Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Africa Needs Roads

The continent of Africa is one of the hard problems of this century. [1]

It's the home of a huge proportion of the world's population, it has been crippled for decades by the lingering effects of its colonial history, including divisive elitism, festering wars, and environmental mismanagement. 

Make no mistake: the history of colonialism that Africa experienced, despite the many bad things it left behind, has also equipped the continent for its emergence as an economic powerhouse in the (hopefully) not too distant future. [2]

Already there are signs of new power rising:

Nairobi serves as the headquarters for a number of international electric and IT related companies, and there's a growing community of software developers. In fact, it appears that about 26% of Kenyans have used the internet according to one study.[3] And this isn't the only city in Africa with a growing tech cluster - take a look at the map of Africa's tech hubs included in Christopher Guess's article on iPhones and Africa's Tech industry.

Of course, the IT sector isn't the only area where the African continent is seeing growth. Agriculture and resources are huge, of course, but there's also a growing manufacturing industry. As fortunes rise, the shift from "scratch farming" and subsistence cottage industries is resulting in a growing "middle class" - people who have the financial and social resources to do more than just make ends meet. There's still crushing poverty all over the continent, and of course the social and political unrest in many regions, ongoing wars and insurgencies, religious and tribal conflicts, and many other factors conspire to keep large swathes of the population in poverty - but there are pockets where life is now wrapped in glass and steel rather than mud and thatch.

Development is slow, particularly with the unique challenges facing the whole continent - the persistent social problems I mention above, and the continuing challenges the environment throws at the people who live there: disease, famine, and the ongoing problem of how to develop without sacrificing the incredible natural beauty. But there's something that can kick start development, grow that middle class so that it can serve as the engine for innovation and change:


Most countries in Africa already have the basics of infrastructure. There is a road network, some trunk line railways, and the urban centers have running water and electricity. But there's nothing like the ubiquitous interconnectedness that powers most of the rest of the world.  And that's why this news story is so exciting. 

In summary, interest in natural resources has led to large corporations and even nations looking seriously at funding the development of a modern network of roads throughout the continent.  This is huge.[4]

As mentioned, the internet is already a big thing - a remarkably large proportion of the population has access either via mobile phones (most common) or computers. This has led to Kenyans meeting Nigerians, who meet South Africans, who meet Californians, and everyone getting together for a video conference with their colleagues in Norway, Brazil and Japan. The newly moneyed class has been taking advantage of this resource, and the development is starting to show. But access to the internet is not where the first step should really be going.

To make the 21st Century Africa's century, physical interconnectedness is critical.

Just as the railway drove Britain's industrial revolution, then the US echo, and later a comprehensive road network and the motor vehicle turned American industry into the dynamo that really pushed us into the 20th century, African countries need to be able to profit from their people's labour without prostituting themselves to countries that are already in a post-industrial phase.

A robust road network would let Gambians trade fabric to Ghanans for telecommunication services[5], and Ghanans to trade both to Nigeria for engines and cars[6]. The movement of resources, manufactured goods and wealth back and forth across the continent would accelerate development of the economic middle class, generate local sources of funds for government, encourage investment in social resources like schools, accelerating the development of an intellectual middle class, and thus provide fertile ground for innovation and investment. 

Countries participating in this kind of network would benefit enormously, not only through material gains in wealth but in social and political terms as well. Reliance on foreign aid would decrease, a sense of self-determination would grow, and greater confidence dealing with neighbours on a more regular basis at all levels of society will surely lead to easier diplomacy and calmer relations both within countries and between them.[7]

But roads aren't enough.  There are some other things that Africa will need to go along with these highways:

Africa needs water. Urban centers are already developing water and sewer networks, but the cost of installing them is large and in some cases the need to import foreign expertise is crippling. A more dynamic local economy should lead to the ability to extend water and sewer networks so that many sources of disease can be eliminated and general health improved.  

Africa also needs power. Again, many urban centers already have electricity but coverage isn't complete. The advantage of roads and better control of water sources will make it easier for African nations to start investing in hydro electricity, wind farms, even solar electrolysis for industrial fuel cells. Good roads will make it easier to build integrated power delivery grids, reducing families' reliance on traditional fuels like wood and dung, or even more modern fuels like oil and gas. Reliable access to electricity is also critical for the development of new industries - once new industries begin to grow, the economy will expand even further and the development gains will be even better.

Even better than the direct cash dimension of the benefits of roads, water/sewer systems and power generation is the more insubstantial but possibly more important social dimension: these things we take for granted in developed nations don't just make it possible to reduce the number of hours of labour lost, but they allow us to work more efficiently - meaning either more production in the same period of time, or more free time to spend on education, art, and direct citizen engagement in politics. 

Certainly, when labour is more efficient the need for children to work is reduced and that means better quality education can be made available more generally. And that means that once these developments really start going, there will be waves of young Africans bursting out into the marketplace with knowledge and ways of thinking their parents didn't have time to consider a decade previously.

Of course, there are still challenges to overcome. 

Africa is stabilizing [8] but there are still regions that have significant unrest. 

There are still serious health problems all across the continent, despite the herculean efforts of people like Bill Gates to find ways to eradicate the most common diseases and other issues that have impacts on education and labour productivity in addition to causing suffering and death.

But despite these issues, many countries in Africa look like they have incredible potential and it will be amazing to watch as the world begins to notice and investment starts flowing in. 


1. I'd like to say this decade, but I doubt we can make the necessary changes in the remaining 7 years.

2. I'm aware it's currently not vogue to believe that the empires built during the 18th and 19th centuries could possibly have any good to them, but although there were certainly abuses throughout the colonial era and many unpleasant things certainly happened the fact is that without that era having happened it's unlikely that the success stories Africa actually has would have occurred so quickly. Without the work of the colonial powers, many of the political and tribal conflicts, and the dysfunctional governments that cripple the continent wouldn't exist - but the colonial powers also brought schools and industry to their corners of the map.  They imposed common languages on huge swathes of land. Yes, entire cultures disappeared and languages died, but these are the tools that modern Africans can use to become powerful. If you need an ax to cut wood, should you spurn the one at your feet that was discarded by robbers after breaking through your door?

3. The level of African information technology usage may be surprising to us because it's obscured by the fact that the majority of internet users get access through mobile phones rather than computers, and because Western media focuses on tragic stories of famine and disease to the exclusion of the amazing successes of Africa's growing middle classes.

4. I'm personally uncomfortable with the large role China is playing in this development, but I believe that's only because it's taking longer for others to realise the potential in Africa.

5. Remarkably, Ghana has one of the freest, most liberal media industries in Africa and although Internet World Stats shows relatively modest internet usage in the country, there are more than 25 million mobile subscribers in the country which makes the mobile penetration rate nearly 100%. And more than 10 million of these users have data subscriptions even after a slight drop! You can bet that's a powerful driver of business in the IT sector there.

6. Actually, Ghana has a pretty good level of industrialization and already manufactures both cars and electronics of its own, but Nigeria appears to have the larger auto industry so it seems more likely trade would move from Nigeria to Ghana rather than the other way around.

7. The idea that improved infrastructure drives economic development is not new - the theory was first detailed by David Aschauer in 1990:

Aschauer, David Alan (1990). “Why is infrastructure important?” Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, New England Economic Review, January/February, pp. 21-48.

It seems self-evident that the economic benefits of the development effects of infrastructure would lead to more prosperity across the board, so I won't go into detail here.

8. This can be seen by the renewed interest that fairly conservative industries like the automotive industry have in the country. See this article for an overview.

No comments: