Leapfrogging is hard with only one leg

“Environmental systems are easier to set up when development is still in its early stages” claims the FT. This arguably is a misquote from the article (blame the sub-editor?) by Sarah Murray who cites the old chestnut of the leap over fixed line telephony straight to mobile phones in Africa. With the possible exception of mobile money, building, of course, on the earlier leap, and still mostly confined to Kenya, I struggle to think of any other big technological leaps made that have significantly fast-forwarded development on the national or international scale.

That is not to say that small leaps are not being made by various businesses across the developing world, but Ms Murray was talking about the big systemic leaps, especially to greener technologies in such things as agriculture and power generation. Here I feel the picture is less rosy.

Mobile phones first brought benefits to the elite, benefits they had not previously been able to access in other ways, so I imagine that less regulatory hurdles were put in their way. In contrast there are lots of powerful vested interests in agriculture and power generation, and elites have little problem putting food on the table or fuel in their private generators. Moreover significant reform to the farm sector inevitably involves wrestling with that most sensitive of subjects, and one in which elites are particularly attached to their privileges (and thus potential for abuse): land.

Most eco-friendly farming techniques either require a certain amount of upfront investment (organic certificates don’t come cheap) and/or have a long term payoff, e.g. better soil nutrient retention. Without security of tenure such innovations will always be restricted to small pilot projects.

Alas most farmers in Africa (Ms Murray was specifically talking about Africa) are smallholders with negligible if any land tenure security. Large commercial farms will at least have the relevant pieces of paper, but may have had to trample upon a few rights just to get them in the first place, and thus can be a lot more vulnerable to changing political winds then they might like, i.e. their tenure security ain’t so great either.

So although I would like to be more optimistic, I would caution anyone expecting a great leap forward in agricultural technologies in Africa or other developing countries. It’s hard to go leapfrogging when one leg is nailed to the floor.

Hat tip: my Dad.

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