Saturday, April 17, 2010

Self fulfilled prophecies: robbery, solitary confinement and life in Africa

Setting foot on to South African soil for the first time last Sunday, my step was intentionally light and my pockets noticeably empty, filled instead with the scores of cautions received prior to departing and the resulting anxious expectation of essentially getting held at gun point before my luggage even arrived.
Instead of dreaming about the Table Mountains of Cape Town or the harmonies of the Soweto String Quartet, I was being attacked by the 52 murders a day, the 15,000 robberies a month, or the 500,000 assaults a year. Just as I was first cautioned about life in Nairobi (or "Nairobbery"), South Africa was a place where you couldn't ask a stranger for directions. Couldn't drive with your window down or your bag in the front seat. Couldn't walk during the night, or even ride a bike during the day.

This is the paranoia birthed by fear.

Instead of getting physically robbed, however, I've been mentally and spiritually robbed. Robbed of opportunities to initiate new friendships, engage in new conversations, experience new sites, enjoy new smells, inspire new change. The real thief has not been the guy standing on the corner, but the guy running around my head. And my punishment has been equally (if not more) damaging: solitary confinement in a gated, barbed wire and alarm-enabled cottage in the suburbs of Craighall.

This is the creation of self fulfilled prophecies.

Obviously this is a never ending battle that probably every traveller (and even local) fights, and clearly there are reasons why this war exists in the first place (three of which are listed above). But my concern is that I'm ultimately a victim of my own defense strategies, and that -- by fighting for my protection and safety instead of for the ability to live a complete and fulfilled life -- I end up losing much more than just my wallet and laptop.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Failed plans, extended journeys, and Johannesburg

On August 3, 2009 with the help of my cousin who works at American Airlines I flew standby out of JFK on flight 116 to Nairobi. Stepping out of Jomo Kenyatta Airport to a warm Kenyan afternoon, my plan was to consult for six months with a number of social enterprises, and then return to Harlem equipped with the experiences and insights gained from the base of the pyramid (BoP). Eights months later and still in Kenya, I've realized that despite being a consultant my plans rarely work out, and those insights are far from developed.

As I've said numerous times of late, poverty is a very complicated crisis, and it was definitely optimistic (read: naïve) of me to think that six months would reveal the type of sustainable solutions I was hoping. Although every opportunity I've had has been nothing short of transforming, collectively they've taught me how much I still have to learn.

So with that realization, the trip which has evolved into more of a journey will continue tomorrow as I board another flight, heading further south, to the land of Stephen Biko, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and the 2010 World Cup.

With a GDP more than 10x that of Kenya's and per capita income of more than $13,000, South Africa is by far the most developed country in sub-Sahara Africa. Yet despite this economic success, poverty is still rampant, with more than 45% of Black Africans still living in poverty and the highest HIV rate in the continent. Socially torn by the weapons of apartheid, the country seems to have a racial tension that I've only imagined in the Jim Crow American south. The result: Blacks are still stuffed into the same slums (or townships) they were exiled into during apartheid, their unemployment is over 44%, and the homicide rate is over 50% (10x higher than the second worst country in Africa).

Overwhelmed with these types of statistics, stories and rumors, I'm extremely eager (and anxious) to dig deeper, uncover truths, and hopefully identify (existing and potential) solutions. My prayer (not plan!) is that my project at Dalberg will provide these opportunities, and that I can also become involved with different community based organizations in the townships (e.g., Soweto, Alexandria, etc.). Either way, I'm excited to board the next leg of the journey, and am definitely looking forward to blogging from Joburg soon!

I'll also really miss all my friends and family in Nairobi, a few of whom are pictured below .

Njenga and O at a Community Transformers' concert in Mathare

Manasa and Leah at my "see you later" happy hour with Acumen

Ngong Hills hike with the family (not pictured) over Easter weekend

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Cyber cafés and the death of the Dark Continent

In 1878, a European explorer known as Henry Stanley authored a book called Through the Dark Continent, coining a (controversial) term for the continent of Africa in order to romantically describe the unknown and underexplored region of the world.

In 2007, a PhD student from Carnegie Melon created the above visualization of Internet connection across the globe, noting that Africa -- despite being explored and well-known now -- remains ironically labelled the Dark Continent.

In 2010, the Community Transformers (CT) and I set out to start a cyber café in the Mathare community, optimistically hoping to add a dot to the map and help erase the Dark Continent label once and forever.

According to a recent report, only 5.5% of Kenyans own computers and 83% lack access to the Internet While the skyrocketing usage of mobile phones in the past 5 years should be celebrated -- with experts forecasting 100% penetration by 2013 -- functionality on mobile phones continues to be limited (e.g., only a small percentage have Internet, certain programs/media can't be accessed, speed is slow, typing is difficult, etc.). As a result, cyber cafés have become the primary location of Internet connection.

In Mathare, however, the number of cyber cafés is extremely limited, specifically where CT is located. This area, known as Mathare Area 3, is a region with over 150,000 residents that is currently served by one lone cyber café (although there are 3 in the area 15 minutes away). For this reason, CT has realized the opportunity to profitably and sustainably serve this unmet need by providing a full service, high-end 15 computer cyber café. They envision that this café would also provide additional information and communication technology (ICT) services not found anywhere else in Mathare (e.g., photocopying, laminating, color printing), and will help address computer illiteracy by offering computer courses.  

This small and medium enterprise (SME) will be extremely important for CT as well, given that the organization is a nonprofit exclusively dependent on donor funding. Through the cyber café, CT will be meeting the needs of Mathare Area 3 -- spreading their mission of a more holistic, self reliant and healthier community -- and also generating income that can be used to support its other charity based departments (e.g., the orphan rescue center, home visits for HIV patients, youth sports, etc.). The potential is endless, and the hope is that this will be one of several SMEs that CT establishes (another being the entertainment hall, written about here).

Over the past month or two, we have been working diligently to conduct the necessary research and preparation for this venture, and have organized this diligence into a business plan. Although I've started a few business plans in the past -- and reviewed hundreds at Acumen Fund -- this is the first that I've ever completed, and we're extremely excited about how it turned out. (Now we just need founders to be equally excited!)

In 2015 then, our hope is that CT's Cyber will have served almost 300,000 Mathare residents, generated over $50,000 net income, and helped catalyze the elimination of the Dark Continent label, both in Mathare and throughout Africa.

Note: let me know if you would like to look over a copy of the business plan -- we would love any additional input!