conservative. I’ve talked to people working in machine learning who think the big disruption may only be five years away.”

Just a few months ago, on July 15, 2017, the CEO of Tesla (the biggest autopilot electric car company in the world), Elon Musk, predicted that within the next 10 years all cars that are going to be produced will be autopilot/autonomous cars. Within 15 -20 years he expects humans might be legally banned from driving a vehicle.

The above indicators are only on a few particular categories of industries; almost all big companies in developed countries are working with their own versions of automations within their respective categories.

This indicates we have very short time, 20 years, 25 years at most, until companies start to pull their factories back to their own countries and replace human jobs with machines.

Who is going to be affected the most?

Any new revolutionary inventions have particular population it affects the most. Until now, there is very little information available on what type of jobs are going be affected in Africa, but all data in the EU and the US indicate that automation will hit the less educated working class the most. All types of driving jobs, factory jobs, retail (shopping malls, supermarkets) jobs, agriculture work, banking work, waiters, bartenders, accountants, all types of data collection and entry jobs, are the first in the list of jobs that will no longer be available for humans in a few years’ time.

This makes lower middle class Ethiopians abroad on the top list of the demographic that will be affected the most. Ethiopians living abroad should act now; going to school, studying subjects least affected by automation or start their own small businesses to survive. There is no other option. Seeing the political trends in western countries, which is leaning to the right, it will not be a surprise if middle class immigrants lose their jobs before the natives do.

Some Countries in the EU and Scandinavia are already moving to provide their citizens with a ‘universal basic income’ (money received from the government whether you have job or not). Finland and Sweden have already started a test phase, but it is highly doubtful that any of those countries provide any stipend for immigrants and/or non-citizens in their country. 

What are the options for Ethiopia and are we doomed?

We Ethiopians never had it easy in our history; all indicators are showing that we will be facing tough times in the future unless we think really far ahead to solve the upcoming problems.

Since automation is a new phenomenon, it is challenging to find the right solution for its effects on a particular society. However, we can make good educated guesses to start prevention work for it.

  1. We need to industrialize, very fast. We need to find as much loans and grants as we can and spend it on industrialization and infrastructure developments like power and transportation. We need more industry zones more industry parks to catch up with those companies leaving china for cheaper labor.
  2. We need huge investments in the transportation sector. Speedy transportation is the engine for industrialization. As the Japanese say, “Countries, that move (with regards to transportation) their population fast, grow their economy fast.”
  3. Whether we like it or not, we have to integrate African eonomies together and create our own protected African, or at least East African market, that can resist the influence of the West and Asia. Integrating local markets together will let us export and import products exclusively for our regional markets. It is imperative to make exclusive trade deals with as many African countries as possible. Countries with the same stage of development getting together to develop in a protected market will be the best deterrent of automation exodus. The AU should also play a big role in creating an Africa-wide free trade zone and develop ways to prevent individual African countries from making trade agreements with non-African countries.
  4. The notion that we can go to college for four years and then spend that knowledge on one job for the next 30 years is over. If we want to be a lifelong employee anywhere today, we have to be a lifelong learner. That means self-motivation to learn and keep learning becomes the most important life skill to obtain. 

This is a big wakeup call to all of us in Ethiopia. For anyone in leadership or any private citizen, who would like to see Ethiopia in a better place in the future, this is the exact time to act, educate and push the government to create a strategy to protect Ethiopia from effects of automation. This is not the right time for bickering left to right on politics. We need to direct our focus on industrializing the country as fast as possible now or else we will be bickering and stay poor. We will have as much time as possible to bicker on politics after we become industrialized.

We need to fully swallow the fact that without FDI, there will be no development. We have reached to the point where investors are leaving China and Asia because labor becoming expensive. Investors are looking to places where labor and electricity is cheap to invest. If we do not cease this opportunity, we may not have any other chance to industrialize again.

Focusing on our day-to-day lives, this topic is very easy to ignore and forget, but no matter how very little attention it gets, automation is an absolute defining technology with a potential to reverse Ethiopia to the Stone Age. With a population of more than 100 million, no matter how wonderful our government is, if the country is not able to create enough jobs for its young population, we will never have peace and stability.  Automation will soon start taking jobs from our young population so each one of us should start to sound the alarm.

Ed.’s Note: Senay Mikre is


Contributed by Senay Mikre


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