Can Africa leapfrog its way past conventional infrastructure?

To a large extent, advances in technology can cover the lack of infrastructure in developing countries, but it is unlikely that this is any more than a temporary solution. The impact of smartphones, drones, and renewable energy has been greatly beneficial, but political leaders should not see technology as a replacement to basic infrastructure.

Can Africa counter the effects of its deficiency of infrastructure with the help of technology? Many entrepreneurs seem to think so.  With the rise of affordable technology, many countries in the continent are using technological advancements to bypass more traditional requirements in a developed country. There are benefits to technological ‘leapfrogging’, but is it a permanent solution? Certainly not, and countries must realise and confront technology’s limitations to tackle the problems fully.

One of the biggest success stories of technology in Africa is the mobile phone. Cheap cellular devices have allowed the continent unprecedented connectivity without landlines. Last year it was recorded that only 6% of South Africans, 3% of Kenyans and 4% of Ghanaians have landlines. Conversely, it was reported that in seven African countries, two-thirds of the population own a cell phone, with ownership in South Africa and Nigeria as common as in the United States: a percentage of around 90%. One impact of this growing network is financial inclusion. A company like M-Pesa which operates via mobile money has given millions of people a bank account. Furthermore, GSMA reported 223 million mobile money accounts to be registered in sub-Saharan Africa with more than $5 billion having moved through this manner in December of last year. This flow of money also enables growth in the economy. A McKinsey report in 2013 claims that with the continued growth of mobiles, the internet could contribute to 10% of the GDP—around $300 billion—to Africa’s economy by 2025. If you compare this to the meager contribution of 1.1% in 2013, its effect—should it happen—will be significant.

Now, the focus has moved on to drones. In the prior case, mobile phones bypassed the need for landlines. Here, entrepreneurs are hoping that drones can replace roads. The most heavily talked about start-up is Zipline in Rwanda. To tackle the failing infrastructure of roadways, drones will carry medical supplies to areas that are not easily accessible by a land vehicle. They claim that the drone can fly up to 100km/h and tackle a diverse set of problems, including the 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths each year caused by a lack of safe blood. However, there are many limits to this. There are very practical ones such as its dependency on fair weather. Another issue is that this innovation is being provided externally and that means the country is dependent on access to such technology. As Zipline’s co-founder Keller Rinaudo stressed, profit is the aim: “We’re selling a service to governments and public health organizations to provide a higher level of access to healthcare to millions living in rural and remote areas”. With its target market in other African countries, will some not be allowed access to this technology because they are not capable of paying the same fees as the next? The biggest problem is that whilst drones may compensate for the lack of roads, nothing will be able to replace the lack of educated medical professionals who know how to use and allocate the resources made accessible by these drones.

Another company is Afrotech, who is heading the Redline project. Its aim is to create “high-intensity cargo drone routes”, the ‘Red line’ for medical and emergency use and the ‘Blue line’ for commercial reasons. It will support the building of cargo drones and drone ports. An initial problem for drone companies is the security concerns of some countries like Kenya where regulators imposed bans. Afrotech has since adapted its mission to follow the regulations, but many are left unconvinced. The greatest problem resulting from all of these initiatives is that Africa is turning into an experiment where developed countries can test their drone capabilities. The question that has to be asked is whether governments should be funding such services, rather than giving jobs to their natives to build basic infrastructure.

Perhaps one of the most exciting prospects in new technology is renewable energy to jump over the lack of electricity grids. A report by the African Congress panel estimated that 600 million people do not have access to grid electricity. On a micro level, this means that the poor have to spend 16% of their income to gain access to kerosene and disposable batteries at a rate of $10 per kWh – 100 times more expensive per unit than people in developed countries. The result is shown by the case of Muhammadu Abubakar who sells milk: his reliance on his inefficient generators (which require diesel) loses him around $5,100 a month. On a bigger scale, as Akinwumi Adesina succinctly stated, “If you can’t have electricity, you can’t drive any industrial development.” Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank, claims that the lack of access to electricity is the most critical issue holding back African development.

So why doesn’t Africa just extend the existing electricity grids to accommodate these problems? It appears that it is simply not economical at this time. To connect those 600 million people, infrastructure investment would have to increase by $47 billion, from $8 billion to $55 billion. It would also take until 2080 at the current pace.

Renewables, in comparison, look cheaper and are becoming more utilised, especially with the 80% drop in the cost of solar panels since 2010. Indeed, there are many reasons to be hopeful. Between 2010 and 2012 Nigeria was boasting an annual growth of more than 15% a year in renewable energy. Furthermore, a report from an international energy agency report in 2014 stated that Africa could generate more than 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2050. However, the core problem with implementing renewable energy is the difficulty in expanding it to big scale industries rather than the individual. Inconsistencies and unpredictability still hamper the potential of renewable energy, something that wouldn’t be the case with an electric grid, which is a known quantity.

Despite the issues that surround these forward-thinking technological ideas, these have and will undoubtedly do a lot of economic and social good. It just seems unlikely that they will provide a permanent solution. But this is a step in the right direction, for now.