Development, specifically technological development, isn’t evenly spread out. It is not delegated to areas that are ‘high-tech’ rather than ‘low-tech,’ ‘rich’ rather than ‘poor.’ Ethan Zuckerman of MIT's Media Lab argues that they fluctuate from country to country, and that some countries North America views as ‘behind’ are actually ahead in certain fields.
“On much of the African continent, telecoms infrastructure is world-class, whereas transport, power and other infrastructures lag far behind.” Those gaps offer opportunities for innovation and many groups and communities are stepping up, using the stronger bits of infrastructure to “plug holes in the country's less developed infrastructure.”
Existing projects include BRCK, a ‘backup generator for the Internet’, for example, or the New York-based mobile technology company M-KOPA, who are building solar-powered devices that allow families to charge a mobile phone or power a small LED lamp. On installation, families make an initial payment through M-Pesa, a phone-based payment system and then pay to keep it running. Once payments are completed (an equivalent to about 10 weeks worth of kerosene), they own the lamp. The Danish company Grundfos offers LIFELINK, where an RFID (radio frequency identification)-tagged 20 litre jug can be refilled with clean water and payed for, again, through M-Pesa. Zuckerman concludes:
For countries such as Kenya to emerge as economic powerhouses, they need better infrastructure: roads, ports, smart grids and power plants. Infrastructure is expensive, and takes a long time to build. In the meantime, hackers are building “grassroots infrastructure,” using the mobile-phone system to build solutions that are ready for market.
The future of infrastructure in emerging nations is a mix of the planning needed to build mass-transit systems and 500-megawatt power plants, and the grassroots innovation that’s allowed these countries to expand and grow thus far. What excites me most is not that farmers can obtain crop prices and mothers can call doctors. It’s that there’s a vast, powerful infrastructure that can be repurposed and hacked. Some of the most creative people on the continent are solving problems by using technologies in ways their creators had never expected. I think that’s as likely to help Africa rise than any World Bank-funded highway.