Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Looking at Africa, from Camden, Maine

When you hold a conference on changing the world for the better in rural Camden, Maine, it’s a challenge to ensure that your audience is a diverse one. The price tag of a conference like Pop!Tech keeps some people away, while Camden’s relative inaccessibility is a barrier to others. And, as anyone who organizes a conference these days has discovered, it’s increasingly difficult to get international attendees to a conference in the US, as visas are hard to get and some folks are unwilling to jump through immigration hoops to come stateside.

With this in mind, I’m truly impressed by Andrew Zolli was able to accomplish at this year’s Pop!Tech, with help from the Sun Microsystems and Dr. Djibril Diallo from the UN Office of Sport for Development and Peace. Sun made it possible for ten young African innovators to attend the conference, and Andrew reconfigured the schedule, so that Sunday morning featured reactions to the conference by the African attendees.

The Sunday session was moderated by Fortune Magazine’s David Kirkpatrick, a well-respected technology journalist who has some personal experience with Africa, spending part of his childhood in Nigeria. He had the unenviable task of giving time to ten speakers and a handful of invited guests (myself included), who’d been seated in the front row to engage in dialogue with the Fellows… all in the course of a two hour session.

Kirkpatrick asked the attendees to reflect on what talks had been most useful to them in thinking through problems in their home countries. As one might expect, Negroponte’s proposal for a $100 laptop received a number of mentions, as did Bunker Roy‘s work on the Barefoot College.

But other answers surprised me. Ory Okolloh saw value in the Ansari XPrize as a technique for getting people interested in tackling large challenges, even as she had a hard time seeing how space exploration was relevant for Africans. My friend David Gyewu (my former boss, as well – he was deputy minister of Communications in Ghana when I was doing a good deal of work there on telecommunications policy) found some hope in Dr. Kuiken’s work on bionic limbs: even if it’s going to be a long time before Ghanaians can afford computerized limbs, perhaps manual versions of these limbs can help the thousands of Africans injured by disease and by land mines. Lydia Muchodo – a peace campaigner in Uganga – took a very different message from Rebecca MacKinnon’s China talk than I did – where I saw a government repressing dissident voices, she saw a government working to create access and jobs in rural areas.

It took a while to get beyond the participants’ overall enthusiasm for Pop!Tech and into debates about the contents and structure of the conference. Clement Bwalya saw a missed oppportunity in the conference to talk about how the technologies discussed could affect people in Africa. (This was in part a structural difficulty – most speakers didn’t know about the Sun fellows program until very shortly before their talks, and very few were able to change their schedules to attend. But there’s an open question about to what extent Pop!Tech could change to have an African focus without alienating existing members of the community. On the other hand, asking speakers to try to make their remarks relavent to Africa would have forced discussion of some interesting issues.)

Ory had another suggestion – instead of making Pop!Tech more African, why not make an African Pop!Tech? Her idea: conference focused on innovators in Africa, organized by Africans, for Africans, held in Africa. The idea had lots of heads nodding, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ory finds her phone ringing with any number of people who want to collaborate on this idea.

But the real debates had less to do with the conference and more to do with change in Africa. Several of the participants – especially Eric Osiakwan – were enthusiastic about the sub-$100 laptop, while others were tremendously skeptical. Neema Ngana noted that she’d taught four computer science courses at a university in Tanzania:

When I entered the computer labs, half of the time we didn’t have computers, so we used blackboards. In the medical center, 80% of the time, we didn’t have water. If the basic infrastructure for technology isn’t there, it’s pointless. While the $100 laptop could solve some aspects of the issue,what’s the value added within the school or other environment? If the child has a laptop, but his belly is empty or he’s worried about a parent dying of AIDS, the impact of the technology is radically lessened.

Lydia Muchodo wondered whether the money being spent on laptops would be better spent on community radio, a medium better suited to users who have a low degree of literacy than electronic textbooks or the web.

In a surprise to moderator Kirkpatrick, Ngana’s mention of AIDS in the quote above was the only time AIDS came up, unprompted, in the discussion. Ninety minutes into a dynamic discussion, Kirkpatrick decided to force the issue, noting, “I don’t think we can end this conversation without mentioning AIDS.”

Ory jumped in immediately, asking, “Why not?” She noted that everyone on the stage was profoundly aware of AIDS – she’s lost several family members to the disease and is raising an AIDS orphan – but that discussing the crisis didn’t seem central to a discussion of technology and its potential to change Africa. As the mood on the panel – and in the audience – got angrier, Emeka Okafor pointed out:

My problem with the question is that when mainstream media frames Africa, two or three topics come up again and again: AIDS, AIDS and AIDS. The relentless focus on AIDS plays into the framework of helplessness associated with the continent.

Okafor’s (brilliant) work on Timbuktu Chronicles focuses on scientific and economic innovation on the continent – he’s a firm believer that Africans can build brilliant, internationally succesful businesses and that weallth creation is a critical part of Africa’s economic development. It’s no surprise that he’s closely attuned to media portrayals of Africa as something other than the dynamic, creative place it is.

David Gyewu used the subject of AIDS to raise another issue – the role of the North in the southern “brain drain”:

When you strip away AIDS, life has to go on. How does government afford antiretrovirals? How do we innovate and create jobs so we can collect taxes and pay for the drugs we need?

Furthermore, where are our doctors and nurses? They’re all in Europe or the States – there are about a thousand doctors left in Ghana. You’ve got the technology to keep terrorists out – surely you can track doctors who come in then send them back. Let them stay for a while, then come back in five years to share their skills with their countrymen back in Africa.”

If the African panelists didn’t want to talk about AIDS, they did want to talk about corruption. Issues of transparency, good government and outright theft of tax dollars came up again and again. Okafor mentioned that “Africa needs its own Al Jazeera”, an independent journalist body to shake up existing institutions and expose corruption. He pointed to Elendu Reports, a new web site in Nigeria that’s exposing corruption by showing photos of mansions overseas owned by members of the Nigerian government.

While there’s frustration with corruption, there’s also extensive grassroots action to combat it. Ory mentioned that she’s working with other Kenyan bloggers on a site similar to Thomas.gov, showing the attendence and voting records of Kenyan parliamentarians. Ndesanjo Macha mentioned an effort in Tanzania to write a new constitution – one that recognizes the reality that Tanzania is now a multiparty state – on a wiki, to allow widespread participation in the process.

Eric Osiakwan captured the crowd’s attention with his passionate remarks about African leaders:

Africans need to fix Africa. We as Africans must take responsibility for where we are, and take responsibility for changing Africa. We have enough resources that we can develop africa. We have a big problem with leadership – if we have corrupt leaders, it means that we are corrupt. The African people are corrupt. Africans must be responsible for fixing corruption in Africa.

Fixing corruption is going to require some of the panelists to get involved with politics, former deputy minister Gyewu pointed out. He mentioned that his mother continues to ask him why he “threw away” a good job in Europe to get involved with Ghanaian politics:

“We can blame our leaders, but until people sitting here get in and do it themselves, nothing can change. If you want good politicians, you have to bite the bullet – get in there and do it yourselves. It’s hard to do politics without getting your hands dirty. But you can lead by example – if you can work in politics and remain free of corruption, you’re setting an example for the next generation of leaders.

It was an absolutely amazing morning. I think it was clear to everyone in the audience that the experiment had worked far better than anyone could have imagined – not only did the Sun Fellows find inspiration in Pop!Tech, Pop!Tech found inspiration in the Fellows.

I’m honored to have had a small role in helping the event come together, challenged and humbled by the wisdom expressed in the session, and hopeful that Pop!Tech, Sun and the UN will ensure that there’s an African contingent at Pop!Tech in the future.

5 Responses to “Looking at Africa, from Camden, Maine”

  1. Kate says:

    Thanks for covering this so thoroughly!

    I’ve been reading about the Barefoot College. It’s good to know places like that exist. I’m thinking about the rain falling here tonight that no one is collecting.

  2. Ben Saunders says:

    “It was an absolutely amazing morning.”

    I’d agree with that. After far too little sleep in the preceding few days, I’d considered staying in bed on Saturday morning! It was a truly mind-blowing event, and one of the highlights of PopTech for me.

    Thanks for playing your part in bringing the discussion together, Ethan.

  3. Ethan says:

    Thanks, Ben! I assumed you’d stayed in your seat because you were pinned in place by Alex Steffen and me on either side of you, not out of interest in the topic… :-)

  4. David G says:

    Belatedly,, This may seem like some mutual ego stroking, but again and again Ethan delivers, the blog gives me a wonderful insight into elements of our interview that i couldn’t dwell on sitting up there and thanks for your big part in getting us to that wonderful event.

  5. andy carvin says:

    Speaking of a Kenyan version of thomas.gov, did you see the AllAfrica.com story a few days ago about the reason why the Kenyan parliamentary website was down? MPs were embarassed about having their biographical info online – ie, their age, education, hobbies – claiming it was too “sensitive” for public consumption. I blogged about it here.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  4. …My heart’s in Accra » Missed the Africa panel at Pop!Tech? Listen in. - [...] Two weekends ago, I wrote about a great session at Pop!Tech, a two hour conversation where African attendees at …
  5. …My heart’s in Accra » Overstating AIDS - [...] There’s a more subtle effect of the UN’s misstated numbers: the extent to which the story of contemporary Africa …
  6. WorldChanging: Another World Is Here - Ultra-Low-Cost Handsets and the African Future NextBillion has a great overview of recent pieces exploring the implications of cheap handhelds in …

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