Looking to Africa, tech companies have grand ambitions of leapfrogging; that is, skipping past older technologies that were never implemented, straight to the newest. The thinking is that drones, for example, can compensate for a lack of roads. Mobile banking can replace functional banks, and solar panels eliminate the need for power stations. There have been remarkable successes. But there are also limits to leaping into the future without an infrastructure.
The introduction of mobile phones in Africa provides a shining example of leapfrogging: 15 years ago, very few Africans had phones. Getting a landline could take two or more years. Then mobile phones arrived. In less time than it would take to have a single landline connected, the number of mobile phones exceeded the number of landlines in some countries.
Drones are seen as the next big thing, mainly for delivering medical supplies to remote locales. And some of Silicon Valley’s biggest venture-capital firms, including Sequoia Capital and the investment arm of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, are true believers in potential drone applications. In Rwanda, for example, Silicon Valley start-up Zipline wants to use drones and parachutes to drop off packets of blood from the country’s five blood banks to hospitals and health-care centres.
The potential is real, but so are the costs of implementation. Kenyan company M-Kopa, backed by the Gates Foundation, has sold thousands of solar panels; however doing so required building a large network of door-to-door salesmen. In Nigeria, an e-commerce firm called Jumia had to build entire logistics systems to conduct business. Essentially, a company that wants to capitalise on digital opportunities in Africa may first have to construct its own physical infrastructure.
Nevertheless, hundreds of investors in Africa are touting technological solutions that fill gaps. Enthusiasm is high. But as The Economist points out, tech firms looking to do business in Africa, with the exception of South Africa, often find that “there is no getting around complex tax laws, a dearth of engineers and fragmented markets.” According to Kenyan investor and activist Ory Okolloh, the Western investors backing them “have even less grasp of just how dysfunctional basic infrastructure can be”.
Drones may be able to transport blood, but not doctors. Solar panels offer an alternative to dangerous kerosene-burning, but not the functioning grid manufacturers need. And even the most brilliant technological invention cannot overcome a lack of well-drafted regulations and rule of law.