I recently had an opportunity to sit down and talk with Emeka Okafor, Sun Participation Fellow at this year's PopTech Conference and the force behind the excellent blogs Timbuktu <http://timbuktuchronicles.blogspot.com/>; Chronicles and Africa Unchained <http://africaunchained.blogspot.com/>.
Emeka's blogs and projects highlight the power of an ever-growing nexus involving technology, business and development. Timbuktu Chronicles aggregates some of the most interesting and exciting models of entrepreneurship happening in Sub-Saharan Africa while Africa Unchained allows Emeka to "think out loud" about paradigms of development, innovation and politics.
[When did you first become interested in entrepreneurship and technology?]
I've always had an interest in science and I found a commonality between science and business. I don't mean making money but rather the ways in which people go about creating something that can sustain itself. I think the context of science, business and creativity is something that has been with me since I was very young.
My mother came from a Nigerian family of merchants. She was born in Nigeria and then she moved to England where she met and married my father. They moved from England to Canada and then back to Nigeria so they started this nomadic lifestyle that has more or less continued.
My parents always forced us to recognize how important our culture was regardless of the other cultures around us. They didn't do this from the standpoint of, "You have to respect this." Instead they would talk about our culture and say, "See how complex it is; see how it stands on its own two feet. It's just as interesting as everything else."
For example, an uncle of mine, a very famous author, wrote the book Things Fall Apart. When we were young, in Canada, my father always made it a point to say, "This is a book your uncle wrote. See how rich this culture really is."
The writing in the book feels very self-assured. It wasn't written the way someone would write about rural England; the writing constantly affirms that this is the way people really live their lives. Knowing that the author was my relative made me feel comfortable with where I came from.
When we moved back to Nigeria, my mother continued along those lines. She always made us eat all the traditional foods. Other people who had "lived overseas" came back to Nigeria and they would try to show that they were upper-middle class or global by "aping" the lifestyles and attributes of what they considered more civilized parts of the world.
My parents weren't like that. They made us try everything. At the beginning of the rainy season, we had termite queens filling the sky and they would cluster around light. People trap them in water and then they eat them as a snack. My mother made us try this and it was delicious. We never got the message that it wasn't worthy.
When I go back and reflect on it now, it feels like all of my work relates back to this attitude about where I'm from.
[How would you describe your work and its focus?]
In Nigeria, I always saw flashes of magic in terms of creativity, inspiration, innovative thinking, but they were mere flashes. You would always hear stories that were inspiring but there wasn't any sustainable momentum to them.
As I got older, I began to qualitatively assess the environment I came from. It just didn't make sense to me that there wasn't the same level of interesting activity coming out of Sub-Saharan Africa as you might find coming out of Europe or the United States.
And then, a lot of the coverage that commented on new projects [in Sub-Saharan Africa] made me uncomfortable because it was always placed within the context of "doing something unusual." It was based on a perception people have about that part of the world. I just wanted to read, see and talk about people doing interesting things: interesting things of their own merit, not interesting because they made people "feel good."
I realized that I needed some sort of platform. People always said to me: "Emeka, you're always talking about this sort of thing or that sort of thing. Why don't you publish a magazine or a book? Why don't you put together a proposal for a television show?"
I never really jumped at any of those ideas but, about two years ago, I became aware of blogs. I wasn't interested in being a diarist but I wanted to try it out. One of the things I typically did was e-mail things that interested me to friends and family. So I said, let me turn that limited number of people around and try to offer it to as many people as possible. Let me try to "think out loud" in front of people.
I'm not a journalist and I wasn't trained in journalism. I just wanted to focus on what Africans were doing (Africans abroad and Africans living in Africa): methods, technologies, models of doing things that might be interesting to Africans. I was stumbling. I wasn't sure what I was doing. I wasn't even sure if there would be anything to post. Up until then, I hadn't seen anything myself.
[What was the context for your blog? What other kinds of stories were being
told about African businesses?]
At that time, if you read anything about African business, it was all very staid; there wasn't any life in it. It was about multinationals building a tobacco plant or an old post-colonial firm expanding their bottling factory. I thought, who knows? Other people might see what I'm doing and it might spread. Someone might want to do an entire blog or publication on indigenous pharmaceuticals, for example. These areas were being starved of the oxygen of publicity.
Kevin Kiley's Out of Control really opened my eyes to the world of spontaneity and complexity present in urban African areas. It reminded me that hierarchy isn't really as effective as people expect it to be. People who approach these areas with a formal, hierarchical sense don't really see the level of creativity that exists because it's not defined. That is where I feel theories of complexity and nonlinear thinking coming into play; you begin to see things start to spring up.
When I look at the blog and the people I've now begun to have interactions with, I see that emerging complexity as part of the mesh. I see all of it as nodes in the network. The more we have this back and forth, the more we strengthen and support each other.
For example, many creative endeavors, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, are not considered "sexy." People are going to universities, coming out and becoming administrators. That's what the educational system is making. Someone graduating as a doctor will receive many accolades but what about the man irrigating his vegetable garden in an innovative and interesting way? Where are the accolades for him? People like me need to say: "That's just as important."
[What sorts of discussions are you having with people as a result of your blogs?]
A lot of the feedback has been positive; people see it and they begin to create work on their own-these are people all over Africa-and it's been very encouraging to see people talk about these issues as much they talk about the politics and the fighting.
I've also started some conversations with people who have become collaborators on projects. I'm working on an interesting project that focuses on infrastructure and development in Africa. One of the goals is to kickstart infrastructure projects that are not necessarily at high-end range, which is about 5 millions dollars, but above micro-finance range ($100,000 and below.) These are projects that fall between those two benchmarks.
I have been meeting with a friend of mine from India. He has his PhD from Columbia and he's involved in a project in India that has a lot to do with rural structure development. I came across what he was doing and I sent him an e-mail and told him that I really liked the thinking behind his work and the work of his associates. I told him that I published a blog that covered a number of these areas in Africa.
[How would you describe his thinking? What made it different?]
For so long the developing world, rural low-income poor, were considered of no importance in terms of commerce. What began to open a lot of people's eyes to the possibilities were a number of things, including: 1.) the whole area of micro-finance which was started by the founder of the Grameen <http://www.grameen-info.org/>; Bank; and 2.) the massive uptake of wireless technology in parts of the world that were previously considered of no importance.
I was always intrigued by models of development, how to enable the people considered unimportant-not from an altruistic standpoint but because there were opportunities that could be of mutual benefit for those involved.
So this collaborator from India saw my blog and he saw me thinking out loud and we would have these cerebral "meet ups." We started to look at how we could take this to the next step, above and beyond what we were already doing.
We decided to begin meeting and now our meetings have started to grow. The last meeting we had was about 18-20 people. These are people pulled in from all different sectors: hedge funds, the Earth Institute at Columbia, all over. It has become this nexus of thinking and engaging and acting on the lack of infrastructure in places like Sub-Saharan Africa. It's an open sort of conversation where presentations are made and people talk about their interests; it could be malaria in Rwanda, it could be water delivery in Somalia. We just wanted to talk and to get comfortable with the dynamics. It's another one of those nodes that is derivative of the blog.
Who knows? Maybe I might come across someone a few years from now who says: "I did this because I saw it on your blog." It's like being a teacher or a professor. There is something very fulfilling about dispersing knowledge and seeing the effects of that knowledge when it comes back to you. I think, in many ways, that fulfillment helps to alleviate many of the challenges ahead.
How to reach Emeka Okafor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
By Ann Healy Marie
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