Saturday, October 22, 2011

Rethinking Africa

Erik Hersman -- a cofounder of Ushahidi; founder of the group blog, Afrigadget; the author of the blog, White African, and the founder of iHub, Nairobi's innovation hub -- offered this week's PopTech conferees contemplating the world's geopolitical power shifts a new definition of the term, white space. "In business, it is defined as a place where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are nonexistent and strategy is unclear," said Hersman, who was raised by missionary parents in Africa and spent his childhood traveling between Sudan and Kenya. [Hersman still lives in Africa, with his wife and three children in Nairobi.] "...Business white space is the space between the organization chart, where the real innovation happens" -- and this space right now is Africa, he says.

Hersman told conferees that 313 million people are now moving into Africa's middle class ranks -- a figure that comprises 34 percent of the continent's population. Additionally, 98 percent of Internet subscriptions in Africa are for mobile service, and five of the world's Top 10-fastest growing economies are in Africa. "Ghana has beat Qatar for pole position," Hersman said. And mobile Web innovation is at a peak. He cited three recent Web startups as examples of what he called "reverse development" -- the creation of new tech ideas that Africa is exporting to the West rather than importing from it: Ushahidi, the crisis-mapping service; M-Pesa, the mobile, peer-to-peer money transfer service that has so far conducted more than $8 billion of transactions within Kenya, and MXit, a free instant-messaging application in South Africa that has become an alternative to Facebook in that country and has some 24 million users around the globe -- some 13 million in South Africa, alone. "The mobile revolution that you hear about in Africa? It's real," Hersman said.

And Africa is also transforming itself culturally and spiritually, says Unity Dow (photo above). Young people are "beginning to question why they should mold themselves" into Western notions of what should be "normal" at home and abroad. Dow, a high court judge and human rights activist in Botswana, told conferees "there is a new generation that is not yoked to the past of colonialism" and it is "rethinking Africa. ...And they're asking, 'How can I move forward without having to be Western?'"

"...When people begin to have three meals a day and a warm bed at night, they begin to think," Dow said. "What is happening in Africa right now is that [young people] now have full bellies, cars to drive, and access to the Internet. They're beginning to look around and ask, 'What did we lose as a country in our attempt to be part of 'the Other'? What did we lose when it was un-Christian to be African and to dance the way we danced' and talk and wear our hair differently?"

Dow said this "new awakening" also is creating new diplomatic and economic friends for Africa -- chiefly China. "Africa has a right to extend its friendship across the world without people thinking it is being exploited," Dow said. Africans want to break the image of dependency on the West and rebalance its global relationships. "...When a Westerner sees a shoeless African, he thinks, 'How can I donate shoes?'" Dow said. "But when a Chinese sees a shoeless African, he thinks, 'How can I sell her cheaper shoes?'" China is catering to the continent's fast-growing middle class, she said, by offering inexpensive goods to Africa's new consumers. "It is more expensive to deal with Europe and America that it is to deal with China," she said. "...You can get a flight from Botswana to go to China, and when you land there, there will be a translator and a car waiting for you," Dow said, referring to buying trip services being offered by some Chinese companies seeking inroads into the Africa market. "For many Africans, this is their first trip outside of their country. ...You cannot afford these things in British pounds or dollars but you can if you go to China," she said.

"In the past," Dow said, "all of this would have been unimaginable. But in the last five years, we're seeing a reclaiming of what we lost when we tried to go global." The result? A new and different future for the continent. Said Dow: "The future of Africa is brown, the future of Africa is gendered, and the future of Africa is fair."

PopTech's conference, "The World Rebalancing," ended today.

-- Marcia Stepanek

[Photograph of Unity Dow by Kris Krug in Camden, Maine, at this week's PopTech conference]

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Anonymous Jennelle Dippel said...

Great article, certainly insightful.

November 24, 2011 at 2:11 PM  

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