You've heard about the African Renaissance, right? The Aid Bosses, once the unquestioned successors in Africa to the joint heirloom of Mother Teresa and Lord Clive of Chennai, are finding it harder and harder to get face time with the political grandees in our wheeling and dealing capitals. The Chinese are fawning all over our oil and copper, forcing once-aloof Westerners to write treatises about why China's engagement with the continent isn't all marshmallow candy. These concerns get polite nods here and there but, mostly, serious Africans ignore them and firmly redirect the conversation back to private equity, or franchise deals, or something along those lines. Bottom line: Are you game or are you out? And have you heard that we have more mobile phones than any other continent besides Asia?
The curious thing, though, is that Africans aren't basking in a perpetual high. The fact that the continent is tired of being lectured to and treated as a curiosity to sate the intellectual pretensions of Westerners doesn't mean that Africans are blind to the challenges they perceive as obstructing every aspect of their continent's development.
Take any newspaper printed in Africa any day. Whether you are in Dakar or Asmara, the wailing and ranting brims over; doomsayers and purveyors of gloom compete for the prize of most pessimistic outlook all morning, noon and dusk on local radio, Facebook and — where such media has been cordoned off by overzealous political police — in the backseats of tightly packed mini-buses.
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.
This is a concept way ahead of the crawling pace of empirical evidence. No wonder its exponents often sound and look more like New Age sages than Jeffrey Sachs. But it is possible to begin a preliminary examination by focusing on the narrow confines of one's trade or cause.
I run a multinational enterprise with multiple partners and super-demanding clients. The technology systems that undergird this effort are far-flung. I am expected to integrate my tools into complex global supply chains of international drug producers to solve the local problem of counterfeiting. I have had to run worldwide social marketing campaigns in the past in order to attract attention to our work in what could be dismissed as obscure backwaters of the global system. I still spend much of my time traveling from conference to conference in the West to meet people who can help my work succeed (I started thinking about this blog post on a train bound for Davos).
I am required to do all this on a shoestring budget and a super-lean staff. And I do it from Africa. I have a dozen friends in rather similar situations.
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.
So case closed then: Leapfrogging rocks, and once its full bloom encapsulates Africa the world is our oyster. Sadly, it isn't that simple.
Let me give you an example. State-run lotteries are among the most moribund industries in Africa. In Ghana, the government tried to address the despicable mess its lottery found itself in by banning private lotteries. That, predictably, did not stem the decline.
Some new entrants smelled opportunity and moved in to carve a niche in mobile-based lotteries. The sweet spot was of course they needed no unwieldy agent network or cash redemption facilities. But just when the new system was on the verge of take-off it was quickly discovered that the entire legal and regulatory system as set up does not in fact allow mobile lotteries to function.
Despite the opportunity being so glaring, not a single mobile-driven lottery infrastructure has emerged in any African country. If this is the case with lotteries, think of the even more regulated sectors of health and education, or more politically charged sectors such as agriculture.
Quite clearly, while leapfrogging might contribute powerfully to hacking physical infrastructure, it is less useful when it comes to soft (cultural, social, regulatory etc.) infrastructure. Therein lies its limitation in driving the African Renaissance.
So what is my one big idea?
Leapfrogging is a set of tools and techniques, not a conceptual or ideological description of the socioeconomic evolution of Africa now or in the near future. What matters is how entrepreneurs and innovators, especially social innovators, employ this set of tools within prevailing constraints. That, and not the poetic power of a renaissance motif, will transform Africa, one entrepreneurial triumph after another.
BRIGHT B. SIMONS
Bright B. Simons invented the SMS shortcode system for authenticating pharmaceuticals, and currently leads the effort by the company he founded, mPedigree Network, to deploy the system across Africa and South Asia. He is based in Accra, Ghana.