No. 22: Lunch with Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool

It usually does not take long to sense when certain people have wisdom, but when are you able to actually feel a person’s wisdom? One can feel Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool’s wisdom.

During our conversation over lunch on Wednesday, Ambassador Rasool stressed the importance of South Africa exporting the principle of Ubuntu – I am because you are. Our focus on meeting with technology companies in South Africa is a perfect opportunity to glean this philosophy and take it back to Atlanta.

Ambassador Rasool also highlighted the opportunity for African Americans and South Africans to move past a shared struggle to a shared opportunity. This is critical. The challenges that Africans and African Americans have faced are real and the conversation should continue. What is so exciting is that there are opportunities in the US and on the African continent to take a hold of those challenges and steer them towards a new narrative of global commerce, social engineering, and artistic exposure.

I don’t have much more to say than that my pursuit of wisdom continues. Reading the book of Proverbs has new meaning these days as I move further into the economic development space. It is critical that I remain hyper focused on driving equitable solutions both here in the US and in African countries. One could argue that a solution that is not equitable is not actually a solution. Ubuntu.

Pictures from Lunch with Ambassador Rasool

No. 21: Lessons From a Zambian Poultry Entrepreneur

Sydney Musonda with his first batch of chickens

Never have I been so excited about chickens! Earlier this year in Uganda, I and Sydney Musonda developed a business model for a chicken farm he would run in Zambia. He spent the next five months pursuing financing for his venture and secured funding in November. To date, he has purchased 205 day-old chicks and secured a facility to house them. He will be ready to make his first sales at the end of January.

Sydney and I recently caught up on his venture and our conversation reinforced two things concerning entrepreneurship. The first is that the external environment, both political and macroeconomic, will always make things challenging for entrepreneurs. The second is that entrepreneurs can leverage these kinds of challenges to grow their confidence, brand, and business model.

During the five months Sydney spent pursuing funding, he had a difficult time getting potential investors to buy into his idea. He got a significant amount of great feedback on his model, yet the investors he approached were having difficulty with their finances and were concerned about the political environment in Zambia at the time, it being an election year.

Zambia is one of the better performing economies on the African continent, with its current $16.19 billion GDP projected to grow at an average rate of 6.9 percent between now and 2015, though the country is still trying to make sure that growth is inclusive. Like most of the world though, the economic crisis in the European Union is surely having an impact Zambia’s economy as well.

The country seems to have transitioned well to President Michael Sata’s administration and Patriotic Front party after President Rupiah Banda’s three-year term and the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy’s 20-year control of power. In the months leading up to the election, there was tension on the ground. Sydney shared that one of the banks was taken over by the Zambian government showing that their concern was not completely unfounded.

Despite the challenges he faced, Sydney says that his confidence continued to grow pitch after pitch. He was able to glean advice from the investors he approached and found the feedback helpful in refining his model. In the face of his disappointments, he did not give up and finally secured his funding.

Sydney is launching his business at what seems to be a promising period in Zambia’s poultry industry. Mathews Ngosa, President of Poultry Association of Zambia, noted that Zambia’s poultry industry closed at 2011, having produced 40 million broiler chickens and 2.1 million layers. He projects production growth to land between 20-25 percent, a marked difference from the 40 percent reduction in growth the country experienced in 2009, and an increase from the 17.5 percent growth in 2010.

I look forward to watching Sydney grow his business. The energy in his voice was so infectious as we spoke, and I am really excited that he has progressed this far with his venture. I am sure he will face further challenges considering that his venture is still young but I think his tenacity will help him drive the business forward.

No. 20: African Countries Drive Geothermal Development Amid US-China Brinksmanship

A geothermal well at the Menengai crater. Credit: Suleiman Mbatiah

United Nations climate talks end today in South Africa and the United States and China are playing chicken on who will take the lead in stewarding the environment well while also driving economic development. Quietly, Kenya has signed major deals just this year that will see the opening of at least three plants that will grow Kenya’s geothermal capacity to 514 megawatts (MW) by 2014. By 2030, Kenya aims for geothermal energy to make up 5000 MW of the total 15,000 MW of power the country will produce to meet growing demand – an estimated $16 billion investment. Imagine that, an African country driving the uptake of clean and renewable energy.

Experts estimate that Kenya has the potential to generate 7,000 MW to 10,000 MW. The country began developing geothermal in the 1980s and currently produces about 209 MW. In 2008, the country set its geothermal power goal in the Vision 2030 strategic plan. Since that time Kenya has aggressively grown geothermal with the 36 MW expansion of the 48 MW Olkaria III, the construction of the 280 MW Olkaria IV, and the drilling of the 1,600 MW Menengai field.

Contrary to what the Wall Street Journal reported on December 6, Kenya is not the only African country developing geothermal energy. Kenya lies within the East African Rift System that runs 6,500km from Tunisia to Mozambique. In a recent conversation with Dr. Meseret Zemedkun of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), she explained that some countries in the East African region are looking to complement their current hydropower capacity, while others like Eritrea and Djibouti are looking for primary renewable energy sources. Ethiopia has drilled a pilot 7 MW plant. Eritrea is conducting detailed exploration. Djibouti is drilling wells, and Uganda and Rwanda are conducting semi-detailed and detailed exploration.

According to Dr. Zemedkun, “[African] countries are very keen to develop their resources.” She cited the high availability rate of geothermal compared to hydropower – 90-95 percent versus 50-55 percent. Changes in weather impact the availability of hydropower whereas geothermal energy is not impacted by changes in weather. Furthermore, enhanced technology is reducing the unit price of geothermal energy, increasing its accessibility to African countries.

Dr. Zemedkun is currently driving the African Rift Geothermal Project, an initiative that brings together several African countries in working to build their geothermal capacity. It also helps reduce the risks of exploration through exploration studies, site selection, and surface exploration. UNEP partners with the World Bank in this work, leveraging its risk mitigation fund to further the exploration of geothermal energy.

I am excited about the work Kenya is doing to develop its geothermal energy capacity. Its leadership has also kickstarted the exploration of geothermal energy in other countries along the East African Rift System. Hopefully, the US and China will figure out a way to do their part and contribute to the preservation of this earth while meeting the economic needs of their citizens.

No. 19: Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital: Brazil v. African Countries

Entrepreneurs across the African continent are developing highly innovative technologies that are meeting real needs and improving the ease of life for people from all walks of life. At this year’s MIT Venture Capital (VC) Conference, I sat in on a panel that covered Brazil’s VC space. Two things struck me as very different from how entrepreneurship is developing on the African continent and present a case for investors to pay more attention to entrepreneurship in Africa.

I was surprised to learn that Brazil’s entrepreneurs are more active in meeting the needs of the middle class by providing some of the technologies already available in the US like Groupon copycat, Peixe Urbano. In a year and a half, the company has expanded from Brazil to Argentina, Chile, and Mexico. Another Brazilian company, Vostu, is locked in lawsuits with Zynga which is arguing that the company is committing copyright infringement of its games including Farmville, a Facebook favorite.

In Africa, we are not seeing a lot of “copycat” or “geographic innovation” technologies as one of the panelists preferred to call them. We are seeing technologies like Paga in Nigeria that enables mobile bankers to use any bank they choose. We see Sproxil, a company that has developed technology which uses text messaging to confirm that the drugs you are taking are not counterfeit. These creative innovations are exciting developments and ones that increase the fundability of entrepreneurs across the continent from investors both inside and outside the Africa

The second observation that struck me was the presence of VCs encouraging entrepreneurs to try new things in bringing various technologies to Brazil – providing entrepreneurs with mentorship that can help them increase their success rates in the country. Earlier this year, Ndubuisi Ekekwe, an entrepreneur and scholar wrote a nice article on African entrepreneurs’ need for nurturing. Mentoring fell under this bucket. As entrepreneurs learn from the mistakes of their mentors to avoid those same pitfalls, stronger products enter the market. I am extremely happy for Tayo Oviosu, CEO of Paga and the access he has to a mentor like Tim Draper. I think we will see more mentorship as time elapses but the involvement of Brazil VCs in the growth of their companies bolstered my understanding of the importance of mentoring.

Two takeaways came from the panel – the African entrepreneurial market is more disruptive than the current Brazilian entrepreneurial market, while more African entrepreneurs are going it alone as Brazilian entrepreneurs more readily have access to mentorship. Both are interesting phenomena and ones whose evolution I look forward to tracking over the next few years as I believe the presence of venture capitalists and mentors will grow rapidly over the next two or three years.

The following are recent CNBC Africa conversations on entrepreneurship in South Africa and Africa as a whole:

Photo Credit: Afrinnovator

No. 18: Not a Protectionist, But David Cameron’s Interest in Africa Makes Me Nervous

While reading an article on David Cameron’s visit to Africa, I just couldn’t help but see an image of British ships exploring the new world, landing on the African continent and thinking – “we’ve got free labor”.

Source: Slavery in America

The author follows Prime Minister Cameron on his trip to South Africa and Nigeria, highlighted by the fact that the Prime Minister brought with him the heads of several heavy hitters already doing business on the African continent – Vodacom, Barclays, and Diageo to name a few. Mr. Cameron’s theme throughout the trip was that Britain sees Africa in a new light – a trading partner, not just an aid recipient. Business leaders touted the economic opportunities on the continent, and expressed their wishlists of improved regulations to enable business to thrive.

The African continent’s countries are really making moves in growing their economies and improving governance. Those improvements are drawing increasing attention from Asia and the West, and it is increasingly important that African countries protect their interests. My recent trip to Uganda revealed the downside of China’s investment on the continent – socks that had holes after a week of wear. Again, it is increasingly important that African countries protect their interests.

Source: The Economist

Those of us in the Diaspora have an incredible opportunity to seize in serving our countries. Tons of us have studied the way the Asian, European, and American players work the markets, run governments, etc. We can work with Africans on the continent in serving as gatekeepers to ensure that non-African penetration of African countries is healthy.

Source: Marvel Comics

I look forward to working with you in some fashion. I’m sitting here with goosebumps as I watch childhood daydreams morph into reality.

No. 17: Compartment Syndrome Reveals African Brain Drain

Why did there seem to be so many African health care professionals at DeKalb Medical Hospital? Over the course of my weeklong stay at the hospital, recovering from surgery, I could not help but ponder this. In the course of a week, nurses from Nigeria and Tanzania tended to me. My primary doctor was Nigerian. During my exercise walks down the hall, I saw even more African doctors, nurses, and technicians. I was floored.

While in Uganda a few weeks ago, I heard stories about the challenges the country faces in retaining the medical doctors it trains. Imagine an entire district that has thousands of citizens, needs ten doctors to care for them, but has only been able to fill two positions. In Ghana, there were 0.85 physicians per 10,000 people in 2009. The country has around 23 million people, yet there were 2,000 doctors in 2009. According to the World Health Organization, African countries only have 3 percent of the global health workforce despite having 11 percent of the world’s population and 24 percent of the global disease burden: Global Health Workforce.

The consensus among African doctors who leave the continent is that they left for higher salaries and better working conditions. The following video covers that tension well: Africa’s Deadly Brain Drain. Understanding a small piece of the challenge African countries are facing in growing their medical professional workforces increases my appreciation for some good friends of mine, and the work to which they have committed themselves in driving health improvements in African countries.

Claud Crosby is a Tuberculosis Research Specialist at Emory University after living on the African continent for half a decade. He has spent a significant amount of time in Swaziland and South Africa working in medical facilities. Seeing the public health challenges in those countries drove him to re-enroll in college here in the US in efforts to pursue a medical degree. Claud’s ultimate aim is to practice medicine on the African continent. His vision is for public health systems that empower people to drive improved health conditions in their respective communities. He also aims to build profit-generating entities alongside these systems in order to reach individuals despite their ability to pay.

Rivka Ihejirika is completing post-baccalaureate studies at Harvard University before enrolling in medical school. She set her mind to be a surgeon and contribute to the improvement of Nigeria’s healthcare system after a summer trip to the country. While there, she volunteered with a hospital and came back heavily impacted. Hopefully her leadership in surgery combats the challenges Patrick Awuah describes in the beginning of this talk: Training Our Next Leaders.

Valentine Dike is an Army Officer in the US Army. His vision is to improve the sustainability of Nigeria’s health care infrastructure. He wants to see hospitals in which the power doesn’t go out in the middle of surgeries. Alongside conducting his duties in the Army, he is collaborating with a doctor in studying Nigeria’s health environment in depth. In studying Nigeria’s health care system, he has four areas in which he wants to grow his understanding:

1. What are the Policies that are in place?
2. What is the reality for the medical professionals on the ground?
3. What are the conditions of the communities at hand
4. What are the conditions of the primary care facilities?

He aims to enroll in a Master of Public Policy/Master of Business Administration dual degree program in efforts to drive this vision from a policy and business perspective.

While I am encouraged to see my friends going back to the African continent, its countries need their doctors, nurses, technicians, public health workers returning home. The challenges of compensation and working conditions are staggering in some countries, but more hands on the plow can push through them.

No. 16: Uganda – Farming Challenges in Kayongo

Though back in the US, I am still in awe at how lush Uganda’s land is. I am also in awe to have seen so many children with malnutrition at the church I worshipped at on my last Sunday in the country. I and some friends travelled to a village called Kayongo that is located about 3-4 hours east of Kampala. One of my friends has a relationship with a pastor who lives in this community, and we spent a significant amount of time together over the course of our last week in the country.

Agriculture is the primary source of income in the Kayongo area, and drought conditions during the past two years have had a significant impact on families’ abilities to feed themselves – let alone make some money. Imagine how I was trying to figure out how fast Kayongo can realize its piece of the continent’s $880 billion potential agricultural output?

Seeing so much arable land, coupled with the reality of hunger that some of these families were facing left me stumped. The pastor in this community seems to have done a lot to identify potential resources that they can tap into to improve their farming practices. I believe the Uganda Clusters Program could really have an impact in this community, connecting subsistence farmers to fellow farmers who are effectively operating their farms as businesses.

Seeing that community really put meat to the PowerPoints and white papers I have read on agriculture on the African continent. I look forward to learning more about driving agricultural growth on the continent among small-scale farmers.