The African rail industry must adopt the concepts and develop the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to facilitate, and realise, the industrialisation aspirations of the continent, delegates attending a South African Heavy Haul Association (SAHHA) technical workshop, on Tuesday, were told.
The three-day workshop, being held at the Birchwood Hotel and Conference Centre from September 4 to 6, is themed ‘Embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Heavy Haul Railways – paving the way.’
Speakers repeatedly emphasised the importance of intra-African trade, multilateral collaboration and Africa-based technological research, development and innovation to achieve widespread industrialisation, and therefore, growth.
Transnet COO Mlamuli Buthelezi commented that the workshop would seek to deepen and advance regional collaboration as a means of enhancing existing railway systems, “in a way that improves network capitalisation, as well as logistics costs.”
He stressed the importance of rail networks in successful economies, pointing to the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand, where rail formed the backbone of industrialisation in the nineteenth century, acting as a catalyst for rapid economic growth and development.
“One can look at the development path and their leveraging of rail to build cities, infrastructure and industrial hubs.”
Buthelezi added that African economies must grow through greater intra-continental trade, and that the railway industry should “broaden its view to encompass the entire supply chain . . . create fit-for-purpose rail solutions and leverage historical and technological successes,” in its attempt to ride out the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
International Heavy Haul Association chairperson and Transnet Freight Rail capital planning GM Brian Monakali noted that, to underpin the importance of collaboration and technological innovation, SAHHA and the Southern African Railway Association would sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) during the workshop.
The MoU is aimed at reviving the technical competence of African railway bodies and ensuring a measure of organisation and collaboration to “boldly face the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a continent”.
Meanwhile African Leadership Initiative fellow and former Nepad Business Foundation CEO Lynette Chen noted that some of the rail-specific benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution would be: innovative maintenance to proactively detect defects in rolling stock, new technologies to improve efficiencies of existing infrastructure and rolling stock, advances in signalling and telecommunications which could result in automated and faster train authorisation, rolling stock tracking and control, collision avoidance systems and cockpit innovation to improve safety.
However, she cautioned that while the industrialisation of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) would increase business opportunities, “we have to be aware that it could be jobless growth”, as many existing job functions will be automated.
Chen stressed that business models would transform, and that Africa would be most impacted, “because African governments have not set aside sufficient funding for research and development or the establishment of start-ups that can create the technologies relevant to African needs”.
She also touched on regional collaboration, presenting a video on the North-South Rail Corridor project, a regional integration and trade initiative that aligns with the SADC Infrastructure Masterplan and the SADC Industrialisation Strategy.
The 4 000 km rail network will run from Kolwezi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the ports in Richards Bay and Durban, in South Africa. The six national rail and freight companies have already signed on to the initiative and a feasibility study was completed earlier this year.
Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics) Financial Services Working Group secretariat Jerry Mashamba noted that the recently established and launched New Development Bank was conceived as an infrastructure bank, to try and alleviate the financial pressures within the Brics economies.
As such, the bank has started lending to State-owned enterprises to facilitate project development.
He noted that the bank could conceivably start funding private entities in the next three years to further support socioeconomic development within member countries. He also cited the bank’s willingness to partner with developmental finance institutions to fund viable multilateral projects. “We are here to support you, work with you where we can . . . where our mandates fit.”
Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) chairperson Busisiwe Mabuza noted the entity’s willingness to develop “traditional” manufacturing plants, owing to its belief that, “even if they may be outdated . . . if we develop them in a manner that is cognisant of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we can ensure we stay ahead of the curve.”
She stressed that, while the IDC does not necessarily have much of a mandate beyond manufacturing, it is able to partner other development finance institutions and commercial financiers, and, as such, invited delegates to approach the IDC, “where there are opportunities to do so”.
Transnet chief information officer Makano Mosidi spoke on behalf of Transnet Group CEO Siyabonga Gama and cited the World Economic Forum’s concept of latecomer countries, able to leapfrog more established economies because their systems are not tied to established technologies.
Mosidi added that South Africa is one of the three Group of 20 countries that have the lowest level of readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, specifically because human capital and a shortage of engineers' digital skills, remains its most pressing challenge.
She noted that the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution provides Transnet with the opportunity to grow and diversify its business, invest in and develop new service offerings and products, and expand geographically.
“The incorporation of new technologies will be a key characteristic of Transnet going forward.”
Mosidi concluded by noting that the organisation was keen on increasing collaboration to improve on all technological aspects across the African rail networks, and to further its aim of becoming Africa’s largest rail transport logistics company.