Monday, February 22, 2010

One year later: Has Obama failed the African poor?

The following is another sample post that I wrote for the Global Poverty cause at

On a crowded Nairobi street back in August 2009, a panhandler across the matatu-packed highway called out to get my attention: Mr. Obama, jambo! Utilizing my ostensible ethnic makeup and the US President's even more obvious popularity, this entrepreneur made a nearly successful attempt at acquiring a customer who really had no interest in buying anything.
Fast forward 6 months, and I wonder if that same panhandler would still consider using that same tactic.
Last week, the largest news publication in Kenya -- a country that previously declared a national holiday when Obama was elected -- published an article titled Has Obama been good to Africa?, raising into question whether the US President with Kenyan roots has lived up to the expectations of a continent where over 41% of the population lives on less than $1 a day. Expectations from those like my panhandler friend -- who dreams of opening his own kiosk -- or the matatu conductors, who imagine purchasing their own bus or taxi.
When looking back at Obama's first year in office, it's clear that the president has made steps in the right direction towards alleviating poverty. But it's also undeniable that the statistics of poverty are still denominated in the same millions and billions figures.

But while there is still an overwhelmingly daunting amount of work that remains, critics need to remember two things:

I. Sustainable development is very complicated and takes time
Although no one in their right mind would expect poverty to be eliminated overnight, it's equally unfair to believe that an administration could make a noticeable impact in a single year, especially given the history of dead aid and the mandate to revise the model.

As Obama acknowledged in Ghana, the West has often approached Africa as a patron or a source of resources rather than a partner… the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of perpetual aid that helps people scrape by -- it’s whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.

II. Africa’s future is ultimately up to Africans
While we live in a global, interconnected community, where events in Nairobi undoubtedly affect circumstances in New York, it is also clear that countries in Africa need to take ownership of their own future, and not depend on handouts from outside countries to catalyze change.

Or in the words of Obama, things can only be done if all of you [Ghanaians and Africans] take responsibility for your future… Opportunity won’t come from any other place. It must come from the decisions that all of you make, the things that you do, the hope that you hold in your heart.

So, while I re-ascertain that it is premature and unreasonable to assess the success of the Obama administration's economic development efforts in Africa, I also realize that the next time I'm called Obama might actually be by the matatu driver, as he swerves to avoid me crossing the street. At least for the time being.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Community Transformers United (part 2)

As the setting Nairobi sun added an extra orange tent to the thousands of already rusty brown roofs in the Mathare Valley, hundreds of fans stretched the thin tin walls of football halls throughout Africa's second largest slum. Sporting blue and red colored shirts and jerseys, each one paid 30-40 shillings (~50 cents) to watch a 21 inch screen broadcasting one of the most anticipated matches of the season: Arsenal versus Chelsea.

Walking with CT United members for the entire 90 minutes of the match, from one football hall to another, I realized that this is how a community often without TVs and almost entirely without cable participates in Kenya's favourite pastime time. Every single one of the seven 20' by 30' halls we visited was overflowing with grown men, squeezing together on the shaking wooden benches in order to get a glimpse of Drogba squeezing a volley into the top right corner of the net within the first 8 minutes of the match (video here) or Arshavin's near equalizer that was denied by Cech's outstretched left foot.
While cheers from Chelsea's side and gasps from the Arsenal fans only made the place a few degrees more stifling, the hall managers were sweating nervously, praying to avoid the blackout that had already left the other side of town without power.

Sometime after Drogba's left foot nailed the coffin shut with another blast passed Arsenal's infuriated keeper, we were on our way to a café to discuss how we could create a business out of this movement. Over the past few months, the team has been exploring income generating activities in order to become
more sustainable as a CBO and simultaneously unite the community and help provide employment opportunities for our young squad. And visiting the halls confirmed what the players have been saying: a state of the art football/movie hall in a less saturated part of the slum (where we could charge slightly more and wouldn't steal customers from the other halls) could be the perfect solution.

As the players discussed over Fantas and Coca Colas, this hall would certainly be a football fan's dream, with a 10' by 10' projector, surround sound, padded chairs, high powered fans, generators for blackouts, a refrigerator with snacks, a VIP row for advanced ticket holders, a second screen to show concurrent matches, and first class customer service.

Extravagant? Perhaps. But why shouldn't Mathare have the same luxuries one would find on the opposite side of town, but at an affordable rate? As Acumen's CEO often states, poverty is about choices, and if you find a way to provide the poor with more choices, you are exploring opportunities to establish dignity and creating a stepping stone towards alleviating poverty.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The power of (clean) water: Add 15 years to your life

The following is a sample post that I wrote for the Global Poverty cause at, which will hopefully be launched soon!

How many times would you have to walk back and forth to the sink in order to spend 25% of your life collecting water? How many hours of sleep would you lose, classes would you miss, careers would you forego and dreams would you sacrifice, if you cut off 25% of your life (or even 6 hours of your day tomorrow)?

Now imagine that your water source isn't actually a sink, but a remote collection point that you had to trek 5 miles to, along treacherous paths (not roads), in all types of weather conditions, only to wait in queues for hours upon arrival, and then have to haul up to 45 pounds of water on your head back home.

And although access to safe water is often considered an after thought to issues such as employment, literacy, crop productivity, access to finance and entrepreneurship, a look at the figures above quickly proves that all of the aforementioned interventions are diminished (if not eliminated) when women spend 25% of their lives collecting water.

With this as a backdrop, I walked in to the eloquent, security-guarded doors of the Panafric Hotel in Nairobi, and listened intently as four organizations presented innovations for delivering water more effectively to the base of the pyramid. As part of the Ripple Effect project (which, full disclosure, my employer sponsors), these organizations are exploring new models to fix an age old problem; models such as a franchising kiosk distribution points in informal settlements, or redesigned / easier to carry 10 litter jerrycans, or remodeled water carts or water storage facilities. And it's working already. Over the past week, each project has begun pilot testing and has already sold to thousands of customers.

While there is still a behemoth amount of progress mandated in order to begin chipping away at the 1.1 billion worldwide who are without clean water, progress starts with a step. And Saturday was a celebration of just that: a step in regaining the lives of women worldwide who are denied the opportunities and joys of everyday life.