Book review – Africa’s Information Revolution

As part of the Global Conference on Economic Geography (GCEG) held in Oxford in August 2015 I was part of an ‘Author meets Critics’ panel which discussed the new book ‘Africa’s Information Revolution’ by James Murphy & Padraig Carmody.

Below is the commentary that I made drawing on some of the conclusions from our research at the OII. As I was taking the role of the critic, this commentary dwells on critiques for the sake of provoking discussion. But, the book definitely worth a read for anyone interested in examining issues around ICT and development, as well as those who are interested in the larger scale impacts of ICTs in developing and emerging markets.

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James Murphy & Padraig Carmody’s new book, ‘Africa’s Information Revolution: Technical Regimes and Production Networks in South Africa and Tanzania’ explores the development impacts of the rapid diffusion of information and communications technologies (ICTs) taking place throughout Africa. It does this through in-depth research on small and medium enterprises in two sectors (tourism and wood) in two countries (South Africa and Tanzania).

Here I will first outline why I think this book makes an important contribution to scholarship, before turning to critique some aspects of the book.

Beyond ICT4D

There has been a growth in research exploring and advocating for increased ICT use in the global South as a mean to support development for low income groups, entrepreneurs, governments and firms. This area of research (sometimes referred to as ICT4D) has tended to focus on active supply-side interventions, project and policy involving ICTs – what Murphy and Carmody call ‘imminent’ development.

The book offers a sustained critique of ICT4D in its link to neoliberal ideas of development and modernisation, and its over-focus on the micro-conditions of projects and policy. It attempts to move beyond these critiques in two main ways. First, the focus is more on ‘ICTs and immanent development’ – that is an analysis of how knowledge and information societies are diffusing into the global South, as part of wider transformations of society and globalisation. Second, the authors look to link micro-level findings on enterprises and ICT into the wider structural conditions under which they exist.

Thus, the authors are able to effectively argue that even where there is adoption and some benefits of ICT, there has been a lack of structural transformation, and in many cases the reinforcement of existing structures through ICT use. This lack of transformation points to the need be wary of hype around the power of ICTs for development.

The impacts of the digital on production networks

I also think this work makes a significant contribution to economic geography. Over the last decade there has been a growing interest in the increasingly fragmented networks of global production, and the role that global South plays in these networks.

Networks of production (even those that at first seem to be dominated by material goods) are increasingly orientated by the places and groups who can define, codify and access digital information – whether that be in defining systems, digital standards, capturing data or who has access to online platforms. However, core models such as value chains and production networks have rarely explored such rapid digitisation, and growth in ICT in detail.

We need better models to explore these aspects of global economic production, particularly when it comes to exploring the implications on lower income actors who are part of global production. In this work, Murphy & Carmody take a significant step in this respect. I won’t go into detail here, but I think their integration of global production networks, sociotechnical regimes and resource-based models of the firm provide ambitious new ways of linking between ICT activity and structural conditions.

How do we explore an ‘information revolution’?

I would like to also pick up a number of critical points. These are not necessarily contending the underlying ideas or even the core conclusions of this work, but I have issues with how some the theoretical ideas have been implemented in this research. I want to argue that the research is somewhat lacking in three areas – 1) its notion of development; 2) its exploration of economic relationships and 3) in its exploration of ICT:

1) Defining development

First, I would like to make a general point about how one should go about analysing the impact of the so-called ‘ICT revolution’ in Africa and here I would have liked to have seen a stronger justification for the perspectives taken.

The focus in the book is almost exclusively on using the perspective of SME, and exploring only the economic improvement of SME firms. Given the well documented complexities of such firms in an African context, solely using such as perspective could be problematic (see the literature on the complex drivers of SME growth and retraction, the heterogeneous nature of SME and the livelihood linkages into MSE).

We can highlight some examples from research we have done in East Africa to clarify this point. We found that ICT had positive effects where firm owners were able better manage a set of different small firms. They were not particularly interested in growing a single firms due to the inherent risks of putting ‘too many eggs in one basket’, but nevertheless the use of ICT aided entrepreneur stability. Similarly, in tourism we identified a set of entrepreneurial tour guides and drivers who have been able to become freelancers and better control their activities and lives through their adoption of mobile and smartphones.

Such positive findings around ICT become less visible in Murphy and Carmody’s SME and economic heavy focus. Whilst this is not to suggest that economic and firm upgrading is not important, I would have liked to have seen a far more succinct analysis of what upgrading means, including drawing on theories from development better, for example capabilities, livelihood and gender perspectives.

2) Exploring economic relations

Murphy and Carmody adopt approaches influenced by relational economic geography. Using these perspectives they argue that African SME are experiencing ‘economic extroversion’ that comes out the inability to ‘thickly’ integrate using ICT into global networks of production.

Given the explicitly relational framework, I found that the empirical analysis tended to lean too much towards a local/global dichotomy at the expense of really exploring the relationships that SME had, and how they were linking outside their own localities.

This leads to some findings that I would argue could be refined. For example, take research in tourism (including our own in East Africa). Work has often suggested that SME success was quite intricately linked to international firms, and much of the potential of ICT come out of the nature of the relationships between the local tourism firm and the international tour operator. This type of local-global relationship is underexamined in the book. I would also contend the idea outlined above, that thinner and thicker integration of ICTs is the key variable for disruptive changes. Thicker ICT integration can be even more a source of economic extraversion and top-down control as a thin one.

In sum, the argument here is that a more in-depth empirical analysis of relations may have revised some findings of the book.

3) Conceptualising ICTs

For all its promise to explore ‘Africa’s Information Revolution’ and ICTs, the actual depth of discussion of ICT adoption, use and adaptation is quite low in this book. Murphy & Carmody’s position is that researchers of ICT
“would do well to decenter the technologies themselves and to focus on these structural features: asking critical questions about what ICTs might really contribute with regard to their configuration” (P211).
From the structural perspective they take, it is perfectly understandable that they seek to distance themselves from the technological determinist accounts of ICT activity that they critique.

However in their accounts, ICT is reified and static in places, and in others ICT is present in name only. ICT are thus easily characterised as imposed or diffused from above, or enforcing the same uneven structures of capitalised neoliberal societies already present. I feel such an approach does analysis a disservice by neglecting a detailed of exploration of what technology is actually doing.How does ICT reinforce the structure and the status quo? What are the potential object-orientated sources of resistance as ICTs are adapted and appropriated? In sum, I am arguing that the approach used has precluded socio-materialist and STS ideas which might better explore structural conditions in terms of what ICT is doing (e.g. standards, infrastructure, technology constraints, and adaptation) without falling into techno-determinism.

New perspectives on ICTs in the South

To conclude, in terms of the critiques, I have gone into detail on how I feel that research could have refined, and all three points refer to looking in more detail into the mechanics of the structure, power and institution that the authors place at the centre of the failure of the information revolution in Africa. By not adopting a more granular analysis, I would argue the research is missing out on some of the most interesting activities and tactics involving ICT, and consequently I personally find the conclusion over-pessimistic in terms of the potential impacts of ICT. I also think the book might have offered some more coherent knowledge and policy relevant insights.

However in general I want to recommend this book and support its core ideas and conclusions. Like the conclusion of the book, our research in East African firms came to very similar conclusions that ICT has not as yet been transformative in African SME, who tend to struggle to use the technologies to their maximum. Indeed, ICT have tended to be more advantageous for larger and more established (multinational) firms able to use ICT as a better way of better monitoring remote supply chains, integrating into new markets and building thick relations with already trusted partners.

As I outlined in the introduction, I’m encouraged to see the growth in such critical research like this book that looks to the intersection between micro-level research on firm ICT use and wider structural models. I hope we will signal a growth of research on these topics in the future.

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