Friday, July 5, 2013

How can technology spur socio-economic growth in Africa?

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

I have chosen to delve into issues of technology and the relationship between governance and socioeconomic growth in this edition of the series because this has been my preoccupation over the last one week here in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. From June 28 – July 1, world leaders, young scientist, and development experts from mostly Africa and Asia have been discussing the possibilities of leveraging technology to enhance socioeconomic growth in Africa. This is very important because the pace of development today in many aspects of life is determined by the progress made towards improvements on technological innovations. It could be the mobile phone, the iPod, a medication, a transport facility or any kind of innovation that addresses some of humanity’s challenges.

Industrialized nations are making gains from technology particularly in issues of health and education, and are at the same time improving other aspects of life - making communication and transportation easier, and even breaking trade barriers between countries. These nations are mostly succeeding because of huge investments in research and development, institution building and support to capacity building programs particularly in education, and incentives for innovations. Africa can learn many more things from the industrialized world. Asian countries are making some gains in that direction, albeit modest. Nevertheless, the reality is that most Asian nations can now support their local economies and enhance better livelihood for their peoples due to recent investments in technology and its utilization in agriculture, mining and trade. This is in particular reference to countries like South Korea, China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

African nations, too, can follow in the rank of some these countries in stimulating socio-economic growth for their people. The application of modern technology that increases Africa’s mining and agricultural output is key to this strategy. Mining and agriculture have been central in Africa’s export, and mostly ‘rentier’ economies. The absence of effective or modern technology or the underutilization of local technology has made it difficult for the African peoples to make substantial gains from agriculture and mining. Local people do agriculture and mining mostly in low-scales; even though they have access to huge tracks of rich land. Like most African farmers do subsistence farming, miners also do not go beyond artisan equipments that involve intensive labor and time, and in most cases with very little financial returns. It is this limitation of African landowners that developing Asian nations and their Western competitors are exploiting through the infusion of huge foreign direct investments in mostly poor African countries with lax regulations and weak state institutions. One of such is postwar Liberia, were over 16 billion FDI agreements have been signed over the last five years in mostly the mining and agricultural sectors. This has thrown local miners out of business and reduced the sources of livelihood for most subsistence farmers. If local technologies were developed or if there were sufficient or even modest levels of capitals that support commercial activities, families and communities would not have lost their livelihoods to multinational companies. As local farmers have made substantial efforts over the years with the technologies available to feed themselves, they could have done more cultivations and harvests to feed other communities and improve their living standards.

The absence of technology is also affecting productivity in many other sectors including health and education. In today’s world education have been digitized and students learn even faster with new technological applications introduced through the computer and related machines. Millions of African students are yet to understand the application of computer and its significance to their career developments. This is a critical challenge, particularly for this generation of Africans, born during this growing age of computer technology. If African leaders do not make significant moves towards ensuring that the young generation of Africans get better education and access to affordable technology, it is highly unlikely that they will meet the challenges of today’s and tomorrow’s market. As markets are more electronic, and money now also electronic, consumers in Africa (mostly in the rural areas) will find it difficult and even expensive to participate, if a process of solid education that facilitates Africa’s integration into the emerging techno-market is not given national implementation priorities. This will also continue to make Africa inefficient in reaping shared benefits from international cooperation and trade.

Africa’s move towards socio-economic growth and sustained poverty reduction will require several steps, and in this piece, I advance the following as key to developing technology for socio-economic growth. First, we need institutions of governance responsive and efficient in regulating standards, enforcing contracts and advancing social services. Then we need institutions of training and research that emphasize on science and technology for training young Africans, investigating issues and arriving at innovative solutions. Second, African nations need to invest in energy generation – electricity. A sustainable power-base for electricity is a major stimulant for local economic growth and technological advancement. Local businesses and multinational companies are likely to grow and create more jobs once there is adequate source of power. On the reverse, a limited or no source of electricity cripples or even kills businesses, particularly small businesses that cannot stand the cost of managing private sources of electricity. Third is the need for improvement in transportation networks within national borders and across regions of Africa. Improved transportation networks, particularly ones that provide for easy and fast movement of people and goods is an indispensable requirement for accelerating trade and growth. Good transport network has improved trade and free movements across Western Europe and North America. Regions in Africa need to cooperate on intra-regional transport infrastructure projects as a means of increasing on trade outputs. For example, if the countries in the Mano River Basin area– Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory coast - can connect their national capitals and major commercial hubs through railways and roads, intra-regional trade will improve faster as local businesses will have access to alternative markets.

I conclude by saying that Africa’s greatest challenge in building strong economies and accelerating socio-economic development is the absence of technology and the knowledge base for its applications. I recognize that African nations do not have adequate capacities currently, but I also appreciate that the potentials are huge in tackling this challenge. National vision strategies must therefore consider the development of technology as an imperative in attaining poverty reduction goals. The need also to expand the utilization and improvements of local technologies and innovations cannot be overemphasized if we are to realize our national visions.

In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry