The Child that Dared to Run Before Crawling

Wilfred M Mworia Imagine it, a toddler, running before he/she can crawl! That sounds odd; it goes against the way of nature, the normal progression of development. In fact it’s quite absurd – imagine it, a 6 month old running around the house! No doubt this would be an interesting case for research. And yet interestingly, this is what could be the fate of one of our planet’s child – Africa! And what’s more amazing is that it just could be possible. The vast majority of African countries and particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa are ages away from industrialization. Most of these countries depend on agriculture and primary industries for their economy. Conventional thought holds that the key to unlocking Africa lies in industrialization. In fact some countries have plans to industrialize by a certain year, such as Kenya’s Vision 2030 (of course the dynamics as to whether some of these strategies are really working is a totally different discussion). This way of thinking of course is logical and has very valid arguments for it. Of course, the key to development is really in sophisticating what you do – in other words, instead of just exporting tea leaves, and then importing processed tea at a much higher price – sophisticate; build a tea processing industry and export the ‘value-added’ tea or coffee or whatever else. This creates more semi-skilled employment opportunities and also means that the country is producing more valuable exports. And that is great and should be done. However, at the risk of drawing quite a bit of skepticism, there might just be another way, another school of thought. Not totally doing away with the just stated school of ‘African Industrial Development’ thought, perhaps even a complimentary school. The argument for this different way is more in principle than in anything else. And what is this principle? Well, basically, we have been drawn into thinking that the development of Africa will come from a linear pattern of development that of necessity has to go through the same pattern of development that the western world went through. In other words, there has to be an ‘African Industrial Revolution’ that will propel the continent into an age of industrial success much like Europe and America had the Industrial Revolution which played a major role in shaping those continents and countries to what they are today – setting them up for economic prowess. The world in general is in what has been called the Information Age, the age that came after the Industrial Age- the world of computers , the world of the WWW and the Internet, the world of Wikipedia and all the things these represent. So, linear development dictates that Africa should have to go through this same pattern (more

or less) in order to get somewhere. But is this the true natural progression of economies – crawl, then walk, then run? It would apparently appear not! Unlike our toddler, for whom nature has set a natural progression that is what all children (regardless of their color or race or parentage or ancestry) must go through; economic development (and even History as will be seen later) does not have a natural progression. Fortunately for Africa, economic development has patterns of development but not a hard and fast (natural) progression from A to B to C… In fact, it can be argued that the progression taken by the western world in the development of their economies may not be the best model to follow strictly. In the book “Myths of Innovation”, Berkun talks about the fact that perhaps the dominant design of innovations such as the motor vehicle that set the stage for their industries and have been the back drop of all the development that has happened in say developing today’s motor vehicles may not necessarily have been the best. Simply, the fact that history (or more precisely, circumstance) chose to promote one design over the other does not mean that the dominant design was necessarily the best. For example, today’s motor vehicles are major contributors to pollution simply because the dominant design pattern was to run a car engine on oil. So, is it necessarily true that the (economic) history of the rest of the world has to play out in Africa for Africa to ‘catch up with the developed world?’ Perhaps not, history is (arguably) a matter of opinion. While industrialization could indeed offer economic advantage to Africa, this does not mean we go about building factories all over the place, trying to mimic the west. Unfortunately, most of the leadership of Africa (primarily) believes the opposite, “Let’s industrialize”, they all say. About a month ago, SEACOM, a sub-marine fiber optic cable was pulled out of the Indian Ocean at the Kenyan coast. The promise of cheap (there’s currently an argument raging over the aspect of cost), super-fast internet became a reality. In fact, literally, the Information Age came knocking at the African coastline. So here is a continent (in a manner of speaking the baby of the world, the youngest in terms of development, the toddler) being beckoned to run, before she can walk, or before even she can crawl; being beckoned to join the connected world. While the people still starve, and the youth go unemployed, and the governments strive over petty politics, and the industries are yet to be built. So, will the continent follow a straight line path that is the more emphasized path, and eventually, ‘catch up’ with the rest of the world. And if so, when would the toddler ‘catch up’? After all the world is not sitting still waiting for baby Africa to catch up. It might well be that by the time Africa eventually industrializes and then starts making more definitive efforts to get on the Information Age chariot, the world will be in a totally new age (one hopefully with 100% clean energy and

commoditization of teleportation – no more traffic or commuting delays!) Can Africa really do this? Firstly, as mentioned earlier, history is (arguably) a matter of opinion, look at the mess the Industrial Revolution has brought us to – pollution, destruction of biodiversity, energy crisis. So would an ‘Industrial Revolution’ in much the same way as it has happened in the west be the best thing for Africa? I don’t think so, Africa is the contributing much less to global warming than other continents, and we don’t need any more global warming! Secondly, setting up industries is a massively expensive undertaking and more so for a continent that mostly runs on borrowed money aka aid. The solution could lie in intentionally breaking the ‘natural’ order of things. Just to resound the earlier statement, there is a place for industrialization. It will be good for Africa to diversify her production. However, even when it comes to industry, it should not stop at just building factories. Africa should consider herself the most fortunate of all the continents. She can be wise to look at the world and see what went right in history and what went wrong and find a better way – for example, she should be developing the greenest industry in the whole world! Back to intentionally changing the ‘natural’ order of things – the information age could be the place where Africa finds a niche and shines at a much lower cost and with a faster turnover and return on investment than would happen with industrialization. A country like Kenya could take decades to industrialize but much less time, effort and cost to create an information and knowledge based economy. Perhaps instead of rushing to build more factories from the industrial age, we should be rushing to build the industries of the information age and training the youth in the way of the information age. Perhaps Africa’s industries should be those that create products out of bits as opposed to those that create products out of atoms (interesting read: Nicholas Negraponte, Being Digital 1995)! - In any case it seems Africa is more attuned to the information age and the growth of mobile communication could bear witness to that.

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