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. 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. 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. 14: Rail and Tram Networks Establish Collaboration Space

I left a 10-day vacation in Switzerland last month in awe of the country’s rail infrastructure. One can live in a small village hours away from a major city like Zurich or Geneva, yet work in the city without a car. This would be tough to do in Atlanta.

In Switzerland, trams are an indispensable ingredient of a convenient commute. Street-level light rail in Geneva enabled me to easily jump on a train and get off when I saw my stop. I watched hundreds of people do the same during a day trip to Zurich.

Traveling regionally, I took express trains that didn’t stop on the way to our destination, making for very efficient trips. My wife and I only had one late train on our entire trip. I took several naps in my clean, cushioned seat during one-and-a-half-hour train rides from the Alps to Zurich. I awakened to at least one nightmare upon realizing that I spend the same amount of time driving from Decatur to the University of Georgia in Athens twice a week.

Returning home, I couldn’t help but think about how metro Atlanta could benefit from Zurich’s expertise in establishing a tram network that encourages commuters to use rail within the city.

Rapid transit has been a major discussion point in metro Atlanta due to the city’s stifling car traffic and the lack of access to the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority’s (MARTA) rail lines in certain areas.

A series of projects in the pipeline could combat these challenges. The Atlanta Beltline includes a 22-mile rail line that will connect the majority of Atlanta’s neighborhoods. And last year, the City of Atlanta won a $47.6 million federal grant to construct a streetcar connecting King Memorial and Centennial Olympic Park. Atlanta won this funding after falling short in securing nearly $300 million in funding for a streetcar that would run along the Peachtree Street corridor between Downtown and Midtown.

In researching these efforts, I learned that Atlanta officials have already engaged Swiss leaders to learn more about the country’s transit model and its lessons for Atlanta.
Councilman Kwanza Hall traveled to Switzerland to participate in an intensive study of the country’s transit system. Atlanta’s Swiss consulate general also has hosted multiple sustainable transportation conferences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

One of Atlanta’s African sister cities would do well to join Atlanta in learning from Zurich’s experience. Lagos, Nigeria, with its 15 million people, is the country’s most populous city and the second most populous city on the African continent. Its government has committed 70 billion naira (about $452 million) to install a light rail system that would improve the ability of Nigerians to move within a city projected to be Africa’s largest by 2015, according to a United Nations HABITAT report. By establishing links with Zurich’s Public Transport Authority (ZVV), Lagos could ensure that it reduces car traffic as much as possible.

The completion of the Lagos light rail project could also increase the ease of travel between Atlanta and Lagos, which are already linked by a nonstop Delta Air Lines flight. The light rail line will connect Murtala Muhammed Airport to the rest of Lagos, enabling foreign businesspeople to more easily travel throughout the city. This convenient change would be a small but significant contribution to the growth of business engagement between Lagos and Atlanta.

Zurich provides a light-rail model for Lagos and Atlanta, one from which I hope they partner in learning. It would be great to see Lagos and Atlanta residents and visitors utilizing their rail lines as admirably as Switzerland, for the long-term benefit of both cities.

No. 13: Business Exchange Encourages Business Deals Between Swiss and African Businesses

Business people from African countries and Switzerland will gather for the Fourth Swiss-African Business Exchange in Geneva this week to dig in and find ways to do business with one another. Exchange sessions will cover several topics including manufacturing, East African trade and investment opportunities and renewable energy.

The following manufacturers will make up part of the manufacturing panel and are sure to provide a solid on-the-ground perspective of manufacturing in African countries:

-Gary Hannam, Olivado Limited – avocado oil plant in Kenya
-Hans Peter Werder, HPW AG – dried fruit factory in Ghana
-Ramadhan Madabida, Tanzani Pharmaceutical Industries – pharmaceutical plant in Tanzania

Tony Hawkins, a professor at the University of Zimbabwe, painted a dreary picture of African manufacturing prospects. According to his assessment, South Africa generates 60 percent of the industrial output on the African continent. In the continent’s de-industrialization, Africa cannot compete with Asia which is producing high-tech products for the global market compared to the localized low-tech products African manufacturers are producing, according to Mr. Hawkins. Combatting this analysis are manufacturers like Nigeria’s Dangote Group which is successfully manufacturing rice, cement, flour, and other commodities for African countries. Dangote Cement’s initials will soon be scrolling across the London Stock Exchange.

Trade and investment opportunities in East Africa will be a topic covered by the following:

-H.E. Menilik Alemu – Ethiopian Ambassador to Switzerland
-H.E. Jacques Pitteloud – Swiss Ambassador to Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Somalia, and the Seychelles.
-Professor Maggie Kigozie, Executive Director, Uganda Investment Authority
-John Gara, Rwanda Development Board

As Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Seychelles continue their rapid growth, Switzerland will need to invest in establishing embassies solely focused on each of these countries. Between 2001 and 2010, Rwanda was one of the ten fastest growing countries in the world. Ethiopia was one of the six African countries on that list and is projected to retain that spot for the next five years. For Switzerland to maximize business relationships with these countries, a focused presence in each will be essential to success. One ambassador is not able to develop the deep relationships and knowledge of these very different countries, in efforts to support all types of relations with Switzerland.

Executives in the renewable energy sector include:

-Felix Obada – Managing Director/CEO, Global Biofuels Limited, Nigeria
-Jorgen Sandstrom – Deputy Managing Director, Addax Bioenergy Management SA, Sierra Leone

On his visit to Atlanta, Kenyan Ambassador to the United States Elkanah Odembo discussed the effort Kenya is making to be primarily reliant on renewable energies like solar power and geothermal energy by 2030. The African continent has a lot of sunlight and strong rivers among other resources. The opportunities to harness that energy responsibly will make for a great discussion.

The exchange line up is sure to make for stimulating discussion and the initiation of business deals that will contribute to the economic growth of African countries. Click on the following link for more information on the Swiss-African Business Exchange:

No. 12: Partnerships Needed: Atlantan and African Entrepreneurs Ripe to Connect

While receiving an award for Excellence in Commercial Diplomacy at Howard University’s Africa Business Conference, Florizelle Liser, Assistant US Trade Representative for Africa expressed her desire to see entrepreneurs in the African-American community and in African countries seek out partnerships with each other. The city of Atlanta, Georgia has a mix of key ingredients to make this happen:

1. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, Atlanta has the second largest number of black-owned businesses in the United States. One cannot help but notice the entrepreneurial spirit within the black community, with individuals operating in industries ranging from dry-cleaning to management consulting.

2. Through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, Delta launches direct flights to Accra, Johannesburg, Monrovia, Abuja, Lagos, and Cairo. One can fly to Accra in a time not much longer than it takes to fly to Los Angeles.

3. Mayor Kasim Reed has a vision for Atlanta to be the Western Hemisphere’s logistics hub – an aspiration that will contribute to the growing impact of the African Growth and Opportunities Act on trade between the US and African countries.

4. Georgia Tech University develops numerous engineers whose skills could contribute to Africa closing its $93 billion gap in infrastructure development.

5. Though not in Atlanta, the University of Georgia develops a talented pool of students in the agricultural industry who could contribute to Africa reaching $880 billion in agricultural output by 2040.

Dr. Adetunji Adegbesan, a strategy professor at Lagos Business School, shared an incredible story that crystalizes the potential of entrepreneurship on the African continent. An MTN executive monitoring data usage on the company’s Nigeria network noticed that a significant amount of data was passing through the network, but someone was not paying for that usage. After alerting the company’s network engineers, MTN blocked the source of that usage. A few weeks later, the same executive noticed more data passing through that was not accounted for financially. He again approached network engineers who blocked the source. Yet again, data was passing through after a few weeks and the executive approached engineers in Europe who established an elaborate block that was sure to keep the data from passing through. Data was passing through the block a few months later.

Who was breaking through MTN’s network? The company tracked the source of the data and located a small college city where a group of graduates helped families set up their computers. As part of the package they offered, these entrepreneurs “installed” the internet on these computers. They figured out a way to log the computers into MTN’s internal network while keeping the computers’ identities masked. The end result – MTN hired these innovators.

Entrepreneurship is essential to economic growth on the African continent and in the US. One can be sure that the vibrancy found in that small college city in Nigeria is not isolated, and US entrepreneurs would do well to engage this movement. Atlanta-based entrepreneurs should take the lead in engaging fellow entrepreneurs in African countries.

No. 11: Africa’s Agricultural Potential – What’s the Cost?

At what cost will Africa realize the economic potential of its agricultural industry? According to McKinsey & Company, about 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land is on the African continent. A few months ago, NPR did a piece on how Brazil has leveraged science to establish the country as a breadbasket. While listening to the piece, I thought about the model Brazil presents for African countries. Initially excited, I then thought about the potential costs of producing genetically manufactured (GM) foods.

Embrapa, Brazil’s government-run agricultural research institute, has done significant research to find ways for various types of crops to grow in the country since the 1970s. This research has led to enormous economic output. According to the Economist, Brazil drove the value of its crops from $23 billion in 1996 to $108 billion in 2006. Furthermore, the country is only using 12.5 percent of its 400 million hectares of uncultivated arable land. The Economist article qualifies these figures with the caution that Brazil drove agricultural growth systematically, and that growth on the African continent will not come quickly. Brazil spent years improving its soil, in concert with seed development. These developments led to new farming techniques that have enabled farmers to significantly increase their yields.

One can imagine the implications of Brazil’s agricultural growth for the African continent. McKinsey and Company projects that by 2040, African countries can increase the collective value of their agricultural output from $280 billion to $880 billion. To do this, countries will have to bring more land into cultivation, increase crop yields, and replace low-value crops with high-value crops like fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, if African countries are not able to implement these key drivers faster than Brazil has, 2040 will not be the year that the continent realizes $880 billion in agricultural output. The celerity with which African countries have driven the boom of the mobile phone industry makes me hopeful that it will be able to implement agricultural growth at a faster pace.

My tension lies in Brazil being second only to the United States in utilization of GM crops. Proponents of GM foods point to the necessity of these crops in establishing food security and production levels for generations to come. Critics argue against GM crops due to their potential danger to humans, and the threat they pose to other plants. A number of African countries are already producing GM crops, and scientists in Brazil continue to develop new plant technologies and farming techniques. Scientists, farmers, and policy makers are going to have to commit to thoroughly vetting the costs and benefits of employing GM crops in pursuit of a robust agricultural industry on the African continent. The economic potential of agriculture on the continent is quite impressive and will be an obstacle to objective cost-benefit analysis of policy options. Decision makers must champion thorough research and holistic conversations in shaping the premise on which countries drive agricultural development efforts. Without this hard analysis, the realization of Africa’s agricultural potential could come at a significant cost to the continent’s one-billion people.