“We really need to have a third wave, and it needs to happen in sub-Saharan Africa” (Bill Gates)
Two factors often cited as to why “Africa’s time is coming” are:
- Demographics – the huge populations of India and China are cited as a key factor in their rapid growth. Currently Africa is the fastest growing continent and its population is set to double by 2050.
- Leapfrogging technology – for example, developing countries have set up banking in remote areas of East Africa by using cell phones powered by small solar panels. They have thus bypassed the whole process of setting up banking and electrical infrastructure.
Is it likely that these predictions will materialise and if so what impact will all this have on South Africa?
Demographics – the unseen flaw
It is accepted that large populations create a large potential market as has happened in Brazil for example. However to reap this benefit, populations need to start declining once development begins to take off. The reason for this is what is known as the “dependency ratio”.
In 1960, in developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America women had an average of six children. Since then the number has declined in Asia to 2.2 children and to 3 children in South America. However Africa has remained high at just under 5 children per woman.
Having fewer dependents allows parents to focus on their careers, grow their wealth and afford to spend more on things like education and health care on smaller families. As these smaller families rapidly join the middle class, this helps to provide the momentum for infrastructure development and rapid economic growth. As long as Africa has a high care dependency ratio, it will be extremely difficult to mirror China and India.
In South Africa our average number of births is 2.4 per woman which puts us in between Asia and South America. If we can get some basics right, like education, we could start to rapidly develop.
Mobile phones have been used for more than developing banking in Africa but smart phones are also used, for example, to help rural farmers. Satellites scan a farm and can tell the farmers which of their fruit trees have rot and need to be pulled out before the disease spreads to other trees. They can get advice on what crops to plant and how much fertiliser to use etc. Technology thus is enabling some African countries to progress at a rapid rate.
African countries still need infrastructure. There is no point in doubling your farming yield if you cannot get your product quickly and cost effectively to market. Without decent roads, ports, an effective legal system and no bottlenecks at border posts, Africa will struggle to fulfil its potential.
Many breakthroughs can be made with technology but without a decent foundation, leapfrogging will only have a limited impact.
We in South Africa have reasonable infrastructure but very high inequality and still need to focus on uplifting the poorer sections of the country and creating a more enabling environment to attract investment.
In a nutshell, South Africa is potentially well placed to move rapidly ahead. Things are unfortunately less certain for the bulk of our continent.