Sunday, November 20, 2011

Africa Industrialization Day: Leapfrogging with Sustainable Energy

November 20th is Africa Industrialization Day, but unlike much of the rest of the world, development on this continent is proving to be far more sustainable.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his message for Africa Industrialization Day, “Approximately 600 million people in Africa still live without access to affordable and sustainable modern energy, and rely mainly on traditional biomass for cooking and heating. [...] As we mark Africa Industrialization Day, let us work together to achieve “Sustainable Energy for All” and advance economic development and productivity throughout Africa.”

Within the framework of the Second Industrial Development Decade for Africa (1991-2000), the UN General Assembly, in 1989, proclaimed 20 November Africa Industrialization Day (resolution 44/237). The Day is intended to mobilize the commitment of the international community to the industrialization of Africa.

This year’s commemoration of Africa Industrialization Day shines a spotlight on the challenge of “Sustainable Energy for Accelerated Industrial Development”.

Traditional forms of industrialization have created the environmental crisis we now face. In Africa, the hope is that the region can move right to renewable sources of energy and forego the dirty energy infrastructure that is a defining feature of industrialization in much of the rest of the world.

There is a precedent for this process in mobile phone adoption which in some developing countries has enabled them to skip the stage of copper wire land line telephones altogether.

This process is sometimes referred to as "leapfrogging" a concept which was originally used in the context of economic growth theories and industrial-organization innovation studies. It is based on Joseph Schumpeter's notion of ‘gales of creative destruction’. The hypothesis proposes that companies holding monopolies based on incumbent technologies have less incentive to innovate than potential rivals, and therefore they eventually lose their technological leadership role when new radical technological innovations are adopted by new firms which are ready to take the risks. These radical innovations create a new technological paradigm allowing newcomer companies to leapfrog ahead of leading firms.

Now the concept of leapfrogging is being used in the context of sustainable development for developing countries. This is a theory of development which may accelerate development by skipping inferior, less efficient, more expensive or more polluting technologies and industries and move directly to more advanced ones. It is proposed that through leapfrogging developing countries can avoid environmentally harmful stages of development and forego the environmentally destructive development trajectory of industrialized countries.

The adoption of solar energy technologies in African nations and other developing countries are examples of leapfrogging. This enables developing countries to avoid an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels. Under such a paradigm developing nations can leapfrog directly into the Solar Age.

Examples of renewable energy projects are underway all over Africa. In the picture located on the top left of this post, solar panels in Liberia are generating energy for a newly renovated local administrative building. These panels were erected by the Government of Liberia with support from the United Nations Mission in Liberia and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Ensuring access to reliable, efficient, affordable energy is a key element in creating decent jobs and increasing productive capacity.

© 2011, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.

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