'We don't want your money, we want your voice'
Wry laughter greeted U2 frontman Bono’s closing statements at a symposium held to bring together Africa’s best and brightest this week. “I always say the 21st century belongs to Africa,” he said.
“People say ‘Africa? I thought it was China’.
And I say: ‘Ask the Chinese because they’re all going to Africa’.”
The event brought together a roomful of technically skilled and artistically talented young people—many of whom featured in the Mail & Guardian‘s 200 talented young South Africans list from last year—to discuss ways in which technology and transparency can further the goal of economic transformation in Africa.
It was hosted by ONE, an advocacy and campaigning organisation set up by a group of humanitarian organisations, including Oxfam America and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Data, an NGO co-founded by Bono.
ONE recently launched its Africa office in Johannesburg and this week it held its first town hall meeting, the ONE Africa Symposium, at the Sandton Convention Centre. ONE Africa director Sipho Moyo said the organisation’s aim is not to raise money or solicit grants, but to “define Africa outside of the negative narrative”.
“We’re not asking for your money, we’re asking for your voice,” she said.
Transformation and transparency
Speakers at the symposium shared their stories of how technology is being used in Africa and how citizens are calling for greater transparency from governments, corporates and aid initiatives.
Rakesh Rajani, founder of Twaweza, an organisation that assists East Africans build networks and partnerships to help achieve their goals, told the story of how he discovered that Hamisi, a Tanzanian man he had assumed to be a poor cotton farmer, was in fact a thriving entrepreneur with many side businesses that used basic technologies to provide much-needed services to people in his community. Rather than benefiting from local government initiatives, Hamisi often found himself working around inefficient and corrupt government officials and aid organisations that were failing to make an impact where it mattered.
“People across Africa are making things happen. My organisation is just trying to catch up with them,” he said. “We need to get behind people’s ideas, to tell the story, not of a helpless Africa but of the way people are already doing things for themselves.”
Technology transforming Africa
Rajani’s story of an Africa that is finding ways to work around its problems is not unique. Ashifi Gogo is CEO of Sproxil, an organisation that designs technology for emerging markets.
A well-known Sproxil project allows Kenyans to check whether the medication they’re buying is authentic. “Seven hundred thousand people die each year from counterfeit TB and malaria drugs,” he said. “It’s like playing Russian roulette with your health.”
‘This isn’t charity’
Sproxil’s solution was simple—a scratch card on each pack of medication reveals a numerical code that, when SMSed to a phone number returns an SMS that specifies whether the drug is genuine or fake.
Sproxil makes its money from pharmaceutical companies that pay to have the scratch card put on the medication. These companies benefit because patients are no longer duped into buying fake medication from counterfeiters. Patients receive life-saving drugs instead of sugar pills, and the government gets tax from everyone involved.
Susie Lonie of Vodacom Mobile Payments spoke on the development of M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer system that works using basic cellphone technology. M-Pesa allows migrant workers to send money across long distances to families in remote rural areas.
But “this isn’t charity”, said Lonie. “this is business”. The previously unbanked workers in countries from Kenya, Tanzania and Afghanistan have a safe and efficient way to transfer and store money, while Vodacom makes a small amount of money off each of the transactions. These may involve small amounts but they make up for it in volume—over two million transactions are made in Kenya alone each day. M-Pesa’s user base has leapt from three-million to 13-million in less than four years.
Lai Yahaya of TransparentAID spoke about democratising aid and making sure that the money donors give to aid projects reach the people they are meant for, and serve real needs.
Samuel Baba Adongo of Technoserve Ghana spoke about how cellphone technology was being used to provide cocoa farmers with farming advice that has helped them quadruple their yields and Buddy Buruku, a policy advisor at ACET, advocated for greater advocacy and lobbying to get governments to negotiate more strongly with China when it comes to foreign direct investment.
Technology is just a tool
Speaker Ory Okollo, a Google public policy manager, had earlier said “technology is just a tool, it’s not going to create change. People create change.” And for the audience, perhaps the most inspirational presentations were not by the CEOs and founders of companies and aid organisations, or even the frontman of a popular rock band, with their talk of technology and economics.
Instead they came from two unassuming young people, Edwin Warsanga and Hind Ourahou of the African Leadership Academy, young people who vividly illustrated the potential of African youth.
Nineteen-year old Tanzanian Warsanga set up an entrepreneurship project that provided youths with training and start-up capital, which was used to start businesses and create jobs in local communities. Warsanga’s programme has since been expanded to four other countries.
And after contested high school final exams, Ourahou, who hails from Morocco, a country where youth unemployment is about 50%, spearheaded a protest to get the government to re-evaluate the results. In the end, the protest by students and parents led to direct action from the government.
“Why would the youth ask and wait when they have the power to plan and do?” she asked.
Ourahou’s plea for trust and empowerment must have touched a chord with the young people gathered in the room for her presentation received the loudest applause of the evening.