Technology cannot solve all of Africa’s problems, but it can help with many
AT LUNCHTIME IN Mombasa, Kenya’s humid port city, groups of men gather in the shade for the day’s bunge la mwananchi (people’s parliament), where they debate the latest news and politics. Everyone takes his turn to discuss whether the local governor is any good, or whether a group of men arrested on charges of drug-smuggling should be extradited to America. Then the debate turns to economics. “Why should we export all of our tea to Britain?” asks one man. “It is because of the law of comparative advantage,” retorts another. “How will Kenya ever be able to catch up with the rich countries in Europe and America?” To this, nobody has an answer.
That tech and innovation can play a big role in making some countries richer than others is not in question. About half the differences in GDP per person between countries are due to differences in productivity. Countries that encourage their firms to innovate, and that invest in educating their people and pushing the boundaries of science, generally grow richer than those that do not. Yet the hope that ideas and technologies would flow across borders like air and be adopted by poor countries, letting them catch up quickly, has been realised only in part of the world.
Photo courtesy of Neil Palmer.