Cobotics Around The World – Africa: Is African culture a roadblock on the path of cobotics?

Robotics is an unstoppable phenomenom. According to the International Federation of Robotics, more than a million industrial robots will be installed worldwide by 2019. In South Korea, the robot density per 10.000 workers reached 731 robots and Germany leads in Europe with 322 robots. China joins the race with massive investments and is now the biggest market for industrial robots. [1] But what about the silent African continent? Africa, with two industrial robots per 100.000 manufacturing workers (World Bank Research) and less than 2.000 industrial robots sold in the last three years, suffers already of an important technological gap and it cannot ignore these trends since they will in future have a strong impact on employment within the continent.

Future manufacturing will be focused on collaborative robots (cobots), integrated with a new era of disruptive innovations that will make factories smarter than ever. In this scenario, workers’ productivity will be greatly improved, but factories will require much fewer people to operate. Thus, the large number of unskilled workers in Africa will no longer be able to rely on the massive job creation provided by the manufacturing segment and their future job prospects will be strongly affected.

How can the continent catch up with the international cobotics-oriented business? Which are the main challenges to overcome?
A study from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University published in 2017 [2] explored this field and gave us an overview of the main factors impacting the African manufacturing scene when speaking about cobotics. The research, conducted over several South African automotive industrial organizations, showed how, despite some organizations define cobotics as a technological advancement that could only be advantageous to drive the African economic growth, others cannot see the deployment of cobot as a viable option due to the high perception of the technology cost, the low labor costs with respect to international countries, and a generally technically inexperienced, poorly educated and highly unionized workforce. This last factor has been identified as the main problem to overcome for African business introducing cobots: at the employee level, the fear of redundancy, retrenchment and increased unemployment could be considered as the single biggest challenge.

To address it, African companies need to focus on the training and development of their workforce trying to achieve human-robot trust that will determine the workers’ acceptance of the cobot in a collaborative work environment. While this concept remains in place for all companies worldwide, in Africa, where there is a strong human-human collaboration culture, managers need to face these aspects carefully, establishing new human resource management practices. Cobotic solutions are the key to create a sustainable work environment and the continent cannot miss this technological train.
With investment in training and education, the continent, currently considered as a destination for delocalised European and Chinese companies, can leverage its domestic market and encourage foreign organisations to collaborate with local manufacturing realities. To achieve that, the governments need to implement policies that push African companies to compete in the new digital economy, introducing new assets and technologies, cobotics first of all.