We need to stop talking about how mobile phones will save Africa and think bigger

Thinking big
Thinking big
Image: Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
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There is no shortage of feel-good stories about how mobile phones have changed lives in Africa. The farmer who saved the trip to market until maize prices improved. The student who read about windmills and then built one. This is all great stuff. But it also perpetuates the narrative casting Africa as the orphan opening a Christmas box full of socks and toothpaste, expected to be grateful for finally getting what everyone else takes for granted.

Yes, it is significant that Internet use on mobile phones in Africa will likely increase 20-fold in the next five years. But the fact that mobile Internet uptake is double the global rate probably speaks more to a lack of other infrastructure and PCs than it does the radical nature of mobile phone usage (top uses are Facebook, texting, listening to radio and taking pictures). Let’s save the ululating for something truly astonishing.

“It’s so 20th century, the world has moved on,” affirms Solomon Assefa of the phone conversation. The director of IBM research in Africa and a panelist on the “Future of Technology” session at last week’s World Economic Forum in Africa, Assefa wishes that discussions about innovation in Africa would forecast ten years ahead, rather than always looking ten years back.

But getting ahead is exactly what development pundits are pitching when they invoke the continent’s potential to “leapfrog”. Employing digital technology to bypass gaps in built infrastructure from banking to telecommunications and education makes for good newspaper articles, but is the Africa leapfrog narrative a false dawn?

Massive challenges sit between the talk and reality. Top among them are higher education and research infrastructure, according to former chancellor of MIT Phillip Clay. “The point of leapfrogging is to reposition Africa to be a part of the next activity, not trying to just catch up with the activity that’s already mature,” Clay, who was in Cape Town to promote the need for increased investment in math and science in Africa, told Quartz. To do this, strong research institutions, affordable access to communications and the ability to attract and retain talent are all required.

South Africa’s minister of science and technology Naledi Pandor says that mega-projects like the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) — the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope — will develop all three. Designed to answer questions like how the universe evolved and what dark matter really is, the primarily South-African based SKA involves eight African partner countries, has catalyzed 100 million Rand ($8.1 million) in scholarships and numerous PhDs and Masters projects. It’s also established five research chairs at various South African universities, and employed scores of technicians and engineers.

Assefa says it is exactly this kind of ambition that will drive the research and development needed for big industry players to see Africa as a big opportunity for investment. But for African countries to truly make the leap, an enabling environment, particularly in terms of tax incentives and patent laws, is also a must. Without it, the talent will go elsewhere and financing options from angel investors to seed funding will remain a fundamental gap. As Assefa’s fellow panelist, Acha Leke from McKinsey & Company pointed out, “Mark Zuckerberg didn’t go to Wells Fargo.”