Cautionary Tales of Technology Leapfrogging

The late twentieth and early twenty-first century recorded enormous technological advancement that helped transform the global economic, political, social, and environmental landscape in a way quite exceeding the expectations of ardent development pundits. While these recorded improvements on the global socio-economic spectrum may yet be perceived as abysmal by others, the strides made are widely acknowledged across fields. The velocity of changes witnessed in the technological sphere has prompted researchers to surmise, that technology users who are late in adoption could easily afford to skip a whole generation or bundle of technologies since a more efficient and high-tech alternative to such conventional technology would have been in existence within a short period of time. The ability of these late adopters (using traditional technology) to skip a generation of technology (conventional technology) and leap to the very latest (emerging ultramodern technology) is often referred to as leapfrogging.

One fundamental feature of technology development and adoption is that it assumes an S-shape, depicting the key stages of introduction, growth, and maturation as shown in Figure 1 below. An S-shaped technological change implies that: either the development process is very slow to allow for a catch-up that is a non-revolutionary breakthrough, or is very fast to allow for the skipping of intermediate stages1. An individual, country, or entity able to achieve the technological changes described is deemed to have leapfrogged. The success of the emerging technology depends on many factors including the extent to which it differs from the present.

Figure 1: Technology development curve

The introduction of a new technology which provides the same services as a conventional one, but adds improved features such as expedience, portability, accessibility, suitability, affordability, among others is often touted as ideal for those who remained without access to the existing technology. The adoption of the new technology among those without the conventional one however does not usually develop as rapidly as the optimists forecast. A key reason for this disconnect between the Utopia that technology optimist imagined and the reality, is the omission of external social-cultural precepts that influence the consumers’ adoption decision-making process. In brief, peoples’ way of life does not instantly change with the introduction of a technology2 as they require significant time for realignment. Technologies do not also prescribe their own path or course of action but instead depend on the social context of individuals, institutions, and structures which they shape3.

The figure below is a depiction of leapfrogging using technologies in the energy sector. The old and near-absolute technology here is called the traditional (energy) technology, the present dominant one is referred to as the conventional (present energy) technology, and the modernistic or next generation, revolutionary (renewable energy) technology. Renewable energy leapfrogging in Africa is one of the growing research areas among recent academics. Following the global fight against climate change and progressive improvements in renewable energy technology development, many scholars are investigating the prospects of leapfrogging Africa, which largely characterised by unmet energy markets, to renewable energy technologies.
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Figure 2: Energy Technology Leapfrogging Framework

Figure 2 illustrates how Africa and other unmet energy markets could depart from their present traditional-based energy to renewable energy without going through the ‘dirty’ conventional fossil energy regime. Their ability to do that would be facilitated by the fact that they are not trapped in conventional energy infrastructures which often act as inertia.

Extant leapfrogging literature tend to focus largely on the technology, with limited consideration for the social-cultural environment. They assess the incentives the technology offers as well as the consumer’s ability to pay for it. One recent study surmised: “…..unlike the old infrastructure technologies such as fixed-line telephone systems, which were subjected to the budgetary pressures of governments as the main provider, new technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones are delivered within the regulatory framework that fosters market competition and promotes private capital”. While this is the case to a large extent, the success of the telecommunication leapfrogging exceeds the convenience it offers. The social acceptability of the technology and how appropriately it is infused into the daily lives of adopters is essential to its success story. The leapfrogging discourse must therefore take into account both social and technical changes.

Amid the contentious debate surrounding energy technology leapfrogging and the potentials it presents in Africa’s energy sector, stakeholders must be cautious of risk associated with the radical leaping trajectory, to have the chance of pre-empting the dire repercussions of a ‘messy landing’. Late adopters must look beyond the origin and journey. Destination obliviousness in the context of technology leapfrogging is a recipe for failure. The success or otherwise of leapfrogging late adopters to a new technology is based on the social readiness or suitability of the adopters to use the technology, their economic strength in terms of affordability, the market readiness to make the technology accessible, and the scalability of innovators to streamline the technology and make it adaptable. It is can be good, but looking before leaping is best and strongly advised.


1. Sharif, M.N., 1989. Technological leapfrogging: Implications for developing countries. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 36(1-2), pp.201-208.
2. Alzouma, G., 2005. Myths of digital technology in Africa: Leapfrogging development? Global Media and Communication, 1(3), pp.339-356.
3. Davison, R., Vogel, D., Harris, R. and Jones, N., 2000. Technology leapfrogging in developing countries-an inevitable luxury? The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 1.
4. Amankwah‐Amoah, J., 2015. Solar Energy in Sub‐Saharan Africa: The Challenges and Opportunities of Technological Leapfrogging. Thunderbird International Business Review, 57(1), pp.15-31.

the memory of water

This poem was presented by Paul at the Joint Conference of the International Society of Industrial Ecology and International Symposium of Sustainable Systems and Technology, hosted in Chicago from June 25-29 2017.

the memory of water
(or: cape town’s linear, unsustainable water metabolism and the lack of anticipatory planning which led to crisis)

August 2014

rain falls on the slopes of the berg river catchment
drops coalesce into streams
that meet the theewaterskloof dam
steady. waiting. evaporating

a pump pumps
(with lightning tamed from broken atoms 50 kilometres away)
with grav assist
water moves through harsh environs
of chlorine and lyme.

in darkness enters the city and
split and split and split again
till bright light opens it upon
hands and dishes – in toilet bowls – from showerheads
sprayed across flowering plants and gleaming mercs
from running taps down muddy roads past informal homes
in boilers and engines and cooling contraptions
reshaped and shifted. evapotranspirated

condensed. absorbed -
the lucky become clouds
free float and fly
or sink underground
to feed green crop
or recharge the aquifer.

while the rest, suds and all
reenter the pipes
darkens conveys through solids extraction
anerobic and aerobic trauma
and absorbed by salty surrounds of ocean water
where nutrients bloom
and biodiversity

ecoli wash past blue flag beaches
touching bathing tourists
city patrons who come to cape town
for natures beauty
and may not feel
the memory of water.

March 2017

No rain has fallen on the slopes of the theewaterskloof
and the city –
surprised by events it predicted in 20 oh 6
– calls for all:
reduce your use

so highway signs count down to the
end of water
ignored by urbanites who imagine
water comes only from taps
120 days left
no thought of the panic elicited
when a disgruntled public
see only
20 days left
so the signs much change
pipe pressure is dropped
and government states plainly its policy:
lets pray for precipitation

meanwhile the gardens die
cars lie conscientiously dirty
while the city’s gone from
green to beige
and blame is passed
from citizens to city
from rich to poor
to fire helicopters dumping dam water on an intense fire season
(predicted in 20 oh 6)

June 2016

no rain has fallen on the slopes of the theewaterskloof
though drizzles tickle eyes of
longing capetonians
looking for rain
a perhaps psychological balm to signal the end
of crisis
hopefully not ending the
3 daily toilet flush – the 2 minute shower – the limited laundry
all part of the 100 litre goal per person.
too bad drizzle isn’t drinkable

when the rain arrives
the waves arise
a storm of note
floods the city but
the dam levels rise

this crisis will last
reduce your use
says the mayor
unveils a new planned portfolio
on sustainable views
of how the city will change
and so ensues
that resource efficiency is finally
on the agenda

August 2030

rain falls on the slopes of the theewaterskloof
flows through pipes to the city
meeting water that’s
with the system it moves through
supports. hydrates

now toilet wash holds value
fueling gardens (indigenous)
and busses (electric)
no highway signs needed
as society’s conceded:
reduce your use – we’re water scarce!

our water adventures in circular fashion
now city’s caught-on
that’s a good pattern
expanding its works
water treatment reverts
to send back grey black blue
for an extra purpose

and throughout the system
pipes are lined with messages to keep
the crisis of cape town
in the memory of water

What do we really mean when we talk about energy leapfrogging?

It is now widely known that the sub-Saharan African power sector is at a threshold of significant change. There is growing consensus that the centralised model of electrification through national grid extension is becoming outdated in a techno-economic sense. In fact, the 634 million-large non-electrified population is an account of the inefficiencies inherent in the conventional centralised model. Decentralisation of electricity generation and distribution is now often seen as a viable alternative, which has placed decentralised renewable energy technologies, comprised of stand-alone off-grid systems (primarily solar home systems) and mini-grids in the limelight.

Solar home systems have however gained much more traction than mini-grids over the past few years. This is primarily because of less complexity in deployment and better financial returns on offer. The result is a flood of investments entering the solar home system market, which in turn drives down costs and makes these technologies more accessible for the end user.

However, I am hesitant to rally behind this movement and will be careful of putting solar home systems under the mantra of leapfrogging as is often done. Technology leapfrogging is defined as the “adoption of advanced or state-of-the-art technology in an application area where immediate prior technology has not been adopted.”ii The premise is that industrialising countries can avoid the carbon and resource intensive and wasteful energy development path that industrialised countries went through in setting up their energy infrastructure over the course of the past centuryiii. Solar home systems are commonly described as a leapfrog solution, which implies that by deploying these technologies, industrialising countries can embark on a process of electrification that is carbon neutral, resource efficient and sustainable. This is all true, but the quality of energy services that solar home systems provide to the end user is often overlooked in the leapfrogging discussion.

In my view, the output of solar home systems is not on par with the level required to allow energy poor households to well and truly move out of energy poverty. As Figure 1 shows, average household consumption of electricity in the industrialised (and industrialising) world is well above the approximate output level that solar home systems in the low-income market can provide. Furthermore, early experiences with solar home systems also indicate the aspiration among households to own higher wattage appliances after the initial basic energy needs have been met with solar home systemsiv. That goes to say that solar home systems are very effective in providing access to basic modern energy services, but access to basic modern energy services in the decentralised way as described here does not constitute energy leapfrogging. Instead, it entails a step up the energy ladder. The crux of the matter is that we should be weary of confusing energy leapfrogging with stepping up the energy ladder.

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Figure 1: Output limitations of solar home systems
Source: PowerGen Renewable Energy (2016)i

If we are to bring about energy leapfrogging in Africa, we need a technology that can replace the national grid. Mini-grids, alternatively, can replace the grid because it provides the kind of energy services that are on par with the gridv. By providing grid-quality, alternating current electricity, mini-grids have the potential to well and truly move the energy poor out of energy poverty and in turn socio-economic poverty. It can do this by not only powering all household applications, but also by electrifying productive activities such as welding, milling, food processing, heating and many others. This is what businesses require to be electrified and I believe that this is an antecedent for localised economic development. Further, localised economic development in rural areas can slow down urbanisation because rural inhabitants will perceive more economic opportunity in rural areas.

Finally, energy leapfrogging does not merely entail developing energy infrastructure differently than industrialised nations have done. Granted, by building energy infrastructure with solar home systems, we are avoiding the negative consequences of a carbon and resource intensive fossil fuel-based national grid. However, by doing so, we will not converge with the future energy infrastructure of the world. That is because the future energy infrastructure consistently points to the development of smart grids powered by renewable energy and we will not be able to achieve this with solar home systems.

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Figure 2: Threat of not converging with the future power infrastructure
Source: iPowerGen Renewable Energy (2016)

I believe that we should avoid short term solutions such as a small incremental step up the energy service ladder and instead adopt a long-term vision of building the energy infrastructure of the future in sub-Saharan Africa and in turn well and truly move our population out of energy- and socio-economic poverty. It is my view that AC mini-grids will be our best option for achieving this vision.

i PowerGen Renewable Energy. 2016. The Future of Power in Africa: How Africa can Lead the Next Generation of Global Power Infrastructure. Nairobi: PowerGen Renewable Energy.
ii Fong, M.W.L. 2009. Technology Leapfrogging for Developing Countries, in Khosrow-Pour, M. (ed.). Encyclopaedia of Information Science and Technology. Hershey: IGI Global.
iii Goldemberg, J. 2011. Technological Leapfrogging in the Developing World. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 12(1):135-141.
iv Lee, K., Miguel, E. & Wolfram, C. 2016. Appliance Ownership and Aspirations among Electric Grid and Home Solar Households in Rural Kenya. American Economic Review, 106(5):89-94.
v Knucles, J. 2016. Business models for mini-grid electricity in base of pyramid markets. Energy for Sustainable Development, 31(1):67-82.

Mapping Human Activities and Resource Flows in Informal Settlements

On the first of November 2016 I was tasked with creating a map for an informal settlement as part of the urban Modelling and Metabolism Assessment Research Team (uMAMA). The informal settlement, called eNkanini, is located on the south east periphery of Stellenbosch, Western Cape. It was formed in 2006 with just over 47 families (Van Breda, 2011), and according to data from November 2016, eNkanini has over 2800 iron corrugated households and about 200 basic infrastructure services and socio-economic activities, such as municipal toilets and taps, tuck shops, fast food shops and small farms. The purpose of this map was to collect data and analytics about land use, human activity and infrastructure types that influences the flow of resources in informal communities. This was vital for understanding the dynamics of eNkanini and building stronger knowledge forms about differing resource demands and flows in formal and informal settlements, since the predominant data collection and analysis is about formal settlementsi.

1) satellite image of eNkanini:
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At first glance, eNkanini has a dysfunctional and chaotic semblance like many unratified informal settlements in South Africa. This may not be the experienced reality of residents, , but could be my personal perception about the area - the repercussion of partiality and preconceived ideas I have about informal settlements. For this reason, when I first entered eNkanini, I had no utilitarian expectation of the community or about the settlement itself. However, this changed as I spent more time within the community. Without ignoring the ills within eNkanini, I started to see functional and pragmatic aspects of the settlement, rather than dysfunction based on personal biases.

Community Experiences
Data collection in informal settlements is a challenge and a laborious process. Firstly, informal settlements have narrow, winding pathways and shacks are concentrated in constricted latitudes. Secondly, informal settlements can be socially unstable due to cohesion privation with the broader society outside of their space. For this reason, you are more likely to face resistance in undertaking any data collection within the community, particularly if the community is not participating in the project. Thirdly, politics are a concern especially with projects akin to mapping. This is because the community associates maps with possible infrastructure development, whereas an academic may use maps mainly for data visualisation. This political predicament is acerbated by years of empty promises to deliver services to the community from political leaders once they have been voted in - hence I avoided wearing any shirt that had a colour which might have resembled any major political party in South Africa.
Besides creating a map, this process was valuable to me for getting a glimpse of the challenges faced by South African local municipalities. That is, providing basic services (water, electricity and shelter) to a dynamic population that is constantly moving for better living conditions. One major challenge is that there is no guaranteed revenue for providing and maintaining such services in informal contexts because they are not necessarily recognised as part of the urban landscape (Lemaire, 2015). This constant movement for better living conditions in the end produces more informal settlements, which, according to Huchzermeyer (2008), are key performance indicators of a national government’s ability to mitigate poverty and urgency to better the lives of the poor. This is because informal settlements can be used as a proxy for a community’s risk of floods, fire and other threats to health. This motivated to me the importance of providing full accounts of social and economic activities and access to basic services through spatial specific data.

Technical Considerations
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has become crucial for meticulous decision making in modern societies at local, sectional and national level, due to the ability to spatially plan with accuracy. GIS data analysis and storage requires time and skill to produce accurate analysis and quality data visualisation through maps. I used handheld e-trex Garmin GPS for data collection. It had its own challenges due to the 95% location accuracy it has, which is about 5 metres in relative distance. Inherently, this imposed a small uncertainty on the data. Moreover, the clustering of different land-use activities within constricted spaces in informal dense areas contributes to this inaccuracy. Therefore, it became difficult to depict accurate and clear location points of every shack, infrastructure and land use activity occurring within the settlement. As a final product, we ended up with a mesh of location points overlapping on each other. Below is an example of how the distance accuracy of the GPS affected visualisation of data and made the initial state of location points unclear.

2) Map showing overlapping way points due to GPS accuracy:
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The most repetitive processes needed before visualisation was possible was cleaning the data and organising it into relational tables with associated attributes. This began by firstly examining how raw data might have deviated from reality and creating erroneous data relations. This was necessary in understanding how uncertainty arises and propagates through geo-data life cycle. Therefore, in this case I focused on the accuracy of the GPS and how it might affect data quality, accuracy and redundancy. Through this process, I was prompted to develop data quality strategies that considered the context and the type of data (geo-data, qualitative and quantitative), how it was stored, data flow from one format to another, and data-sharing within a group of people, requiring a database management system.
Data modelling and entity relation diagrams:

A) Data-base modelling is essential in ensuring databases become user efficient and serve the purpose they are built for. Data modelling begins from data collection to data cleaning and storage especially for complex data-bases. Below, it is a diagram that depicts data modelling processes towards creating a functional relational data-base for eNkanini.

B) Entity Relationship modelling is a top-down analysis technique which shows entities and the relationships that links them i.e. how each piece of data relates to the other as shown below. It begins with an entity relationship diagram that has characteristics that uniquely identifies an entity occurrence, in this case classification, attribute and location. Finally a table was created that allows quantitative analysis through Structured Query Languages (SQL).


Mapping eNkanini could have been done using satellite imagery, raster analysis and digitising main settlement boundaries without having to walk into the community. However, this has limited benefits with regards to data visualisation and analytics because satellite imagery does not provide societal experiences and further insights on self-attained infrastructure and services. From the conceptualisation of the research project, we understood the benefits of entering the community and how holistic spatial data has become a significant part of co-creating knowledge and understanding societal issues.
Furthermore, rich GIS data adds immense value to decision making with advanced analytics capabilities. Spatial analysis can be used to query large and complex data sets to understand behaviours, identify hotspots and predict future outcomes – making it easier for analysts to uncover actionable insights that will help shape communal sustainable growth strategies.

The maps produced through this process will be shared in future vignettes.


i See Smit S, Musango JK, Brent AC, Kovavic Z (2017). Conceptualising Slum in an urban African context. Cities. 62:107-119 for a discussion of informal settlement types.

Rethinking Strategic Integrated Planning for the Electricity Sector in South Africa

South Africa’s electricity sector is characterised by the unique social, political, and economic legacy of apartheid, which still impacts decision-making and contemporary politics of low-carbon energy transitions profoundly. A series of processes is now converging to force the issue of sustainability to drive South Africa’s low-carbon energy transitions, which provide both a description of a process of transformation from one energy system to another and a set of tools and concepts to explain and enable such transitions. Specifically, national electricity plans are policy approaches providing opportunities for integrated goal-oriented low-carbon energy transition management. Currently, there is a pressing need to understand the potential nature of South Africa’s emergent transitions, as it is a rapidly industrialised country whose economy is among the most energy intensive in the world. This raises the question of how a ‘sustainability transitions’ framework can be conceptualised to address the challenge of low-carbon electricity transitions in South Africa. This paper, therefore, critically reviews the strategic electricity planning process in South Africa, framed within an established sustainability transitions theoretical framework. From the literature, it was observed that the challenges facing South Africa’s strategic electricity planning resulted from slow economic growth, with concomitant limited investments in infrastructure and demand for services, ambitious long-term national development planning aspirations, including related politics, differing views due to different stakeholder preferences on electricity planning, and a lack of, or misalignment between, development policies and objectives. All these theoretical and practical gaps reveal that South Africa must rethink its current strategic electricity planning practice. A conceptual complexity planning framework is proposed to ensure alignment of different, competing, complex sustainability policy objectives within the electricity planning process. The conceptual planning framework process proposed emphasises the requirement to consider South Africa’s political economy influence and its impact on the country’s electricity planning process in terms of its governance and associated decision-making processes.

Conceptualising slum in an urban African context

The urban age is unfolding, with more than half of the world population now living in cities and urbanisation set to increase by a further 2.5 billion people by the year 2050ii,iii. This situation places excessive strain on cities to plan for and manage the increase in urbanites and their demand for housing, employment and access to basic infrastructure and services; a situation that is becoming vastly untenable for many cities, particularly those in the developing world. Most urban economies in developing countries are unable to meet these basic needs, leading to the emergence of slums or informal settlementsiv.

Slums are generally defined and analysed along various dimensions including: (i) physical characteristics – as pertaining to housing typology, access to services and infrastructure; (ii) social characteristics based on income, employment and economic activity; and (iii) legal characteristics related to land ownership and adherence to planning regulationsv, vi,viii. Notably, these definitions do not consider access to electricity as a measure, which is problematic because about 60% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lack electricityviii. Recent studies are also highlighting the role of electricity in meeting 15 out of the 15 Sustainable Development Goalsix. Using the conventional categorization, slums are conceptualised to fluctuate between Formal and Informal, Legal and Illegal, and Planned and Unplanned, as depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Slum types based on conventional categorisation.

It should be noted that settlement types are not static and may evolve and/or devolve over time. Each settlement type may also be recognised as having a unique set of issues that need to be addressed, thereby creating a framework for deeper analysis of the different slum types and particularly as related to the political context in which they exist viii. For example, the emergence of slums in South Africa is closely tied to the social and political history of the nationx, xi, xii. Furthermore, in considering the political context of South Africa, another category of description emerges, related to the notion of Legitimacy/Illegitimacy.

Figure 2: South African typology of settlements.

Informality should be understood as produced by the state itself through its legal and planning apparatus which determine what is informal or not, who is deserving or not vii. Legitimacy here therefore highlights the complex political struggle associated with recognition by state and as negated through the implementation of technical solutions that do not address socio-political issues. The issue of legitimacy is used to indicate the possible stance taken by formal or government entities based on the provision of infrastructure and level of legal compliance.

Although useful for recognising the physical, infrastructural and legal dimensions of slums, the typology of settlement types should not be employed as the sole basis for understanding slums, but rather as a starting point from which further analysis, including the metabolic dimension, may be applied.


i. This vignette is based on work stemming from Suzanne Smit’s PhD and is an extract from the published paper: Smit, S., Musango, J.K., Kovacic, Z., & Brent, A.C. 2017. Conceptualising slum in an urban African context. Cities, 62:107-119.
ii. UN-DESA (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs) 2014. World urbanization prospects: The 2014 revision. Accessed 28 March 2016 from:
iii. UN-Habitat (United Nations – Human Settlements Programme) 2015. Habitat III: Issue paper 22 – Informal settlements (non edited version 2.0). Paper produced for the UN conference on housing and sustainable urban development, held October 2016. Paper produced in New York, May 2015. Accessed 10 March 2016 from:
iv. UN-Habitat (United Nations – Human Settlements Programme). 2010. The challenge of slums. Global report on Human settlements: revised and updated version (April, 2010) Accessed 8 February 2016, from
v. Srinivas, H. 2015. Defining squatter settlements. GDRC research output E-036. Kobe, Japan: Global Development Research Center Accessed 9 February 2016 from
vi. Turok, I. 2015. Upgrade informal settlements: South Africa. New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy. 2015: 11–15.
vii. Roy, A. 2005. Urban informality: Toward an epistemology of planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 71(2), 147–158.
viii. IEA (International Energy Agency). 2015. World energy outlook. Accessed 14 September 2016 from:
ix. Schwerhoff, G., & Sy, M. 2016. Financing renewable energy in Africa – Key challenge of the sustainable development goals. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. [n Press].
x. Hunter, M., & Posel, D. 2012. Here to work: The socioeconomic characteristics of informal dwellers in post-apartheid South Africa. Environment and Urbanization, 24: 285–304.
xi. Harrison, P. 1992. The policies and politics of informal settlement in South Africa: A historical perspective. Africa Insight, 22(1): 14–22.
xii. Urban Foundation (South Africa). 1991. Informal housing: Urban debate 2010. Braamfontein: Urban Foundation.