What Constrains Tech In sub-Saharan Africa

Unlike what you may have been taught in primary school by your basic science teacher who probably didn't know any better, technology isn't the application of science to anything. Man-made tools which make people's lives easier — which is what technology means — can be built without a precise understanding of the principles by which they work (science).

It may be that 'technology' less strictly means 'funky tools that make lives better', because a hoe, while having at some point in the past been the foremost tool at helping make people's lives better on some front, is hardly thought of by anyone in 2022 as technology.

In the modern world, after we came to develop ways to power our modern technologies, tech has come to mean tools for doing all of the basic activities we indulge in at home, either for survival or for fun. Or for helping to improve multiple lives at different scales at work. And in our current times, it is not enough for the tools to perform mechanical tasks, they somewhat need to either be automate-able, or be able to achieve a connectedness that allows us to interact with them from far away — a regular home security system is hardly thought of as tech, but a security system that allows you to determine what descendant of Adam is at your door while you are at work at 12pm? Now, that's tech.

Technology itself isn't always derived from a science. But because kids probably need to be taught about things like germs and the importance of washing their hands and thus science as soon as possible, piggybacking on what they already understand of science in the definition of technology does make sense.

Otherwise, when the first hunter-gatherer sharpened a stick for the first time, I do not think they had a precise understanding of the density, thinness and strength of different kinds of wood and their relationships with other materials. It was probably mostly fashioned on iteration and intuition. Fleming's discovery of penicillin was completely accidental, he was not following precise steps of a theoretical process in a bid to make a particular antibiotic. We coat door handles in copper because of its antimicrobial property, while having no idea exactly how it kills microbes. We just know that it does work. Technology before science happens in industry all the time. We happen upon a new interesting thing that works, and then retroactively try to understand how it works.

Every single artificially created tool however simple or complex is a technology. Ranging from basic objects like hair combs and tooth brushes, to more complex ones like the Large Hadron Collider or the James Webb Telescope. As too are soft technologies like language, money, writing and cooking (ohh yeahh. Cooking is totally an artificial tool [processes are tools too] used by humans to quash unhealthy micro-organisms in, and soften so as to ease the digestion of, food.)

Improvements in hard technology directly aid soft technology, as seen for example in the invention of the paper and similar materials aiding money and writing. But of course 'technology', by default means hard, engineered tools, which is how the word is used in this piece.

Technology, has meanwhile been the biggest change agent throughout history. It literally has almost single-handedly consistently moved history forward. Simple hunting and gathering tools enabled our hunting-gathering ancestors to yup, hunter-gather. As did farming tools allow early farmers to farm, which gave a rise to settlements. Every single advanced civilization had to invent new technologies to enable their advancement.

The invention of cement completely changed building housing, better ammunition is probably the biggest reason the Spanish conquistadors were able to easily capture the Americas so that all of the major South American countries aside Brazil now speak Spanish. Industrialization completely changed ideas around what was possible: machines could now do serious work. Then came electricity to power all of those machines. And yeeeeah, the internet. The internet — an interconnected network of machines — has completely changed communication.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, technological development completely drives economic development. Artificial tools created to enable existing human activity allow humans to indulge in more beneficial activity which only circle back in a loop to enable existing human activity. It's enablement all the way down; an enablement-ception, and this is why technological development often leads to exponential growth of all sorts.

Interestingly, most of all of human economic growth have happened only in the past 250 years, based almost entirely on industrialization: allowing production to be rapidly scaled; electricity: powering all of our machines, and now the internet: connecting everything together.


Powerful as hell as technology is, one thing which greatly influences its existence in the first place, or impact post-existence is the sociocultural/sociopolitical makeup of a society. Includes at least: the power wielded by dominant entities and, the common culture of that society.

a. The power wielded by dominant entities as financial power: The reasons this is important range from the fact that technology needs large investment to be invented in the first place; iterated experiments in an attempt to produce new tools tend to not be cheap, to even more investment being needed for production to be scaled. The first successful demonstration of nuclear power wasn't by a non-financially-dominant country. Nor wasn't the first use of guns in war. Closer to our times: both Google and Apple were invested in by the most important Venture Capital firms of the day.

b. Another kind of power is the sort derived from being formally in charge of coordination, including being custodian of the rules; it allows you to define what the rules are, and the punishments for violating them. It is the kind of power in our current era almost exclusively held by governments, and it is often questioned by some people. "What gives the government its legitimacy?" they ask.

There is no problem of political authority. The government derives its legitimacy as part of the current most popular mechanism — in an evolving system of coordination mechanisms indulged in by human societies for problem-solving.

A long time ago, humans lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, but more people working together means a better division of labor and efficiency — which is increasingly what happened, and is why we have large cities within large countries and sociopolitical alignment among several countries in our current world. Downside? This means increased difficulty coordinating activity.

The more individual parties there are in a coordinating group, the harder it is to coordinate. Each individual party means an independent interest seeking satisfaction. The best way to get people to coordinate is to collapse all of those several individual interests into one or a few. Which is harrrrrd.

Isn't it interesting that some of the most polarizing villains in popular fiction are people who realized this and sought to manufacture external enemies to promote internal coordination? Hello Ozymandias.

So out of the need for coordination come rules to regulate the activities of the several individuals in a group, and the current structures of governments around the world are a result of how coordination mechanisms at larger and larger scales have evolved over several human generations.

A lot of government responses often thought of as regulatory activity in their interactions with businesses around these parts are hardly genuine optimal coordination attempts, they usually are certain people with the right power doing whatever happens to be in their individual interest(s) which doesn't necessarily benefit the general populace. It's one way technology does benefit societies with effective governments a lot better than it does ones without.

c. Any developed country, however hard it might be to spot, has a pretty good coordination social infrastructure — a subset of culture. Interesting too may be the general culture particular to that country, which only can be enabled by technology. Culture means what is considered proper behavior in a society.

It is not a coincidence for example that Japan has low crime, lost items are returned to their owners more than half the time, and that they have great public transportation technological infrastructure.

Or that the US, which literally has written into its constitution a provision guaranteeing a default right to bear arms to its citizens — has the world's greatest defense department. Out of which has arisen a lot of modern technologies including the internet itself and the GPS.

It should not be surprising that instead of enabling positive common culture and allowing for exponential development, the effects of technology are instead continuously hindered by poor coordination social infrastructure and general culture in sub-Saharan African countries. There is the example of how a culture of extortion or thinking of businesses as cows to be milked in Nigeria results in expensive Right of Way charges , directly hampering internet penetration, and all of the compounding effects of that. Or when the culturally glorified 'clever' behavior is how to take advantage of a fair system.

Think about all the problems the lack of, or the existing terrible quality of basic foundational technologies like roads and electricity currently cause. Movement from place to place is a really fundamental part of people's lives. Do you really want to think about all of the consequences — expected and unforeseen, understood or not — that begin to pop up when should-be basic activity like moving people and things from one place to another becomes monumentally difficult?


Of all the tangible sociocultural/sociopolitical factors (general culture and coordination social infrastructure are intangible) that can affect how technology enables economic and social development, the political power of the government (even if only one or some of its branches), is probably most important. It can affect all other factors in very important ways via any of: legislative regulation, prosecutorial authority or plain enforcement by a threat of violence.

Think for example about how handicapped Nigerian investors with financial power who might want to invest in companies applying decentralized blockchain technology to problem-solving may be, since that directly puts them at odds with people with political power who do not want to be looped out of how things work, like how money is moved around. Political power 1 — 0 Financial power.

Because a lot of sub-Saharan African countries have very poor coordination social infrastructure — formally: captured by people with the wrong interests, which is evident in law promulgation and enforcement. Informally: low-trust culture(s) that prioritize the wrong things. If we believe that sub-Saharan African countries have very similar problems hindering their development,¹ and that sub-Saharan Africa — bar maybe exceptions like Rwanda and Botswana — is metaphorically in fact a country, and use Nigeria as a political, economic, and popular culture giant as a proxy for sub-Saharan Africa, it is not hard to see why it does make sense to expect technological development and consequently economic development to continue to be hampered, until those cultures evolve to become better coordinating.

1. If you disagree with this, may I raise you Ghana's recently announced levy on electronic financial transactions, the gross ethnic coordination challenges in Ethiopia being resolved with arms, poor coordination social infrastructure in South Africa leading to persistent, oft-flaring tensions both internally (race) and with foreigners (xenophobia)?

One counter to this entire argument would be to question why more successful countries work at all since they all have obvious culture and coordination problems. But of course there is no such thing as perfect coordination, but there might be a thing that can be referred to here as 'escape coordination' (Cc: in Physics, escape velocity): coordination level necessary for things to begin to work reasonably well.

This is the debut piece of a project which intends to, in the long term, enable discussion and commentary about the business of technology in the yet emerging sub-Saharan African ecosystem. If we intend to do this in the long term, why does this piece read like a thing by disinterested pessimists, and what do we think can be done about the problems we believe hinder development?

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