The wide adoption of mobile phones in Africa, along with finance technologies like mobile banking and e-commerce, the use of drones to transport medical supplies, the dramatic drop in the cost of solar energy and a lot more accomplishments in other sectors like energy, education, health, transportation, and agriculture points to the widespread adoption of new technologies across Africa.
The success of M-Pesa, a cell-phone-based mobile banking application with 30 million users across 10 countries, threatening to disrupt traditional banking systems around the world has served as an inspiration to young Africans and has created remarkable technological enthusiasm on the continent.
These successes inevitably lead to talk about how Africa is “leapfrogging” more advanced economies. Leapfrogging, in this context, is when countries skip a step in development thanks to rapid innovation—from no phones to smartphones, for example. The mobile phone, in this context, has allowed African countries to avoid the heavy investments required to build fixed-line networks.
But Professor Calestous Juma of of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School, faults this approach in his recent paper—Leapfrogging Progress, The Misplaced Promise of Africa’s Mobile Revolution. He said,
Overall, the mobile revolution has given hope to Africans that they too can be dynamic and innovative players in the global economy, transcending the continent’s current reliance on raw material exports. But while cases such as M-Pesa offer inspiration, the promise of leapfrogging remains largely unfulfilled.
Juma explains that the failure of the mobile revolution going on in Africa to stimulate industrial development in Africa is partly as a result the assumption that Africa can leap into the service economy without first building basic infrastructure and a manufacturing base, which he referred to as a faulty narrative.
Juma, a well-respected advocate for the role of entrepreneurship and technological innovation in Africa’s development, says that African policymakers should revisit their respective industrial policies as there is no shortcut to industrial development.
He points out that no advanced economy got where it is today by cutting corners and sidestepping (that is, leapfrogging) industrialization. He reminds us industrialization requires infrastructure and insists that leapfrogging is not the answer:
Infrastructure is both the backbone of the economy and the motherboard of technological innovation. African countries need adequate infrastructure to realize their full potential.
It is not too late for Africa to become a dynamic and entrepreneurial region driven by innovation. It is certainly right to keep its sights set on technological innovation as an essential driver of economic growth, and as the key to moving beyond the vagaries of commodity exports. But such innovation will depend on industrial development — and the infrastructure and technical capacity it enables — that cannot be leapfrogged.
Moving Africa from its current focus on raw material exports, value addition, and consuming technology to becoming a learning economy and technology producer, will require 21st-century industrial policy that supports continuous interactions among government, industry, and academia in open competitive and collaborative innovation ecosystems. Leapfrogging particular technologies, such as landlines, may in some cases be an option. But industrialization itself, and the innovation and development it generates, cannot be skipped over.