3D Printing Could be the Key to Economic Development in Southern Africa

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The 3D printing industry is undergoing enormous growth globally as innovation seems to have snowballed. One Harvard professor is proposing 3D printing as key to industrial development in many Southern African countries whose economies are weak or floundering.sadc africa

In late August 2014, the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, made a controversial speech at the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Mugabe was accepting his new position of chairman of the SADC, an inter-governmental organization whose headquarters are in Gaborone, Botswana. The goal of the SADC is to foster socio-economic intergration and cooperation between the 15 member countries such as Angola, Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

In his speech, Mugabe urged the members of the SADC to seek out ways to move toward more widespread industrialization, boosting their economies and creating a more advanced infrastructure, including creating jobs on a large scale, by leveraging Southern Africa’s natural resources. He touted a method of doing so known as “beneficiation,” which is, in very basic terms, a way of adding value to the resources for export. For instance, Botswana could enhance its profits in the diamond industry by doing the cutting and polishing of diamonds prior to exportation, thereby creating new jobs based on an expanded exploitation of a natural resource.

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Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, Chairperson of the SADC

“While the SADC is potentially one of the richest regions in the world, most of its agricultural and natural resources are exported unprocessed, which earns the region 10 percent of their actual value,” said Mugabe.

ricardo hausmann

Ricardo Hausmann

However, Ricardo Hausmann, a well-respected Professor of the Practice Economic Development at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, disagrees strongly with Mugabe’s assertion, noting that “some ideas are worse than wrong.” According to Hausmann, Mugabe’s plan keeps the SADC countries locked in a limiting cycle of relying on extant economic development possibilities rather than seeking “opportunities that lie elsewhere.”

calestous juma

Calestous Juma

Hausmann’s colleague, Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development (as well as Director of Harvard’s Science, Technology and Globalization Project and Principal Investigator for the project, Agricultural Innovation in Africa) agrees and goes on to suggest that the SADC countries should look to new and emergent technologies, including 3D printing.

“There are many other emerging platform technologies of relevance to Africa,” writes Juma. “For example, the rise of 3D printing could do for Africa what semiconductors did for Taiwan in the 1960s.”

As Juma notes, many important 3D printing patents have expired or soon will expire, conditions under which the SADC could potentially seize the day — and the patent — and capitalize on the explosive growth of the 3D printing sector. Instead of limiting themselves to attempts to expand on what they have, Hausmann and Juma believe that Southern African countries need to think more progressively, an expansion that could move SADC countries toward more promising and sustainable industrial development.

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Technological advances in Southern Africa could surely enable more autonomy in area governments. Do you think 3D printing is a good way to go about these goals? Is there a middle ground between Mugabe’s goals for the SADC and the Harvard professors’ thoughts? Let us know your thoughts in the 3D Printing in Africa forum thread at 3DPB.com.

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