In the winter of 2002, here in Charlotte , North Carolina , in the United States where I live, we received one of the worst ice storm the city had ever experienced. As many as eighty five percent of the homes and businesses lost electrical power, telephone and cable-TV services. The major cause for the interruption was attributed to the fact that in this part of the United States most utility lines are aerial. Electric, telephone and cable-TV wires runs along streets tied on 30 to 40 foot tall utility poles. Most of the fifteen percent that still had utility services did so because their utilities cables ran underground. I remember reading in our local newspaper The Charlotte Observer, an expert estimating that it would take US$ 1.2 billions to bury all the utility cables within the City of Charlotte under the safety of the ground. And I estimated that an amount perhaps up to 10 times more ($12 billions) to do the same thing for the entire State of North Carolina .
Suddenly, these humongous numbers crashed down on my head and made me start thinking: Most of the continent of Africa is not as wired as it is here. Most of the African countries did not have the capital to invest so heavily in similar infrastructures: the per capita electric and ground line telephone is much lower than ours here. With new recent technologies such as wireless communication devices and cellular phones and other new technologies yet to come, these old technological infrastructures can be completely bypassed in favor of the new ones, thus yield to capital savings of the same magnitude for the countries that did not invest in them 5 or 6 decades earlier.
In economics, the number of telephone per capita is an indicator for economic development for a country. And so does the per capita number of household electrified and the per capita number of television sets, etc…
It is a fact that deploying new technologies such as Cellular phones or other wireless assets only cost a fraction of the traditional underground wiring of an entire city or running cable lines on top of utility poles. Cellular and wireless require a much lesser capital investment in comparison to the old traditional utility deployment. As the number of cellular phones used by a countries' population increases at an exponential pace as we seen in most of African countries in the last few years, could be an indicator that these two new technologies alone have contributed for the continent in closing the communication divide that the developing world has always held a strong grip on. It is even thrilling to learn that the people who are in the far front of the wave of these new technologies, the people who led the wireless and cellular revolution are Africa's own children - true African entrepreneurs such as Mohamed Ibrahim (African Business Feb'2006: Editorial be Anver Versi). Western Union is another good example. This corporation is using the advancement of the internet worldwide to elbow itself into the international fund transfer business. Today, it is possible to transfer funds in the far remote corners on the continents which 2-3 years ago it would have taken at least four months to send a simple postal message.
These are only few of the several examples that can evidence one of the many possibilities the African countries and other third world countries around the planet have on their disposal on closing their development gap against the old first world countries. African countries should focus and concentrate their capital investments into current new technologies and set aside savings to aggressively pursuit the new ones that are not yet to come public. I will call them “the technologies of the fifth industrial revolution”.
It took humanity several millenniums to the time when the first caveman accidentally discovered the “Wheel”. That factor sat the first industrial revolution in motion. The wheel was the first tool to introduce the idea of reduction of back breaking labor and the beginning of the transportation revolution. Human being could now put wheels on a wooden chassis and let it be drawn by an animal of burden such as a horse or a mule (horse drawn carriage). With an animal-drawn carriage, suddenly humanity increased its travel speed from a mere human walk of 2 to 3 miles per hour into a whopping 12 to 15 miles per hour. With this new speed, humans could conquer more geographical ground and travel farther: this resulted in the creation of regional commerce.
The second industrial revolution began with the harnessing of the wind to provide propulsion for sea going vessels. This time it only took a few millenniums. This revolution ignited new trading opportunities: continental exchange between far away regions and countries which otherwise would not have come into contact: it sparked the birth of international commerce. A good example for the second industrial revolution is the discovery of most of the sub-Saharan Africa and of the continent of Americas (new world) by European explorers. The speed of humanity was increased to the range 50 to 60 miles per hour.
The next time around to the third industrial revolution it took even much lesser time than the two previous revolutions: a couple of centuries only. The invention of the first steam powered engine in England in the 1700's was the beginning of the third industrial revolution. This revolution continued till the 1850's with the invention of steam locomotive and the railroad. The railroad facilitated the opening of the countries/continents interiors. It permits the industrial exploration and extraction of most of the minerals we know today. The automobile came during that same era. Thus, by the closing of this revolution we could all move around at about 120 miles per hour depending on the conditions of the roads.
The fourth industrial revolution is the one that we are being undergoing with today: the Communication Revolution. It took only two centuries to bring us to it. The communication revolution began with the invention of the radio and the transistor in around 1945 and it is still going. This revolution also brought us the rocket engine, telephone, television, internet, satellites, countless consumer goods, etc… We increased our speed into the range of 17,000 miles per hour.
For the fifth industrial revolution: No one can yet imagine what it will bring, but I can guarantee you it will be outside of this world. If we plot the progression of from 3 mph (miles per hour) to 12 mph, to 60 mph, 120 mph and to 17,000 mph on a semi-logarithmic paper it will give us a fine straight line, which means humanity progression in transportation, is an exponential function. Thus, the next increase in speed will be in billions of mile per hour. The number is so astronomical; I can take the luxury to claim that we will being transported instantaneously!
The next industrial revolution (the fifth one) is coming very soon. Chronologically, its arrival is already overdue. Chronologically as well, it has been an exponential progression: from 150 millenniums (before the first revolution) to 3 or 4 millenniums (second revolution), to 2 centuries (third revolution) and to a hand full of decades to the fifth revolution.
It is the duty of an effective government and a function of countries' responsible government leadership to establish an environment - a playing field where science, technology, business, economy, private industry, health, peace, and human welfare can thrive. Any government with a leadership which should fail to take these measures to heart should be viewed as Tyrant and is due for removal.
African countries' governments should especially be in tuned to the up coming scientific discoveries and technological revolutions. That will be the quick shortcut and inexpensive way to improve the living conditions and enhance the welfare of their citizens. They must design strategies to open their countries to technological progress and introduce their countrymen to creativity by begin doing simple things such as setting policies removing a bunch unnecessary bureaucratic red tapes, deter corruption and demands for kickbacks, discourage the types of negative mentalities of their countrymen that preaches on individual needs to supersede common good/national need, cut their licensing fees, reduce customs duty on importation of the equipment, set-in-place the infrastructures that facilitate the deployment of this new technologies, design a fair system of work and reward (livable minimum wage), create a legal environment that promote peace, security and ownership rights and set policies to implement them. This is the kind of environment each African government should fight to uphold. The good thing about that is it does not require any monetary investment and foreign assistance to do so. This type of environment is Africa 's travel luggage. This is an analogy to assimilate the satirical story often told in the west about Africa , a luggage is prepared by a traveler thinking of every possible eventuality that can occur while he's away. Since they're may not be a second chance while a traveler is away from home. It was a sad day when the continent of Africa spent the last 4 decades standing on the station for the train of economic development to arrive. And on that day when the train arrives and opens door for passengers, the African countries found out that their luggage were not yet packed and that they should run back home to pack and come back to enter the train. Unfortunately, this train waits for no one.
The capitalists (foreign investors, foreign assistance and foreign donors) are like the ladies of the night, they follow the trail of the money. They come to you for their own profit sake and not for the purpose of rescuing the locals. That is the way it has been in the past and it will continue to be like that in the future. Us African should only learn about these facts and find a way around it. Our bickering will never put a dent on their attitudes. In front of their eyes, Africa is at a great disadvantage because it seems to them that Africans do no have their houses together nor their affairs in order. African governments had not kept pace with modernizing their institutions and their basic infrastructures during the last four decades:
In 1960, Ghana and South Korea were at a same economic standing. Even though South Korea was just coming out of war then and Ghana was never in a war, today, the economic disparity between them is deplorable.
In this century of environmental constrict, my hometown of Kinshasa, DR Congo, a city of 6 million people do not have a public sewage system nor a municipal trash collection and landfill. This country had its heydays of foreign investment: it has one of the biggest foreign debts in the continent. Where all that money was used for, if not to do those things.
In this city, I guessed that the unemployment rate is in the order of upper 50 percentile. How can a foreign manufacturer with potential to develop a serious job creating facility for the locals can be lured there. Will they dump their raw residue in the river or build their own sewage and landfill systems and sewage treatment facilities. They can do that but it will cost the investor additional hundreds of millions: So, why shouldn't they go to South Korea for instance, there is already a functioning existing public sewer they can tap into and avoid the expense. I think that's fair!
In Zambia , a country which copper is a main staple for the countries' GDP, did not modernize its copper producing infrastructures. Per the economist magazine (June 1 - 7, 2002 issue, Page 65), the cost Zambian copper production is higher than the price of the copper market. How much is the foreign debt of Zambia . Could that money be used to keep pace?
Stories like this can only repel rather than lure foreign capitalists. But if we do our homework, once we get our house in order, the capitalists will come on their own. By institutions, I mean to say a legal system that is free caprices with a system to enforce the measures, educational, health, welfare… And the setting in place of infrastructures like roads and transportation system, electrical and other utilities distribution, water and sewer, garbage collection, airports, ports… Only after we do these things that the capitalists will begin to see the trail of money.
By RAPHAEL BASISA, SR *
© Congo Vision
* Raphael Kutota Basisa was candidate for city council at large in Charlotte, North Carolina and is considering running again for the same position in 2007.