In the ancient paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, the story goes that, Achilles, a great athlete, makes a terrible error, giving the Tortoise a 100 yard head start in a race.

The explanation goes as follows: “The tortoise’s tactic is to keep moving constantly, however slowly. If Achilles is to overtake the tortoise, he must first get to where the tortoise was at the beginning of the race. In the time that it takes him to get there, the tortoise has moved forward a short distance. Then at that point, if Achilles is to overtake the tortoise, he must again get to where the tortoise is, but in that time, the tortoise has again moved forward a little, and so on. It is logically and mathematically impossible for Achilles to overtake the tortoise…” (The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher, Julian Baggini, 2006).

What, you might ask, is the connection between Achilles, the Tortoise and Africa’s infrastructure? I respond with two questions: How much infrastructure is required for Africa to truly thrive? Can Africa develop the infrastructure that is needed to be truly competitive on the global stage?

In the 2008 World Bank funded Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnostics (AICD) study, hailed as a breakthrough study at the time, the critical strategic infrastructure investment requirement - ICT, power, water and sanitation, road transport, rail transport, sea transport and air transport – is stated as US$ 93 billion per annum. Two years later, in the 2010 Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA), a programme that set out to develop a vision and strategic framework for the development of regional and continental infrastructure, the priority infrastructure required to catalyse Africa’s emergence was represented in four schematics as shown in Figure 1.

Maps of Africa | Royal HaskoningDHV

Figure 1: PIDA Priority Projects

Nearly a decade on from the AICD report and PIDA, one must ask several critical questions: are the assumptions underpinning the recommendations of these studies still relevant? In the ever-dynamic socio-economic landscape of Africa, do these priorities address, for example, the unprecedented population growth in Africa’s main urban centres? Have Africa’s public institutions evolved sufficiently to be able to cope with the required pace of infrastructure development?

Reflecting once again on the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, I hazard to conclude that the approach to infrastructure development in Africa is, like Achilles, doomed to failure unless there is a fundamental shift in perspective. This shift in perspective requires, for example, that we view Africa not only as a source of raw materials but also as a continent with several of the world’s fastest growing cities and the world’s largest youthful population. This shift is important because it fundamentally changes the way strategic infrastructure lines are drawn. The emphasis must shift from developing trans-continental transport corridors (ports, rail and roads) to developing infrastructure at a city-level that promotes thriving communities – Smart Cities.

As you weigh the validity of my argument, I urge you to consider what Africa’s future might look like if her great cities such as Lagos, Luanda, Johannesburg, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, to name but a few, are unable to cope with the ever-increasing socio-economic pressures facing them. Alternatively, consider what that future might look like if sufficient and appropriate infrastructure is developed in these cities – utilities, social services, housing, industrial facilities, etc. This, I would suggest, is Africa’s ‘priority infrastructure’.