In African countries, “The main leapfrogging that takes place is over the open sewers.” Imagine someone entreating us to look before we leap, after making such a comment. They have assured us that when we come down to earth it’ll be back in the mire of our dirty poverty and so, what’s the looking for?
That advice, if you’re lucky and haven’t seen it, is contained in an article in a British news magazine of some time ago. But, being so insulting, maybe it should not be popularised, which is why I comment on it this late.
For, tell me, why should an outsider think that Africans cannot remember that leapfrogging anything alone, without thinking of putting their poor infrastructure ‘house’ in order, is futile?
And, to rub in the contempt, the article is illustrated by a drawing of a famished Africa, weighed down by a famished frog, the continent’s spindly legs already sunken in the sewer, all the fancy inventions of today like drones, mobile phones and the like, sunken with them.
It’s an article that makes for depressing reading because it insults our confidence and honour but, why not? Maybe it does us no harm not to “leapfrog” it, for introspection purposes. Or maybe we could find the advice laughable, by its uselessness.
Should we “leapfrog” anything, anyway? Or, to use a less fanciful expression, should we “skip” any phase of our growth, “jump over”, “hop over”, etc?
Because, what’s the hype about “leapfrogging”? Down the length of history, humanity has been leapfrogging. Where humans reach a stage of development before others in one area, those others abandon their own to jump to that stage.
That’s how China may soon overtake USA or Europe in development, even when it’s still dealing with its backwardness in some areas. That’s how India is advancing fast, when it has yet to pull many in its population out of dire conditions.
That’s how the Japanese auto industry is among the biggest in the world and the South Korean mobile-phone industry is equal to the best, both in a short time, after hopping over the many phases Western companies had to labour over, navigating.
So is with African countries: wherever possible, people therein will not go through the motions of reinventing the wheel.
When mobile telephony hit the scene, the continent, to a country, happily and quickly abandoned the wiring-up and pole-planting that Bell’s invention would’ve called for. We joyfully went mobile and now everyone is connected to the world in ways that Motorolla, or whoever the mobile’s inventor, never imagined.
And it has not meant that that wiring-up or pole-planting was totally abandoned, far from it.
When it was seen that fast internet helped in education, health, trade, or whatever, and it required broadband, then the earth was wired up for that. Just as phone masts were planted when mobile telephony needed them and satellites alone did not ‘bring it down to earth’.
But, most importantly, it didn’t mean that life as Africans had known it ceased. Clean water, lighting, educational institutions, health facilities, transport and the rest of our ever-mocked shaky infrastructure have continued, and will continue, to get their fair share of boosting.
Africans have seen that it’s possible to skip back and forth, leapfrogging whatever is unfinished or is obsolete here and there to hop to the latest technology, without forgetting to dive back and deal with the unfinished business; at the same time if possible, later if not.
So, yes, “In Rwanda, where most of the population live in cut-off villages, the government wants to skip straight to drones.”
But, before we go “skipping’, is there any village that’s completely cut-off? To my knowledge, none that’s not accessible by a dust road; difficult to navigate with a two-wheel drive, alright, but not with a motorcycle, a four-wheel. The drones’ added value of speed – and reduced cost? – cannot be skipped over a near-inaccessibility.
What’s important is that even as they hop over to drones, Rwandans continue to deal with these roads. Which is no cause for alarm, as the mud/dust track system is slowly but surely diminishing.
If drone medicine-delivery will supplement the insufficient road system delivery to serve the sick better, as mobile phone banking has supplemented the existing banking system, then let’s roll. Let’s equally go for solar panels, as they are supplementing our deficient power stations.
Meanwhile, no one ignores the fact that “leapfrogging has limits.” Rwanda will not cease to train her professionals and technicians as she has always done; doctors, engineers, teachers and others.
She’ll not cease to improve her infrastructure and she’ll not cease to work with investors and other partners, if they can help in hopping over whatever is obsolete on to the latest technological invention.
The audacity to try what’s new, without flying blind, and supplement what exists has put Rwanda where she is today. And these ‘wise’ dispensers of unsolicited counsel will not deny it’s a much better place, for daring.
Africa, let’s leapfrog away! When we come back down to earth, it’ll be a better earth, bet on that.