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Technology Leapfrogging: Theory vs. Reality

January 12, 2010  »  EducationNo Comment

A far leap for a great analogy.

It’s tempting to dream of the ideal African ICT establishment, a well-oiled (but sustainable) machine crafted out of the failures of experienced ‘expert’ nations. Is technology leapfrogging still viable in developing areas, such as Africa? The quick answer is yes,  “tried and true” practices that are financially successful and socially beneficial in other nations should just as easily apply to Africa. Still, we must keep our feet on the ground and avoid the temptation to allow theory to eclipse reality. A blend of the two extremes is a better choice: attempt to make the most of technology leapfrogging while keeping local constraints and practices in mind. In 1997, the educated approach to improving Africa’s ICT was based in theory:

Africa’s lack of infrastructure, at first glance, may be seen as a disadvantage. But, on closer examination, this can be turned into an advantage if properly managed. African countries are not encumbered by extensive networks built on obsolete technology, which will require an evolutionary process of replacement. The technological inertia is thus quite low. In technology leapfrogging the extent of the leap is in inverse proportion to the technological inertia carried along. The push should therefore be for the cutting edge. The latest technology should be used in building new infrastructure. African countries will thus leapfrog several stages and decades in the IT development process. In doing so, they will learn from the experience of more advanced countries the ways and means of providing the greatest social benefits to a large fraction of the population while avoiding any unpleasant side effects. – S. Yunkap Kwankam and N. Ntomambang Ningo, Information Technology in Africa: A Proactive Approach and the Prospects of Leapfrogging Decades in the Development Process, 1997. {}

Take for example a situation discussed nearly 13 years ago (in 1997). Nigeria was identified as having an affinity for computers, but lacking more than unreliable copper wires for telephony. Talk of fiber optic cables connecting Lagos to Europe was already under way, and it was believed that investment in the sciences would greatly benefit the country. All of this is very true, and indeed, Nigeria has emerged as one of the more technologically advanced African nations. However, the argument that Nigeria has avoided the pitfalls often associated with broadband is difficult to make.

In practice, leapfrogging is a substantial challenge. A few recent events provide evidence of this fact:

  • Liberian broadband: Eric M.K. Osiakwan, executive secretary of AfrISPA recently told the Global Post, ““Developing countries have the opportunity to leapfrog, and especially a post-conflict country like Liberia has a clean slate to build new technology and engage at an advanced level … This needs to be a high priority.” In this case, Liberia has the chance to create a broadband infrastructure from the ground up. However, fiber optic cables are not expected to make landfall for a couple of years. Needless to say, this ‘leapfrogging’ opportunity is a risk that Liberia must assess.
  • In terms of electricity, a similar scenario is playing out. Areas without electricity have never relied on fossil fuels to power their communities. Will nations like Togo adopt environmentally-friendly means of energy generation and transmission? Sadly, not in the near future. The technology is expensive and would require government aid and incentives in order to function properly. Outside investment helps, but cannot exist forever.
  • Rwandan President Paul Kagame acknowledges how the success of mobile technology in Africa is the result of leapfrogging, but warns citizens of relying on this means of advancement. He stresses the importance of education in building a foundation for local scientific development that will guide Africa to economic stability in the coming decades.

Ultimately, Pamela McLean has the right idea: Let’s “rub minds” to create sustainable, resilient communities in rural Africa, using the best technological solutions we can come up with, combining local and international expertise. Then, as we get some local solutions that really work, let’s adapt them and adopt them elsewhere as climate change and peak oil issues drive us all into new ways of living.”