I have been doing research in the area of providing affordable and clean energy to Africa for years. During these years, I have always, in the back of mind, suspected that we need to look closely at the role of social institutions. My intuition was confirmed when I read the work of Daron Acemoglu and Jame Robinson on why and how countries differ in economic prosperity.

Acemoglu and Robinson found that social institutions play a fundamental role. In their “Why Nations Fail?” book, they talked about the reason why people in Kongo (and other African countries) are far behind in adopting modern technologies are because of the social environment they live in:

The real reason that the Kongolese did not adopt superior
technology was because they lacked any incentives to do so. They
faced a high risk of all their output being expropriated and taxed by
the all-powerful king, whether or not he had converted to
Catholicism. In fact, it wasn’t only their property that was insecure.
Their continued existence was held by a thread. Many of them were
captured and sold as slaves—hardly the environment to encourage
investment to increase long-term productivity. Neither did the king
have incentives to adopt the plow on a large scale or to make
increasing agricultural productivity his main priority; exporting slaves
was so much more profitable.”

There are other historical factors at play, such as European colonialism and postindependence African governments. But the most important factor that make African nations remain poor to this day is the lack of a democratic and inclusive institution that guarantees private property rights and encourages innovations.

To better understand this point, watch this video given by Robinson himself:

Also, here is a great introductory video on Africa:

I found both tremendously informative in guiding my thinking about how to approach my work in Africa.