Leapfrogging is overrated, says a Harvard development professor
Over the past few weeks there have been several stories about the growing penetration of smartphones across Africa, as 4G networks expand and more Africans come online. This has led to many positive developments, the best known being the rapid expansion of mobile-money services. Thanks to M-Pesa in particular, Africa is a world leader in mobile money.
These successes inevitably lead to talk about how Africa is “leapfrogging” more advanced economies. Leapfrogging, in this context, is when countries skip a step in development thanks to rapid innovation—from no phones to smartphones, for example. The mobile phone, in this context, has allowed African countries to avoid the heavy investments required to build fixed-line networks.
But Harvard’s Calestous Juma believes we’re wrong to think about leapfrogging in that way. In a recent paper—Leapfrogging Progress, The Misplaced Promise of Africa’s Mobile Revolution—Juma points out that no advanced economy got where it is today by cutting corners and sidestepping (that is, leapfrogging) industrialization. And he reminds us industrialization requires infrastructure: