Circuit assembly in Ghana

Africa struggles toward building a viable technological infrastructure

African countries with ambitions to find a place among the world's innovators certainly face big challenges, but there is no shortage of ideas from the continent's brightest minds.

Writing for the magazine Communications of the ACM 20 years ago, Mayuri Odedra-Straub, then a researcher focusing on IT in developing nations, complained that Africa served as the background for a place to display overflow data about Europe in a piece about telephone penetration. Odedra-Straub described sub-Saharan Africa – with the exception of South Africa – as a 'technological desert'. Times change, however, and the desert began to show signs of cultivation.

At the same time, China was starting to move from its centrally-planned, heavily agrarian economy to one that was more industrially-focused, as the result of reforms made under Deng Xiaoping's administration. Some 20 years on, China has become the world's cheap-manufacturing base and sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of its southernmost tip, lags way behind.

It's not as if sub-Saharan Africa isn't growing economically. In some countries, growth has been rapid; but closer inspection reveals that much of the increase in exports has been for raw materials – in many cases helping to feed economic expansion in China. Nigeria's government declared that the country would enter the top 20 economies by 2020.

A report, 'The World in 2050', published at the start of the year by accountancy analyst PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), gave the country a longer-term prognosis. It predicted Nigeria could be the 13th largest economy in the world by 2050, but would not enter the top 20 until after 2030. But, according to PwC, it would be the sole African country in the top 20 even by the middle of this century. Nigeria would surge past its currently more-advanced peer South Africa and rank among seven nations from Asia, two from the Middle East, five European countries, and five from the Americas.

PwC assumed that the growth of Nigeria, as well as India and Indonesia, would be held back in the short term because of a lack of technological progress – hindered by weak institutions that put off inward investment. Like Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, Nigeria's economy benefits hugely from its oil reserves; but, like its peers on the Arabian Peninsula, it has yet to find a way to convert the revenues into a broader-based economy.

A strategy paper put together by the African Development Bank argued Nigeria needs better infrastructure before its economy can broaden; but the country, like others on the continent, is struggling to free itself from what the Economist magazine calls 'Dutch disease' – the tendency for mineral extraction industries to drive out a nation's manufacturing base. The problem is that the money that oil, gas or mineral production brings in pushes up the exchange rate, thus making exports of finished goods less competitive. The term refers to the problems suffered by the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s after the discovery of natural gas off its coast resulted in a similar effect.

In 2009, World Bank president Robert Zoelick called on China to do more for Africa by going beyond projects to extract Africa's raw materials and help build factories to give the continent an industrial heart. In March of this year, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa ('BRICS') decided they could supplant the World Bank for development funds, signing an agreement to create a new 'BRICS bank'.

Despite the creation of institutions to fund development, there may be a long wait before any money turns into technological development or industrialisation. In a paper written two years after Zoelick's speech, Professor Terutomo Ozawa of Colorado State University and Professor Christian Bellak from the Vienna University of Economics and Business pointed out that'China's own vast interior regions are more likely to be tapped first as new production sites before any faraway countries are, citing Foxconn's plans to move 200,000 production jobs to inland provinces.

Middle class growth

A number of the products made in China are flowing in the opposite direction to Africa's raw materials. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that a fast-growing middle class – people able to spend up to $20 a day – is the result of 5 per cent-plus growth over the past few years. As a result of this growth, imports of technology goods from China have increased – particularly products such as mobile phones.

Although an indigenous middle class is growing rapidly, it is still a tiny proportion of the overall population. Many are beyond the reach of utilities such as electricity and water. However, on a continent where a reliable electrical supply remains a mere promise for the future, renewable technologies should do well.

US-based company D.light, for example, has developed solar-powered lighting systems that it is selling into sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. Although the energy itself is essentially free, the cost of moving from fuels such as kerosene, which can cost a dollar or more a day, for lighting remains prohibitive for many. One way that these companies are getting solar-powered lighting into the hands of the rural poor is through micro-loan schemes such as M-Kopa run by mobile operator Safaricom in Kenya.

Buyers make a down payment of around $30, and then pay half a dollar a day using the M-Pesa system, which uses the Safaricom mobile infrastructure, until they cover the purchase price of $200. From that point, the D.light solar lighting unit/mobile phone charger can be run free of charge. If the payments stop at any point before then, a control unit inside the light stops it from operating until payments resume.

Founded by Toby Cumberbatch, researcher at The Cooper Union in New York and visiting professor at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, the Socialite initiative has taken a different approach to companies such as D.light by offering a product that can potentially be assembled and repaired locally. The company grew out of a challenge he posed to his first-year engineering students in 2006 – to come up with a replacement for kerosene that would be robust enough to survive a tropical environment. It's a challenge well trodden by other inventors and innovators.

Cumberbatch points to the decaying pieces of technology that litter the landscape of the continent as the primary reason for having products that can be serviced by the local community: We wanted to give people the power to make their own lighting, he says.

The overall design for the $10 light was split between Cooper Union and Wa Polytechnic in northern Ghana, one of the poorest regions of the country. Cooper Union students handled the electronic design – which can provide light over two days from a full charge – while the mechanical framework was done at Wa. Much of the outer shell can use found objects.

In one demonstration, Cumberbatch shows a light with a tub that once contained hair relaxer as its base, a fruit juice bottle for its top, and bicycle spokes holding it together. If it breaks when dropped, it is easy to obtain spares at the local market. The circuit boards use through-hole components rather than the surface-mount packages employed in most consumer products, making them easier to manufacture, service and replace locally.

Less power, more light

Africa's limited electricity grid could provide a springboard for the development of a home-grown technological infrastructure. Researchers connected to the Energy Futures Lab based at Imperial College, London argued in a 2011 paper that sub-Saharan Africa has an opportunity to build a 'just grid' as well as a smart grid.

This would use the two-way communications technology of smart grids for billing and usage control; but the just grid would piggyback off investments that are not purely intended for electricity generation.

The report's writers pointed to the cellphone towers that are springing up across the continent. The researchers pointed to the use of pre-paid telephone subscriptions – not heavily regulated by local governments – as being instrumental in the rapid growth of mobile telephony.

Market models that accompanied the mobile phone revolution, such as sharing phones, may serve as precedent for smart grids, the report's author argued.

For now, the plans for building a technological base are focusing primarily on basic telecommunications (fixed and mobile), software and services, using policies that resemble those of the Indian government over the past two decades. Kenya, for example, is attempting to build a technological infrastructure around new cities.

In January this year, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for Konza Techno City in Kenya, a technology park the government plans southeast of the capital Nairobi, nicknamed 'Silicon Savannah'. The main thrust of the park, meanwhile, is on business process outsourcing (BPO)'' the same kind of call-centre-oriented development that has helped drive India's service economy.

The African Development Bank has proposed the creation of a pan-African cloud-computing network to help drive the IT infrastructure for a new wave of start-ups that are beginning to attract funding from specialist venture-capital groups such as London-based Helios Investment Partners, which was founded by two Nigerian investors. Governments are beginning to think about supplementing the existing mobile networks with faster access technologies.

In a speech given in February, South African communications minister Dina Pule said: I am urging governments in sub-Saharan Africa to prioritise releasing spectrum for mobile broadband. We have the opportunity to ensure that Africa's staggering growth rate maintains and increases the momentum it has had over the last decade. Last year African ministers agreed to 80 per cent broadband coverage by the year 2020.

South Africa still provides the greatest concentration of technology development and manufacturing in the continent. The country is attempting to drive a switchover to digital TV to help boost the number of channels and stimulate demand for electronic products through subsidised set-top boxes for poorer citizens.The South African government is likely to award the contract for making the boxes to a local supplier, such as Altech UEC, which opened a plant outside Durban in 2011. However, the switchover process and the awarding of the contract have been held up by legal action taken by broadcaster

Progress towards a technological infrastructure in Africa is likely to remain slow for some years; but the rapid growth of mobile telephony across the continent indicates that, if conditions are stable and attractive enough, development can accelerate. As well as adopting the advanced technology that has become commonplace in western Europe, for instance, Africans have also to acquire a knowledge of how it can be best put to work to address their continent's particular problems.

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