TechTides Africa: Let’s be real nobody’s leapfrogging anything

Published May 14, 2024


Remembering the late Calestous Juma FRS HonFREng (June 9, 1953 to December 15, 2017) is to recall a Kenyan scientist and academic luminary whose contributions to sustainable development left an indelible mark.

Named one of the most influential Africans multiple times by New African magazine, Juma held the esteemed position of Professor of the Practice of International Development and served as faculty chair of the Innovation for Economic Development Executive Programme at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Globally recognised, Juma was elected to prestigious institutions such as the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences, and the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, among others. His academic legacy includes the often-referenced book “Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies”, published by Oxford University Press in 2016.

Cat among the pigeons

Juma’s insights revisited my thoughts amid the social chatter sparked by a recent Linkedin post from the always intriguing and often controversial Nigerian serial entrepreneur Osaretin Victor Asemota. Asemota’s musings on LinkedIn riffed on a Twitter thread he initially shared in April, 2023.

In his posts, Asemota challenges the oversimplified narrative he posits Silicon Valley frequently propagates – the myth of grass-roots success stories that downplay the privileged backgrounds and optimised situational dynamics of many initial tech giants.

Cautioning against blindly emulating Silicon Valley’s trajectory, Asemota advocates for a shift in focus towards sustainable SME support, the growth of the middle class, a departure from valuation games, and a commitment to authenticity and tangible impact.

Asemota’s perspectives highlight the disillusionment I’ve observed aspiring entrepreneurs in Africa experience, influenced by the inflated hype surrounding start-ups.

There’s no such thing as overnight success. Only the tough, incremental grind of building viable ventures.

Getting real

Drawing from his experience in the telecommunications sector, Asemota underscores the importance of diligent groundwork, investment in talent, and the patient pursuit of scale. In a landscape where dreams often collide with harsh realities, he advocates for a pragmatic approach rooted in tangible creation rather than wishful thinking.

Asemota urges a shift from illusion to substance, emphasising the essential infrastructure needed to support thriving markets. Reflecting on global success stories like PayPal, he stresses the importance of laying foundational pillars, from robust logistics to a prosperous middle class, before aspiring to scale. While Asemota’s call to action is not without its oversimplifications, it resonates as a sobering reminder of the perils of chasing mirages, urging African innovators to focus on sustainable growth grounded in tangible progress, lest aspirations lead only to disillusionment.

“Leapfrogging” is not a thing

Professor Juma famously critiqued lazy notions of “leapfrogging” in Africa, which suggested that rapid technological advancements, particularly in mobile and internet connectivity could propel the continent forwards. Juma argued that while mobile adoption was a harbinger of socio-economic progress, it would be unwise to overlook the foundational role of infrastructure in enabling such advancements. He asserted that infrastructure, including roads, power grids, and telecommunications networks forms the essential framework for economic growth and technological innovation.

Juma’s perspective challenges the prevailing belief that Africa can leapfrog stages of development by embracing new technologies alone.

He emphasised the need for substantial investment in infrastructure as the “motherboard” of technological progress.

This perspective suggests a more holistic approach to development, recognising the interconnectedness of technological advancement and physical infrastructure.

By highlighting the technological nature of infrastructure ventures, Juma helped reframe and anchor the discourse around development in Africa, pointing out that even seemingly traditional sectors like cement production or petroleum refining require advanced scientific and technical expertise.

This reframing underscores the importance of infrastructure not just as a means to an end, but as a fundamental driver of economic growth and innovation.

Juma’s legacy cautions and Asemota’s current pot-stirring undoubtedly prompt a thoughtful re-evaluation of the narrative concerning Africa’s development trajectory.

They advocate for a more balanced approach, one that recognises the pivotal role of infrastructure development, cultural shifts, and honest, pragmatic storytelling alongside technological innovation in fostering sustainable progress across the continent.

Andile Masuku is co-founder and executive producer at African Tech Roundup. Connect. Engage with Andile on X (@MasukuAndile) and via LinkedIn.