Technology Leapfrogging

By Hruy Tsegaye

Automated-industry-inafricaFor over a decade, sub-Saharan Africa has been experiencing a relatively rapid economic growth. According to the latest World Bank report ‘Africa’s Pulse 2013, volume 7’, out of the top ten nations with the fastest growing economy, the top six are African countries followed by China. The Continent, despite the global economic crisis, registered an average of 6% in economic growth during the past eight years. The World Bank estimates that the growth trend will continue uninterrupted until 2015.

This time has come for the developed world to acknowledge Africa’s economic awakening. The developed world should consider the potential of the African continent, and ponder upon how the latest technology can boost the remarkable and rapid growth, which is finally beginning to blossom in this ‘forsaken part of the world’. The World Bank report on African’s Agribusiness (March 4, 2013) states that “Africa has more than half of the world’s fertile yet unused land. Africa uses only two percent of its renewable water resources compared to the global average of five percent”. It also forecasts the creation of a 1 trillion dollar market in the next two decades, from the food and beverage sector alone.

Even with such potential, the African continent has the highest poverty rate in the world; 47.5% of the population lives on less than US$1.25 per day. This is a concrete fact, but what is the cure? The World Bank and other stakeholders with game changing power still insist on the traditional development process – advancement by dint of hard work applied in the areas of debt relief, increased aid, high commodity prices and improved macroeconomic policies.

The World Bank’s picture leaves out one essential point. Obviously, the developed world has already discovered it – I am referring to technology and the application of advanced hi-tech in the course of production.

Instead of trying to “save Africa”, with mere capital aid, we should support the peoples of Africa in researching and developing advanced technology. We should invest on businesses that promote hi-tech and the modernization of local infrastructure, industry, education, health sector, agriculture, etc. This is something that is not happening now to any significant extent. This is something that The Governments of Africa ought to be looking at as part of their goal to enhance the continent’s Economy and as well the living condition of African’s via technology; let the world witness the curative power of technology!

Therefore, the global movement towards Technological Singularity should become more involved in Africa’s march towards technological advancement. Recently there has been a new approach towards technology transfer, known as the Technology Leapfrogging, which points precisely at this direction.

Technology Leapfrogging is a method of progress in which, instead of passing through the expected linear stages toward adoption of advanced technology, an undeveloped society skips toward adopting the most up-to-date technology. In this fashion, advanced technology is applied in an area where the immediate predecessors of this technology have never applied. Mobile phone technology in Africa is the best example. Instead of working on technologies focused on landline telephones, the continent has already adopted the wireless mobile technology; now 80% of urban Africans have access to cellular phones.

Africa’s recent, rapid economic growth is largely the result of technological leapfrogging – as even the World Bank has acknowledged, to some extent. “Emblematic of this growth is the information and communications technology (ICT) revolution in Africa” – says Africa Development Indicators 2012/13, published by the World Bank.

Technology leapfrogging and the adoption of new technologies depend on two factors. “Depending on the technology in question, the adoption of new technology can either be user demand driven or infrastructure driven as a result of policies to modernize infrastructure”. (Mody, A. and R. Sherman (1990: 77-83). “Leapfrogging in Switching Systems.” Technological Forecasting and Social Changes.)

From a profit-seeking entrepreneur’s angle (of both, oversea and domestic), the user-demand aspect of technology leapfrogging is not problematic. However, if other global and international financial organizations (World Bank, IMF and their likes) seek self-sustained economic stability and worldwide, faster, and relatively less expensive progress on enhancing the living condition of third world nations, it is the right time for them to promote infrastructure driven leapfrogging which focuses on the creation of entirely novel industrial sectors in Africa and the rest of the developing world.

The economic and political policies of the current African leaders along with the education system should address the critical challenges of technological leapfrogging, not only because Technology leapfrogging is recently accepted as the champion of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) cause in itself, but also because technological inequality is the greatest threat to the world’s codependent, rapidly changing and recently suffering, economic growth.

The first step in tackling global inequality is to identify which aspects of leapfrogging require intensive assistance. So far, studies on technology leapfrogging have pinpointed ‘Absorptive Capacity’ as the most critical factor for the success of technology transfer.

For the existing sluggish progress of technology in the developing world, Absorptive Capacity is one of the top six challenges. The 2008 World Bank report, described it as a major barrier for technology diffusion. (R. Sauter and J. Watson (2008) “Technology Leapfrogging: A Review of the Evidence”. A report for DFID. University of Sussex.)

The Sauter and Watson study defines two types of Absorptive Capacity: that of a firm and that of a nation. The Absorptive capacity of a country is the ability to learn and implement the technologies and associated practices of already developed countries.

Since the goal of these giant global financial institutes is to create a world with fair, ever growing and sustainable economy, employing the finest and up-to-date technology ought to be one of the top options on their millennium development goal’s menu. The UN, as part of its Millennium Development Project, should rewrite its execution plane with the one that encompass and perhaps even focus more on programs for enriching Africa’s technological Absorptive Capacity.

The Absorptive Capacity of African states can improve via knowledge transfer. This can be achieved by building and supporting institutions who set up a fundamental framework for leapfrogging, by enabling access to training on state-of-the-art scientific and technological means, through the establishment of hi-tech start-ups and also by providing technological and financial support to research carried out in the health and agricultural sectors.

Reallocating government budgets to intensified usage of technology, educating and intensively lobbying local and tribal leaders and the rural mass into adopting and applying science and technology and crafting attractive policies for foreign investors which in return will introduce hi-tech in the manufacturing sector of African economy will greatly lift the inadequate usage of science and technology in the continent.   

Technology Leapfrogging is not some alienated assignment left for International Organizations and governments; the Private sector in Africa, the higher educational institutes of the continent and every African citizen’s effort for technological advancement is a prerequisite to ensure that the continent rises out of technological oblivion.

-from the writer

(This Article is adapted from the Original Article ‘An Appeal to Transhumanism On the Question of Technological Inequality in Africa’)

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