Why Africa is perhaps the best place for launching new infrastructure technology

Public Infrastructure innovation is tough, unlike consumer technology, there are fewer potential buyers, fewer impulse purchases, and the lifetime of most of the products is in the decades. Those who do invest in a product are not likely to replace it for years. Even when a better one comes around simply because often times the old one works well enough. Little wonder a lot of the core public infrastructure technology hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years while consumer technology has moved in leaps and bounds.

This state of affairs slows down the adoption and advancement of technology for everyone because new technology is never truly field tested, it remains stuck in the prototype phase, and even in developed countries when older technology reach end of life, they are more likely to be replaced with old tried and tested technologies instead of newer technology.

Thing is though, Sub Saharan Africa could greatly aid in the development of infrastructure technology by becoming the place where infrastructure technology matures instead of being the place where it is retired.

Admittedly, a lot of consumer technology might still be a hard sell for most Africans. We aren’t all that eager to get into virtual reality or drop hundreds of dollars on the new iPhone, but when it comes to infrastructure and public sector technology, it can be argued that Africa is a more willing and capable buyer than the rest of the world. A lot of things make Africa a much better market for public infrastructure innovation than much of the developed world.

In deploying new public infrastructure in a developed country you have to deal with a lot of inertia. Over the decades a lot has been invested in the existing infrastructure and deploying something new will typically face a lot hurdles and bureaucracy in several forms.

For starters finding political support and broad public interest might be a problem in developed markets. “I have a better way to generate the electricity you are already getting” is much less interesting to voters (and thus politicians) than, “I have a way to generate electricity for you”. The sad truth is few people actually care about where their convenience comes from but what everyone cares about is that the convenience comes. Africa would have a lot of first time users with few commitments to older technologies and likely more willing to adopt any new technology because it is likely offering something that doesn’t exist in another form yet.

There is often a cost to retiring older technologies in favor of newer. Places with highly developed infrastructure can have a tough a time transitioning to new public infrastructure technology due to the cost associated with retiring the older tech. Want to switch to cleaner energy generation? You’ll have to decommission that old coal power plant as well.

Another reason Africa is ideal is that there are fewer people invested in maintaining the infrastructure status quo in the developing world, we haven’t become comfortable with anything else, there’s significantly less inertia, loss aversion and competition from pre existing technology to deal with.

Compared to developed countries, most african countries are fairly new, most under a century old with even younger governing constitutions. This translates to fewer rules and regulations that need to be navigated around in order to get something done. When regulation is needed, it is easier to create new regulation without worrying about any potential conflicts with older regulation.

Another noteworthy advantage of deploying new innovations in Africa is that the less crowded market means your message carries further. Any achievement, demonstration or message you wish to broadcast will get better mileage without being drowned out by other items on the news cycle as it might in developed countries where it is likely to get lost in a collection of similar messages.

Naturally not everything is easier, an innovator will likely receive very little technical help from African governments because technical knowledge is sorely lacking. Innovators have to work a little harder in explaining how their technology works. Another problem is that most African nations do not know enough to ask the developer of some new innovation in infrastructure technology to come and deploy or test, the innovators need to be proactive and to show them what is possible within the context of that African nation. Then once deployed in one African nation, selling a technology to other nations becomes significantly easier because it makes the entire deployment much more relatable.

In summary, Africa offers less inertia, less loss aversion, less regulation, less competition, lower opportunity cost and resistance to change for innovators in public infrastructure. It also has a lack of essential infrastructure and hence has a need for infrastructure. This all presents what is possibly the biggest market for new infrastructure technology.