By James Blackman
The first Centre for Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) in Africa has opened in Rwanda, with a focus on data governance, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning. It joins a network of 15 C4IR venues on four continents, and sets its agenda to “put [Africa] at the centre of a new tech revolution”.
The C4IR initiative, to develop Industry 4.0 policies and frameworks through a global network of C4IR centres, is organised by the World Economic Forum. The Rwandan government has leaned on the new C4IR centre already to formulate its new data protection and privacy legislation and to co-design its national AI policy.
Writing in a blog post, Paula Ingabire, the country’s minister for information communication technology, said young Africans have grown up with technology, whether for mobile payments or drone deliveries of medical supplies, as well as an ability to “innovate out of necessity”. The new C4IR centre will “unlock” their youthful innovation in the digital sector, she said, by showing the whole continent the way on clearer data regulation.
Ingabire – not be bound by legacy infrastructure
She wrote: “This young generation will not be bound by legacy infrastructure or, more importantly, legacy mindsets, which often hinder our ability to think outside the box. Rwanda recognizes these opportunities, as well as the opportunity offered by regulatory innovation to unlock the potential of this generation.
“The time has come for Africa to put itself at the centre of a new tech revolution. Our continent has a unique competitive advantage which stems from an undeniably entrepreneurial spirit that is built-in to our young generations – that is an ability to innovate out of necessity. Through focused investment and policymaking, we can harness this spirit to solve problems that address underserved communities who make up the majority of the world’s population.”
The government in Rwanda passed new data protection legislation in October to enable trusted and secure data flows, domestically and internationally, and to maximise the economic and social benefits of technologies such as AI. Ingabire said the law provides the “foundation to transform Rwanda into a data-empowered society, by ensuring all critical stakeholders, starting with [the] government, attain the gold standard in personal data protection and privacy.”
Different data protection laws have restricted the movement of data between countries, and thereby participation in the global Industry 4.0 market. This poses a “serious threat to the global digital economy… [and the] benefits of data-reliant technologies such as AI,” according to the World Economic Forum. In the case of Rwanda, a lack of legislation has “hampered” the progress of “new tech to address the scarcity of healthcare resources”, in particular.
The new C4IR-backed data laws put that right, the message goes. The C4IR network united experts, the government of Bahrain, to deliver “best-in-class legislation”; the World Economic Forum led a project in 2020 with the Bahrain Economic Development Board to develop a roadmap for cross-border data flows. C4IR Rwanda will develop the Bahrain framework for its own ends, and for rules on cross-border data flows for the rest of the continent.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the appetite and capacity for change. “The status quo has been overhauled, a process that we previously thought might take 30 years, and in many places come about seemingly overnight. The vision of a truly interconnected, borderless world now seems an imminent reality, rather than a distant dream. In the face of these rapid advances, our growing reliance on technology has been brought sharply into focus.”
Rwanda has also worked with the World Economic Forum on a national AI policy agenda to advance Africa’s “innovation capacity and [to] further develop AI systems that are ethical and inclusive by design”. AI tools have been deployed to improve healthcare access; a pilot, led by healthcare firm Babylon, has leveraged the C4IR framework, Chatbots RESET (developed with Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings) to process 4,000 daily consultations with AI triage.
Ingabire – on stage at the opening of the C4IR opening in Rwanda
“This enables nurses to work more efficiently and make quicker decisions for their patients by asking the right questions, collecting necessary information about a patient’s symptoms, and providing them with insights to help choose the correct triage path. Integrating AI-powered triage tools into this service has been a critical step in digitising the national healthcare system,” said the World Economic Forum.
Officiating at the centre’s opening, Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, said: “The launch of this centre is enabled by investments that we, as a country, have been making in science and technology. I hope the centre will build on this by making the Fourth Industrial Revolution an equalising force, and contributing solutions to some of today’s most pressing challenges.”
Founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab commented: “The centre will herald a new era for Rwanda and the continent. Innovation and entrepreneurship are key in heralding the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The work of our 4IR centres has always been important, but in this time of great global upheaval it is more crucial than ever to build together a better future and use technology to do so.”
In a keynote address, president of the World Economic Forum, Børge Brende added: “This is the first centre to be formally launched in Africa. It says a lot about the leadership in the country when it comes to leapfrogging and being visionary when it comes to new technologies. This centre… will play an important role… [for Rwanda to become] an upper middle-income country by 2035.”
Managing director of C4IR Rwanda, Crystal Rugege said: “Building on Rwanda’s track record of reimagining regulation for emerging technologies, we will use the Centre as a catalyst for Africa to lead the world in shaping a more inclusive Fourth Industrial Revolution that addresses unique challenges and unlocks more equitable opportunities for innovation and growth that deliver societal impact.”