June 14, 2007
With the cheetahs at TEDGlobal 2007
So I'm standing in line for a lukewarm chicken curry with Bono, Jane Goodall and Google gazillionaire Larry Page. [Sorry, the name dropping only gets worse from here on in.] And I'm asking myself one question.
It is about three years since we started living in Africa. Since then I have attended 40 to 50 special events and conferences on the continent covering everything from cross-border security and arms control to youth and developmental technology. The question is, why is this the only big set-piece event that I can think of that has not been a mind-deadening, life-consuming, jargon-spreading waste of everyone's precious time?1
The event in question was TEDGlobal 2007 – sub-title 'Africa: The Next Chapter'. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and is usually a big-deal big-ideas conference in Monterey, California. From Monday to Thursday last week it traveled to Arusha, Tanzania.
It has taken this long to write about it for two main reasons. The first is that I spent almost all of the conference hiding behind a camera on the edge of the stage, more worried about getting the speakers in focus than in listening to what they had to say. The second reason is that even now I have caught up on the content (thank you Ethan and others) I am still struggling to take it all in.
There was simply so much of it. And even the bad speakers were worth listening to – who needs rhetoric when you've actually got something to say?
So why was this so good when almost everything else that happens in a conference hall in Africa – and lots of other places – has been so bad?
It is nothing to do with funding. African governments, UN bodies and big NGOs have deep deep pockets when it comes to ogranising prestige events in big conference halls.
Hardly surprisingly, the answer lies in the invite list.
TED programme director Emeka Okafor won't be offended if I say that what he did was quite straightforward. He spends a big chunk of his time searching for African entrepreneurs and pioneers and mentioning them on his blog Timbuktu Chronicles. He picked his favourites, got some of them to stand on stage and give speeches and got the rest to sit in the audience, ask questions and go to all the events. And that was it. TEDGlobal 2007 was Timbuktu Chronicles made flesh.
So how does that differ from a typical tech conference here on the continent? Picture any of a dozen that have been hosted in Addis Ababa's UN complex or African Union HQ over the past year or so. Imagine a parade of government officials and state-appointed telecoms execs spouting phony African proverbs and development platitudes. At the last one I went to, the keynote speaker spent an hour going through his ten priorities for African development – "Last but not least let us remember the need for capacity building...". At the one before that, the event only came to life once a day after lunch, as people rushed to the front desk to receive their DSAs (daily subsistence allowances – the lifeblood of any UN-funded conference circuit).
The difference between all that and what happened in Arusha was best summed up by TEDGlobal speaker and Africa Unchained author George Ayittey when he talked about:
The Cheetah Generation - made up of the youth, specifically the TED Fellows present here, the saviors of Africa who are not going to wait for government and aid organizations to do things for them.I have only ever attended conferences with hippos on the centre stage. Arusha was full of cheetahs. There was barely a government official in sight – apart from Tanzania's president Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete who rushed in on the last day, mesmerising the crowd with his diamond-studded watch. I only heard the phrase "capacity-building" mentioned once, and I am sure that was a slip of the tongue.
The Hippo Generation - the current political and business leaders who are happy to wallow in their water holes, complaining about colonialism and poverty, but doing nothing about it. [Thank you White African for the summary.]
There were no fewer than four Ethiopians on stage – Eleni Gabre-Madhin of Ethiopia's coming commodity exchange; Ted Kidane, the man behind the Feedelix service that lets people compose and send instant messages in Ethiopic; Noah Samara, the man behind the WorldSpace satellite radio; and Zeray Alemseged the paleontologist who dug up Lucy's baby.
Here are some of my other highlights:
William Kamkwamba, the Malawian schoolboy who built a windmill out of spare parts to power his rural home at the age of 14. He followed instructions from a book. "I tried it and I made it," he said to a standing ovation.
The talk by Nigerian novelist Chris Abani and his closed-eyes recitation of Yusuf Kumanyaaka's poem "Ode to the Drum". If anyone can source me a copy of Graceland, I would be more than grateful – it is out of stock on Amazon.co.uk.
Ory Okolloh's combination of gratuitous baby pictures with an investigation into the damage caused by overly-negative presentations of Africa.
Tales from the front line of African technolgy from Nigeria's Florence Seriki, Ghana's Herman Chinery-Hesse and DRC's Alieu Conteh.
British-Nigerian Dr Seyi Oyesola, inventor of the Hospital in a Box, describing carrying out open heart surgery in a typical Lagos hospital. "Does he look happy," he asked, pointing to a picture of one of his assistants after their fifth power cut/surge during the set up to the operation. "No, he does not look happy."
Ron Eglash, the "ethnomathematician" who sees fractals everywhere he goes in Africa.
And of course, the Bono vs. Mwenda & Ayittey & Shikwati development debate
Simplistic it make have been – as argued by Nigeria's former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the end of the conference. But when was the last time you heard an unstaged, honest clash of views at a set-piece conference?
The answer is, according to my own experience, up to now, never. Spend too long with the hippos at the UN and the AU and you could easily give up hope for the future of African technology. Spend some time with the cheetahs in Arusha and you begin to wonder whether there is actually something behind all this talk about an African Renaissance.
1 Actually, that's not quite fair. Last year's Digital Citizens Indaba on Blogging in Grahamstown, South Africa was also good. Possibly because it included some of the same speakers.
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Posted by aheavens at June 14, 2007 5:25 PM