Calling bullshit on "leapfrogging"

Technology cheerleaders love to talk "leapfrogging," the idea that developing regions that haven't adopted traditional technology (like an electrical grid or banking systems) can jump straight to the newest, "better," thing more quickly. Occasionally, that's true, like in parts of Africa where empowering mobile phones took off long before most people had landlines. Now the big idea is that drones will negate the need for roads, and save lives in the process. The Economist presents a more measured view:

...Such caveats hardly dampen the mood at business conferences in Africa, where you find hundreds of investors gushing about their plans to help the poor with new technology and make big profits while doing it. “Within the next few years you’ll really see leapfrogging taking off,” says Ashish Thakkar, a British-born, Ugandan businessman whose Mara Group, a business-services firm, is setting up tech businesses across the continent. Perhaps, but tech booms based on leapfrogging have been wrongly anticipated in the past. Americans who turn up in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam with millions of dollars hoping to buy startups that have risen as part of the so-called “Silicon Savannah”, an east African cluster, for example, frequently leave empty-handed because there isn’t all that much to buy.

African tech types often think they can quickly copy rich-country products and sell them to the urban middle class. But then they discover that there is no getting around complex tax laws, a dearth of engineers and fragmented markets. The Western investors who back them have even less grasp of just how dysfunctional basic infrastructure can be, notes Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan investor and a political activist. All the evidence suggests that technology firms are no better at leapfrogging such hurdles than, say, a carmaker. The only part of the continent with a mature tech scene is South Africa: a country which also has good roads, reliable power and plenty of well-educated graduates.

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