Leapfrogging is overrated, says a Harvard development professor

A revolution without industrialization.
A revolution without industrialization.
Image: EPA/Legnan Koula
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Over the past few weeks there have been several stories about the growing penetration of smartphones across Africa, as 4G networks expand and more Africans come online. This has led to many positive developments, the best known being the rapid expansion of mobile-money services. Thanks to M-Pesa in particular, Africa is a world leader in mobile money.

These successes inevitably lead to talk about how Africa is “leapfrogging” more advanced economies. Leapfrogging, in this context, is when countries skip a step in development thanks to rapid innovation—from no phones to smartphones, for example. The mobile phone, in this context, has allowed African countries to avoid the heavy investments required to build fixed-line networks.

But Harvard’s Calestous Juma believes we’re wrong to think about leapfrogging in that way. In a recent paperLeapfrogging Progress, The Misplaced Promise of Africa’s Mobile Revolution—Juma points out that no advanced economy got where it is today by cutting corners and sidestepping (that is, leapfrogging) industrialization. And he reminds us industrialization requires infrastructure:

Infrastructure is both the backbone of the economy and the motherboard of technological innovation. African countries need adequate infrastructure to realize their full potential.

Juma, a well-respected advocate for the role of entrepreneurship and technological innovation in Africa’s development, says that African policymakers should revisit their respective industrial policies. In his view, the shortcoming of the mobile revolution is that while it has opened up communications for tens of millions of ordinary Africans, it hasn’t established an infrastructural base for broader economic development.

This challenges the conventional wisdom for development in Africa, which revolves around a shift from exporting raw materials to developing “value added” products. The oft-cited example is becoming a chocolate maker instead of a cocoa exporter, as in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Juma argues we should think about this in different way:

There is little evidence to suggest that countries industrialize by adding value to their raw materials. Rather, the causality runs the other way—countries add value to raw materials because they already have local industries with the capacity to turn raw materials into products. Initial industrial development thus becomes the driver of demand for raw material and value addition rather than the other way around.

Juma’s paper makes many more vital points on the importance of industrialization to Africa. In short, there are no shortcuts.