How Fourth Industrial Revolution can Aid Sustainable Development in African Cities: Lessons from China


Evidently, cities around the world are confronting myriad of dire environmental crises. But the kinds in Africa are too grave in manifestation and widest spread in their consequences. The main reason for this could be attributed to the failure of most African leaders to combine their pursuits of economic development with adequate urban environmental management strategies for sustainable development. And partly because Africa belongs to Paul Collier’s poorest bottom billion. This branch of humanity despite being the least contributors to global environmental crises is facing the gravest consequences as a result of the presence of all pervasive grinding poverty. Africa remains the world’s last frontier in the fight against extreme poverty. Today, one in three Africans 422 million people live below the global poverty line. They represent more than 70 percent of the world’s poorest people, making their cities most susceptible to grievous environmental crises.

The result is the evolution of what Blackwell in 1987 called ‘Parasitic City’ in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Rather than providing the basis for sustained economic growth, cities have become serious impediments to sustainable development in sub Saharan Africa. Some of the problems include: unsustainable city development plans, inadequate urban environmental strategies, poor urban governance, wide spread extreme poverty, ubiquitous waste, pollution, traffic jam, slum conditions, urban decay and global warming induced Climate Change which is regarded as the most catastrophic environmental crisis confronting the 21st Century humanity.

However, it is not all gloom-doom stories for African cities! As a writing of cautious optimism, we strongly believe that cities in Africa are still redeemable. While it may be impossible to build them from the scratch, reformation and transformation are still possible. Here lies the significance of the Fourth Industrial Revolution -4IR (especially bio-technology/bio-economy and digital innovations) with lessons and possible assistance from China towards achievement of sustainable cities in sub-Saharan Africa. The best way to start is to understand that urban crisis is a global phenomenon.

Sustainable Development /Environmental Crises in Cities from Global Perspectives

Throughout history, urban centers, particularly cities across human civilizations have played (are still playing) significant roles in social, political and economic transformations of man. Consequently, the daily reality of people on this planet is increasingly an urban reality, with over 47% of the world’s population (2.9 billion people) living in urban areas. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), this proportion is expected to increase to 60% or 4.9 billion people by 2030.

Despite this, the situation of urban environmental issues within the internationally agreed goals and targets for sustainable development has remained marginal in the urban growth dynamics. The United Nations through several international conventions and treaties has unsuccessfully tried to reverse the negative trends in urban development. For example, chapter seven of Agenda 21 sought to galvanise local level action to prioritize and develop human settlements, chapter twenty-one focuses on solid waste management and sewage infrastructure.

It is most worrisome to note that environmental disasters have recently become a common occurrence in the world. Throughout the continents, there is no doubt that the world is under a serious threat from the environment. But this study argues that the environment was only responding to the abuses heaped on it by man’s activities. Components of the environment – maintains tropical forests, oceans, soils, the atmosphere, air, and other natural resources, considered essential to the ecosystem. Instead of the proper utilization of these free gifts of nature, the earth’s resources have continued to deplete, as dirty air, global warming, polluted waters and toxic wastes are just a few of the maladies of the planet earth.

While global community has considered homicide, ethnocide and genocide as crimes against humanity, ecocide which is the deliberate destruction of environment is yet to attract the needed attention and sanctions. Some of the problems witnessed in this regard include: Climate Change, pollution, global warming (occasioned by ozone layer depletion), deforestation, desertification, flooding, hurricane, tsunami and so on.

The good news is that, the world is standing together more than ever before, brain-storming on how to ensure that human development strategies are always environment friendly. Till date, the most comprehensive and ambitious step taken by the global community though the United Nations is the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 by member states.

Ever since, actualizing these goals has been on the front burner of international discourses such as the Conference Of the Parties (COP) with the current one COP27 taking place in Egypt from 6-18 November 2022 and the World Economic Forum’s 2030 Vision initiative. One of the main focuses is usually on how and where emerging technologies in Fourth Industrial Revolution (41R) could be accelerated towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).At the heart of these deliberations is how to harness the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) for Sustainable Development in emerging cities around the world including those in Africa.

African Cities and Sustainable Development: What Can Fourth Industrial Revolution Achieve?

Cities can be drivers of Sustainable Development offering positive forces in support of social equality, cultural vitality, economic prosperity and environmental sustainability. However, most cities in sub-Saharan Africa have become cynosure of disgrace and centers of filth. In order to positively reverse many urban malaises plaguing most African cities; there is urgent need to establish adequate urban environmental management strategies which are conterminous with sustainable development of cities in any country.

Gladly, the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution -4IR offers great potentials to integrate technologies into efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goals. This is making reformation and sustainability in cities in Africa and across the globe to become more attainable.

What Can Fourth Industrial Revolution Achieve?

In a 2016 article, Schwab wrote that “like the revolutions that preceded it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world.” In a 2017 report on, Celine Herweijer opined that the Fourth Industrial Revolution presents great promise to emerging Cities in Africa and Asia to leapfrog traditional development and accelerate the transition. In their views Njuguna Ndung’u and Landry Signé in Foresight Africa 2020 report lamented that Africa has been left behind during the past industrial revolutions.

But the further argued that there are so many other areas in which 4IR technologies can be transformational and assist to achieve sustainable development in Africa. In their opinion: improvements in Africa’s ICT sector largely driven by expanding mobile digital financial services; artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain have the potentials to successfully address socio-economic and environmental challenges there. In their view, some of the transformative potentials of 4IR towards sustainable cities in Africa include: increasing financial services and investment, reinventing labor, skills, and production, modernizing agriculture and agro-industries, improving health care and development of human capital.

It was Mukhisa Kituyi of United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) who warned in 2018 that before the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ will power sustainable development, we have to get it right. One of the best ways to get it right in Africa is to focus more on SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals. Since the existing relationships with their traditional allies seem not yielding the expected positive results towards sustainable development (particularly sustainable cities and climate action); China certainly offers better opportunities that should be exploited by Africa in this age of 4IR.

How Critical is China’s interventions in African Cities’ Bids to Achieve Sustainable Development in this Age of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)?

China as the first developing country to achieve most of the Millennium Development Goals has continued to make gigantic investments in 4IR technologies towards accomplishing Sustainable Development Goals. President Xi Jinping on 16 October, 2022 said China will give priority to environmental protection and promoting green lifestyles. China’s comprehensive plans towards green economy and to fulfill the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable were also captured in the Beautiful China Initiative . This was further explained in Xi’s report to the 20th National Congress of theChinese Communist Party, held from 16-22 October 2022.

The current resurgence of Afro-Sino engagements and the Chinese renewed commitment towards ‘ecological civilization’ based on ‘the theory of human-nature harmonious coexistence’ offer a great hope for sustainable development in Africa. Indeed, China has initiated a number of eco-friendly programs in partnership with Africa towards achieving SDGS. For example, leaders from China and Africa have agreed to set up the China-Africa Environmental Cooperation Centre. The deal was in the Johannesburg Action Plan (2016-2018) and was agreed upon during the Johannesburg Summit and the 6th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Johannesburg, 3 to 5 December 2015. The center was part of the efforts to lift the China-Africa relationship to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.

At the 7th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Summit held on 3-4 September 2018 in Beijing, which was attended by 50 African Heads of State and/or Government, President Xi Jinping formally announced the establishment of the Centre.  The Centre is also referenced in the FOCAC Beijing Action Plan 2019-2021, which is the main outcome document from the meeting. During the 8th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation held in late November 2021, China announced nine programs to strengthen China-Africa cooperation in such fields as poverty reduction, agricultural development and digital innovation. While the aforementioned innovations are embedded in 4IR, below are some of the main areas where Africa required China’s interventions towards achieving sustainable development in its cities:

As mentioned earlier, absolute poverty has been identified as one of the major factors debarring sustainable development in most cities in Africa. As a corollary, any effort at regenerating those cities must include fight against poverty and achieving economic development and prosperity for the people. With the unprecedented elevation of 850 million of its citizens out of abject poverty; Africa leaders should be deliberate in learning from China how to create what Sally Roever called Peoples’ economy with the target of lifting the poor out of their wide spread extreme poverty through application of 4IR technologies.

Economies of many African countries are still fundamentally agrarian. Therefore, biotechnology’s component of the 4IR offers a great comparative advantage in their bids to tackle poverty by utilizing the abundance of agricultural and other natural resources. Biotechnology if properly applied in agriculture, offers a wide variety of scientific approaches to improve plants, animals and microorganisms aiming at developing solutions to agriculture productivity and sustainability. These scientific tools are very diverse with varied functions, for example, molecular breeding, can assist breeders in delivering high quality new varieties, assist the farmers to detect diseases or serve the industry to produce molecules of high added value for food or health improvement.

Yvonne Lokko et-al, strongly argued that the innovation of biotechnology offers solutions to many development challenges our world faces today, from feeding and fuelling a growing population to addressing a worldwide epidemic of chronic diseases. Therefore, Africa through a more creative partnership and technical cooperation with China, the potential of industrial biotechnology can be harnessed for the inclusive and sustainable development. Furthermore, biotechnology for inclusive and sustainable industrial development can contribute to our responsibilities towards the achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Specifically: Goal 1: ending extreme poverty; Goal 2: to end hunger and achieve food security; Goal 3: to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages; Goal 11 Sustainable Cities Goal 9: to promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation and Goal 12: to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Biotech and bio-economy can also assist to entrench Urban and Peri‐urban Agriculture and Forestry (UPAF) as a major strategy to combat dangers of climate change and improve economies of cities in sub-Saharan Africa. This will not only enhance food security through agricultural sustainability but also entrench sustainable use of renewable biological resources for industrial purposes. Conversion of wastes to wealth and energy components is particularly useful for waste management in African cities

Regrettably, majority of African countries are yet to develop any serious integration of biotechnology/bio-economy in to their developmental strategies. We can only hope that, this can be efficiently integrated into the booming Afro-Sino camaraderie in this age of 4IR.

Other Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies capable of driving sustainable development in African cities include: Artificial intelligence, AI describes computers that can “think” like humans. (for monitoring and control);Blockchain which enables a secured, decentralized, and transparent way of recording and sharing data among city planners against third party interference; The Internet of Things, the IoT describes everyday items — from medical wearables that monitor users’ physical condition, to cars and tracking devices inserted into parcels — connected to the internet and identifiable by other devices. There are also many industrial applications, such as farmers putting IoT sensors into fields to monitor soil attributes and inform decisions such as when to fertilize; and ; Robotics refers to the design, manufacture, and use of robots for personal and commercial use, technological advances have made robots increasingly useful in the fields such as, manufacturing, health and safety, and human assistance.

Many experts and scholars have touted technology transfer from China to Africa as the best way to maximize African benefits in the ‘new found’ love with the Asian Dragon. But we want to argue that the near absolute deficiency in expertise in most sectors in Africa will make total nonsense of over reliance on transfer of technology. Therefore, Africa should primarily rely on technical assistance from China in order to be able build the much needed expertise across all sectors within Africa (especially in the fields 4IR technologies mentioned above) to accomplish sustainable development in their cities and beyond.

Most importantly, before we blame all the environmental crises in cities in sub- Saharan Africa on climate change; we must remind the current African city dwellers that most of their cities are still like what late Tai Solarin called ‘civilizations without toilets.’ This is because most of them like Ibadan (in Southwest Nigeria) still battles open defecation and annual flooding without a single sea or ocean in the age of 4IR General absence of right environmental attitude among the people and unsustainable environmental management strategies/policies by city managers (especially in urban planning and waste management) could be also blamed for these ugly trends. This has made application of education 4.0 equally important like the technological components of 4IR towards achieving sustainable development in African cities.

Consequently, Chinese technical assistance and investments in 4IR in Africa should also include its educational component. Education 4.0 merges industry and education by aiming to: develop numeracy, literacy, digital, social, critical thinking, moral, and creative, problem-solving capacities; nurture emotional intelligence, flexibility, and adaptability; and foster the mindset of lifelong.

The leaders should always combine the welfare of the poor people and care for the environment with economic development programs to achieve sustainable development in African cities. In addition, we are also suggesting the following: entrenching environmental education and traditional environmental ethics into the educational Curricular from primary to tertiary levels; proper revising the exiting environmental laws and introducing new ones to take care of the new and emerging environmental challenges; properly enforcing these laws; grand investment in digital and soft skills through education and training, and policies for fostering competitive and innovative economies; and utilizing digital platforms (social media, Tik Tok You tube etc) to educate/encourage attitudinal changes in the people towards jettisoning their cultural practices that are inimical to environmental sustainability


China has been a positive influence on Africa through ‘soft power diplomacy’ and economic engagements (investment in green economy in Africa should also be entrenched). But one country alone cannot ensure achievement of Sustainable Development in Africa. As Deborah Brautigam once stressed: “only African governments can play this role in Africa, not China. Also, technology is neither a substitute for good governance nor a solution to bad. It will succeed only to the extent that governments commit to institutional reform and consider sustainable growth more of an existential imperative than a branding opportunity.

African countries could learn critical lessons and receive Chinese assistance/investment (in combination with existing models) for adequate urban environmental management and achieve sustainable development in their cities. In order to maximize this opportunity, they should continue to invest in new technologies (4IR especially)/critical infrastructure. Until African leaders consider greening their economies as important as growing these economies, sustainable development will remain elusive in their cities. They should always strive to create creative policies/ conditions conducive to achievement of sustainable development in African cities just as China is doing in Chinese cities.

1 Soji Oyeranmi is an early career academic who holds a doctorate degree from the University of South Africa (UNISA) in 2018. He is currently an independent researcher and convener, China-Africa Study Group, Ibadan, Nigeria. His research interests include: Environmental history, International/Diplomatic History, China-Africa Relations, Urban Studies, Peace/Ethnic Studies, Development Studies Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Youth Development.

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