Basic rights and Equality

Including people with disabilities in Africa’s transition to the fourth industrial revolution

4 min


Elizabeth Naududu

The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) threatens to further exclude people with disabilities from employment in Africa. This blog explores a just transition to 4IR in Africa that captures the needs of disabled people in a high-tech, changing work environment.

What is 4IR?

Led by developed nations, the world is already embracing the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). 4IR refers to an era of industrialization characterized by the digitization of the manufacturing sector.

The major components of 4IR include artificial intelligence (AI), big data, the internet of things (IoT), blockchain technology, human-machine interaction, virtual reality, 3D printing, and robotics.

Although considered disruptive, 4IR has benefited major world economies. It has promoted efficiency and quality in production and significantly reduced production costs.

African countries have started to embrace 4IR. For instance, South Africa is implementing AI and 3D printing in medicine, IoT in the supply of goods to consumers, and drone technology to deliver medicine to hardship areas.

The influence of 4IR on disabled people in the workplace

4IR technologies affect jobs in several ways:

  • job creation, due to the development of new market niches, such as e-commerce.
  • job elimination/substitution, due to automation practices that could make low- and middle-skilled jobs obsolete as machines take over tasks that were previously performed by humans.
  • job redefinition/transformation, where new styles of work, such as remote working are embraced.

A high number of workers in Africa provide cheap labor along the industrial and manufacturing value chain. These workers will be significantly affected by 4IR, especially those with disabilities who already face higher unemployment rates.

4IR can further create a divide between highly skilled and non-skilled individuals. Notably, African people with disabilities are more likely than non-disabled people to offer unskilled labor, be self-employed in informal employment, or be in formal employment on a part-time basis. Therefore, they possess inadequate advanced skills needed for 4IR and research shows that they can be easily driven out of employment as they will be less competitive. This is critical as over 80 million individuals in Africa are disabled due to mental health issues, birth defects, diseases or physical impairments.

African people with disabilities have not fully exploited their potential to contribute to 4IR through skills and talents such as critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, and cognitive flexibility. These skills can also be used in the remote work environment, an area that has not been fully explored by this group. This limits them from fully engaging in employment that is geared towards 4IR.

While a number of African countries, such as Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and Egypt, have developed and manufactured assistive technologies and devices, they are often too expensive for people with disabilities. This makes it difficult for disabled people to benefit from 4IR technologies that will help them in the workplace. Employers implementing 4IR also have minimal knowledge of how to work with people with disabilities, which further excludes them from significantly contributing to the transition to 4IR.

Exploring the potential of 4IR for people with disabilities

Researchers have pointed out that limited data on African people with disabilities makes it challenging to formulate inclusive 4IR-related policies that cater for their needs. There is, thus, a need to conduct extensive research and collect data on the needs of people with disabilities in the workplace. This will help to identify their strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for change that can be explored to help inform 4IR-related policies and advance 4IR technologies that are inclusive in nature. 

Disabled people’s talents, such as creativity, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence can be explored to enable them gain and sustain employment amidst 4IR. These skills are important for the successful transition to 4IR. It is also important to educate and empower people with disabilities about their potential and the technologies that can enable them to take up competitive roles in the job market given the changes brought by 4IR.

Supporting people with disabilities with a shift to remote work will provide flexible working hours that allow them to practice their special skills and explore their strengths. Remote working will also enable them to comfortably deliver on their tasks without traveling to the office. This is especially important in Africa where public transport providers have implemented minimal strategies to cater for the needs of disabled people.

Affordable assistive applications and devices will further support the inclusion of people with disabilities in the 4IR workplace. Public-private partnerships for purchasing these technologies and devices will improve their affordability. Where possible, employers should purchase assistive technologies to ensure inclusivity and fairness in the workplace.

Finally, employers implementing 4IR are advised to formulate internal processes, regulations and guidelines on how to work with disabled people amidst the digitization of workplaces. This will enhance their incorporation in 4IR workplaces.

Elizabeth Naududu
Graduate, University of Nairobi