The term arbitrage traditionally refers to taking advantage of the price differential (the gap) between two or more markets. One example is how search engine marketers use arbitrage to make money off of Google Adwords with keyword buying and landing pages. Another is when traders take advantage of differences in exchange rates on currencies in two separate markets.

Is there technology arbitrage in Africa?

Tucked away in a blog post on Calestous Juma talking about the future of African communications, Ethan Zuckerman states:

“The spread of connection infrastructure into Africa now points to the need for devices that can access the internet, content to be delivered and applications. These, in turn, point to the need for institutions, laws and policies to regulate this space, which are currently lagging far behind the technology.

We all like to discuss the technology gap in Africa, which is this space between those who have access to technology and can use it (the West) and those who do not (Africa). Does this create the environment to take advantage of technology arbitrage?

From a certain perspective that can all seem very bleak and depressing. From another, it smells like opportunity.

This time and knowledge lag between government “institutions, laws and policies” that Calestous Juma and Ethan are discussing is just the sort of gap that allows arbitrage to happen. You should be able to turn the lack of technology in one place, or at least information, compared to the other to your advantage.

Put another way, when a government is too slow, inefficient and technologically incompetent to keep up with the rest of the world, what happens?

I think we see the answer in a number of places already, not all of them savory. We see this in business executives who corner a market, like we’ve seen with Safaricom in Kenya, or the notorious 419 scammers in Nigeria. We read about it when Egyptian youth use Twitter to broadcast police brutality, or when Zimbabweans send MMS images of completed ballot counts from voting precincts in advance of those trying to perpetrate fraud.

Two main groups seem to take advantage of this: businesses and activists.

The natural inclination of the market is to leverage these gaps and inefficiencies, to create opportunities out of the void, that technology can often overcome. The best businesses in our current era are built to do this as are the activist groups with the greatest impact.

[Authors note: I’ve made up this term “technology arbitrage”, but I couldn’t think of a better way to describe what I’ve been thinking about. Speaking of which, I’ve been muddling this over in my head for a week and just wanted to air it out to hear other’s thoughts.]