Until 2016, Mr David Mukooza earned a living by processing customers’ water payment bills for the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) in Kampala.
Mr Mukooza, who did the job for two years, reminisces the many things it helped him achieve while still a student at Makerere University.
“It helped me pay part of my tuition fees, gave me work experience and I made friends there,” says the Records and Information graduate.
Mr Mukooza, who sought he would stay on the job for long, was instead reshuffled in 2016 when NWSC digitalised and automated most of its payment systems.
“We were laid off. Many people in my department went home since all what a customer now needed to do was to pay bills through mobile money or banks,” he adds.
“I lost the job but digitalisation is good for the customers. You need not to go to a service centre to pay bills of Shs10,000 yet you have spent money in transport,” Mukooza adds.
He is a victim of technological disruptions, which have taken the world by storm. Many government agencies and private companies are automating their operations to ensure efficiency, transparency, speed and cost reduction. In the process, several jobs have been replaced by a click of a button.
Job losses at URA
In 2014, for instance, the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) introduced the Electronic Cargo Tracking System (ECTS), which kicked out hundreds of trucks that escorted goods from Mombasa to Uganda.
Every truck bringing in goods from Mombasa was accorded an escort by URA, with the owner paying $50 (about Shs190, 500) per day, a measure that was aimed at fighting tax avoidance.
The ECTS depends on a control centre and automatic devices attached onto a cargo truck, which repetitively gives feedback to the team at the URA control centre on location of a vehicle, speed and status of the container.
Such technology and many others on the market, according to experts, are disrupting the traditional way of doing things. But there have been instances where new jobs have been created.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) report titled ‘The Impact of Technology on the Quality and Quantity of Jobs’ released at the beginning of the year, jobs that require routine tasks have either disappeared or will disappear soon.
“New technologies are affecting the functioning of labour markets and challenging the effectiveness of existing labour market institutions, with far-reaching consequences for the number of jobs, their quality and the diversity of opportunities they offer,” reads the report in part.
“New types of jobs and employment are changing the nature and conditions of work by altering skills requirements and replacing traditional patterns of work and sources of income. They open opportunities, especially for developing countries, to enter new, fast-growing sectors and catch up with more advanced economies,” adds the report.
Prof Tonny Oyana, the principal of Makerere University College of Computing and Information Sciences, says employees doing clerical works should prepare for the worst employment disruptions.
“Many jobs done by human beings today will be replaced by machines. The disruptions are not yet much felt in Uganda because our labour is still cheaper compared to buying those machines,” Prof Oyana says.
He says computers can now be programmed to learn and perform tasks just like humans, including diagnosing diseases.
Currently, Prof Oyana says, the university is developing systems that can complement the work of a clinician.
“We are taking images of viruses or bacteria and training a computer that whenever it sees this [image], [they can tell] it is a plasmodium. The computer is able to learn all these features and take that training on a server, or a phone and can be used in places where you don’t have a clinician,” Prof Oyana said.
The service sector, he says, is another area that has seen a tremendous shift of how business is done. Currently, one can order for anything online, pay utility bills such as water, electricity or school fees in the comfort of their sitting rooms thus bypassing many traditional jobs.
Mr Douglas Opio, the executive director of the Federation of Uganda Employers, says training institutions should now be scrapping off outdated courses while employers should be retooling its employees.
“Previously, you needed many tellers in a bank. Now with automated teller machines (ATMs), you can do deposits and withdraws, meaning you need fewer tellers. You have seen banks closing branches,” Mr Opio says.
“Disruptions in banks is just one example. Look at what is happening in agriculture sector in developed countries. Robots have been trained to harvest, plant, load and transport produce. Currently humans are still better in this field but machines are perfecting,” he adds.
Last year, this newspaper reported quoting estimates from the World Bank and ILO that at least two out of every 20 youth in Uganda are being rendered unemployed due to advances in technologies.
“We are already complaining about high levels of unemployment in the country especially among university graduates, but this is set to be even acute in the foreseeable future if the current trend of technological advancement continues,” said Mr Richard Byarugaba, the managing director National Social Security Fund (NSSF), warned then.
A female secretary in the Ministry of Energy, who has been doing clerical work for the last 20 years but declined to be named, says she is now required to do more than her job description.
“I am required sometimes to read my boss’ emails and respond to them yet my job description is to keep office tidy,” she said.
Mr Onesmus Oyesigye, the executive director of the Uganda Business and Technical Examinations Board, a body that oversees vocational studies, says “it is becoming almost impossible how to guide learners on what profession to take because of the changing technology”
“There is no job that is safe now. Practically, people doing marketing almost now do not have jobs. Marketing is being done through social media and people who did not study marketing are jobless,” Mr Oyesigye says.
“One would think law is safe but some people have developed apps that can give you legal opinions,” he adds.
Technology has not spared the media industry, especially in the print sector either. Newspaper sales continue to dwindle while online presence increases. This has led to mergers, rendering some media roles redundant.
Mr Collins Hinamundi, an online editor at NTV Uganda, says although technology has disrupted the traditional operations of newsrooms, journalists should see the bigger picture and look at technology as an opportunity to do better journalism.
“As a journalist, technology has given me an opportunity to stand out. Unfortunately, not every journalist has adapted their craft to technology and used it to work for them. Those that have, have more opportunities than those that have not,” Mr Hinamundi says.
He adds that technology has given journalists tools to start their own media organisations.
“The many online news websites, especially those that are run unprofessionally, increase the demand for quality journalism online, and our legacy media houses can transfer their advantage offline to online,” he adds.
According to the fore mentioned ILO report, technology has killed millions of jobs but it has created others and all employees need to do is to acquire appropriate skills.
“In the United States, for example, 30 per cent of the jobs created since the late 1990s were types that did not exist before, such as IT administration, hardware manufacturing and development of smartphone applications,” reads the report.
In 2009, mobile telecoms in Uganda started mobile money transfer, a convenient way of sending and receiving money. This technology has in the process created jobs for Ugandans. Ms Angel Nalubega, a mobile money dealer in Namuwongo, a Kampala suburb, is one of the beneficiaries of this technology.
“It is a job and you wake up knowing you will get what to eat,” Ms Nalubega says.
The banking sector, after facing years of failing to attract many account holders, has rolled out agent banking, which works more like mobile money services. Although the bank tellers are losing jobs, many are being created in agent banking rollout.
“Studies on robotisation show that displacement is high for routine tasks (those that can easily be translated into software-driven robots), including in many services sectors where digitalisation and artificial intelligence have come to play a bigger role,” the ILO report adds.
Another recent report titled ‘The Future of Jobs Report’ by the World Economic Forum also paints a mixed picture of what the future holds for the labour market, particularly the traditional jobs.
“In order to meet the talent and skills challenges brought about by expected business model disruptions, companies envisage pursuing a range of innovative workforce strategies; providing employees with wider exposure to roles across the firm, stepping up efforts to target the female talent pool and collaborating with the education sector more closely than in the past,” reads part of the report.
What technologies are doing so far
Advanced robots with enhanced senses, dexterity, and intelligence can be more practical than human labour in manufacturing, as well as in a growing number of service jobs, such as cleaning and maintenance. Moreover, it is now possible to create cars, trucks, aircraft, and boats that are completely or partly autonomous, which could revolutionize transportation, if regulations allow, as early as 2020.
Advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural user interfaces (e.g. voice recognition) are making it possible to automate knowledge-worker tasks that have long been regarded as impossible or impractical for machines to perform.
A range of technological advances in manufacturing technology promises a new wave of productivity. For example, 3D printing (building objects layer-by-layer from a digital master design file) allows on-demand production, which has far-ranging implications for global supply chains and production networks.
Technological advances in material and life sciences have many innovative industry applications. Recent breakthroughs in genetics could have profound impacts on medicine and agriculture. Similarly, the manufacture of synthetic molecules via bio-process engineering will be critical to pharmaceuticals, plastics and polymers, biofuels, and other new materials and industrial processes.
With peer-to-peer platforms, companies and individuals can do things that previously required large-scale organizations. In some cases, the talent and resources that companies can connect to, through activities such as crowdsourcing, may become more important than the in-house resources they own.