Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Growth in Africa

The talks at TED have been fascinating. This conference is on fire with motivated people who see Africa as full of potential. One of the highlights so far was Bono heckling a Ugandan journalist from the audience yesterday. I've met dozens of fascinating people...many are business people who are grappling with the scope of the problems here and trying to see where they might find opportunities. I've learned some startling things: 3000 people will die today of Malaria. Corruption costs Africa 148 Billion dollars a year. 80% of all Africans are poor rural farmers. And, yet, there is unprecedented economic growth underway on the continent - some of the highest investment returns -- numbers for last year's stock exchange by specific country reached up to 140%, I believe.

Today, I sat down at lunch with three African men. One was a grad student from Cape Town, S.A., and the other two were ex-pats from Ghana - living abroad but very much engaged in a conversation about the reasons that Africans leave. The conversation turned to the topic of corruption. How to address the massive short-term incentives for supporting the 'big man' power system fueled by corruption. One quickly brainstormed talked about a public humiliation website where people could anonymously post photos of bribes being given. I asked innocently 'Why would someone exchange bribery cash in public?" He agreed -- sure you aren't going to get many -- but maybe the few would set a powerful example -- and hopefully not a unique one.

Powerful examples may be the best we can come up with in African development issues. One thing that keeps coming up, over and over, is the success of cell phones in Africa. Sim cards are cheap, coverage is widespread, and thousands upon thousands of entrepreneurs are selling phone access. Nearly every speaker has talked about this model. It's a powerful story. (Ironically, I haven't been able to get myself a working phone. I've tried 2 networks, 2 sim cards, and still, nothing.)

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