Before I traveled to Ghana for the first time in 1993, I attended an orientation in Washington DC for Fulbright scholars who would be working in sub-Saharan Africa. Returning scholars gave us lots of advice, some mission-critical (many people react badly to Lariam, the most-prescribed anti-malarial drug), some merely anecdotal and amusing. In the latter camp was a story about bribery in Ghana:
A Fulbright scholar had been warned he might be solicited for a bribe at Accra’s Kotoka Airport. He came prepared with a thick stack of US $5 bills. As he made his way through immigration, baggage claim and customs, he began handing bills to anyone who crossed his path. Word of this spread quickly, and he ended up running a gauntlet of baggage handlers, touts and officials, all with their hands out. He left the airport exhausted, devoid of bills, convinced that Ghana was, indeed, the most corrupt country he’d ever encountered.
The point of the story is not that Ghana is corrupt, but that your expectations about a situation have everything to do with what you will encounter. I’ve flown in and out of Kotoka dozens of times now, and have never been asked for a bribe, except in jest. (Indeed, in twenty years of doing business in Ghana, I’ve never been solicited for a bribe, though I’ve occasionally tipped low-level government employees, like the post office worker who spent three hours helping me wrap fragile xylophones in foam for shipping to the US.) But I’m confident that, had I offered bribes to anyone who was bribable, I’d be able to spend hundreds on each journey to Accra.
Trailer for “The Ambassador”
I thought about this story after watching Mads Brügger’s new film, The Ambassador. Brügger is a Danish journalist who gained international fame and notoriety for his previous film, The Red Chapel, where he poses as the communist director of a comedy troupe in order to be invited into North Korea, where the government – predictably, clumsily – tries to steer their work in a pro-regime direction. In this new film, Brügger attempts to expose those involved in the trade in blood diamonds: the government officials who are willing to sell diplomatic credentials to allow buyers in and out of diamond-producing countries, and the title brokers who make such trade possible.
To offer this exposé, Brügger creates a character, Mads Cortzen, who embodies every cliché of European colonialism in Africa. In tropical suits and knee-high boots, Cortzen smokes cigarettes in a long, ivory holder, hires two Pygmy assistants because “they are good luck” and spouts offensive dialog at every turn. His antics are recorded by an array of hidden cameras, sometimes placed in hollowed-out books, sometimes worn on Brügger’s body, as he pursues his agenda: obtain diplomatic credentials as an ambassador from Liberia, establish himself as a dealer in diamonds in the Central African Republic, secure conflict diamonds and bring them back to Europe.
Brügger’s point, apparently, is that this isn’t hard to do, and that corrupt businessmen from around the world are routinely engaged in this trade. But the narrative of the film complicates that premise. The drama of the film is all generated by the difficulties Cortzen experiences in carrying out his plans. His title broker, the hapless Willem Tijssen, delivers a handwritten diplomatic passport, not the biometric passports now used by Liberia and other ECOWAS nations, and seems unable to provide more believable credentials, despite the interventions of a powerful, and heavily compensated, lawyer. Cortzen’s diamond-mining partner appears likely to abscond with the funds Cortzen has invested, or to turn him over to the authorities when he tries to leave the country carrying diamonds. It’s not clear whether Cortzen’s fixer is even on his side, or whether he’s working for the diamond miner, the government, or other unknown parties. Near the end of the film, it seems possible that Cortzen, who came to the Central African Republic to transfer the nation’s mineral wealth to Europe will end up losing his investments, and locked in a Bangui prison. And given my increasing annoyance with his colonialist caricature, that’s the outcome I found myself rooting for.
At the end, Brügger’s character gets his diamonds, but doesn’t get the credentials he’d need to smuggle them safely. The film avoids the issue of what happens with the diamonds, archly noting the importance of discretion in diamond smuggling. Brügger has told interviewers that he wasn’t willing to break international law to bring the diamonds out of CAR, and sold them within the country, giving the proceeds to the Pygmies who’ve worked with him on his cover scheme, a match factory that promises jobs to impoverished workers. Not knowing whether the Cortzen character could have left the country with the diamonds leaves the central question of the film unanswered. Had he left without incident, it strengthens the narrative that diamond smuggling is easy and commonplace, while if Brügger were betrayed by his diamond mining colleague, it would complete a story of an arrogant interloper who wasn’t as smart as he thought, and who ended up victim of the people he thought he was manipulating.
When I first heard of the film, I thought it was likely to be a Vice-style “look at how crazy and dangerous Africa is” documentary, like The Vice Guide to Liberia (reviewed here.) I’m both intrigued and annoyed by this style of storytelling, angered by the clichés, but interested in anyone’s efforts to build narratives about sub-Saharan Africa that capture wide audiences. It’s clear that Brügger is a more sophisticated and complicated filmmaker than the Vice folks – they seem blissfully unaware of their racism and privilege, while Brügger’s character revels in a performance of colonialism. But at the end of the day, I’m not convinced he’s accomplished anything all that different.
In interviews, Brügger clearly sees himself as a crusader against corruption. He’s thoroughly aware that he’s on ethically shaky grounds: “I am fully aware that in some regards the ethics in my film, to say it simply, kind of suck. They do.” But his behavior is in the service of two higher goals: getting western audiences to pay attention to an African story, and to exposing those involved in the diamond trade. He asserts that Liberia has identified eight Cortzen-like characters in their diplomatic corps thanks to his efforts.
But Liberia hardly seems grateful for the assistance: they’re attempting to extradite him and to prosecute him for bribery and fraud. This, in turn, supports Brügger’s narrative: not only are Liberia’s officials so corrupt that they sell diplomatic passports, they are shameless in persecuting him, a journalist just doing his job, rather than rooting out corruption in their ranks. There’s a more complicated story that Brügger isn’t interested in addressing. He dismisses the legitimacy of the government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf by noting that a truth and reconciliation commission placed her on a list of people who should be disqualified from office for her financial support of Charles Taylor, rather than engaging in the complicated debate over whether the TRC’s recommendations were the right ones.
It’s hard to see how Brügger’s expose is going to lead to real change. It’s likely to be harder to obtain diplomatic credentials to set oneself up as a diamond smuggler… but Brügger’s film shows that this was hardly easy to begin with, and that credentials likely wouldn’t have enabled him to leave the country with those diamonds, without needing to conceal them, as his diamond mining partner delicately puts it, “in your pants”. In an interview, Brügger rubbishes the Kimberly Process, the regulatory system designed to make it difficult to sell diamonds from conflict regions, but the example he gives – DeBeers being pressured by the French government to leave CAR – seems to point to Kimberly’s impact, at least on the legitimate diamond trade. The real problem is that CAR has a deeply corrupt and ineffective government and has no control over most of its territory. While Brügger’s story brings that truth home in an interesting way, CAR’s problems aren’t news to anyone who studies Central Africa, and he offers no helpful advice beyond “Don’t trust white guys who are interested in Africa.”
Brügger has told interviewers that he wanted to make a film that portrayed Africa in a different light than those commissioned by NGOs, which he believes misrepresent the continent: “Part of the doing-good industry is painting things in blackest black — it’s almost like a pornography of suffering. Which is necessary if the N.G.O.’s are to get funding for doing what they are doing.” Lots of documentary-makers would argue that their work is awfully far from that bleak narrative, but there’s certainly no shortage of documentaries that portray African suffering as a way of raising funds. But Brügger’s alternative is even darker. Anyone who’s given agency in his film (not the Pygmies, who aren’t permitted to be anything but stage-dressing for his character’s colonialist fantasies) is portrayed as corrupt, selfish and amoral, and Brügger explicitly questions the motives of anyone who would come to a place like Bangui, noting “Of course, a country such as this works as a magnet for white men with hidden agendas.” It’s worth considering whether the white men and women working for NGOs and aid organizations in countries like the CAR have hidden and damaging agendas – the white savior complex, the continuation of a dependency on aid over development through trade – but Brügger’s analysis isn’t nearly that subtle. He’s interested in the persistence of a class of amoral raiders raping the continent and, unable to put one of these criminals on camera, he becomes one.
I realize it sounds like I’m trashing this film and the man who made it, and, to some extent, I certainly am. But it’s more complicated than that. As Aaron Leaf notes in the introduction to an interview on (the indispensable blog) “Africa is a Country” with the filmmaker, “Even if you like Mads Brügger’s documentaries, chances are you hate him.”
I’ve now spent a dozen hours watching the film twice and reading about it because I’m fascinated by the challenge Brügger chose to take on. It’s difficult to gain direct attention to countries like the CAR, and Brügger captures our attention. That he falls far short of the film I’d like to see him make – one that looks at the complicated and contradictory motives of Africans and non-Africans trying to transform the continent, one that offers solutions not just critiques – is not just a comment on his limitations, but on the difficulty of the task. I didn’t like “The Ambassador”, but it’s given me a great deal to think about, and I want you to watch it because I want more people to join in the discussion of whether a film like this one is more helpful than exploitative, whether Brügger’s motivations justify his ethical lapses, whether playing a colonialist is critique or privileged playacting, and whether “The Ambassador” is anything more than handing out $5 bills to everyone you encounter in the airport.
This FSA kitten, Yasmeen, is on sniper-duty. Yasmeen’s commander shared with FSA Kittens Yasmeen’s sniper log for August 23rd:
8:30 am: Two regime soldiers observed marching a young child at gunpoint. Range: 500 meters. 2 shots fired. Both regime soldiers killed. Child ran free.
11:00 am: Conducted deep infiltration behind-enemy-lines. Identified Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer among regime troops. Range: 250 meters. 1 shot fired. IRG officer killed. Successfully evaded patrols and returned-to-base.
At first, this looks like confirmation that the Internet is made of cats. (See also the Internet Defense League’s Cat Signal, the Cute Cat Theory and Google’s experiments with cat-detecting AI.) But there’s slightly more than meets the eye.
An August 8th article in The Guardian by Martin Chulov focused on ferocious fighting in Salahedin, but included some paragraphs that paint a vivid picture of life in the besieged city:
Street 15 in Salahedin now resembles Leningrad in its darkest days, and the suburb itself is in far worse shape than when the Guardian last visited on Saturday. Most streets on the eastern side are now impassable by car. Broken sewage and water pipes and food leftovers have formed a festering stew over the few surfaces that aren’t littered with the flotsam and jetsam of war. And Salahedin has a new arrival – flies, which swarm around anything organic. They are so thick in some parts that rebels look for detours to avoid them. As they do they need to avoid trampling on the only other thing that seems to be living at ground zero of the battle for Syria – kittens.
Rebels have taken in many of them, and it’s not uncommon to find a gnarled, sweaty guerrilla sleeping on the floor of a commandeered flat with an abandoned kitten asleep on his chest.
Two men sleeping in what passes for a first aid clinic in one part of Salahedin had to throw their new pets aside late on Wednesday, when a wounded rebel appeared like a ghost in their darkened doorway. He fell on a foam mattress clutching his left side. “A sniper, haram,” he said. “I was going to meet the defector.”
Who doesn’t love a freedom fighter who sleeps with a stray kitten on his chest? Probably folks like Peter Beaumont, who warns that we need to pay attention to war crimes perpetrated by the FSA as well as those carried out by the Assad regime. Or commenter on the article, JoshRogan, who notes that “Far from being reported, the rebels are being shown literally as kitten-loving good boys, while anyone who supports the government is akin to a Nazi.”
In other words, even cute cats have politics.
If you were trying to get people to pay attention to the conflict in Syria, which fights for media attention against the US elections, you could do worse than to recruit a few kittens to the cause. The emergence of figures like Wael Ghonim as focal points for the Tahrir Square protesters helped a global audience relate to the thousands of protesters trying to overthrow the Mubarak regime. It’s been harder to identify the “face” of the Syrian civil war. Perhaps that face has whiskers?
This year is the first in decades where I’ve been beneficiary and victim of the academic schedule. While I spent almost a decade at the Berkman Center, research at that institution continues year-round, and there’s not much of a summer lull. The Media Lab is closer to the traditional academic cycle, as many students head out of the lab for internships and many of the professors hole up to complete research and writing.
I’m trying to follow their lead and am revising the book I’ve been working on for the past two years, towards a spring publication date. And that, in turn, has given me a good chance to think about distraction.
Like many people, I’m highly distractible. I do my best work in public places – coffee shops, libraries, airplanes – because they eliminate some of my favorite ways of wasting time: cutting weeds in my back yard, investigating the contents of my refrigerator, roaming the lab to see if there’s anyone interesting around to talk to. But when you’re writing a book on the Internet, it’s very hard to eliminate online distractions without cutting yourself off from your research subject. (And, if you’re sufficiently skilled at distractibility, you’ll find ways to convince yourself that the website you’re frenetically clicking through is somehow related to your core research topics.)
So, here’s what’s most distracting me today:
We’re nearing the end of the Nagoya basho, sumo’s summer tournament. Two of my favorites, Yokozuna Hakuho and Ozeki Harumafuji are both undefeated at 11-0, and everyone who follows the sport is hoping to a showdown of the two on the final day.
Highlights from day 10 of the Nagoya Basho.
Sumo’s getting much easier to watch thanks to the efforts of “Kintamayama“, whose YouTube profile identifies himself as a 58 year old dude from Tel Aviv. He posts daily summaries of the basho, evidently edited from the match livestreams. I’m not able to watch the livestream, which airs in the early morning my time, so I generally rely on torrents of NHK’s English language coverage. Those take hours to find and download, and they’re three hours long, featuring all the pre-bout ritual theatrics that accompany sumo. Kintamayama cuts to the chase – his ten minute videos feature the key high-level bouts and occasional highlights from the lower ranks, with English language information on who won and with what throw. As a bonus, his snarky subtitles during judges deliberations are always worth a watch.
While my favorite Mongolians are dominating this basho, much as they’re kicking ass in the global economy, it’s wonderful to see a veritable United Nations competing at the high ranks of sumo. The Japanese are back in force at the Ozeki rank, with Kisenosato and Kotoshugiko. Baruto weighs in from Estonia (he’s 200kg, so that’s a pun, people) and Kotooshu from Bulgaria ensure that eastern Europe is well represented at the top ranks of the sport. I’ve been having a lot of fun this basho watching Kaisei, a powerful Brazilian rikishi who’s been having a great tournament.
If you’re interested in following the next four days of the bout, try:
Kintamayama’s YouTube channel
Asahi Shimbun’s excellent English-language sumo coverage
Sumo’s great for wasting at least half an hour a day, watching the matches and reading up on the most impressive competitors, but to truly lose hours of productive time, there’s no pastime like tracking down obscure records from the 1970s and 80s. Eric Kleptone, the legendary remixer and prankster behind projects like “Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots”, has recently turned his attentions towards one of the great musicological mysteries of our time: the identity of the album that inspired Paul Simon to travel to South Africa and record his “Graceland” album. (I’ve written at length about Paul Simon, “Graceland” and the controversies over the album.)
Simon legendarily received a cassette tape from a friend, titled “Accordion Jive Hits, Volume 2″ that inspired him to discover South African mbaqanga music. But, as numerous frustrated African music fans have discovered, no album by that title exists. Kleptone discusses the possible provenance of the album in the notes for his mix, Paths to Graceland, which is an attempt to catalog possible influences that might have led Simon to South Africa. It’s a gorgeous, lively and beautiful mix, filled with music that’s new to my ears, but so clearly kin to the music Simon featured that it seems like I must have heard it decades ago.
The rabbit hole Kleptone opens is through providing a thorough track listing, which leads me to discover that Tau Ea Lesotho is responsible for the accordion and high-octave bass guitar that causes me to engage in spontaneous, uncontrollable chair dancing. And that, in turn, leads me onto blogs like Afro Slabs, which work to track down and digitize these amazing albums. It’s probably possible to track down all the albums Kleptone references and build your own collection of early 80s South African and Lesotho music – I appear to be doing so without really trying to.
Of course, if you truly want to ensure no progress is made on a massive project like a book revision, you’ll need to get lost in a book. I’m currently ensnared by G. Willow Wilson’s “Alif the Unseen“. My wife is a huge Wilson fan, and has reviewed her graphic novel Cairo, and her memoir about conversion to Islam, The Butterfly Mosque, but Alif is the first book of hers she’s pressed on me. I understand why – Salon describes the book as “hacker meets djinn“, and the novel is an amazing tale of an alpha geek who works to protect online speech in the Arab world and a world of sinister, dark magical realism.
It’s a badass scifi yarn, with lots of provocative ideas about Islam, freedom, submission, will, gender, culture and independence. And as someone who works with dissidents around the world, including the Persian Gulf, it raises challenging and uncomfortable questions about the power and limits of speech to create change. I’m enjoying the adventure of the story, but suspect I’ll be savoring the larger questions for weeks to come.
My hope is that, like singing an earworm aloud to banish it, honoring these worthy distractions will give me a few hours of focus. Or, perhaps they’ll simply pull you down to my level of happy unproductivity.
I’m discovering that one of my special joys in life is having my presumptions proved wrong.
I’ve just returned from a ten day trip to Kenya, helping host the fifth Global Voices summit, attending board meetings for two companies, and helping my students research an idea we’re playing with at the Media Lab. Our idea is a simple one – we want to help people in nations where electric power is scarce sell power to their neighbors. We’re designing a piece of prototype hardware that plugs into a diesel generator or other power source, distributes the power to multiple outlets, monitors how much power is used and charges the customer for the power they consume.
Kenya is a great place to try this idea out, because it’s got one of the most mature electronic payment infrastructures in the world. Built on top of Safaricom’s mobile phone network, M-PESA is a money transfer system that allows phone users to send payments to one another as an encrypted SMS. If I want to pay my taxi driver 2000Ksh for the ride from downtown to the airport, I can access M-PESA on my phone, enter the size of payment and his mobile number, and he’ll receive an SMS within a few seconds telling him the transaction has been completed. Money comes in and out of the system via thousands of M-PESA dealers, who work in towns of any substantial size, turning money into credit and vice versa.
Because this payment system is used by 70% of Kenyan adults, according to our friends at Safaricom, it makes sense to try to build our power system on top of it. What we’re designing currently looks like a Kill-A-Watt – a unit that monitors energy usage via an ammeter – and a M-PESA-enabled mobile phone. When we build it, it will probably resemble a power strip with a SIM-card slot. Someone who owns a generator can plug our strip in, then invite neighboring shops or homes to run 20-amp power cords to the strip. Each outlet on the strip has a user ID, and the strip itself has an M-PESA ID. To turn on the power, a user sends funds to the power strip’s M-PESA account. The strip monitors usage, sends an SMS to warn a customer when she’s low on power credit and shuts the power off when she’s out of credit.
This might sound clever (or stupid) on paper, but it’s hard to know what works until you actually talk to the people you’d like to use your product. If we were on a research trip designed to focus on this product, we’d have planned trips to a variety of destinations: rural villages, secondary cities, refugee camps. But we were mostly coming to attend the Global Voices conference, so our research was confined to Nairobi. We sought help from our friends at Pawa254, an arts center that works extensively in low-income communities like Mathare, to find guides who could show us their neighborhoods and ask questions about electricity.
And so on our first full day in Kenya, my students Nathan Matias, Matt Stempeck and I found ourselves in a profoundly cramped car, with our new friends Addu and Mike, on Baba Dogo Road. Baba Dogo was intended to be an industrial area on the outskirts of the city, and there are several large manufacturing plants lining the road. But there’s also thousands of people living here, in neighborhoods that have sprung up where land was empty and inexpensive. Baba Dogo isn’t the sort of “famous” slum like Kibera or Mathare – telling some of our Kenyan friends where we’d done our research, they told us we’d been to an “upscale slum”, the sort of distinction that makes sense in a town like Nairobi, where slum tourism is a growth business. Sammi, a musician who lives in the area, led us in on his motorbike, and proceeded to show us around town, talking to the dozens of merchants who ran shops in the area.
Assumption one: I had assumed power would be scarce in Baba Dogo. Nope. Legal power is scarce, but power is extremely common. Kenya Light and Power is quite good about extending the grid into this neighborhood, though few houses are directly connected. Historically, that’s because it was both expensive and time consuming to get a grid connection – friends tell horror stories of connections that cost more than $10,000 and took half a year to get in place. Now connections cost closer to $350 and take only a week… but they’re still way out of reach of ordinary Baba Dogo residents. What usually happens is that a single dwelling within an apartment building has a meter, and they distribute power to their neighbors.
While this system works, it’s hard to say that it works well. Let’s take the example of The Hardcore Gym, a weightlifting gym in a small building made of corrugated iron sheets (where I embarrassed myself by failing to bench press the pile of brake drums and gears this dude is easily lifting…) The gym needs electricity to power a TV and a satellite dish, used to watch major football matches: that night’s Euro Cup semifinal between Italy and Germany was 30Ksh a head, or about $0.40. The gym doesn’t have a formal grid connection, so the proprietor buys power from the house next door, for 200Ksh ($2.50) a month. He doesn’t know whether this is a fair price or not, as neither he or the homeowner can monitor the power he’s using. He lives in some fear that the homeowner won’t pay the bills, and he’ll be left without power – this is pretty common, as a homeowner may be selling power to dozens of people, pushing her bills very high. Sometimes, another businessman told us, the person selling you power disappears, leaving tens of thousands of shilling in debt to Kenya Light and Power and leaving everyone dependent on that power source out of luck.
It isn’t any more fun for the person selling power. You’re forced to collect small sums from dozens of very poor people every month, and if they don’t pay, you’re short of money to pay your own bills. It’s all the trouble of being a landlord, with no legal system to fall back on (as what you’re doing is illegal) and where the safety risk is the strong chance of setting your house on fire. (One popular business in Baba Dogo is metal fabrication, arc welding the ubiquitous gates and safety grills that protect most structures here. Smart welders have their own special circuits negotiated with the power company… but not all are smart, and you can imagine the consequences of plugging a 400 amp arc welder into a cord that’s been attached, makeshift, to a tangle of homemade wiring…)
So, there’s power, but it’s expensive, unpredictable and unreliable. What’s absent from the neighborhood are generators. They’re simply too expensive, even the cheap, dirty Tiger generators that are sold by the hundreds on River Road in Nairobi. The customers for those generators are middle-class Kenyans, looking for backup power when the grid fails, not the residents of Baba Dogo, seeking a primary source of power.
Assumption two: I assumed people would be reluctant to pay for power. And while no one really likes paying for power, people are willing to spend a fairly princely sum charging their mobile phones. In Baba Dogo, powering up your phone involves finding an electronics shop, leaving your phone for an hour or two, and retrieving your phone by paying 20 Ksh for the charge. The sum – about $0.25 – doesn’t sound like much, until you consider that most products and services in this neighborhood are priced for the very poor. Browsing at the neighborhood cybercafe costs half a shilling per minute – $0.40 per hour – and users monitor their time online carefully. A CD filled with mp3s of popular Luo music cost me 50 Ksh, a price that I assume included a fair amount of “tourist tax”.
Here’s a better way to understand comparative cost: a project run by the Danish firm Grundfos is building beautiful, reliable water systems in Kenyan communities that have no access to clean water. Using a clever system that incorporates RFID tags and M-PESA as a payment mechanism, they’re pumping clean well water into a storage tank and selling it to villagers at 2 or 3 Ksh for 20 liters. Some systems aren’t being used to capacity because many villagers aren’t able to pay the $0.03 it costs to fill a large jerry can with water. Instead, they continue to use contaminated water from local streams, a phenomenon that poses an ethical dilemma – should Grundfos simply open the tap and let everyone drink for free, or continue with an experiment that promises a sustainable, clean water source over time?
How does charging a mobile phone become worth as much as 200 liters of clean water?
One brutally simple answer is that customers have an alternative when it comes to purchasing water: they can get dirty water for free. There’s no alternative when it comes to power. Conventional economics suggests that, as power is a commodity, we’d expect to see sharp price competition until vendors were operating on very thin profit margins. Instead, we see power providers settling on a price that seems high to me, but is evidently sufficiently affordable that customers will pay. It’s unclear whether anyone is trying to maintain cartel pricing and punishing defectors, or whether power vendors simply have agreed that 20 shillings is a good price for customers to pay for the service.
Why would customers be willing to pay this much? Phones have become an indispensable infrastructure in the developing world. If you are a carpenter, you probably don’t have an office or a shop – you have a mobile phone number that people call if they want to hire you. If you’re a market trader, you use your phone constantly to figure out what prices are in other parts of a city or the country. If you’re seeking a business permit, you call before you visit an office, so you don’t waste time on transport if the person you need to see is out. Even independent of payment systems like M-PESA, a phone is a difference between being an economic actor in Kenya and being outside the economy.
Which bring us to questionable assumption three: I thought it would be difficult to convince people to think of themselves as becoming micro-scale power companies. Actually, people grasped this idea right away, and wanted to know how much flexibility they would have over pricing. (Answer: we hadn’t really thought about it, but it seems like that’s going to be critical to product success.) People also explained to us that everyone in Baba Dogo is already an entrepreneur of one fashion or another – selling power was a natural extension of existing businesses. But we had to understand that not all commerce in the neighborhood was about the exchange of money for goods or services – often businesses provide favors to one another in complex webs of obligation.
We discovered the complexity of these webs when we tried to get a taxi out of the neighborhood. We’d passed a few well-washed, shiny taxis with wooden signs on top that advertised their availability. But when we asked Sammi to help us negotiate with a cab driver, he quickly found someone who lived in his apartment building. His car wasn’t shiny – indeed, the windows didn’t open because the owner was trying to repair the controls, which meant that our ride was unpleasantly sweaty. And we noticed that he wasn’t a very good driver… which he explained by pulling over and picking up his driver, “because I have only been driving for a few weeks, and I am not very good.” So our attempt to hire a taxi turned into hiring a car from a mechanic who was repairing it, and a driver capable of driving it. Why this was an optimal solution, only Sammi knows – it’s possible he shared some of the (extremely high) fare we paid, or that he had other obligations to his neighbors that required us to hire this adhoc taxi, instead of an official one.
The ability to pay with favors as well as with money is something we need to take seriously if we want people to use our product. It’s important, therefore, that we find a way to make our device usable in ways other than pre-paid, so that someone with access to power could loan power to someone who wasn’t able to pay, in exchange for another good, service or favor.
Assumption four: I figured neighborhoods like Baba Dogo would be the right place to try this product out. They’re probably not, as they’re already too well wired. This isn’t to say that there’s no demand for our device in Baba Dogo – I had the sense we could probably sell a few dozen, with Sammi as our local pitchman. (After all, if he can sell me on a taxi ride without windows or a driver, he can surely sell out device.) But it’s likely that the use case in Baba Dogo is to use our meter to share a connection from Kenya Power and Lighting with other users… and it’s quite possible Kenya Power would be unenthusiastic about this use case. (On the other hand, they might welcome this as an alternative to dangerous and adhoc wiring solutions that are already pervasive in high-density neighborhoods.)
Our better use cases are likely in areas where there’s no power other than generator, solar or water power. In some cases, these may be communities where the power grid doesn’t yet extend, but have GSM coverage. In other cases, they may be refugee camps, unlikely to be wired for fear the camps will turn into permanent settlements. There’s something oddly encouraging about discovering that Nairobi’s slums are too advanced for our proposed product – there’s no shortage of other markets where access to power is a major problem and where our solution may prove helpful.
For me, the visit to Baba Dogo – and other visits my students took while we were in Kenya – is a helpful counterbalance to the unlimited possibilities of the Media Lab. I’ve argued for years that culture matters as much as technology when you’re designing new products. Being surrounded by roboticists and synthetic biologists is a great inspiration to look for novel technical inspirations, but it’s worth trying these ideas out in the field early and often. While it’s frustrating to discover that many of my assumptions were wrong in pursuing this project, it would be vastly more frustrating to learn this six months from now, having developed an inappropriate prototype for the wrong market.
More photos from our trip to Baba Dogo. Many thanks to our friends for showing us around their neighborhood, and everyone who was willing to share their thoughts about electric power and microeconomics…
I spent Tuesday on the crowded roads of the northern suburbs of Accra, catching up with old friends and marveling at transitions and transformations: those my friends have made, as well as the changes made to a city I love and dearly miss.
When I lived in Accra, in the mid-1990s, the city proper ended a few miles from the downtown, around the airport that serves the city. A trip to the University of Ghana at Legon felt like a trip to the outermost suburbs, if not altogether to the bush. The neighborhoods around the airport and university are now fully part of the city, blessed with hi-rise buildings, expensive houses and well-maintained roads packed with traffic. Finding the edge of the city now requires driving to the edges of the Accra state, to towns I’d only heard yelled by tro-tro drivers, advertising the terminus of their routes.
With the help of Edmund, who works with my friends at PenPlusBytes, I traveled to Medie, Accra, a suburb I’d visited roughly ten years past. My memories of the last trip were of a two hour long ordeal over rutted roads, packed with traffic, to a place that had more in common with Ghana’s rural villages than with its bustling capital. Now there’s a well-paved four lane divided highway, complete with flyovers and exit ramps… most of the way. The interruptions in infrastructure were a great reminder of what had come before – as we decelerated from 120kph to 50, it was like moving back into my memories of the chaotic, crowded and slow city.
The building of the Nsawam Road, as well as the M1 and other major Accra highways has transformed the geography and real estate of the city. My friend Bernard Woma was an ambitious dreamer when he settled in Medie twelve years ago, moving from the crowded zongo of Nima to a plot of farmland a kilometer from the execrable road into the city. I saw him in Accra on Monday and he insisted I had to come to his house to see how things had changed. He wanted me to see that he’d made a sane investment, and it’s clear he’s right. I hadn’t expected some of what accompanied the transition: gated and planned communities lining some stretches of the road, John Deere dealerships on others. Signboards for herbalists, who now that they’re recognized as “traditional healers” work in public, instead of in secret as juju men. More signboards for evangelical churches. More excavators.
Bernard is one of the top traditional musicians in Ghana: when President Obama visited the country, he played the traditional drum salute to welcome him, and he later gave drum lessons to Michelle and the presidential daughters. His project for the last ten years has been the building of the Dagara Music Center, his school to teach the dance, drumming and xylophone traditions of the Dagara people. For years, Bernard has been spending the academic year in the US, pursuing a bachelor’s degree at SUNY Fredonia and a masters in African Studies at Indiana University, then returning to his home to teach his music to American students hardy enough to brave the road to his home, sleep in his spare bedrooms and endure his mix of teaching, teasing and good-natured hectoring.
He built it and they came. His courtyard is now a mosaic of signs painted by the different college groups who’ve visited him. His equipment room features 20 of the massive xylophones (gyil) he trains his students on. We stayed for lunch and I met half a dozen students, staying in Bernard’s house or a nearby hotel, taking lessons from Bernard’s extended family and circle of friends. As student drummers do, they began beating patterns on the picnic table whenever a lull crept into the conversation and I found myself drumming along, playing patterns I learned from Bernard almost twenty years ago.
As I headed out, Bernard was preparing his neatly painted Mercedes bus for a run to the airport to pick up the next dozen students. Roughly a hundred students will pass through this summer, some for a few days, some for weeks or months. A few years ago, Bernard would tour the US with his dance company to support the nascent academy – now the revenue from the summer students allows him to focus on his studies while he’s in the states.
When I studied with Bernard, it was a happy accident that followed from a run of rough luck. I came to Ghana to study at the university at Legon… which was on strike the year I was there. I started studying with teachers I’d been pointed to by friends in the US… who turned out to have serious drinking and personal problems. Bernard found me moping in a corner of the National Theatre and rescued me, offering to teach me. I couldn’t be more thrilled that hundreds of people are now getting the opportunity to learn from the master, no happy accident necessary.
About 45 minutes away from Medie, over humorously rough roads, is the village of Berekuso, a small farming town in the Eastern Region. On a hill above the village is a gloriously modern, architecturally stunning university campus. And, as you might imagine, there’s a story behind it.
Patrick Awuah left Ghana decades ago, first to attend Swarthmore College, and then to go on to a successful career at Microsoft. About a decade ago, he returned home, determined to build a world-class liberal arts college in Ghana, so that his children would have the opportunity to get an education at home that prepared them for life anywhere in the world.
I visited Patrick for the first time about a decade ago, when his university was a small office in the Labone neighborhood of Accra and some ambitious architectural drawings. I visited a few years later and was impressed to find a small, compact college in a leafy Accra suburb, with several dozen students training on a mix of liberal arts and IT skills. The library was an overgrown shelf of books and the computer lab looked much like any of the cybercafes that dot the city. Still, it was deeply impressive to me that he’d navigated the academic bureaucracy of Ghana and been able to start an accredited private university.
None of that prepared me for the stunningly beautiful campus that now houses 500 students in Berekuso. The main buildings are organized around a terraced, landscaped courtyard filled with flowers. Tile-roofed dorms flank a basketball court and look out over the hills and the village. Ashesi University is simply one of the most beautiful academic institutions I’ve ever seen.
Patrick toured me around the campus along with Computer Science professor Dr. Ayonkor Korsah, and we sat down with a handful of Ashesi faculty and students. It became clear very quickly that it’s not just the facilities of the university that are world class. Ashesi is attracting some of the brightest young students in west Africa, and faculty who are excited about teaching in a liberal arts tradition with a focus on project-based learning. We talked about ways Ashesi faculty and students could engage the local community in research and design experiments… exactly the same set of questions I find myself asking as I try to build the Center for Civic Media at MIT.
I admitted to Patrick that, when he’d described the scale of his ambitions to me, I’d assumed he was crazy. Now I find myself wondering whether I’ve been thinking to small in building the institutions I’ve tried to build.
This trip was a precursor to the Global Voices Summit in Nairobi, my chance to reflect on the community and site we’ve built over the last eight years. My friend David Sasaki helped put those matters into scale, reflecting that Facebook has also been around for about eight years, and has had a trajectory that seems to humble anything else in comparison. But there’s something to be said for judging the success of a project on their own ambitions and merits. I’m thrilled for my friends Bernard and Patrick, and challenged by their success in bringing their visions to scale. Here’s hoping that I feel as proud reflecting on how far Global Voices has come once our summit is at a close.