Why the African Leapfrogging Theory is Still a Problematic Niche
The rapid spread of technology with the 3rd and 4th industrial revolution presents Africa with an immense opportunity for leapfrogging toward technological, social and political change. More than any time in history, Africa’s opportunities for socio-economic development is as huge as the continent itself with an emerging youth population. The average age in Africa is 19. This paper argues that the African leapfrogging theory with the assumption of skipping into the service economy without a manufacturing base undermines the desired outcomes. It argues that the first foundation for economic development is industrial and infrastructure development as done in Europe with the development of the steam engine and subsequent industrial revolution that led to the Asian development miracle to developed economies. The paper concludes that educational infrastructure to develop Africa’s labour market and systematic models of education to allow the social sciences to thrive to address the ethical questions of the state amid rising digital dictatorships as argued by Yuval Harari is fundamental to preventing the philosophical bankruptcy for Africa in the near future when technological development finally takes off.
The exposure of the continent with cultural and social forces that drive world politics and technology puts it, more than any other continent, in a unique position to create wealth for its people through large scale social change, technological advancement and infrastructural development as a foundation for nation-building. The upspring of mobile banking like the M-Pesa in Kenya, “Doctors in the pocket” innovation and the use of drones to provide medical supplies in remote locations in Rwanda are among many things, a springboard for leapfrogging that is being maximized for African development. And this comes with optimism about the power of technology to address the longstanding issues that have held Africa at the bottom of the development ladder. Mobile technology is penetrating African economies with new forms of service delivery and driving African innovation at a faster pace. Mobile technology, The Economist (2008) writes, has enabled developing countries to skip the fixed lined of technology of the 20th century to the mobile technology of the 21st century. Given Africa’s rise of mobile users, it’s no doubt improving transactions and health care and improved economic systems. It is noted that by 2020, sub-Saharan Africa will have more than half a billion unique mobile subscribers, making the continent the fastest growing area for mobile technology, and establishing Africa as an emerging platform for social and commercial innovation (Botha, 2019).
Many now compare the technological changes in Africa to that of Asia in the 1970s considering the continent is now host to seven of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The former Secretary of the World Bank, Ban Ki-Moon, believes that technology can help poor countries catch up — and even overtake — their richer peers. With the rapid development of the global digital economy and the availability of technology, the next century belongs to Africa, he says. Historically, Africa has lagged in mobile technology which has contributed to the increasing income gap and inefficiency both in the private and public sector. The theory that drives the leapfrogging idea sees it as an opportunity to achieve cost-effective and scalable result in a market-driven economy with effective outcome and accelerate growth. Emre Ozcan (2015) has argued that emerging economies possess many advantages over their more developed counterparts. Not only can they learn from the past mistakes of developed countries, he argues, they are also less weighed down by vested interests and can now access myriad technological and organizational innovations to power their progression.
Making a case for leapfrogging, the World Bank (2018) states that countries can make a quick jump in economic development by harnessing technological innovation. And this all over Africa is being utilized in all spheres, entrepreneurial startups and new educational institutions like the African Leadership University founded on the belief of using technology to solve tough problems. The theory that drives these innovations is that leapfrogging is the right scaleup approach for an Africa with an emerging market and lots of untapped potentials.
However, Calestous Juma (2017) has argued that while cases such as M-Pesa offer inspiration, the promise of leapfrogging remains largely unfulfilled. The mobile revolution has hardly served as a stimulus for broader industrial development and appears to have had little impact on African innovation policy. The mobile handset in the hands of an ordinary African has become the symbol of leapfrogging. There is some basis for this imagery — the business model that made it possible for Africa to rapidly adopt mobile telephony did involve the availability of low-cost handsets. But it was the establishment of new telecommunications infrastructure — signaled by the spread of mobile phone towers across the continent — that represented on a more fundamental level what the mobile revolution was about (Batuo, 2015). Even World Bank that has been a leading voice in the African leapfrogging theory believes that the capacity to absorb and benefit from new technology depends on the availability of more basic forms of infrastructure. This has clear implications for development policy (the Economist, 2018). As we move into the 21st century with enormous prospects and predictions for market growth, Africa still doesn’t have the enabling environment to accommodate a leap into the technological future that it needs.
The digital revolution that has already taken root will not automatically shape the continent from problems of health and education or lift the millions of Africans languishing in poverty or its educational inadequacies in the absence of basic infrastructure to accommodate technological change. The failure of the mobile revolution to stimulate industrial development in Africa is the result, in part, of a faulty narrative that assumes that Africa can leap into the service economy without first building a manufacturing base (Juma, 2017). Calestous notes that the belief that a leap into the service economy without industrialization ignores the fact that the service industries are closely linked to industrial sectors. By accepting this popular perception, he posits, Africa may be forgoing the opportunity to invest in core infrastructure and engineering capabilities that would enable it to meet the needs of other sectors such as health, education, and agriculture.
Instead of the sudden taste for leap, its viable that Africa focuses on evolving into the future with preparedness—adapting, learning and making changes rather than leaping to post-industrialism without prior haven developed industries—which is responsible for growth in many countries in Europe, Asian and America. The lack of industries is a major pitfall for the African leapfrogging theory. It can be said that industries spurred growth in China, Japan and South Korea. And much of the development in Asia and Europe began with the development of industries and manufacturing to transform their economies. Industries and heavy manufacturing base have helped these countries grow at an unprecedented level, especially after the second world war. Jesus Felipe (2018) notes that there is plenty of historical work and empirical evidence that suggests that there is something special about industry, and in particular about manufacturing, which makes it different from agriculture and from most services, and which allows it to generate high growth rates.
This key characteristic, he writes, is that activities in this sector have a great capacity for productivity growth, externalities (technical as well as pecuniary), and increasing returns to scale. The transition into manufacturing became a key piece of Asia’s development in a context of export-led growth, where Asian companies saw the whole world as their market. They realized that they had to export, in particular manufactures, to pay for their import requirements (Jesus, 2018). Considering the situation of African with a huge unskilled and illiterate population and an increasing demographic shift, manufacturing is central to generating high growth and socio-economic development. And industrial development necessitates technical infrastructure and building Africa’s capacity, which essentially, cannot be leapfrogged. As Calestous Juma (2017) has noted, African countries need adequate infrastructure to realize their full potential; the continent’s low economic performance and weak integration into the global economy stem partly from inadequate investment in and development of energy, transportation, telecommunications, water and sanitation, and irrigation infrastructures.
Interestingly, no country has been able to achieve tremendous economic growth without a strong manufacturing base and an adequate infrastructure. Fostering manufacturing for Africa will be complementary to infrastructural development to facilitate leapfrogging and economic activities. Education plays a key role in this process and a trained workforce. The truth is we cannot achieve innovation and without a properly trained workforce and a robust economic system (Diop, 2017).
Africa cannot leapfrog its way out of the leadership and political crisis that permeates it. Given the fast pace of technological advancement across Asia and Europe, Africa needs an improved and multidisciplinary education to empower its people as producers rather than consumers of technological achievements from the west and Asia. As of recent statistics, the population of age 15 and over are without education in Africa in Sub-Saharan Africa and this, according to Makhtar Diop (2017) must be leapfrogged to catch up with the labour market. It’s even still a hurdle to leapfrog education with high poverty and unemployment in most of Africa. Transforming Africa’s educational institutions first and foremost needs institutionalized systems that require money and time and a systematic approach to not just developing entrepreneurs and tech-savvy leaders who would create jobs through startups, but also providing the space for the social sciences to thrive to solve the philosophical challenge of state in Africa.
While we now face a technological challenge, we will in the near future, face a philosophical challenge as most societies in Europe, Asia and America are already suffering from a philosophical bankruptcy as Yuval Harari recently pointed out at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. As Africa leapfrogs technologically, solving problems of poverty and unemployment, we will also be giving rise to new forms of dictatorship that will be carried out by not only by governments but tech companies. This is why Yuval believes we need philosophers to conceptualize our new realities because the twin revolution in infotech and biotech are giving politicians and business people the means to create heaven and hell. In Africa, especially this will have a dangerous outcome without an education system that not only focuses on building 21st-century skills but creating philosophical leaders who would address ethical challenges of the state—which we can’t leapfrog. The future of Africa cannot afford just leapfrogging the technology, it needs to generate its own innovation by having educational infrastructures and millions of African youths with access.
Essentially, the African is built for challenges and Africa’s collective struggle for economic takeoff will be realized when governments realize that Africa’s future started yesterday and the aspirations of the African people and its growing taste for western consumption must be met with a growing taste for western skills to balance its ability and wants as the post-colonial theorist, Ali Mazrui once eloquently articulated. And this must be done by empowering Africans to be driver instead of passengers of the technological revolution.
Batuo, M. (2015). The Role of Telecommunications Infrastructure In The Regional Economic Growth of Africa. The Journal of Developing Areas, 49(1), pp.313-330.
Economist, T. (2020). The limits of leapfrogging. [online] The Economist. Available at: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2008/02/07/the-limits-of-leapfrogging [Accessed 4 Mar. 2020].
Felipe, J. (2020). [online] Adb.org. Available at: https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/436361/ewp-549-asias-industrial-transformation-part1.pdf [Accessed 4 Mar. 2020].
Juma, C. (2020). Leapfrogging Progress. [online] The Breakthrough Institute. Available at: https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/issue-7/leapfrogging-progress [Accessed 4 Mar. 2020].
Ozcan, E. (2020). How leapfrogging can help developing countries surge ahead – Centre for Public Impact (CPI). [online] Centre for Public Impact (CPI). Available at: https://www.centreforpublicimpact.org/cleared-for-take-off/ [Accessed 4 Mar. 2020].
Pilling, D. (2020). African economy: the limits of ‘leapfrogging’. [online] Ft.com. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/052b0a34-9b1b-11e8-9702-5946bae86e6d [Accessed 4 Mar. 2020].
World Bank. (2020). Africa can enjoy leapfrog development. [online] Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/opinion/2017/10/11/africa-can-enjoy-leapfrog-development [Accessed 4 Mar. 2020].
Addition to your article;
In the nature of economic growth, I do agree that African cannot vehemently leapfrog – our condition ( dense population, low infrastructure, weak economic performance and integration with global economies) put us in a tight spot. Leapfrogging ignores the current problems that are there in exchange to play catch with developed nations. For instance in Nigeria, they leapfrog in their urbanisation, by constructing luxurious villas – in exchange evict, destroyed informal houses of Lagosians.
Great job Mr. Ansoumana.
You provided interesting arguments on leapfrogging. It is true that won’t leapfrog technologically without having infrastructure, education, stable politics, etc. I think we need to look back to our realities and see what we can do better and what can foster our economy (With stable governance and good education included). For instance, china’s development miracle started from making reforms in agriculture to ensure food security as well as poverty alleviation, which, in turn, enabled 800 million Chinese to escape poverty. Maybe, we need something like this. What do you think?
An appealing piece of writing Ansumana! I enjoyed reading your article. Thank you!
Just a quick question. How does Africa’s unique culture and societal norms contribute to the fast growing entrepreneurship and innovation such as mobile banking?
Thanks for the good read Ansumana. I agree that leapfrogging must happen on the back of basic infrastructure, and I believe African governments have not stopped their efforts to provide these infrastructures. What I understand by leapfrogging is how we plan what we build on top of that basic infrastructure. If we take the approach of this understanding, do you think African governments have changed the way systems are built or are we copy pasting the west? An example is in education. If we consider mobile penetration, this is an area where a technology was created on the basis of basic infrastructure – telecommunication infrastructure, yet I don’t see schools embracing this technology. Where do you think the problem lies?