TEDGLOBAL2007 took place last week in Arusha, Tanzania, devoted to "Africa: The next chapter". I couldn't attend but I have been following the discussions on the blogs, mostly through Ethan Zuckerman's incessant liveblogging (and post-conference thinking) and TED's own blog, and those that were linked from there.
The central theme was that of aid vs trade and investment -- with an number of speakers suggesting that aid can be at best a facilitator, a catalyzer, and at worst damaging, and that Africa needs to take ownership of its problems. The second theme was that of the African narrative. Of the way Africa's story is told at home and abroad, of why "famine", "poverty", "violence", "AIDS", "corruption" still dominate the discourse while "opportunity", "entrepreneurship", "potential", "wealth", "creativity" are rare instances. And the third was the demonstration that the real Africa has grown past the negative narrative and is moving into the new one: a long series of brilliant Africans who are changing Africa and who went on stage telling their story, their vision, their engagement.
If you're busy, here is a summary ("meta-blogging") of the conference in 25 pills:
1. Former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (video from TED07): "Aid is not the sole answer. But when someone is saving a life, you don't care that's aid -- you want the person to be alive".
2. The same Okonjo-Iweala: "I spoke to a Chinese ambassador, who told me that to develop you need infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure, and discipline".
3. Tanzania is launching a national business plan competition (with support from Google.org and others) for young entrepreneurs.
4. President Kikwete of Tanzania: "In the past, leaders would march in, declare themselves President, dismiss the parliament. They'd declare a "revolutionary council", but there was no revolution there. This used to be the way the continent worked. We're moving beyond this, and beyond the leaders who led us out of colonialism".
5. Economist James Shikwati (who gave that interview to Der Spiegel: "For god's sake, please stop the aid") believes that Africa's economic weakness comes from a failure to commercialize the resources and inventions of the continent. "Let's stop addressing African problems and start addressing African opportunities".
6. Erik Hersman of Afrigadget (great resource) showcased some of the stories covered by his site, demonstrating how Africans solve problems every day by making tools and using local materials -- ingenuity born of necessity. "Where others see trash, Africa recycles".
7. Lawyer and blogger (Mzalendo) Ory Okolloh (that's her in the picture - by whiteafrican, thanx - during her talk): "The Swahili Wikipedia has been written by only five contributors: four white males and Ndesanjo Macha. With 50 million Swahili speakers, where are the African contributors? Why are we not generating our own content?"
8. Answer by Salim Amin: he is planning a 24-hours news television channel about Africa covered by Africans, A24, "to build contemporary images of the real Africa, to shape our own vision of ourselves". It will have a network of "low-cost, high-tech" correspondents' bureaus around the continent. Answer by Pulitzer-prize winning Nigerian journalist Dele Olejede: he is working on creating a continent-wide daily newspaper "allowing people to have a conversation about where the continent is going".
9. Novelist Chris Abani: "Much of the conference has 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 continuing a senseless war -- if we go by the news, the US is as bad as Zimbabwe, which isn't true, right?". His point is about language and the way Africa is covered and its stories told.
10. Franco Sacchi, an Italian filmmaker living in Boston, has produced a film about Nollywood -- the Nigerian film industry, the third largest in the world after Hollywood and Bollywood, making nearly 2000 films a year. Which means that every week 40 or 50 films are made on the streets of Lagos or around West Africa. Most films are done in a week or two, for budgets of 10'000 dollars, don't screen in theaters but are sold for a few dollars or rent for pennies on videotapes. "Imagine a world with food and shelter, but no stories. It would be meaningless".
11. Florence Seriki is the CEO of Nigerian computer manufacturer Omatek -- beginning by cloning Compaq machines with parts imported from China and assembled locally. Nik Nesbit has founded a call-center company in Kenia, KenCall, to "allow Kenyans to work abroad from home". Ghana's Herman Chinnery-Hesse has created a company, SOFTtribe, that develops "tropically tolerant software applications" (adapted to local needs, skills and economy, that is). Kwabena Boahen, a bioengineer at Stanford, quoting Brian Eno: "The problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them". Ted Kidane co-founded Feedelix, which develops cell-phone software that enables text messaging in non-Latin scripts (a challenge on several fronts, including display, text entry and transmission). Initially developed for Ethiopia, the software is now in many languages (Chinese, Hindi, etc).
12. Simon Mwacharo of Craftskills wants to bring power to the poorest corners of the continent, particularly wind turbines (which he has installed in the big Kybera slum) and solar. "Unfortunately, solar was oversold by unscrupulous entrepreneurs, who sold panels that couldn't possibly power the batteries they were sold with, and many of these systems died shortly after sale". So people are now skeptical when Mwacharo promotes his goods.
13. Alieu Conteh started what was to become Vodacom, the largest mobile phone operator in Congo: he got a wireless license for $2 million, but no one was interested in funding the project, not even equipment manufacturers: he had to show 110% of available capital. He had to deal with local rebel commanders to build towers. It took weeks to persuade engineers from US suppliers to come to Congo to install the equipment. But there was a real market for cell phones -- the company now has 3 million subscribers and is valued $1.6 billion.
14. Forest conservationist Corneille Ewango, after having survived two Congo wars and reported on them for the BBC and others, is now studying trees in a 40-acres area of the Ituri forest and has 15 years of detailed data that may help explain the impact of global warming on forests and the forests' role in fighting warming.
15. Nigerian physician Seyi Oyesola was so dispirited by the conditions of the country's hospital equipment that he is building a system called CompactOR, a set of tools necessary for an operating suite, powered by renewable energy, which can be supported by pedal power or from a car batters and is portable -- so it can be taken into rural areas and allow complex surgery to take place.
16. William Kamkwamba, a 15-year-old Malawian (in the picture - by whiteafrican - with TED curator Chris Anderson) built a windmill in his rural village based on a picture he saw in a book. He used old bicycle parts, wooden poles, plastic pipes, and an old car battery for energy storage. The windmill now powers four lights and two radios in his home, and he's working on a larger model to help with irrigation. After he told his story on stage, a number of TED attendees banded together to support him financially to complete high school and go onto university.
17. Kenyan scientist Moses Makayoto has attacked the problem of diseases carried by "filth flies" which breed in human waste in slums and refugee camps, and has found a way to attack them with a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, which he's extracting from organic materials like cow waste. The bacterium is distributed in a formulation that floats on top of waste water and targets mosquito and fly larvae. "It's simple, pragmatic, five times cheaper than chemicals, and environmentally friendly".
18. Russell Southwood, a specialist of African technology and communications, studied the movement from fixed line phones in Africa to mobile phones and noticed a change in "selling shortage and corruption": To get a land-line phone in Africa a decade ago, you had to fill out forms in triplicate, get signatures from district officials, and then waiting 2-3 years. Or you could pay a bribe of $10 to $30 and get a phone almost immediately. Now anyone can walk into a phone shop and get access for about $3. There’s no bribery, no corruption - instead of selling a scarce item, phone companies are now selling plenty. Southwood argues that there are other areas of life where this logic could apply. He adds that a single cable (SAT-3) connects Africa to the Internet, and that the pricing on this cable is distored by monopoly ownership. In most countries, the cost began at $25,000 per megabit per second per month and has fallen to $10 - 15,000. Activism by African geeks has led to four proposals for cables in East Africa, each of which are using open access models and each of which are pricing at $500 - $1000 per megabit per second per month.
19. For Ghanaian economist George Ayittey there are two kinds of Africans: the "cheetah generation", fast-moving people who demand that democracy and transparency lead to a better governance and to growth, and the wallowing "hippo generation", the ruling elites, stuck in their intellectual patch, complaining about colonialism and imperialism, and who benefit from the status quo. He criticizes aid: "Africa's begging bowls leaks" and it would be absurd to put more money into it, given that corruption costs more than $180 billion a year and that $80 billion a year of capital flees the continent. "To all TEDsters out there, let's make this event the genesis of the cheetah renaissance, and take back the continent, one village at a time".
20. Financier Idris Mohammed said that African economies have overfocused on poverty reduction and undefocused on wealth creation. "I want to make Afrricans rich. If you make them rich, they will be less poor. That's my poverty reduction strategy".
21. Eleni Gabre-Madhiri is setting up the first Ethiopian commodity exchange, modeled on the Chicago mercantile exchange, which will launch in 8 months.
22. Noah Samara, the creator of Worldspace satellite radio, which covers the whole developing world: "For the first time a technology was launched in Africa before it was handed down to America" (and Europe).
23. Singer and activist Bono was pretty much the only one defending aid.
24. Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda is a firm believer that international aid has gotten to a point where it is dangerous and largely harmful for Africa. It can save lives but it cannot support the long-term development of a society.Trade and investment should be the focus. But of course that doesn't mean that aid has no role: "but it shouldn't be given to governments: it should be given directly to indigenous groups and entrepreneurs".
25. Carole Pineau has realized a movie, "Africa: Open for Business", because she was frustrated by her inability to sell to Western newspapers positive stories about Africa. They would ask her to cover wars and famines but wouldn't take stories on cellphones and entrepreneurs. These preconceptions are hard to unroot: that's why for example coverage of relief work always shows white aid personnel answering questions on camera, while the people actually giving food and medical aid are Africans.
Of course this is only a tiny fraction of what happened, what was said, and what was felt at TEDGLOBAL2007. There were many more speakers, and performers, and these small bits cannot capture the richness of human stories that intersected and were shared there, nor many other side stories (such as the presence of 100 Fellows, young Africans that have been invited to the conference from all over the continent, among which Kamkwamba; or the number of bloggers at the conference, possibly more than those attending the main TED in Monterey; etc). The videos of the speeches will start to go online at ted.com midsummer.
What appears clearly however is that Africa is at a turning point; a new and modern Africa is emerging as Africans create their own businesses, markets, media, and technology, and TEDGLOBAL could interpret, and maybe -- that's what many bloggers have written -- boost this change. Congrats to my colleagues Chris Anderson, Emeka Okafor and the whole TED band of global brains!