As I prepare for participation in Social Business Week in Singapore later this month, I’ve spent a lot of time considering elements of the future economy emerging at the moment. When I came across this timely blog post, talking about one of the most important issues holding back development in Africa… infrastructure (or a lack there of). As anyone that follows international development, this is a common theme across the Developing World. To varying degrees India, China and many other nations struggle to keep growth in the frameworks and tools needed apace with the rapid progress needed (and demanded) from their societies.
What made Bright Simons’ article especially interesting is that instead of dwelling on the current status quo, it highlight the immense opportunity present in the blank canvas that is Africa’s infrastructure. Fundamentally, Simons observes that Africa can benefit from its current lack of infrastructure. Instead of being weighed down by clunky, unsustainable and inflexible industrial era infrastructure (a la Developed countries), there are countless opportunities for developing African societies to jump ahead by-passing generations of now out-dated concepts. Think about fixed telephony lines and fossil fuel generated power being by-passed completely for mobile phones and solar power. Or even sustainable sources of pure drinking water developed with a social business model of community ownership.
Most savvy Africa-watchers reconcile these two divergent narratives like this: The prospects are brilliant, but the infrastructure is lagging. They affirm the imminence of socioeconomic transformation, but express doubt that the physical carrying capacity is strong enough to support equitable growth, job creation, and social harmony.
But there’s a new, alternative narrative out there that can be summarized in one word: leapfrogging. The leapfrogging argument takes off where the stalemate between the infrastructure pessimists and the entrepreneurial optimists ends. It is rooted in the notion that infrastructure can be hacked.
In much the same way that Africa’s lack of significant telecom capacity was a boon rather than a hindrance to the emergence of mobile telephony, its lack of legacy infrastructure for everything ranging from waste management to energy utilities could provide the appetite — non-existent in the West — for genuinely transformative, future-friendly reconceptualization of the very notion of infrastructure.
Technology and new concepts of living, as well as progressive notions of urbanization, industrial capitalism, consumerism, ecotourism, and renewable systems, could meld to fashion a new shared-growth paradigm. Such a paradigm, proponents argue, can easily bypass the clunky, wasteful, inequitable, and socially non-scalable physical infrastructure legacy of the West, propelling Africa, uniquely among continents, into a true 21st Century style of civilization.
Leapfrogging is the umbrella name for the systems available to us today that make all this possible. Cloud computing, social media, new professional paradigms such as social entrepreneurship, below-the-line marketing and a host of novel realities have transformed the global context for Africans with their eyes set on continental and beyond-continental scale.
Secondly, beyond opportunity and flexibility, the level of productivity possible in the operations I describe above has been boosted several-fold by the growing proliferation of next generational models in finance, banking, and logistics. The people whose activities I have described in the preceding paragraph are actually more efficient in their use of resources due to a fundamental change in the notion of value. They are indeed achieving more with less compared to their Western counterparts. This is genuinely world-changing in its potential.
One glaring variability in these wonderful opportunities is the recurrent theme of political instability, regional conflicts and corruption prominent in many African states. As these barriers dissipate, foreign investors (whether from China seeking resources or from the West seeking new emerging markets) will jump at the chance to provide next generation infrastructure to African nations. Social media and mobile communications are increasing both transparency and the strength of people power. Just ask Mubarak, Gaddafi or even Goodluck Jonathan.
See full HBR article here.