guest columnBy Ethan Zuckerman
Arusha — TED Africa - introducing Africa 2
African innovators, with the women in the lead
Ever since the first sessions of TED, where a number of fierce critics of foreign aid faced off against the G8, Bono and a number of concerned westerners who want to help the continent through aid and development. It was wonderful to get this debate out into the open early on in the conference, and it’s dominated debate and conversation in the hallways.
Taking the stage this morning, Chris Anderson acknowleged the ferocity of the debate and mentioned that Bono is now heading back to Europe to meet with the G8. Chris tells us that Bono will be meeting with leaders to ask them to increase foreign aid, but will “articulate the evident and passionate desire to rebrand and recharacterize aid,” supporting aid that’s more accountable and that doesn’t go as badly wrong. Whether or not that satisfies all the critics in the audience is unclear, but it’s great that we’re having this conversation on stage.
Bola Olabisi starts her talk about women inventors with a story set in London in 1998. Pregnant with her fourth child, she was bored and looking for a free exhibit or show to attend. She found herself at an Inventor’s Fair, a subject she knew little about but was rapidly fascinated by. She began talking to women at the fair, asking whether they’d invented the products they were showcasing. Without exception, they were embarrased by the question and explained that it was their husband, brother or father who’d invented the product. She marched throughout the show floor, looking for a single woman inventor… and failed to find one.
So she met with the show’s organizers and asked them to find her a single woman inventor. The organizer told her that only 3% of the show’s participants were female and explained that she was unlikely to find a female inventor.
Olabisi began researching female inventors and discovered that both male and female inventors face some pervasive problems. It’s tremendously difficult to think of truly novel ideas. Inventors often are stereotyped - they’re fanatics, mad professors who don’t take no for an answer. They’re troublemakers, people who can’t play by the rules. It’s hard to find documentation of female inventors outside of the US - you can learn about women who’ve invented the bulletproof vest or the windscreen as they’re American. But naming a single African inventor is challenging, simply because African invention is poorly documented.
Olabisi took the reins in her hands and founded the Pan African World Inventors and Innovators Conference, held in Ghana in 2005. People asked if she was really wise to focus on African invention, but she was “very proud of my fellow African sisters” as they filled every seat in the conference center. She introduces us to some amazing women inventors:
- Nella Kumato, a Ghanaian inventor who has turned waste plastic into floor tiles, creating dozens of jobs
- Tomilola Awoniyi, a Nigerian woman who invented a breakfast cereal because she was not ablt to afford it. It was a huge success, and she began packaging it and selling it locally.
- Simi Baello, a wignmaker, whose products are sold throughout the continent
- Salome, a Ghanaian inventor who found a novel way to combine a pair of scarves, making them wearable 25 different ways - the product now sells for 300£ in London high streets
These projects aren’t especially high-tech, but they’re economically important, novel and address realworld needs. To ramp up the project, Olabisi is now partnering with London Metropolitan University, launching a women innovators platform at the Europen Parliament, and launching a program at a private academy in Lagos.
Erik Hershman of White African and Afrigadget follows Olabisi with a three minute talk, introducing some of the wonderful innovations showcased on his site: a streetside nursery that uses waste water to grow plants and tilapia; homemade welding machines and car alternators; a soccer ball made from twine and garbage bags. He presents the ball to Emeka Okafor on behalf of Africa’s bloggers with all of our thanks.
Killing flies with bacteria
Kenyan scientist Dr. Moses Makayoto begins his talk by telling us “Africa must stop talking - Africa must do practical solutions.” He’s a great example of an inventor who is creating key, practical solutions for the problems of the world’s slums. He reminds us that slums are characterized by poor sanitation and lack of access to water and sanitation. By 2020, 1.4 billion people worldwide will live in slums like Kibera, Mathare, Korogocho and Kawangware. Refugee camps also suffer from poor sanitation and the problems that result from them.
Dozens of diseases are carried by “filth flies” who breed in human waste in slums and refugee camps. Dr. Makayoto is attacking the flies with a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, which he’s extracting from organic materials, like cow and chicken waste, blood meal and horn and hoof material. The bacterium is distributed in a formulation that floats on top of waste water and targets mosquito and fly larvae. He tells us that it is “simple, pragmatic, five times cheaper than chemicals, and environmentally friendly.” The product has been extensively tested using international methods. He reminds us, “There’s no such thing as African science. There’s no such thing as american science. Science is science.”
Dr. Makayoto is also researching artemisinin plants, a natural solution to malaria problems. The plant is not native to Africa, but has been imported from Asia - the goal now is to get sufficient people to grow it and the proper preparations to distribute it on the continent. He’s also researching Sunguprot, a native plan in Kenya which is patented as a food supplement. His research suggests that it is a powerful immune booster for HIV/AIDS patients.
He ends his talk with some concerns about the difficulty of innovating in Africa: - Prototype development is not easily done
- Lack of IP policies
- Open questions about who owns native plants and knowledge
- A lack of African risk takers
- Low absorbative capactiy for new technology
- Low entrepreneurial culture
- Lack of appreciation of our own technology
- No formal R&D like multinational pharma companies
Africa can take a stand through patent mining, research on native plants and knowledge. “African scientists must stand up and be counted,” he tells us, and Africa must industrialize, not just in part, but across the continent so that we can be happy, healthy and match the wider world in development.
Focusing on the solutions, not the problems - medical tech off the grid in Africa
Dr. Seyi Oyesola is a Nigerian physician, entrepeneur, inventor, evangelist for medical care and support systems for people who live off the grid. He tells us about his medical history - he went to high school in Cleveland, then returned to the Delta state of Nigeria with his family. He did his medical degree in Nigeria, became an intern, and discovered he could barely afford to maintain his mother’s ageing car on his Nigeria salary. So he left Nigeria, joining the diaspora. He asks, “Is this going to be a permanent phenomenon?” Will we keep paying doctors in Africa so poorly that they migrate to the US or the UK?
Dr. Oyesola takes us through a quick comparison of Nigeria and the UK in health terms. The infant mortality rate is 20 times as high in Nigeria, and life expectancy is 47 years versus 78.5. It’s not just TB, HIV and malaria - African medical care fails its citizens in ordinary healthcare. “Some Africans do survive malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS. Where do they go for healthcare?”
By example, he shows us a Lagos bicycle taxi with three policemen on it. They’re not wearing helmets. When that bicycle crashes, where do they go for trauma care? He shows us the likely answer - a major Nigerian teaching hospital, which is literally held together will duct tape and will. To do complex surgeries can require days of preparation to organize the right medical equipment. Dr. Oyesola recently led a mission to Nigeria to perform a dozen open heart surgeries. This required bringing in a massive set of equipment, including oxygen… some of which exploded as inexperienced technicians tried to install it. To view the patient’s x-rays, they taped them to windows. But they performed 12 successful surgeries, correcting heart defects that people had been living with for dozens of years. He offers a maxim: “We the willing have been doing so much with so little for so long that were are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”
There’s a need for flexible solutions for African environments, solutions like ventilators that aren’t just usable for children, or emergency medicine, but are flexible enough to be used in different situations. Inspired by this flexible piece of US-built technology, Dr. Oyesola is now building a system called CompactOR - it’s a set of tools neccesary for an operating suite, powered by renewable energy. It can be supported by pedal power or from a car battery. The most recent version includes a device that generates oxygen from air. It’s portable, so it can be taken into extremely rural areas and allow complex surgery to take place.
Dr. Oyesola believes we overfocus on Africa’s problems - we need to focus more on the solutions, the people and the sacrifices they make for a better life.
His talk is followed by an interview with an amazing solution provider - William Kamkwamba, an amazing Malawian inventor, who at age 15 built a windmill in his extremely rural village based on a design he saw in a book. The windmill now powers four lights and two radios in his home, and he’s working on a larger model to help with irrigation. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more natural engineer in my life - what an incredible kid!
Love to all the bloggers…
There’s an amazing set of bloggers here at TED Global, including people who I’ve read and admired for years. There’s a great overview of these blogs on Technorati, which lists people using the TedGlobal2007 tag:
I’ve also had the chance to spend some time with some of these great folks, and hope to get more of a chance to hang out. Daudi is trying to organize a blogger lunch today, and I suspect I’ll be catching up with everyone’s posts for the next week or so. There’s a sense here that the conversations we often have in the African blogosphere are being opened to a much wider audience - we all owe Emeka a huge debt of gratitude for putting these questions for trade and aid, perceptions of Africa, the role of non-African nations in development on the table and into the conversation space.
I’d be lying if I told you I’d had the chance to read my fellow bloggers while at the conference, but here are the folks I’m going to be catching up with come Friday:
Rafiq and Ramon
Sorry to everyone I missed in this shoutout, and many, many thanks to Chris Anderson, Emeka Okafor, AMD, Google and GE for making it possible for so many of us to be here.
Health care heroes
“Health and Heroism” is the theme of the second session this morning. Chris Anderson introduces the session by framing some of the difficult health issues, using maps from WorldMapper.com, cartograms that distort the world map to show statistical factors. Maps that show HIV prevalence and malaria prevalence inflate Africa to a huge size; maps that show public and private health spending and working physicians shrink Africa almost to invisibility.
Lisa Goldman, in a three minute talk, reminds us that we’ve got tools that are effective against malaria: artemisinin, interior spraying with DDT and insecticide impregnated nets. The nets cost roughly $10 each and last 5 years - the problem is distribution, as they’re bulky and hard to transport.
Ernest Chijioke Madu picks up an earlier theme: HIV and malaria are huge problems for Africa, but we need to address more “conventional” healthcare issues as well. More people in Africa die from heart disease and stroke than in the US. Cardiovascular disease kills 17 million people a year. 85% of global mortality is in developing nations, but 90% of medical spending and resources are in the North.
“What will happen if you have a heart attack in your hospital room?”, Dr. Madu asks us. Fly to the US? You’ll die - half of people die within 24 hours without treatment. You’ve got to have local care in developing nations. “If you cannot secure the parents, you cannot secure the health of the African child.” The local statistics are worrying: 30% of Tanzanians have hypertension, and less than 20% of them are getting treatment for it.
It’s possible to do world-class healthcare in the developing world. Dr. Madu introduces us to his work with the Heart Institute of the Caribbean in Jamaica. It looks like a remarkable facility, providing state of the art imaging, using a central imaging server to share diagnostic data and an electronic record system. Technology systems are easily repairable and multimodal - many are built on site, and the center has developed a strong technical staff which can repair equipment and generators. There are now three centers in the Caribbean, expanding to a fourth. The project is so successful that the next frontier is a center in Nigeria.
The most remarkable thing about the HIC is that no patients are turned away for inability to pay. The center provides about $85,000 a month in indigent care in Jamaica, taking in patients the government can’t pay for. Wealthier Jamaican patients have stopped travelling to Miami for care - instead, they pay less at HIC for similar quality care, and their payments subsidize indigent care.
The center is also focusing on prevention, leading pro-exercise campaigns, including group walks and exercise competitions, that give rewards for group weight loss and total miles walked.
New frontiers go beyond Nigeria, and include other medical focus areas, including dialysis. What’s most impressive about Dr. Madu’s talk is how matter of fact it is - he’s going to build as many centers as he can, and he’s got a model that works. It’s very impressive.
Cornielle Ewango, African Superhero
Corneille Ewango’s job is harder than yours is. He’s a forest conservationist working in the Ituri forest of Eastern Congo. He’s trying to preserve the flora and fauna of this amazing region in the face of incredible odds: the poverty of people in the area and the stress of two major wars and the presence of rebel movements.
Ewango understands the challenges faced by poor people living in the region - he was a poacher as a child, working with his uncle who made his living fishing and hunting game. From age fourteen through seventeen, his main activities were hunting and collecting ivory. But he had a major life change when he went to University in Kisengani - he’d hoped to become a doctor to help his local community, but he began studying wildlife biology and botany instead.
In 1991, he began in internship in the Ituri forest. And in 1995, after he left a position as a teaching assistant at the university, he moved to Ituri permanently, and joined the Wildlife Conservation Society, the group responsible for protecting the 13,700 square kilometer reserve, which houses large populations of elephants, chimpanzees, okapi, forest giraffe, and 13 primate species. There are over 1,300 plant species there, some new and described for the first time.
Ewango’s timing was pretty bad. Shortly after he took the job, Laurent Kabila attacked and unseated Mobutu Sese Seko. As Mobutu’s soldiers fled to the East, they came through the Okapi forest reserve and looted everything in their path. Ewango found himself pinned between government and rebel forces and became paranoid about speaking, as speaking Lingala might identify himself as a government solider, which would be deadly in encountering a rebel. He considered fleeing, but home was 1,000km away.
Instead, he focused on preserving the collection of plants he and other researchers had assembled - samples from 4,500 plants, packed into cases and crates. Some were hidden away in local houses - the most valuable, he carried on a bicycle into Uganda to secure them.
The second war, he tells us, came as a surprise - he was listening to a football game on Worldspace, he tells us, when an African World War, involving three rebel movements and two militias, came to Ituri. All these groups of soliders focused on resource extraction: taking ivory, rhino horn, leopard skin and teeth, mahogany logs, gold, coltan, cassiterite and diamonds from the forest and selling them to finance their movements. Pygmies who lived in the forest were killed or forced to migrate, and Ewango worked to get them medicines and places to live.
Most importantly, he became a one man war reporting bureau, using an Iridium satellite phone, a laptop and a solar panel to report the war’s progress, the abuse of women, the atrocities committed to NGOs in the US and Europe. These groups, including UNESCO, helped amplify these stories to a wider world. “People started suspecting - ‘What we do in the morning, in the afternoon it’s on BBC?’”
He was forced to play ignorant when his equipment was found by soldiers, telling them he had no idea how it worked.
Now, in a more peaceful time, he’s managing a research project on global warming and the impact of the Ituri forest in mitigating carbon dioxide emissions. He’s closely studying trees in a 40 acre area and has 15 years of detailed data that may help explain the impact of global warming on forests and forests’ role in fighting warming.
Ewango leaves us with a powerful note about the importance of moving away from “the language of guns”, the language that dominated Congo during his years and is currently destroying Darfur. Powerful words from a man who’s seen more hardship and done more hard work that most of us could ever imagine.
“Treat Our Women With Dignity”
Dr. Leon Kintaudi is a child of the Congo, who left his country, became a doctor, and came back under some of the worst possible circumstances. Growing up, his father was the chief of station for his local area, and his family was relatively well off. But his father died when he was very young of acute appendicitis. Kintaudi was left with the dream of becoming a doctor so he could help prevent other children from losing their parents. An uncle made it possible for him to come to the US, and he became a doctor, married another doctor, and started a comfortable life in the US.
But tragedy brought him back to the Congo. Five siblings died - three of AIDS, one in an accident, one of cancer. He felt compelled to come home and try to make an impact in his country. He moved back three times and “ran away” each time, before finally returning a fourth time and settling in the Congo just as Mobutu’s regime collapsed.
To give us a sense for the scale of Congo, he overlays a map of the Congo over the US - the nation stretches from Arkansas and Florida up to Vermont. There are four tiny lines on that vast map - they are the only paved roads in the country. The nation has faced 16 major wars since 1960, and 4 million died in the most recent war. The nation includes 400 different tribes and ethnic groups.
Kintaudi is focused not on HIV/AIDS, TB or malaria - he’s focused on maternal health. Women in the DRC average seven children each. The contraception rate is 4.4% and female literacy is under 40%. Mothers are workers, producers and financial managers as well as caregivers. The maternal death rate - 1,289 per 100,000 live births - is frighteningly high, as is the child mortality rate - 213 of 1000 children don’t survive to age 5. Women die in childbirth from haemorrhage; malaria during pregnancy leads to anemia, which can be fatal; sick women have underweight, malnourished children who have reduced survival rates.
Kintaudi oversees a USAID program, the SANRU III program. The program includes:
- curative care
- preventative care, including bednets given to all women who came for critical care
- blood safety
- drug distribution throughout the country
- training health teams who have been able to bring vaccination over 90% of the population.
Listing the obstacles to progress in his region, he shows a picture of a witch doctor: “These are the people who kill our villagers” - the attitudes generated by these “miracle men” make modern healthcare more difficult. Other obstacles include the difficulty of accessing these villages, the problems with communications, the fact that most Congolese doctors are leaving for the US, South Africa or the EU, which means that nurses have to do the work of physicians.
How do we overcome these problems? He urges us to “treat our women with dignity,” telling the audience that we can’t come home at 2am, drunk and demand sex, treating women like objects. We have to promote laws to protect women and
educate our children, especially our daughters. We must train health professionals, build infrastructure and equipment. None of this can happen without responsible leaders and governments.
There’s more hope for responsible government every day. We meet one inspiring politician: Joseph Lekuton, a new Kenyan MP. He tells us a remarkable story: he grew up in a Masaai village, which moved throughout northern Kenya. He discovered school when a government soldier came to his village and asked the villagers to identify the children to be taken to school. When he showed up at that missionary school and received his first pen, he tells us, he knew this was where he wanted to be.
Going to school required finding his nomadic family every time he came back at the year’s end, which sometimes involved a 40-50 mile walk. But he got a great education, passed the exam for high school entry, and eventually received a scholarship to go to the US and study at St. Lawrence University and later at Harvard.
He tells us a traditional Kenyan proverb about a blind man and a man with no legs, both rejected by their community. The man with no legs climbs on the shoulders of the blind man and guides him to walk. One of his kinsman asked him what he would do to help his people, invoking this story, saying “If you lead us, we’ll carry you.” So he moved from the US in June, ran for election in July and is now working on a five year plan to put clean water stations throughout northern Kenya, so that there’s clean drinking water for every nomad in five years.
The Victrola and the Microchip
As a rule, TED sponsors don’t appear on the mainstage. But Héctor Ruíz, CEO of AMD, has been dedicated a huge wealth of corporate resources to bridging the international digital divide, so he’s on stage to begin discussions on connecting Africa with the rest of the world.
Ruíz begins his talk by telling us that it’s an accident that he’s where he is in his life. Technology, he believes, can make those good accidents more common. As a child growing up in a small village in Mexico, his father found and fixed up an old Victrola. Ruíz spent much of his childhood listening to classical music with his father, and getting lessons on politics and history in the process. (The 1812 overture was a good way to talk about Russia and the US.) A victrola may not seem high-tech, but it seemed so to him in the 1940s, and it helped him make his way to college, along with his four sisters.
AMD is focused on putting transformative technology in children’s hands through a program called 50×15, which has the goal of bringing connectivity to half of the world by 2015. The plan is not to do it alone, but to partner with government, industry, educators and NGOs. By taking on very difficult challenges, the hope is to “force the company to do things differently.”
Using Hans Rosling’s Gapminder, he shows us the progress of nations towards the goal of 50% connectivity. The Western world, especially the US and Western Europe, has made the most progress and is approaching 100% connectivity. There’s good progress in India and China, but much less progress in Latin America and Africa. He mentions the huge cost of broadband in South Africa - $100 per month - and points out that no one would come online in the US at those prices. AMD hopes to find ways to bring these prices down.
50×15, Ruíz reminds us, is not a charity, but an attempt to find a new market. The goal is to design PCs that are highly usable and “human centric”, to have a ecologically sensitive approach, and to build local, integrated end-to-end technological ecosystems. Using this approach, they’ve deployed at least 30 different technologies in 18 countries. He references One Laptop Per Child, which uses an AMD processor and has now achieved 15 hour battery life (in its lowest power mode.) He also references AMD’s work with Architecture for Humanity to build community bandwidth centers.
Ruíz closes with a moving story about how his father challenged him to be a better student, a better husband and a better parent than he’d been towards the goal of making the world a better place. If AMD is able to have a big influence on achieving 50% connectivity in 8 years, he really will have helped make the world a better place.
Hunter and hunted nations
Jim Forstner, Cisco engineer extraordinare and wireless network advocate, uses 15 seconds of a 3 minute talk to read the title - “Railroads, Highways, Telecoms, the Internet and the African Digital Divide.” Railroads are closed systems - they own everything, and everyone else is a customer. Highways are different - governments and occasionally private companies build them, but vehicles are owned by corporations or individuals. There’s a great diversity on the highways as a result, multiple uses and more innovation.
The telecom system is like the railroad - you may own the equipment within your office, but the company owns the rest and you’re a customer. But the Internet a network of networks, a diverse system with hybrid ownership. In Africa, telecom companies are trying to make the internet like the phone system. Governments need to abandon their cosy relationships with telcoms, and recognize that internet backbones are public goods, with roles for private sector activities. If we want to do something, we need to follow a piece of 60’s advice: “If you don’t like the network you have, make your own and connect it to the internet.”
Ghana’s Bill Gates, Herman Chinnery-Hesse, takes the stage not to talk about his work with tropically tolerant software applications, but to talk about “hunter and hunted” nations and their economics. Hesse’s company, SOFT Tribe, is a leading African software provider based in Accra. He began with the realization that a PC could be a factory for making software. Making software in his parents’ house, he bought PCs, hired more workers, and after ten years, found itself as “the leading software company in West Africa.”
For those first ten years, he avoided government involvement. But after expanding into Nigeria and Togo, he “decided to bite the bullet and face the government sector.” At this point, SOFT’s payroll system was the national system, used by everyone but the government. It sold for between $5,000 and $100,000 per installation. The government had spent £80m of money from DFID, the UK aid arm, to purchase a payroll system, which didn’t work. SOFT offered their tool for free, but the government refused. The irony? DFID was using the SOFT system in their Ghana office.
Why do governments make decisions like this? They are still “colonial economies” - they can be divided into “hunter” and “hunted” countries. Hunters look for work around the world, and governments help them promote it. “There’s no advert on CNN saying ‘Buy Ghana! Buy Ghana software!’” - we’re designed to be a hunted country. It’s totally unreasonable to ask governments not to take the aid that’s offered to them, but it destroys local economies. When SOFT competes with a European software firm, the cost of that software is subsidized by government aid and the local business loses out. “The German government is both lining the pocket of government ministers and giving holiday jobs for some of its citizens.”
Hesse’s goal is to help reduce the diaspora - he argues that his friends face a situation “where you’re either a thief or dirt poor.” He wants to see people in rural areas capable of being rich without leaving their homes, using the Internet to sell to a global audience. This would involve an online marketing platform, a fulfillment mechanism and a payment system using text messages. “We’re worried about axis of evil between governments and the telecoms,” so the system doesn’t rely on the telecoms to make the payment.
Chinnery-Hesse ends with his suggestions for the well-meaning westerners in the crowd:
- Help relieve trade barriers
- Unleash the power of rural areas
- Lobby against subsidies - they’re what are really killing rural farmers.
Towards “working abroad at home”
Nik Nesbitt, the founder and CEO of call-center company KenCall, focuses his talk “Not about my company, but about the company I keep.” Much of his talk is a photo tour of Africa, starting with Kilimanjaro, showing disturbing photos of the disappearing ice cap, and talking about the environmental implications for farmers on the slopes of the mountain. He shows a shot of the Pyramids and wonders why there’s so little to show for what people have done in recent centuries on the continent.
He looks at African success in sports - the strength of long-distance runners from Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and South Africa. They get noticed by the sporting world, sponsored by Puma, Nike and Reebok, and are given the opportunity to compete globally. He talks about rally drivers, and the skills one learns driving in very dangerous countries.
He points to the diversity of people, thinking and ideas, mentioning that there are Africans that are staunch rightwingers, and other Africans who think that Nik, who is light-skinned, isn’t an African. Indeed, Nik is a fourth-generation Kenyan, the great-grandson of English engineeers who came to build railroads 120 years ago. After a great life - moving to the US, attending Harvard, working for consulting firms and later Qwest - he decided it was time to come home and create some jobs. The business he’s building is a call-center, allowing Kenyan to “work abroad from home.”
It’s been a tremendous financial challenge - Nik tells a story about having so little money after credit was cut off that he literally couldn’t check out of a hotel in Cairo. He notes that, “Nobody gets fired for moving their call center to India - they do get fired for putting their call centers in Africa.” But people are starting to understand - Tom Friedman recently met with the company and seems to acknowledge that Kenya is part of the world becoming flat.
Chris takes Nik to task for using the language of aid agencies in talking about his business. “Until you can talk about this in terms of profit, you won’t succeed.” Nik admits that he came back to Africa for bleeding-heart reasons - he’s only started to succeed as he’s learned to be a hard-nosed businessman.
Erik Osiakwan, the secretary of AfrISPA, the African ISP association, takes the stage to tell people about the price of African bandwidth. It costs 40 times as much for bandwidth in Africa as it does in North America - “Why should the poorest people be paying more?”
Eric wants to know how the $500 million Africans spend on internet communications can be spent internally. Because of the nature of networks in Africa, email from one side of Burundi to the other goes through the US; a phonecall from Tanzania to South Africa goes through London. The problems are political as well as infrastructural, Eric argues - it’s absurd that as a Ghanaian, it’s hard to get a Tanzanian visa. But these are the problems Africa needs to solve to have the sorts of cheap bandwidth to make Nik’s project possible.
Connected? Yes. Connected enough? No.
Tanzanian business leader Ali Mufuruki sees the conference so far as a reason for hope - he acknowledges the pioneers on our stage who’ve talked about model commodity exchange, thinking machines, motherboards made in Nigeria, and original software from Ethiopia. He suggests that Africa was the first continent to go wireless and one of the fastest growing markets for cellphones and computers.
“Is Africa connected? Yes. Connected enough? No.” This disconnection isn’t just digital - try to drive from Cairo to Cape Town and you’ll find yourself in bare desert and on footpaths - “that’s what we call roads here”. Africa has congested ports, dangerous airports and an energy deficit of 70 megawatts.
To build the infrastructure neccesary, Africa needs to grow its economy. This will require building intra-Africa trade as well as export trade. And this infrastructure is very expensive to build. There’s an unwillingness to invest in infrastructure on a government basis, and there’s no evidence that the private sector can build these tools, with the exception of the mobile phone system.
What Africa needs is money, but Africa’s got it - more than we know what to do with if we could figure out how to access it. Mufuruki references a Chinese proverb that argues that the first generation builds wealth from the soil, educates the second generation, which then builds industry. Even the US did this, with 75% of US GDP coming from cotton production in the 19th century. Africa, Mufuruki believes, needs to make money from its soil.
A mineral curse? He argues it’s a myth - different countries have used their minerals in different ways. While Liberia and Sierra Leone fought over their diamonds, they’ve been a boon for Botswana for 40 years. It’s a leadership failure, not a curse.
Africa has 78% of global platinum production, 21% of gold production, 43% of bauxite and 38% of uranium. “They are being mined whether we like it or not.” And Africa’s got almost 20% of the world’s oil and gas, which the US has identified as a huge strategic assett. As a result of this mineral wealth, Africa now finds itself running a trade surplus with China.
In other words, we have the wealth we need to build the infrastructure we need - we need to find the leadership and the will.
Turning the camera on Nollywood
Franco Sacchi, an Italian filmmaker living in Boston, has just produced a remarkable film about Nollywood. Nollywood is the third larget film industry in the world, after Hollywood and Bollywood. The Nigerian film industry makes 2000 films a year, as of 2006, which means that every week, 40 to 50 films are being made on the streets of Lagos and in cities throughout West Africa. The industry has created thousands of jobs… and it’s happened against all odds in a country where it can be very difficult to live and work.
Sacchi is drawn to this story because he was born in Zambia, and because his father lived much of his life in that country. “I left when I was three, but that’s where I learned to walk. That’s where my family bought their first home.” He tells us he wanted to tell a story about Africa’s complexity, a story that’s more than the despair and sadness we get in most pictures of the continent. He found a newspaper story about Nollywood and started researching the subkect. As he learned more about the subject, he contacted a friend, a veteran of years with National Geographic, who told him “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a story about a place that’s got more hope and is more fun.”
Saachi’s film - This is Nollywood - follows a Nigerian filmmaker, Bond Emeruwa, who’s making a film about police corruption, titled “Checkpoint”. He’s got nine days to make the film. Saachi follows his process as well as framing the larger phenomenon of the industry. We see a six minute clip of the film, where people talk about the filming process as well as what Nollywood films mean to them:
- “You can make a movie in seven days for $10,000″
- “These are films for the masses, not for the elites”
- “This is subsistence filmmaking”
- “We’re making films for people who make a dollar a day”
Sacchi notes that Werner Herzog once said, “I need to make films like I need to breathe oxygen.” He believes that this is true of many of these Nigerian auteurs. (Saacchi wonders whether Nigerian filmmakers are doing what independent filmmakers in the US and Europe are trying to do - just go out and make a movie.) It’s possible for Nigerians to do this because non-linear editing has become so cheap through computers, and because you can now buy “an amazing camera for $5,000″. The films don’t screen in theatres - they’re recorded on VCDs, at a fairly low quality, but are sold for a few dollars or rent for pennies.
“Imagine a world with food and shelter, but no stories,” Sacchi asks. “It would be meaningless.” Bond Emeruwa tells us, “I don’t see us exhausting these stories in our lifetime, in ten lifetimes.”
Three voices. Listen.
Novelist Chris Abani is a deceptive and funny man. He tells us that he’s been at TED for three days, “watching slideshows, listening to scientists… feeling a bit like a gansta rapper at a bar mitzvah.” Much of the conference, he observes, have been about narrative in Africa. “But we’re really talking about news narratives. 40% of Americans can’t afford health insurance, they’ve got a president who doesn’t listen to his people and keeps prosecuting a senseless war - if we go by the news, the US is as bad as Zimbabwe, which isn’t true, right?”
Authors and artists are the agents of imagination who tell us who we are. “If you want to know about Africa, read our literature. And not just ‘Things Fall Apart’- that’s like reading ‘Gone With the Wind’ and thinking you know all about America.” Language makes the world in which we live. “What if these ancient Sumerian tablets aren’t business records. Maybe they’re poetry: ‘My love is like 6 Ethiopian goats’”.
Abani tells us a meloncholy joke about three men who commit suicide, one for a funny and silly reason. “This sad joke about Harry is actually a joke about ethnic hatred” which he grew up with oriented towards his own Ibo people. His father, educated in Cork, Ireland, used to tell him not to eat in a Yoruba house because they would poison you. “It makes sense in retrospect because if you knew my father, you’d want to poison him too.”
Growing up during the Biafrian war, his teachers were prohibited from teaching about ethnic hatred in Nigeria. His Pakistani Muslim teacher wanted to teach about the country’s tension, so he taught Jewish holocaust history to young Ibo children. This, Abani tells us, might explain why his first novel, written at age 16, was about neo-Nazis trying to take over Nigeria. The book was a success, and Abani was declared Africa’s Francis Forsythe - “a dubious honor, to be sure.”
The honor became more dubious when the government connected his novel to a coup attempt and put him into prison. He was released after six months with no explanation. “Those of you who see me know it’s because it was costing them too much to feed me.”
As a young Nigerian who’d been in prison, he felt compelled to struggle against the government. It wasn’t until he found himself in prison again, facing torture, when he realized “how easily your humanity can be taken away.”
Abani ends by reading Yusuf Kumanyaaka’s “Ode to the Drum”.
Gazelle, I killed you
for your skin’s exquisite
touch, for how easy it is
to be nailed to a board
weathered raw as white
butcher paper. Last night
I heard my daughter praying
for the meat here at my feet.
You know it wasn’t anger
that made me stop my heart
till the hammer fell. Weeks
ago, I broke you as a woman
once shattered me into a song
beneath her weight, before
you slouched into that
grassy hush. But now
I’m tightening lashes,
shaping hide as if around
a ribcage, stretched
like five bowstrings.
Ghosts cannot slip back
inside the body’s drum.
You’ve been seasoned
by wind, dusk & sunlight.
Pressure can make everything
whole again, brass nails
tacked into the ebony wood
your face has been carved
five times. I have to drive
trouble from the valley.
Trouble in the hills.
Trouble on the river
too. There’s no kola nut,
palm wine, fish, salt,
or calabash. Kadoom.
Kadoom. Kadoom. Ka-
doooom. Kadoom. Now
I have beaten a song back into you,
rise & walk away like a panther.
It is, as Chris Anderson puts it, “a TED moment”.
Binyavanga Wainaina, author of the remarkable, “How to Write About Africa”, is one of the few people who might be up to the task of following Chris Abani. Wainaina is a remarkable storyteller, with a sharp eye and a sharper tongue.
His talk is a rolicking narrative that starts with the Bible, moves through preparing for TED, to some of the darkest moments in recent Kenyan politics. He tells us that many of the stories from the continent are Bible stories, a book translated into 600 African languages. “The Bible works because it’s stories -
maybe we haven’t gone far in challenging the stories of the bible with our literature.”
Wainaina tells us of stories people tell in the villages of Kenya about robot dogs, possibly sent by the Nyerere government from Tanzania. People in villages would say, “We used to go out at night, but no we don’t go out much at night.” Why are these rumors spread? Possibly so the police can do what they like, acting at will in the night?
In a corner of Nairobi, we hear, a guy is doing math formulas on the sidewalk with chalk. “The bible comes into it. I’m tempted to say he’s mad, but there’s math in it so I don’t know.”
In another part of town, people are suddenly eating vegetables and health food and are obsessed with cleanliness. “Suddenly people aren’t eating chips with lunch, they’re eating fruit salad.”
Where is this all coming from? It’s a response to “the billions of dollars that are gone because we are trying to export gold.” (Kenya has no gold. This is the Goldenberg Scandal, a complex political scandal that cost Kenya as much as 10% of its GDP.) “Even when you have the transcripts - the President said this to this person on this day - it still doesn’t make sense. It didn’t make much sense to the President either.”
When your country is being called the second worst with AIDS, when people speak about going into civil war like Rwanda, you find people obsessed with cleanliness and organic food. When parents are worried about protecting their children, you hear stories about Tanzanian robot dogs.
Wainaina reads three long excerpts to us from “Search Sweet Country” by Ghanaian author B. Kojo Laing. The author, he tells us, wanted to create a literary map of Accra - “Read it and you will have all the city in your head.”
He closes by telling us that “30, 40 years down the line, if it is easier for an African writer to go to a reading in London than to cross the border to Uganda, it’s a problem.” We need to tell these stories: “it’s how our societies open their hearts to each other - it’s in those stories.”
Vusi Mahlasela - an activist and singer justifiably known as “The Voice” - blesses us with three songs about townships - “it’s a ship that’s going to town but never gets there” - about celebrations of life, and about forgiveness. He dedicates the third song to his Grandmother, who helped protect him when he was a young anti-apartheid activist:
The police came to the house, and my grandmother turned off all the lights and opened the kitchen door. She said, “I’m sick of you coming here and harrassing us while your children are at home sleeping. Vusi is here. But I’ve got a pot of boiling water, and the first one of you through the door is going to get it.” And they went away.
His songs - swinging between the sad, the joyful and the rock solid powerful - are a beautiful end to a powerful day, our virtual campfire in a darkened hall in Arusha.