Of course we look before we can leap, we aren’t stupid you know

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A drone on a ramp at the Muhanga droneport ready to take off. / Faustin Niyigena/ The New Times

‘Look before you leap”, was the sage advice that the writers at The Economist gave us Africans.

Never mind the fact that the very same writers called Africa ‘The Hopeless Continent’ in the year 2000 and then went straight the other way and called the very same continent ‘The Hopeful Continent’ in 2013.

This despite the fact that while they were busy calling us ‘hopeless’, the average GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa was above 5 per cent per annum, HIV statistics were falling and more students were graduating from university than ever before.

But they didn’t let facts get in the way of a story they wanted to tell.

The Economist was given a right battering because of its ‘hopeless continent’ headline, but the publication has simply refused to learn from its chastening experience.

In its latest edition, The Economist columnist ‘Schumpeter’ warns us to ‘Look before you leap; the notion of leapfrogging poor infrastructure in Africa needs to come back to earth’.

Piggybacking off the recent unveiling of the Zipline medical drones in Muhanga, Southern Province, the writer attempts to make the point that, even with the drones crisscrossing our airspace delivering blood to hospitals and clinics, brick and mortar infrastructure, such as roads, water mains and electricity lines, are still needed to fully change people’s lives.

If he/she had kept it at that, I would have been in total agreement. Of course, we cannot build a sound economic and social system without both futuristic and traditional infrastructure.

That is why, for example, while we are planning for the droneport, we are also building the Bugesera International Airport as well.

We are not choosing one over the other; rather we are planning for, and doing both.

However, Schumpeter decided to write a 900 or so word article telling us Africans to ‘go slow. Here are some of the gems that I found noteworthy along with my counterargument.

“CAN entrepreneurs make up for a lack of roads”, Schumpeter asks.

No. But no one is asking them to do so. If we look across the continent, you will see just how serious African governments are in building the backbone infrastructure. 

With the help of either our Chinese partners or the usual lending institutions i.e. the IMF, World Bank and the AfDB, governments across the continent are building dams, power stations, hospitals, universities, stadiums and highways.

What the governments are asking entrepreneurs to do is simply use these facilities to increase jobs and the tax base.

“Just as drones can make up for poor roads, the (leapfrogging )theory goes, mobile phones can overcome a lack of well-functioning banks, portable solar panels can stand in for missing power stations and free learning apps can substitute for patchy education. But the hype about machines saving African lives ought to elicit caution”, Schumpeter opines.

Well, in my experience, the leapfrogging theory has worked a treat in Rwanda. Today, with a mobile phone, you can deposit and withdraw money from your bank account directly to your mobile phone.

You can pay for your electricity. And, one of my favourite functions, you can order food straight to your house, by using a mobile app.

With solar panels, people living off the national grid are now able to enjoy the wonders of electricity. And children using free learning apps (on their One Laptop per Child computers) are learning just how big and amazing the online world is.

In conclusion, Schumpeter throws in the tired Kibera slum trope.

“In Nairobi’s biggest slum, Kibera, the narrow dirt streets bustle with businesses charging phones from generators; …… What you won’t find are clean toilets, potable water …. The main leapfrogging that takes place is over the open sewers. That is not something you can fix with a mobile-phone app”, Schumpeter writes.

To use a very small example of a Kenya slum to make an overarching conclusion about the state of the entire country’s (and continent’s) infrastructural progress was, in my opinion, intellectually lazy, patronising and racially tinged.

I will conclude with this truism; KIBERA SLUM IS NOT KENYA (NEVER MIND NAIROBI). AND KIBERA SLUM IS NOT AFRICA. Don’t tell us to go slow.

Don’t tell us to go fast. We know where we want to and we know how to get there. Don’t worry, we got this.

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