Technology leapfrogging

I remember well how when cell phone usage in the US was just at the beginning stages, taking a trip to Sri Lanka and seeing cell phones all over the place, with people from all walks of life like street vendors, taxi cab drivers, plumbers, electricians, and other small scale businesspeople all using them.

The reason for their ubiquity was simple. Installing a landline was a tedious and expensive process with the result that people had to wait a long time to get a phone unless one was rich or influential enough to demand that one get one immediately. Because my father’s job required that he have a phone, we always got one, with the result that our neighbors would request to use it in emergencies. The arrival of cell phones opened up the market to a real need and the usage of those phones became widespread long before it was the case in the US. This is a case where countries that are perceived as being technologically backward can leapfrog over more advanced countries because they are not encumbered by entrenched powerful interests committed to an old system.

This is also partially why the US lags behind so many countries in the speed and cost of high speed internet access. Its existing powerful telecommunication industries have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are.

The same thing seems to be happening with renewable energy. Many countries in Africa that need more energy are going straight to renewable energy sources, bypassing the more traditional forms that dominate nations like the US.

Africa is experiencing a revolution towards cleaner energy through renewable energy but the story has hardly been told to the world, says Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Steiner, who had been advocating for renewable energy at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Lima, said Africa is on the right path toward a low carbon footprint by tapping into its plentiful renewable resources – hydro, geothermal, solar and wind.

“There is a revolution going on in the continent of Africa and the world is not noticing it. You can go to Egypt, Ethiopia Kenya, Namibia, and Mozambique. I think we will see renewable energy being the answer to Africa’s energy problems in the next fifteen years,” Steiner said in an interview with IPS.

“We are moving in a direction where Africa will not have to live in a global fuel market in which one day you have to pay 120 dollars for a barrel of crude oil, then the next day you get it at 80 dollars and before you know it, it is doubled,” he said.

These things remind me of the fable of the hare and the tortoise.


  1. says

    Another place the “third world” has bypassed the “first world” is electronic or mobile banking. Cell phones were ubiquitous in places like the Philippines and various African countries, but brick-and-mortar banks were not, never mind ATMs. Phone companies began functioning as banks, and phone credits became the currency, preceding “bitcoin” by a decade.

    It allowed people in rural areas to buy and sell things without the need for cash, simply transferring credit from phone to phone to make purchases. And it wasn’t just purchasing, it was the transfer of money. Sending money long distances (cross country) is a risk and slow to do in physical form, but instantaneous and safe on phones.

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