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Robots in Africa. What does this mean for the continent ?

Over the last 4 years, more than 20 organizations’ in Africa have launched initiatives to advance participation in robotics’. Now Institutions ranging from local high schools to Universities around the continent are integrating programmes like robotics and artificial intelligence into their curriculum. Africa-wide Initiatives like The African Robotics Network (AFRON), a recipient of the New York 2013 Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award” intends to mobilize a community working on robotics-related areas and strengthening collaboration among them. There is a current craze for advancement in this area even among non-technical parties and its applications are seen in various spheres of Africa. The question ensues – What does this really mean for the African continent?

The African Robotics Network (AFRON) doesn’t just want to grow a robotics community. In 2012, they launched the AFRON “10 Dollar Robot” Design Challenge. The aim of the challenge is creating a simple robot with parts costing under $10 dollars that students would use to explore science and engineering topics.
On 22 August, 2014, a robot made by a US based company made history in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Hospital staff at the ELWA missionary hospital switched on TRU-D, the first automated room decontamination machine to ever be used in Africa. TRU-D is a robot that can disinfect a room – including ridding it of the Ebola virus – in minutes.

Africans understand frugal design and how to build electricity-resilient systems far better than Americans. I’m convinced that robotics will play an increasing role in Africa and that Africans will be play increasing role in robotics.”
-Ken Goldberg, co-founder of the African Robotics Network (AFRON)

Faced with rising car ownership and a lack of trust in the police, the authorities in Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo, recently installed two eight-foot tall robots downtown to help direct traffic and prevent road accidents. The robots are made by Therese Izay’s company Women’s Tech, which designs and manufactures the robots. They can withstand harsh climates and can detect pedestrians waiting to cross.
Currently, the dangerous task of checking if the hanging walls of mines in South Africa are safe is done by humans. South African engineers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria are currently testing robots that will be able to assess the safety of mines after they have been blasted.

Brian Sokol images are part of the Sony-backed #FutureofCities

Brian Sokol. Sony-backed #FutureofCities initiative

The Issue of Cost

Dr Riaan Stopforth of Mechatronics and Robotics Research Group MR2G states – “There is a definite drive for low cost systems. On a continent where money for expensive robots is also limited, some think that there is real potential for Africa to build a reputation for coming up with more affordable, accessible models.”
African organisations face the challenges as those elsewhere in terms of the high cost of developing prototypes or early models of robots. AFRON’s “10 Dollar Robot” Design Challenge has inspired creative minds in Africa to come up with affordable educational robot models. The project which entailed inviting robotics experts from Africa and around the world to help come up with low cost educational robots has made robotics more accessible to young people.
On an industrial level, Dr. Stopforth thinks that they can be priced after the industrialisation phase. “The final production can be a low cost system, making it more affordable,” he says.

Gains and loses: The unemployment case

While some support the advancement in robotics in Africa, others fear It will lead to a negative employment effect for low and middle skilled workers.
Agriculture which is a major field of occupation for the African people is being disrupted. Cheap drones are giving mechanized farmers new ways to increase yields and in countries like Tanzania, monitor wildlife (find more details at Drone Pedia).
When it comes to farming, my optimism is less certain,” says Ms Korsah from Ashesi University “Labour in Africa is generally cheap and if you start coming up with robotic solutions then it can reduce jobs.”
Rising unemployment rates even among the educated is currently an issue in many African countries. University graduates own academic degrees that no longer guarantee getting a job. Many also fear the rise of robotics will threaten assembly-line jobs in the manufacturing sector. That the so-called service robots and computerisation are bound to take a toll on a range of occupations – from airline pilots and truck drivers to surgeons and cooks

Monitoring the wildlife in Tanzania from the skies

Monitoring the wildlife in Tanzania from the skies

Africa’s robotics industry is still very young. Its positive effects are currently seen in certain regions of the continent. A side benefit of its spread is a compulsory rise in education. Though many see an antagonistic face to this occasion in regards to employment, a counter argument can be made by assuming that it will also give rise to a “robot ecosystem” where the design, building, marketing, selling, installing, operating and maintenance of robots will create new jobs that didn’t exist before.

[Header image]Brian Soko. Sony – #FutureofCities

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