Nanotechnology, the science of tiny molecules, is advancing with the potential to radically alter the structures of modern commerce, industry, and culture. It promises to disrupt global markets and transform industries through low-cost, high-efficiency, high-capacity tools, processes and products.
A transformative technology with the ability to drive a new industrial revolution offers many national opportunities and threats. Nations with the ability to create or adopt and accordingly diffuse technological applications will accumulate wealth. These are innovators with knowledge-based economies. Other nations, usually poor, lack inventive capacity with economies anchored on mineral extraction and agriculture.
Lacking knowledge and creative skills, they derive most of their export earnings from commodities, undifferentiated and broadly price-based traded raw materials and agricultural products. Ninety-five of 141 developing countries derive at least 50 percent of their income from commodity exports. In most sub-Saharan African nations, non-fuel goods account for more than 65% of their foreign earnings.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that a third of the world’s population, about two billion people, is employed in the production of goods.
Most commodity-dependent countries lack the capacity for scientific innovation and adoption. In other words, the poor state of their scientific and technological skills may prevent them from using nanotechnology advances to improve production efficiency, offer higher value products, engineer processes that require modest labor, capital, energy, land and materials.
After consistent failures to effectively adopt new technologies, from steam engines to microelectronics, with consistently low scores on key development, technology and innovation indices, the adoption of nanotechnology will not be easier for developing economies. If anything, quantum mechanical nanotechnology will be more difficult to acquire than many that have come before it, which depend mainly on classical Newtonian physics with far fewer skills and infrastructure requirements.
Potential success in the nanotechnology downstream sector, marketing and distribution cannot come without a skilled workforce that understands the technology and can contribute to the creative upstream stage. At least in the short term, many least developed nations may not take advantage of the potential technological benefits of nanotechnology to improve goods and differentiate them in the international marketplace.
Despite the problems in developing countries, developed economies will continue to pursue innovation in nanotechnology. There are opportunities for new nanomaterials to become good alternatives for many existing commodities (eg rubber, copper, cotton, platinum, etc.) and gradually commodity markets and industries may be disrupted or even killed.
The consequences are massive changes in trade and unemployment that could create serious security implications for countries dependent on raw materials. If nanotechnology provides an efficient means of producing affordable, durable, and quality energy sources such as batteries, nations that depend on the export of fuel commodities such as crude oil will suffer devastating economic impacts. A nation like Nigeria, which earns more than 85% of its foreign earnings from crude oil, may witness riots and banditry in its cities by displaced workers.
As nanotechnology disrupts global market structures and displaces goods, sub-Saharan Africa could witness major crises fueled by job losses and reduced incomes. The lack of ability to transition to new industries or markets will make these crises protracted with consequences that will affect their political and economic stability. The world will potentially see clusters of nano-conflicts in African cities and villages where mining and quarrying offer little economic value unless Africa develops a knowledge strategy and transforms itself into a knowledge power.