African innovation: The leapfrogs and left-behinds

For all the excitement about innovation in Africa, one cannot simply use it to “leapfrog” over all problems. And where does that leave the role of society and state?


First, some questions:

1 Is the term “innovation” being abused in the contemporary African growth story?
2 How do tech-based innovations and other “leapfrogs” relate to the state’s role in social development?
3 Is it a form of unjustified “Afro-pessimism” to step back and question some of the rhetoric on innovation and entrepreneurship?

A recurring feature of debate about the current “Africa Rising” phenomenon is enthusiasm about the transformative growth and development potential around innovative technologies, financing instruments and other interventions.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) Africa in Nigeria in May 2014 exemplified this. The event featured much excitement about how innovative, tech-based solutions might alleviate (or leapfrog altogether) all sorts of backlogs and bottlenecks to better health, education, financial inclusion, democratic participation, and so on. There is no shortage of rhetoric on the topic, as a recent post for WEF Africa exemplifies. Indeed, at the meeting in May, the head of a global electronics and tech firm echoed this rhetoric by describing Africa’s developmental challenges as “opportunities in disguise”.

But has some of this rhetoric gone too far? Are the challenges to flourishing in Africa merely one or two clever apps away from being resolved? And why does going to events such as WEF Africa leave one with the sense that some smart and important people really do believe that Africa’s bright future will be delivered really soon on a mobile internet platform?

Idealism and innovation hype

This is not to say it is naïve to hold a positive mindset in tackling Africa’s social development issues or its commercial opportunities (and the many possible links between these two).

Moreover, a can-do, problem-solving approach is essential for investing, operating or living in much of Africa. But do we risk glossing over some confronting realities by spinning these as simply “opportunities in disguise”?

Do we risk overdoing the scope for tech- based and other solutions to leapfrog whole stages in the development of the continent’s many markets, societies and polities?

Does the prevailing hype around innovation risk understating the scale of the challenge that exists in building more capable, responsive, representative states?

By all means, let us enable and nurture the ability to find pro-social shortcuts that address long-term problems. The “tech with a purpose” trend holds great promise on many fronts. Yet all the excitement about innovation in Africa overlooks how we cannot simply leapfrog our way past many of the enduring structural problems in our societies and systems.

There are not necessarily mobile-based or drone-delivered innovative solutions to every social and commercial problem. Tech-based hubs in Africa’s mega-cities are great, but they will not necessarily be the source of inclusive, sustainable, job-rich green growth.

In one view, it is insulting – not just dangerous – to frame poverty, inequality and under-development as “opportunities in disguise”. It is also disingenuous to gloss over the challenges many people in Africa continue to face in their daily lives by suggesting that some innovative tech- based panacea is only a little leap away.

The state still matters

The rhetoric on innovation is typically laced with comment on how Africa’s peoples are especially enterprising and resourceful in finding solutions to local issues. Along with the “leapfrog” rhetoric, this obscures an important factor.

The truth is that the Africa Rising phenomenon has generally not involved governments deliberately providing a supportive environment for innovation to address social and commercial goals. Rather, much of Africa’s much-hyped innovation and entrepreneurship is based on necessity grounded in the state’s failure to provide basic public goods and services.

Innovative commercial services or social tools might be necessary to bypass state incapacity or unwillingness. The state is not everything – often across Africa we need less “state” and more “society”. Yet the state still matters, and development despite or around the state might not prove particularly sustainable or inclusive.

In the long term, innovative approaches that do not build the capacity or the incentives for the state to respond to and provide for its citizens may not do much to address our development goals.

Abusing “entrepreneurialism”?

The positive Africa Rising story tends to valorise “entrepreneurialism” in ways that are also potentially unhelpful.

WEF Africa speeches, panel discussions and opinion pieces continued the pattern of championing the entrepreneurial spirit of Africa’s people. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) has published in-depth studies of entrepreneurial activity and attitudes across ten major African countries, describing the region as experiencing an entrepreneurial “revolution” and becoming a “Mecca” for business start-up.

A recent UK minister’s speech on market-oriented development in Africa cast the continent’s peoples as a mass of enthusiastic entrepreneurs waiting for investment to support their business initiation and expansion efforts.

It is true that the survey work of outfits like GEM shows remarkably positive perceptions across much of Africa towards business initiation. Belief in the possibility of individual and societal progress is, moreover, a necessary condition for the attainment of it. In this regard GEM’s work tells us that positive attitudes towards business initiation among Africa’s peoples may be an important ingredient in the continent’s economic and social prospects.

Yet there will remain some very significant financing, infrastructural, fiscal and other barriers facing would-be entrepreneurs in Africa. In addition, much of the activity described as “entrepreneurial” is necessity- driven, survivalist activity. This may yield significant social or business innovations, but it is qualitatively different from business initiation and activity that is driven by a positive sense of exploiting and building opportunities in the market-place.*

This is not to be condescending about entrepreneurialism or innovation in Africa. Nor is it to deny the power of harnessing a positive outlook to development strategies that help to realise human potential. Instead it is simply to recognise that the hardships many people face cannot be wished away by reframing them as “entrepreneurship” and “innovation” and “opportunities in disguise”.

Some current rhetoric and approaches risk reframing Africa’s poor (especially its growing urban poor) as “entrepreneurs” in ways that gloss over the story of poverty.

It is one thing to give people agency, to recognise their human potential, to see them as the main participants in their own upliftment. But, considering the millions plying a precarious hard living in the continent’s vast urban informal economies, it seems disingenuous to re-cast these people as self-starting “entrepreneurs”.

It could become a form of escaping responsibility for thinking about barriers to social mobility and economic empowerment… and overlooking the state’s role in facilitating inclusive growth.

* Africa’s local private sector struggles to grow. Oxford Analytica Daily Brief, 4 June 2014

ESSAYS IN QUESTION: Three key thinkers ask three key questions. What do civil society activists do? Do employees care about responsible retirement investing? And is innovation in Africa the “leapfrog” solution everyone seems to think?

  1. → Kayum Ahmed: What do civil society activists do – and not do?
  2. → Dr Stephanie Giamporcaro: Is it true that South African employees don’t care about investing responsibly?
  3. → Dr Jolyon Ford: African innovation – The leapfrogs and left-behinds

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