Africa - on the Road to Technology Perdition?

Posted by KatrinVerclas on May 21, 2010

This article was written by Bright Simons, Director at IMANI-Ghana and President of the mPedigree Network. It is re-posted here with permission.

Let’s face it: Africa is on the downward slope to perdition as far as technology is concerned.

Many people who are not directly confronted with this reality on the continent are usually lured into a false sense that things are looking up because of the fountain of good news that is the telecom sector.

The truth though is that the seeming proliferation of ICT success stories across the continent masks the real picture, which is one of a splattering of embers in a desolate patch of darkness.

For a casual browse through the latest International Telecommunications Union (ITU) ICT Development Index for instance should force you to conclude that ICT offers Africa no relief from its chronic state of technological pathology.

Just consider that on this index the bottom 10 countries in a list of 152 are all from Africa. And of the 50 worst-performing countries in the world, a full two-thirds (34) are from the continent.

And in every way you look at it Africa trails as badly or worse in other key Science, Technology & Innovation (STI) domains, such as Biotechnology, Agroscience, Pharmatechnology, Machine Mechanics & Hydraulics, Metallurgy & Industrial Chemistry, and Building Technology. These 6 areas in addition to ICT are no doubt the most critical to Africa’s development, at least as far the research and commentary literature on this subject is concerned.

Their importance can certainly not be wished away if STI activities must form an essential part of the response to the continent’s main development threats such as: the burden of infectious diseases, sanitation, food and water security, biodiversity loss, and low productivity, which collectively leads to chronic poverty and underemployment, and thus to social disharmony.

There is no point though in exhaustively treating each STI category as if it was an isolated enclave. In their interdependence we can also examine cross-cutting themes about technology production, trade/transfer, education, and policy/governance for evidence of the continent’s technological destitution.

1. Tech Production & Utilisation

Africa’s output and leveraging of technology at all levels – basic (research), secondary (development) and tertiary (commercialisation) –fall far short, quantitatively and qualitatively, of anything approaching tolerable.

Examine just briefly the World Intellectual Property Indicators (2009 version) as compiled by the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO). f  

So insignificant is Africa’s share of global patent filings that, with the sole exception of South Africa, no granular analysis for the African situation is presented at all. Yet when the authors saw the need to correlate GDP performance with patent filings, they felt compelled to bring in Uganda as the worst performer on the emergent index of 35 countries (from every continent save Oceania). More instructively, patent filings were co-related with R&D expenditure. Uganda, obviously representing Africa, is shown to spend, comparatively, abysmally on R&D. The East African country is also shown to reap, consequently, next to no patents. Indeed the number of total patents granted and in force for the whole of Africa, excepting South Africa, is roughly equivalent to that of the tiny Baltic state of Estonia (2007 data, but little has changed since then).

Granted that patents are problematic approximations of STI activity, they are nevertheless also as objective a criterion as one can get for measuring a culture in which people strive to get ahead by outmanoeuvring stiff competition more through “technical inventiveness” rather than predominantly through nepotism, cronyism or corruption. Simply put, patent activity can be a very useful indicator for measuring “fundamental” technology output and in some cases idea-driven entrepreneurship.

So-called “scientometrics” that track publishing activity can also serve a similar useful purpose. Generally speaking new ideas receive pride of place in journals and the like. Here too most measurements show that Africa’s share of the annual publication harvest is less than 2%[1].

Does this weakness in the production of “fundamental technology” negatively affect secondary and tertiary output? You bet it does.

Take pharmatechnology for instance. Not a single production facility in sub-Saharan Africa, outside South Africa, has met the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) pre-qualification criteria for medicines produced for the management of HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis.  This effectively shuts outs Africa’s pharmaceutical companies from the opportunities created by the billions of dollars being poured into “access to medicines” schemes run  by international organisations and alliances for the stated benefit of the continent. To date, the US Government’s PEPFAR alone has committed $32 billion to fight HIV/AIDS and to assist allied programs such as the Global Fund to tackle malaria and tuberculosis. This state of affairs may be contrasted with India, a country that shares many features of underdevelopment with African countries and is on the same journey towards greater economic sophistication. Indian companies constitute more than 60% of the pre-qualification list.

In many cases, Africa’s technology utilisation rate for important industries has actually declined over time. Consider traditional African mining techniques. There is some good historical evidence that pre-colonial Africa used to match and in some cases outperform European colonialists in terms of productivity and impact on the environment. [2]Yet today small-scale miners are wreaking environmental havoc all over the place due to a lack of adequate technological means.[3]

Besides mining, you can also look at the near-collapse of the traditional machine-shops that once serviced automotive, hydraulics and other mechanical needs. In places like Ghana this decline may have been somewhat attenuated by interesting new business-cooperative arrangements such as SMIDO. But, on the whole, the trend is one of serious atrophy of local skills and technical resources.

2. Tech Trade/Transfer

Everybody agrees that paper, the printing press, gunpowder, numerical modelling, and a million other innovations received their biggest boost through tech trade and transfer.

An animal called “technical assistance” dreamed up by the AID-industrial complex (as Rosa Whitaker prefers to call the marriage of self-serving NGOs and donor agencies) has bureaucratised to stagnation much of the technology inflow into Africa.

Africa has been consigned to the passive consumption of technology rather than the latter’s utilisation for transformation in view of this “charitisation” of tech transfer. Such a pattern of appropriation is inert, and, by so being, also an added drag on a continent buffeted by retrogressive currents. Technology is disseminated in the same design that other commodities are distributed, thereby entrenching patterns of underdevelopment. In the past 50 years, matters have steadily become worse.

For instance, the proliferation of gadgetry in middle-class urban homes acts as a drag on electricity infrastructure and undermines industrial productivity, as short-sighted governments appease electorally significant residential users at the expense of bulk buyers. IT tools are employed to assist a form of virtual emigration in which youth are alienated from their cultural roots and exploited in an economic system that glamourises their exclusion and unemployability.

There are not many empirical measurements of the impact on productivity as a result of technology (especially ICT) adoption in the African workspace. A couple of the few ones I know, including one that looked at the issue in East Africa, have concluded that in many instances impact is negligible or negative.[4]

The construction industry is another great place to go in search of some evidence. Badly needed tech-utilities on the continent include pre-fabricated housing, road macadamising, roofing materials and weather-resistant building techniques. Yet, to cite the situation in Nigeria as an illustration of the situation across most of Africa, as much as 70% of all building materials are imported. Since no exemption is made for such categories of raw inputs as timber and sand, it is conceivable that over 95% of processed materials are imported.

It is no surprise therefore that Africa’s contribution to the global manufacturing value chain (a smart indicator for technology exchange competitiveness) hovers around 1%.[5]

3. Technology Education

The continent of Africa trains 83 scientists and engineers per million people as compared to 750 in China (per this commentator). The Trends in International Maths and Science Study is a fairly authoritative periodic global benchmarking survey of science literacy and numeracy amongst primary and junior high students around the world. Since 1995, when records begun, African countries have consistently performed poorly, demonstrating a dislocation in the science education system on the continent. The system in actual fact handicaps learners at the very onset of their career.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, polytechnic education has entered into terminal decline across much of Africa, with graduates largely unemployable in the shrinking technical fields for which they were supposedly groomed. Whereas the original concept saw polytechnic graduates entering the job market as technology entrepreneurs, skilled craftspeople, and technicians working on various infrastructure and industrial complexes, the real picture today shows something else: a mass of misfits shuffling up the bottom of the queue for elusive white-collar jobs.[6]  

4. Tech Policy/Governance

In a recent comprehensive overview of the biotechnology situation in Africa, the authors state: “Out of the 53 countries of the African Union, only 16 countries have laws, regulations, guidelines or policies related to modern biotechnology.”[7] They go on to mention that of these 16 countries only three have developed any sort of commercialisation strategy for biotech crops.

In a continent noted for policymaking mediocrity the state of affairs for technology in particular is still especially striking. Having enthusiastically assented to the Lagos Plan of Action two decades ago, and thus committed to spending per annum at least 1% of GDP on science & technology, no African government today has met the pledge. There isn’t a single country in sub-Saharan Africa in which issues connected to Science & Technology have ever featured on the list of contestations during election time. No sub-Saharan African country, outside South Africa, maintains an active commercialisation program for government-funded research within the educational system. [8]

A decade after the researcher Netchaeva described the e-government landscape in Africa as “negligible”[9] there hasn’t emerged a single successful national e-government initiative of any significant scale across the continent and recent reports suggest that the situation may actually have deteriorated.[10]

So what am I saying: that Africa is a basket case when it comes to technology? Yes, it is so at the moment. But the more interesting point is that it needs not be for long.

As the brilliance of many individual African innovators and initiatives too numerous to recount here clearly demonstrate, both at home and in the diaspora, there is no shortage of raw talent or raw opportunities. The problem is the integration of prospects. There is a lack of strong feeling that the continent’s abysmal performance in the global competition for technology resources is anywhere as important as its creaky infrastructure or its burdensome colonially-inherited socio-political architectures.

Yet the unexamined anti-technology cultures and attitudes may well be the black hole of development on the continent. A vast, but unseen, force that imperceptibly draws in large quantities of opportunities and pulverise them into the depths. A source of irresistible gravitational currents that mould and set the course of all the other systems in Africa’s galaxies of woes.

Technology is not merely a catalogue of tools. It is a culture and a mindset. It is an approach to getting ahead, taking over, making do, reaching out, and thinking through. A worldview animated by technology is a counterpoint to one decorated by mythology. No one argues that mythology can’t be beautiful. Mythology requires as much creative and persuasive power to get right as technology since it also requires social buy-in. But where we are interested in poverty-busting development, I bet you, dear readers, that in any prudent society technology must come up tops.

Africa better makes up its mind, and we ain't got all century either.


1. See for instance Pouris & Pouris (2008), The State of Science and Technology in Africa (2000-2004): A scientometric assessment.

2. See, for instance, the work of Dumett. Dumett, Raymond. 1998. El Dorado in West Africa: The Gold Mining Frontier, African Labour, and Colonial Capitalism in the Gold Coast, 1875 – 1900. Athens/Oxford: Ohio University Press, James Currey (eds) xviii + 396 pp.

3. See the assessment by Hilson. Hilson, Gavin. 2002. The future of small-scale mining: environmental and socioeconomic perspectives. Journal of Cleaner Production.

4. 2003 study by Shyamal Chowdury and Susanne Wolf.

5. UNIDO. 2010. International Yearbook of Industrial Statistics. UNIDO

6. See, for instance: Ng’ethe, Subotzky & Afeti. 2008. Differentiation and Articulation in Tertiary Education Systems: A Study of Twelve African Countries. World Bank Working Paper no. 145

7. Makinde, Mumba & Ambali. 2009. Status of Biotechnology in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities. In Asian Biotechnology and Development Review Vol. 11 No. 3, pp 1-10

8. Author’s survey of diverse relevant literature.

9. Netchaeva, I. 2002. E-Government and e-democracy: A comparison in the North and South. Gazette. The International Journal for Communication Studies, Vol 64 No 5 pp 467-477.

10. The United Nations Global e-Government Readiness Survey of 2008.

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