The Technological Leapfrog: Economic Miracle or Dangerous Mirage? By Alfredo Garcia Sanchez W’21 C’21

A recent Pew poll found that today, around eight out of ten Africans own and use mobile phones—a 700% increase since the beginning of this century. In fact, mobile phone ownership in sub-Saharan Africa is now approaching levels seen only in developed countries, despite the fact that nearly half of all people in this part of the world live on less that $2 per day. Mobile phones are one of the most well known examples of a “leapfrog” technology—one that skips over older, better-established technologies in favor of the latest iterations, and are often characterized by lower capital expenditures and a decentralized structure. For African telecommunications, the construction of landline services has been largely skipped. Indeed, fewer than 10% of households in sub-Saharan Africa have access to a landline connection.

Other technologies such as household solar panels and mobile money services are also in the process of bypassing national electrical grids and brick-and-mortar banks. These, along with the proliferation of cellphones, have been praised as necessary steps to lifting African countries out of entrenched poverty and economic stagnation. While it is true that cellphones have enjoyed considerable success and can be duly credited for improving the lives of millions, the data show that they are an exception rather than the rule. Low entry costs and flexible consumer availability can explain the bulk of cellphones’ unusual proliferation in Africa. Meanwhile, other so-called “leapfrog” technologies have not been so successful; according to the World Bank, out of 67 proven new technologies, only 6 achieved a penetration rate of 50% in poor and developing nations. Therefore, one has to question whether these new technologies are really reaching the most isolated and marginalized communities in sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the developing world.

Most objections to the idea of technological leapfrogging are rooted in the controversial domain of modernization theory. Some 20th century economists such as W.W Rostow would posit that for a nation to become fully industrialized and high-income, it necessarily has to advance sequentially through the “Five Stages of Economic Growth”—a model claimed to be universal. The argument goes that by leapfrogging certain technologies, African nations would skip the step of industrialization entirely and advance to a modern service-sector oriented economic system. However, the validity of this model has been repeatedly, and rightfully, called into question. It can explain quite well the development paths of Western industrialized countries, yet many contemporary economists would suggest that it does not at all take into consideration certain unassailable circumstances that have marred what would have otherwise been a clear-cut economic path—among them slavery, colonization, intentional isolation, etc.

The validity of modernization theory to sub-Saharan Africa notwithstanding, industrialization necessarily provokes the creation of something inarguably vital to a nation’s economic growth and vitality—infrastructure. One of the main challenges facing developing nations is economic integration across the board; there is no feasible way for a country to fully invest in or benefit from its human capital if all citizens are not able to meaningfully contribute. If there are no roads, then there is no easy way of transporting goods between the interior and the coast. Without running water, rural communities have to waste precious time and resources to simply fulfill this basic human need; in many cases, these menial tasks often fall on children, especially young girls, who could otherwise be in school—although in many of these places, schools are often inadequate in and of themselves. Without proper sanitation, communities can easily succumb to disease and misery.

The main concern is that, by focusing on leapfrog technologies, African countries might forgo the necessary development of infrastructure. It may indeed be up for debate as to whether poor countries can successfully skip industrialization; however, there is very little disagreement that roads, bridges, power grids, water systems, sewers, waste management, and airports really are the backbone of any prosperous nation. Developing nations need not follow exactly in our footsteps—the world certainly cannot handle another billion people living as decadently as Americans do—yet they must consider the fact that the basics must be in place.

Consider this: of what good is a hospital filled to the brim with state-of-the art computers, scanners, and robots if most people cannot actually get to it?