Africa doesn’t just need a digital revolution – it needs a cultural one, too

Men sing and dance as they celebrate referendum results in Abyei October

'We must think of the revolution as a cultural one, and not just a digital one' Image: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Funmi Iyanda
Executive Director, Oya Media and Creation Television
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Africa

“We are at the beginning of a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work and relate to one another,” Klaus Schwab writes in his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution.

If anyone knows how the digital revolution can transform lives, it’s Funmi Iyanda. Born in the Nigerian metropolis of Lagos, she’s worked her way up through the world of television to become an award-winning broadcaster and journalist. And she believes that this revolution could also transform her continent, Africa. But only if we broaden our focus and think of the digital revolution as something bigger: a cultural revolution.

Whenever we hear about the digital revolution, and how to prepare for it, we’re often told about the importance of STEM subjects. But we hear less about the role of the arts and culture. What role must these play?

More and more we hear people talking about STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – as though they exist in isolation from culture. That’s a mistake. After all, in all the great civilizations of the past, culture formed the backbone of these subjects. It was only by grappling with the realities they were facing daily, and attempting to come up with ways to improve their situation, that the Greeks, the Romans, the Incas and the old African kingdoms were able to make any progress in these areas. And all of that relies on culture.

But this tendency to think of the STEM subjects in isolation is something you see quite a bit in Africa. I think this is in part a legacy of colonialism and slavery: there is a lingering cultural shame that has meant the study of African liberal arts and culture was never adequately developed in the curriculum. So it is much easier now to focus on the STEM subjects and neglect arts and culture. But if we want to thrive in this Fourth Industrial Revolution, and ensure the opportunities don’t pass us by – as they have in previous industrial revolutions – we must think of the revolution as a cultural one, and not just a digital one.

We could make a start by building education systems that not only think of STEM subjects and the liberal arts as one concept, but that also teach them in local languages. Non-indigenous languages like English, French or Portuguese are important, but should instead be compulsory additions, as foreign languages are in many countries. Language is the crucible of culture, which is the driving force behind STEM, and thus a vital ingredient for ensuring Africa's full participation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The creative industries have been described as Africa’s sleeping giant: while they could help boost growth, the opportunity hasn’t been properly exploited. Just how big an opportunity do you think this is and what can be done to make the most of it?

Everything in Africa is a sleeping giant. The only things that have been exploited – and I use that word consciously – are the continent’s natural resources. But those countries that thrive do not do so on the basis of their natural resources. It’s what they are able to do with these – the products they can create, for example – that makes the difference. And that relies on innovation, science and technology, all of which wouldn’t exist without arts and culture, as I’ve already explained.

But the key to really making the most of arts and culture in Africa is to create industries around them. They are already a fundamental part of our lives, but how do we turn them into thriving, profitable industries? Actually, the challenge is very similar to the broader one of industrialization in Africa. For many of our countries, this will involve a reorganization of political structures and systems, turning them into market-friendly units and prising them away from sometimes overbearing governments.

The creative industries in Africa could be hugely successful – so could almost anything on the continent, because so much is as yet undone but doable. With all its potential and everything it has to offer, Africa should be the hub of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Africa is a vast continent – much bigger than most of us appreciate. Some say the digital revolution offers the chance to connect Africa like never before, breaking down national borders and igniting what has been called “social pan-Africanism”. Can you see this happening and why is it important?

This social pan-Africanism existed even before the digital revolution through cross-border trade, but it was often hampered by unimaginative and rigid archaic laws.

However, the digital revolution has helped us see this more clearly and foster it among young middle-class Africans, who are often the most likely to suffer cultural dissonance on account of private education that seeks to undo their Africaness. As many of these people are the policy-makers of tomorrow, I hope that the concept of African economic integration will become easier to deliver. After all, they will have already had the opportunity to interact with one another socially through digital technology, and will have a deeper sense of cultural (that word again!) cohesion, which will affect their world view and thus the political and economic structures and relationships they build across the continent. At that point, it goes beyond an intellectual concept to a lived cultural concept they intuitively understand and no longer fear. I have great hopes for social pan-Africanism.

For two years you’ve led a series called “How to fix Nigeria”, which explores some of the country’s biggest challenges and practical solutions for addressing them. What do you see as Africa’s biggest challenges, and how could the opportunities offered by the digital revolution help tackle them?

The first challenge is finding the cultural confidence to accept the futility of maintaining political structures, cultural conditioning and education systems that were designed to limit innovation, expression, integration, trade and industrialization. And then we need the cultural courage to begin unpacking, altering and rearranging these in line with a clear vision of a powerful, industrialized and thriving Africa.

The digital revolution carries these ideas, conversations, struggles and innovations from Lagos to Harare in the blink of an eye, which is where its real power lies. The speed of the digital revolution and rate at which our young population is growing implies huge changes for Africa in the near future. My hope is that the changes outmanoeuvre the crafty old structural monster before it wizens up to the new methods and bites back, hard.

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