DEMO Preview: Building Africa with Investment, Not Charity

A thread — sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious — that weaves through every DEMO conference is the origins of innovation. Among the 70 or so products that debut at the conference, I try to mix some discussion about sources and catalyst for discovery and invention. In preparing for DEMO 08 (Jan 28 -30, Palm Desert, CA), I was inspired by Erica Lee to assemble a panel of entrepreneurs and thought leaders focused on innovation and opportunity in Africa.

Why Africa?

Because too many people in the West aren’t paying attention. And when they do, they think about charity and unrest, not investment and opportunity. Admit it, you have that Save The Children image seared into your memory just as I do. Our child minds remember Africa as that place where children-go-to-bed-hungry-so-stop-whining-and-eat-your-vegetables. It’s that place where, Sally Struthers assured us, we could feed a child for just pennies a day.

The view from our adult mind isn’t much prettier. Africa’s tribal schisms have lead to unconscionable acts of violence. Apartheid is over, but the economic divide has not been bridged. Children still go hungry (and we still don’t eat our peas).

I don’t deny that these images are very real, that many African nations struggle with poverty, war, and famine. Yet Africa is a continent 400 million people strong and the Western response of sympathy and charity misses the very real opportunity to develop an exciting and vast market.

It is time to think differently about Africa, and not just out of some opportunistic capitalist greed. The most successful charity is independence and independence only truly comes from economic development and freedom.

And to develop that economic growth, we must think differently about innovation. As remarkable and as ambitious as Nicholas Negroponte‘s One Laptop Per Child initiative may be, one (or at least this one) has to wonder whether a laptop is the highest order need of a child living without electricity, clean water, or a classroom in which to learn. A new project or invention, without adoption, may be fascinating, but is it innovation? To foster adoption, products for Africa’s many markets must be designed with the unique constraints and objectives of the customer. No one puts this better than the designer Paul Polak, founder of the International Development Enterprises. IDE is on a mission to end “poverty in the developing world not through handouts, but by helping poor farmers invest in their own success.” And their product designs must be practical, usable, affordable, and offer an immediate ROI. (You can hear Paul’s talk at Pop!Tech here.)

As a (dare I say it) middle-aged white woman sitting in Northern California, I am not the best champion of these ideas. I’ve never traveled to Africa. I just firmly believe that the Western World can’t “save” developing nations through charity alone; that real change comes from real economic growth and opportunity and that is something Westerners do know about, particularly when their self interest is involved.

With that in mind, I brought together three people much closer to this topic than I for a panel I’ve called “Into Africa: Innovation for Developing Regions.” The conversations I’ve had with these folks has been tremendously stimulating and even a bit affirming. Erik Hersman is the editor of AfriGadget and writes the blog White African. The son of missionaries, Eric is thoughtful and passionate about economic development in his adopted homelands of Kenya and The Sudan. Juliana Rotich grew up in Kenya and writes passionately for AfriGadget and Global Voices Online on issues of innovation, alternative energy, and conservation throughout sub-SaharanAfrica. Mike Stopforth grew up in South Africa and is a passionate entrepreneur and co-founder of blog aggregator Afrigator.

These three are passionate and outspoken advocates for economic and entrepreneurial investment in Africa. As Juliana more or less put it when we talked last month, “People overlook Africa, but when Africa becomes empowered, look out.”

Look out, indeed.

(Note, if you’d like to be a part of this conversation at DEMO 08, please register to attend the conference at www.demo.com/D8GUIDEW to avail yourself of the Guidewire Group 20% discount on registration fees.)

1 Comment »

  1. jmforbes said

    Bingo! it ia time tio look directlyat Africa and stop using political and economic surrogates. Excellent analysis and a good call to action, Chris.

    Jim forbes

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