The problems facing developing countries, in Africa and elsewhere, are overwhelming in their magnitude and complexity. From HIV/AIDS to widespread corruption and poverty, obstacles to economic development are occupying some of the world’s brightest minds. The three individuals profiled below are tackling Africa’s most trenchant problems in vastly different ways but with a common goal: to create a new development paradigm for the continent.
Few development experts would deny that, at some point, developing countries need to transition away from a reliance on foreign aid toward an economy supported by a sustainable business sector. People start to disagree, however, on how to make that happen.
Magatte Wade, a Senegalese entrepreneur and founder of beverage company Adina for Life, has jumped into the debate with a focused vision for Africa’s future. Disdainful of foreign aid, skeptical of the viability of the technology industry in Africa in the near term, and placing no faith in the ability of microfinance to transform lives on a large scale, Wade is focused on good, old-fashioned manufacturing with a pro-environment, pro-human-rights twist.
Born in Senegal and educated in France, Wade decamped to the United States after school and ended up in Silicon Valley, the ultimate destination for the motivated entrepreneur. On a 2003 trip home, she was disappointed to find that the traditional hibiscus drink of her childhood had been usurped by Western soft drinks. Determined to “criticize by creating,” Wade returned home, lined up a prestigious mentor and co-founder, Odwalla founder Greg Steltenpohl, and set to work.
The company she founded, Adina for Life, relied on hibiscus from women’s co-ops in Senegal for the company’s first beverage products. Six years later, Adina for Life sells its beverages in Whole Foods and other stores around the country. Those hibiscus-growing co-ops in Senegal now take orders years in advance.
Wade acknowledges that African manufacturers will be unable to compete with countries like China and India on cost, but she believes the continent can transform itself into the producer of the world’s high-end, organic, socially responsible brands. In a recent op-ed for The Huffington Post, Wade described her target market as the, “cultural creative demographic in the U.S.”
Wade, meanwhile, is founding a new company, a lifestyle brand which will premiere with a line of fashion accessories and personal care products. She wants the company to grow into Africa’s first truly global brand and serve as an example to both the West and other African entrepreneurs.
The company is just one part of Wade’s “comprehensive plan for Africa,” an anti-aid alternative to the Jeffrey Sachs vision. Her plan centers around advocating for business-friendly legal systems, mentoring and encouraging young entrepreneurs, and spreading her vision for green manufacturing. “If we’re going to be building factories, let’s not build ones that are going to be harmful to the environment,” she says. “If we have to use wood, let’s use bamboo because it’s more sustainable. If we’re going to be cutting trees, let’s plant new ones in their place.”
One thing that definitely doesn’t figure into her plan is foreign aid. She believes Africans can do it on their own. “At the end of the day, we’re not going to build anything on aid,” she says fiercely. “Aid has never built anything.”
The Venture Capitalist
When Jon Gosier told me that his roots lay in the music industry, I had to laugh. It’s an unlikely background for the founder of a technology incubator based in Kampala, Uganda.
Yet Gosier says that his transition from the music industry to the tech industry was a long time coming. He worked for Tyler Perry, the Atlanta-based mogul whose plays, musicals, films, and television shows targeted at African-Americans have launched him onto Forbes‘s list of the 15 highest-paid men in Hollywood. While Gosier’s colleagues were struggling to protect the industry from tech upstarts like Napster, he was cultivating a secret passion for innovative technology.
Eventually, he says, he sided with the enemy and decided to leave the industry.
When Gosier’s girlfriend was offered a job in Kampala, he left the U.S. with her, eager for a change. His early efforts to educate himself about the tech industry in Uganda revealed a striking trend. While Kampala’s Makerere University produces 900 computer science graduates every year, only 5 to 10 perecent of them manage to find jobs in the field. The young people Gosier spoke to told him that lack of capital and support hindered the development of a tech industry in the country.
Gosier devised a bold plan to address the gap. Using his personal savings as startup capital, he launched a sort of technology incubator called Appfrica Labs, which provides budding entrepreneurs with investment capital, a stable salary, a structured workplace, and the kind of training and mentorship that western entrepreneurs take for granted. Gosier hopes the innovators currently sitting down the hall from him will all have departed within a year to run their own tech startups. Less than six months into the venture, Gosier secured his first round of funding from a venture capital firm seeking exposure to Africa.
Appfrica’s Kampala office is a little outside the clattering, clanging city center within a quiet walled compound. When I visited in June, Appfrica’s engineers — universally young and Ugandan — were hard at work on a number of projects.
At the front of the room, two phone operators busily answered ringing phones for QuestionBox, a pilot project with The Grameen Foundation. The service acts as a Google for rural Africans, providing information to those without Internet access. People can call in with questions or relay them to the staffers QuestionBox dispatches to rural villages.
Each operator currently handles 100 to 200 questions per day. I watched the operators answer the phones, jot notes while listening, and politely respond, “Unfortunately I don’t have an answer for you right now but let me call you back within 15 minutes.”
Across the room, Felix Kitaka, a 19-year-old Kampala native, was working on status.ug, an application which allows Ugandans to interact with social networks (i.e. Facebook) by mobile phone, a real boon in connectivity-challenged East Africa. The application has already attracted the interest of UNICEF, who hopes to use it to involve youth in its programs. Kitaka recently secured Series A venture capital funding, a promising start to Gosier’s venture.
Elsewhere in the room, engineers worked on a volunteer software translation project, Appfrica’s blog, a texting service which notifies users when their power has gone off, and a database of African tech companies.
The engineers of Appfrica all commented on the low expectations which have discouraged Ugandan tech entrepreneurs in the past. Jerry Opolot, an engineer who has been at the company for only a few months, told me, “Clients in Uganda don’t trust Ugandan companies.”
When I asked Gosier about the prejudices Appfrica faces, he agreed that most local companies use foreign-owned tech companies for their needs, but he believes that Appfrica can change the status quo. “Once a company does it well, it will change.”
Appfrica is young, but Gosier isn’t the only one who believes in its future. In addition to The Grameen Foundation, Appfrica has been contracted by a Ugandan shipping company, an African investor network, and a news portal developed by a New York Times reporter, among others.
The HIV Warrior
The walls of the bedraggled, recently-flooded headquarters of Meeting Point in Kitgum Province, Northern Uganda, are adorned with the kinds of posters you see in the offices of social workers and high-school guidance counselors, but with a distinct twist. One poster shows a handsome, dashing man on a motorbike with his wife or girlfriend and reads, “Responsible men go together with their partners for HIV tests.” Another encourages HIV patients to use bed nets and take their antiretroviral (ARV) drug regimens.
In 1990, when Meeting Point was founded as Kitgum’s first HIV/AIDS organization, there were no such posters. The disease was still poorly understood and carried a heavy stigma. Many of Meeting Point’s early clients were either dumped on members’ doorsteps by frightened families or found through whispered rumors. Meeting Point would admonish family members: “This is still your daughter — your daughter that you have lived with.”
Ketty Opoka, who co-founded and now runs Meeting Point, was a teacher and mother of six when HIV/AIDS began claiming families in Uganda. She spent the early years of the epidemic taking patients into her home and adopting the disease’s orphans.
Meeting Point was established primarily as a hospice organization. Posters on the wall list the organization’s most important statistics — clients enrolled, clients deceased, and clients alive. In 1990, Meeting Point had 4 male and 12 female clients, all of whom died.
The numbers in recent years are much rosier and reflect both the organization’s evolving mission and the vast improvements in HIV/AIDS treatments. Meeting Point now works on ARV regime compliance, runs community dialogues and classes on prevention, distributes HIV/AIDS health kits, and provides funding to the family members of HIV orphans, allowing children to stay with relatives without sapping scarce resources.
The organization’s philosophy has also evolved along with science. “In the past, if you had HIV/AIDS, you thought you had to die,” Opoka told me. “Now you can help other people. It’s gone from a philosophy of ‘give me; help me’ to helping others.” Former clients now provide counseling to new patients on their ARV regimes, encouraging people to stick out the difficult early phase.
When floods struck Meeting Point’s headquarters in 2007, the organization’s new philosophy, as well as its home-grown community roots, was on full display. Told that it needed to move to higher ground or risk further flooding, Meeting Point secured a plot of land from the local Catholic Church. Opoka asked her clients to help clear the land.
So many volunteers showed up that Meeting Point’s staff had to implement a rotating shift schedule for the land clearing. The local hospital’s doctors told Opoka that while the land was being cleared, Meeting Point clients showed up early for their ARV regimes, toting hoes and shovels and begging doctors to wait on them first so they could head to Meeting Point for their shifts.
Opoka showed me the site for the new building. It’s better-positioned, right in the middle of Kitgum and within sight of the church. Meeting Point is still searching for the funds for the project but, in a hopeful gesture, the foundation has been laid. As she explained the role her clients and the community will play in the construction process, Opoka gestured toward the new foundation and reassured me, “It’s solid.”