US lifts visa restrictions on Gambian robotics students
July 8, 2017 | 0 Comments
Gambian students who were twice denied visas to travel to the US for a robotics competition are celebrating after permission was granted.
The team will now go to Washington DC and show off their invention.
The reasons for the initial rejections are unclear.
Gambia is a Muslim majority country but it is not on the US’s six-country travel ban, which was introduced by President Donald Trump.
One of the participants, Fatoumata Ceesay, 17, told BBC Newsday, the team was pleased to be able to travel.
Mucktarr Darboe is a director at the ministry of higher education, and the US has a ban on granting visas to employees of the Gambian government after a deportation row last year.
Earlier this week, an all-girl team of roboticists from Afghanistan were denied US visas to travel to the same competition.
The culminating three-day US event starts on 16 July.
The non-profit organisation aims to promote Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).
“I hope to come back with knowledge and inspiration to give young Gambians, especially the girls,” said Ms Ceesay.
She said many people her age aspired to careers in medicine and “engineering is lagging behind”. She hopes success stories like that of her team will highlight Gambia’s potential to innovate.
Neither Afghanistan nor Gambia is part of the US’s so-called travel ban, which affects people from Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Yemen.
“We are excited and happy, but also disheartened, because we are not going with our mentor because he is a government official,” she said.
What you need to know about Gambia Government`s austerity measures
July 4, 2017 | 0 Comments
By Awa B Bah*
The Gambia`s Finance and Economic Affairs Minister Amadou Sanneh on Thursday 29th June 2017 presented a revised budget of government revenue and expenditure estimates for the 2017 financial year, before the country`s legislators at the National Assembly building in Banjul.
The revised revenue, recurrent and development expenditure estimates is designed to reduce the budget deficit of about 4.7 billion dalasis.
According to Sanneh, the austerity measures to be taken include debt management, sale of vehicles and planes, the gateway project, mining and fuel for NAWEC.
Sanneh claimed that the former APRC regime has contributed to the deterioration of the economy by mismanagement of public funds and abuse of public institutions.
He said the Coalition Government inherited a ‘dire macro-economic situation’, with a public debt equivalent to 83.3% of the country`s GDP in 2013, which rose to 120.3 % in 2016. He added that domestic foreign reserves depleted to less than 2 months of future imports.
Sanneh said the APRC administration “abused State-owned enterprises such as GAMTEL, SSHFC, and NAWEC.” He claimed that D4.7 billion was embezzled within a period of 3 years.
According to the Finance Minister, the previous regime`s poor agricultural policy, siphoning of royalties from the sub mining sector, and the purchase of 44 pickup vehicles in 2011 contributed to the huge deficit.
He said the Barrow administration, will prioritize ‘macroeconomic stability’ and address the burgeoning debt situation, through fiscal discipline.
He said: “This revised budget has a total financing gap of D955 million, compared to the D4.7 billion budget that was previously approved in December 2016.”
Measures taken by the government includes all outstanding CBG lending to the budget, through various facilities were consolidated into a 30-year bond at an interest rate of 5.5% at the end of 2016, with projected interest savings of D330 million per annum.
He said curtailing expenditure considerably which has further supported the decline in T-bill rates, with an average reaching 11.5 % in early April 2017 compared to an average of 17 percent in 2016 is expected to reduce domestic interest payments in 2017 by D377 million.
There will be cuts of D475 million mainly in goods and services, including from the budget of the Office of The President and staff audits of the civil service.
Adding that for the first time in the uniformed services (which has expanded strongly in recent years) have been launched recently and are expected to be completed June 2017, while the elimination of ghost-workers from the payroll could deliver savings and the staff audit could also lay a foundation for a more comprehensive civil service reform.
Policies governing the bloated vehicle fleet and its cost he revealed will be reformed with the expected savings in spending on goods and services in the tune of D942 million.
“Asset sales are expected to yield D471 million in 2017 including four Presidential planes, and sale of land in prime tourist areas, which could generate investment”, said Sanneh.
The Minister said previously diverted non-tax revenue from the international telecommunication voice gateway, sand and heavy metal mining concessions, and other fees, are expected to yield D566 million.
He announced that plans are underway to vigorously pursue recovery of purported stolen assets of the government through all available channels, including the assistance of the World Bank Stolen Assets Recovery Unit.
He also indicated that apart from cutting down expenditure, government has reduced the price of fertilizer for farmers to boost production.
Sanneh said: “Government has reduced the sale of fertilizer from D950 per bag to D700 per bag.
“Efforts are being made to reduce the price of seed nuts from D2, 500.00 per bag to D2, 000 per bag to increasing production remarkably from 3,000 MT to 200,000 MT.”
In addition, he said they have extensively engaged development partners like the IMF, World Bank, European Union, and the African Development Bank, to work closely to bring about macro-economic stability and jointly agree on implementing certain reforms to speed up the economic recovery process.
The revision of the 2017 approved budget, he said, is to further reduce non-priority expenditure, which is one of the prior actions agreed upon in order to receive budgetary support.
In the revised budget for 2017, he revealed that total revenue and grants for the 2017 Revised Budget is now projected at Dl2.242 billion, which represents a reduction of 5.7 per cent over 20I6 figure of Dl2.994 billion decrease mainly attributed to the loss of revenue during the political impasse.
He added that most businesses were closed, coupled with the negative impact the impasse had on the tourism sector with flights and bookings cancellations.
Projected grants, he said, are estimated to decrease significantly from D4.396 billion in 2016 to D782 million in 2017, representing a decline of 82% primarily as a result of the end cycle of various projects in the country, and a more realistic methodology in the capturing of project grants within the budget.
However, unlike the previously approved budget, which did not earmark any budget support for the year, this revised budget, the minister highlights, is projecting a budget support to the tune of D2.4 billion most of which support will come from the IMF, World Bank, EU, and the African Development Bank.
Total expenditure and Net-lending Sanneh announced is projected to decline from D16.911 billion in 2016 to D13.198 billion in the revised 2017 budget, representing a decrease of 22 % of the bulk attributed to Domestic Interest Payments, which declined by 30% or over Dl billion, and Other Current (OC) expenditure, which declined by 37% or over D3 billion.
The debt Interest payment is projected to consume around 34 % of government Tax revenues in 2017 that is 9% less than what it consumed in2016, moving from D3.720 billion in 2016 to D2.768 billion .
In terms of financing the deficit, Net Domestic Borrowing (NDB) he highlighted, is projected to decrease significantly to Dl.18 billion in 2017 from a budgeted amount of D3.39 billion in 2016.
He concluded that if the revised budget is approved, it will be useful tool in the drive to achieve sustainable macroeconomic stability.
Bushra al-Fadil wins 18th Caine Prize for African Writing
July 4, 2017 | 0 Comments
Bushra al-Fadil has won the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing, described as Africa’s leading literary award, for his short story entitled “The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away”, translated by Max Shmookkler, published in The Book of Khartoum – A City in Short Fiction(Comma Press, UK. 2016). The Chair of Judges, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, announced Bushra al-Fadil as the winner of the £10,000 prize at an award dinner this evening (Monday, 3 July) held for the first time in Senate House, London, in partnership with SOAS as part of their centenary celebrations. As a translated story, the prize money will be split – with £7,000 going to Bushra and £3,000 to the translator, Max Shmookler.
“The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away” vividly describes life in a bustling market through the eyes of the narrator, who becomes entranced by a beautiful woman he sees there one day. After a series of brief encounters, tragedy unexpectedly befalls the woman and her young female companion.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes praised the story, saying, “the winning story is one that explores through metaphor and an altered, inventive mode of perception – including, for the first time in the Caine Prize, illustration – the allure of, and relentless threats to freedom. Rooted in a mix of classical traditions as well as the vernacular contexts of its location, Bushra al-Fadil’s “The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away”, is at once a very modern exploration of how assaulted from all sides and unsupported by those we would turn to for solace we can became mentally exiled in our own lands, edging in to a fantasy existence where we seek to cling to a sort of freedom until ultimately we slip into physical exile.”
Bushra al-Fadil is a Sudanese writer living in Saudi Arabia. His most recent collection Above a City’s Sky was published in 2012, the same year Bushra won the al-Tayeb Salih Short Story Award. Bushra holds a PhD in Russian language and literature.
Bushra was joined on the 2017 shortlist by:
- Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria) for ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’ published in The New Yorker (USA. 2015)
- Read ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’
- Chikodili Emelumadu (Nigeria) for ‘Bush Baby’ published in African Monsters, eds. Margarét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas (Fox Spirit Books, UK. 2015)
- Read ‘Bush Baby’
- Arinze Ifeakandu (Nigeria) for ‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’ published in A Public Space 24 (A Public Space Literary Projects Inc., USA. 2016)
- Magogodi oaMphela Makhene (South Africa) for ‘The Virus’ published in The Harvard Review 49 (Houghton Library Harvard University, USA. 2016)
- Read ‘The Virus’
The panel of judges was chaired by Nii Ayikwei Parkes – member of the Caine Prize Council and Director of the Ama Ata Aidoo Centre for Creative Writing at the African University College of Communications in Accra, the first of its kind in West Africa. He is the author of the novel Tail of the Blue Bird (Jonathan Cape, UK. 2009) which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010.
Alongside Nii on the panel of judges are: Chair of the English Department at Georgetown University, Professor Ricardo Ortiz; Libyan author and human rights campaigner, Ghazi Gheblawi; distinguished African literary scholar, Dr Ranka Primorac; and 2007 Caine Prize winner, Monica Arac de Nyeko.
As in previous years, the winner of the Caine Prize will be given an opportunity to take up residence at Georgetown University at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. The winner will also be invited to speak at the Library of Congress. Each shortlisted writer receives £500, and Max Shmookler, translator of Bushra al-Fadil’s shortlisted story (originally written in Arabic) receives £250. The winner is invited to take part in the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, Storymoja in Nairobi and Ake Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria.
Last year the Caine Prize was won by South African writer Lidudumalingani for his story “Memories We Lost” from Incredible Journey: Stories That Move You (Burnet Media, South Africa. 2015). Lidudumalingani has since gone on to win a Miles Morland Scholarship and is currently writing his debut novel, Let Your Children Name Themselves.
The New Internationalist 2017 anthology, The Goddess of Mtwara and other stories, is now published and it includes all of the shortlisted stories along with 11 other short stories written at the Caine Prize 2017 workshop in Tanzania. You can buy the anthology at https://newint.org/books/fiction/caine-prize-2017/. The anthology is also available from 11 African co-publishers who receive the print ready PDF free of charge.
The Caine Prize, awarded annually for African creative writing, is named after the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years.
The Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English (indicative length 3,000 to 10,000 words). An African writer is taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, or who is a national of an African country, or who has a parent who is African by birth or nationality.
The African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka and J M Coetzee, are Patrons of The Caine Prize. Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is President of the Council, Ben Okri OBE is Vice President, Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley is the Chair, Adam Freudenheim is the Deputy Chairperson and Dr Lizzy Attree is the Director.
Full biographies of the shortlistees are available at http://caineprize.com/2017-shortlist/.
Full biographies of the 2017 judges are available at http://caineprize.com/2017-judges/.
This year 148 short stories from writers representing 22 African countries were received and entered into the 2017 Caine Prize before they were whittled down to the final 5. The judges made their final decision on the winner today.
Previous winners are Sudan’s Leila Aboulela (2000), Nigerian Helon Habila (2001), Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina (2002), Kenyan Yvonne Owuor (2003), Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava (2004), Nigerian Segun Afolabi (2005), South African Mary Watson (2006), Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko (2007), South African Henrietta Rose-Innes (2008), Nigerian EC Osondu (2009), Sierra Leonean Olufemi Terry (2010), Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo (2011), Nigerian Tope Folarin (2013), Kenyan Okwiri Oduor (2014), Zambian Namwali Serpell (2015), and South African Lidudumalingani (2016).
The five shortlisted stories, alongside stories written at Caine Prize workshop held in Tanzania in March 2017, are published annually by New Internationalist (UK), Interlink Publishing (USA), Jacana Media (South Africa), LanternBooks (United States), Kwani? (Kenya), Sub-Saharan Publishers (Ghana), FEMRITE (Uganda), ‘amaBooks (Zimbabwe), Mkuki na Nyota (Tanzania), Redsea Cultural Foundation (Somalia and Somaliland), Gadsen Publishers (Zambia), Huza Press (Rwanda), Books are available from the publishers or from the Africa Book Centre, African Books Collective or Amazon.
The Caine Prize is principally supported by The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, The Miles Morland Foundation, The Carnegie Corporation, the Booker Prize Foundation, Sigrid Rausing & Eric Abraham, The Wyfold Charitable Trust, the Royal Over-Seas League and John and Judy Niepold. Other funders and partners include, The British Council, Georgetown University (USA), The Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice, The van Agtmael Family Charitable Fund, Rupert and Clare McCammon, Adam and Victoria Freudenheim, Arindam Bhattacherjee, Phillip Ihenacho and other generous donors.
Special thanks also go to the Centre of African Studies and SOAS, University of London, for supporting this year’s award dinner, held for the first time in London.
*The Caine Prize
Mugabe donates $1 million to African Union
July 4, 2017 | 0 Comments
HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said on Monday he was donating $1 million to the African Union (AU), hoping to set an example for African countries to finance AU programmes and wean it off funding from outside donors.
For years, about 60 percent of AU spending has been financed by donors including the European Union, World Bank and governments of wealthy non-African countries.
Mugabe, who has held power in Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, has said reliance on foreign funds allows big powers to interfere in the work of the AU.
The 93-year-old Mugabe told an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he had auctioned 300 cattle from his personal herd in May to fulfil a promise made to the continental body two years ago.
“Africa needs to finance its own programmes. Institutions like the AU cannot rely on donor funding as the model is not sustainable,” Mugabe said in comments broadcast on Zimbabwe’s state television.
“This humble gesture on Zimbabwe’s part has no universal application but it demonstrates what is possible when people apply their minds to tasks before them.”
The African Union’s 2017 budget is $782 million, increasing from $416.8 million last year. African leaders in July 2016 agreed in principle to charge a 0.2 percent levy on some exports to help finance AU operations.
Zimbabwe, whose economy was devastated by a drought last year, does not disclose its contributions to the AU. The top five African contributors are Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa.
*Reuters.(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Roche)
Africa: Don’t Abandon Patriotism, KK Reminds Africa
June 29, 2017 | 0 Comments
By Steven Zande*
First Republican president Kenneth Kaunda has reminded Africa not to abandon the patriotism that its founding fathers exhibited when they stood by each other to liberate the continent from colonial bondage despite geographic locations.
Dr Kaunda said good neighbourliness was the cornerstone that the founding fathers built on Africa and liberated it from colonial bondage, and it was important that the current generation did not forget this component of history.
The former head of State said it was important that Africans worked together in love because where there was love, people could overcome any challenges.
Dr Kaunda said this yesterday when visiting Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo paid him a visit at his residence in Lusaka’s State Lodge area.
“Our neighbours may be from another region or origin. They may even be from another political party. We are all brothers and sisters. We work together to do our part in God’s work. With love we can overcome great challenges,” Dr Kaunda said.
He said Africans should not allow themselves to be divided on account of colour, ethnicity, language or religion.
Dr Kaunda said African countries had in the past helped one another attain independence from the colonial masters, and this mutual support should be sustained in the interest of good neighbourliness.
Dr Kaunda said Mr Akufo-Addo’s visit would nourish the deep relations between Zambia and Ghana, which dated many years back when Kwame Nkrumah worked to liberate the continent.
President Akufo-Addo said the warm relations that existed between Zambia and Ghana symbolised love and solidarity.
He said Ghana under his administration would continue to work closely with Zambia to improve existing relations for the betterment of people in the two states.
Mr Akufo-Addo said this was living up to the relationship that existed from the days before independence foe the two countries.
He said Dr Kaunda was an icon of this generation, and that Africa was one people and that he would work with his counterparts to defend the rights of the people on the continent.
*Culled from Times of Zambia
Continental Free Trade Area Is Africa’s Path To Self-Reliance & Prosperity” – President Akufo-Addo
June 29, 2017 | 0 Comments
The President of the Republic, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, has urged African leaders to hasten the coming into being of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA).
According to President Akufo-Addo, “if we remain resolute and see to its realisation, we will obtain a major boost to the development of our economies, and a considerable reduction on our dependence on foreign goods and services. It is the path to collective self-reliance and prosperity.”
It will be recalled that Heads of State and Governments who attended the 28th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union, in January this year, signed up to the implementation of the CFTA.
The purpose of the free-trade area is to ensure significant growth of Intra-Africa trade, as well as assisting countries on the continent use trade more effectively as an engine of growth and for sustainable development.
The CFTA will also reduce the vulnerability of the continent to external shocks, and will also enhance the participation of Africa in global trade as a respectable partner, thereby reducing the continent’s dependence on foreign aid and external borrowing.
President Akufo-Addo was speaking at a State Banquet held in his honour by the President of the Republic of Zambia, His Excellency Edgar Lungu, on Tuesday, June 27, 2017, when he made this known.
He noted that for a continent that has made the choice of pursuing integration, Africa has not done much in liberalizing and promoting trade amongst member countries.
“Research has shown that countries or groups of countries with the largest share of world trade are located within regions with the highest share of intra-regional trade. Trade between African nations remains low compared to other parts of the world,” he lamented.
In 2000, intra-continental trade accounted for 10% of Africa’s total trade, and increased marginally to 11% in 2015. Trading amongst members of the European Union, for example, amounted to 70% in 2015. Intra-African trade is still estimated at less than two percent (2%) of global trade.
“With these very low levels of trade and investment co-operation in Africa, we must put in place deliberate measures aimed at expanding trade and business collaborations to improve the prospects for prosperity of our peoples,” he added.
The coming into effect of the CFTA, the President was confident, would bring progress and prosperity to the African peoples.
With Africa’s population of 1.2 billion set to expand to 2 billion people in 20 years, the President stressed that “this means that a genuine continental market in Africa should be in our economic interest, for it will present immense opportunities to bring prosperity to the peoples in our continent with hard work, creativity and enterprise.”
It is for this reason that President Akufo-Addo noted that “we should no longer delay the process of African integration. A functioning, common continental market has to be a very fundamental objective of all the peoples and governments on the continent, an objective that will consolidate the process of structural transformation of our national economies on which we must be engaged.”
Intensify Ghana & Zambia links
President Akufo-Addo, in his remarks, also called for the intensification of the links between Ghanaian and Zambian enterprises.
With Zambia and Ghana recording similar GDP growth rates in 2016, i.e., 3.3% and 3.6% respectively, as a result of high fiscal deficits, low investor confidence, falling commodity prices and low agricultural productivity, President Akufo-Addo explained that the time has come for the two countries to move away from being mere producers and exporters of raw materials.
“There can be no future prosperity for our peoples in the short, medium or long term, if we continue to maintain economic structures dependent on the production and export of raw materials. Unless we industrialise, with the goal of adding significant value to our primary products, we cannot create the necessary numbers of good-paying jobs that will enhance the living standards of the masses of our country,” he said.
To this end, President Akufo-Addo outlined a number of policies he has initiated since assuming office in January 2017, which has shifted the focus of Ghana’s economy from taxation to production.
He also applauded his Zambian counterpart for his recently approved National Development Plan, on the theme “Accelerating development efforts towards vision 2030 without leaving anyone behind”.
The Zambian programme is hinged on the pillars of economic diversification and job creation, reduced poverty and vulnerability, reduced developmental inequalities, enhancing human development, and conducive governance environment for economic diversification, to create a diversified economy for sustained growth and economic development is highly commendable.
“The transformation of our two economies we seek through these measures should make our enterprises and businesses very competitive in Africa, and beyond,” he added.
The Race to Solar-Power Africa
June 22, 2017 | 0 Comments
American startups are competing to bring electricity to communities that remain off the grid.
In eighteen months, entrepreneurs brought electricity to hundreds of thousands of people in places that the grid failed to reach.
Illustration by Oliver Munday / Photographs courtesy Mathieu Young / Off-Grid Electric
The cacao-farming community of Daban, in Ghana, is seven degrees north of the equator, and it’s always hot. In May, I met with several elders there to talk about the electricity that had come to the town a few months earlier, when an American startup installed a solar microgrid nearby. Daban could now safely store the vaccine for yellow fever; residents could charge their cell phones at home rather than walking to a bigger town to do it. As we talked, one of the old men handed me a small plastic bag of water, the kind street venders sell across West Africa—you just bite off a corner and drink. The water was ice-cold and refreshing, but it took me an embarrassingly long moment to understand the pleasure with which he offered it: cold water was now available in this hot place. There was enough power to run a couple of refrigerators, and so coldness was, for the first time, a possibility.
I’d come to Daban to learn about the boom in solar power in sub-Saharan Africa. The spread of cell phones in the region has made it possible for residents to pay daily or weekly bills using mobile money, and now the hope is that, just as cell phones bypassed the network of telephone lines, solar panels will enable many rural consumers to bypass the electric grid. From Ghana, I travelled to Ivory Coast, and then to Tanzania, and along the way I encountered a variety of new solar ventures, most of them American-led. Some, such as Ghana’s Black Star Energy, which had electrified Daban, install solar microgrids, small-scale versions of the giant grid Americans are familiar with. Others, such as Off-Grid Electric, in Tanzania and Ivory Coast, market home-based solar systems that run on a panel installed on each individual house. These home-based systems can’t produce enough current for a fridge, but they can supply each home with a few lights, a mobile-phone charger, and, if the household can afford it, a small, super-efficient flat-screen TV.
In another farming town, in Ivory Coast, I talked to a man named Abou Traoré, who put his television out in a courtyard most nights, so that neighbors could come by to watch. He said that they tuned in for soccer matches—the village tilts Liverpool, but has a large pocket of Manchester United supporters. What else did he watch? Traoré considered. “I like the National Geographic channel,” he replied—that is, the broadcast arm of the institution that became famous showing Westerners pictures of remote parts of Africa.
There are about as many people living without electricity today as there were when Thomas Edison lit his first light bulb. More than half are in sub-Saharan Africa. Europe and the Americas are almost fully electrified, and Asia is quickly catching up, but the absolute number of Africans without power remains steady. A World Bank report, released in May, predicted that, given current trends, there could still be half a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa without power by 2040. Even those with electricity can’t rely on it: the report noted that in Tanzania power outages were so common in 2013 that they cost businesses fifteen per cent of their annual sales. Ghanaians call their flickering power dum/sor, or “off/on.” Vivian Tsadzi, a businesswoman who lives not far from the Akosombo Dam, which provides about a third of the nation’s power, said that most of the time “it’s dum dum dum dum.” The dam’s head of hydropower generation, Kwesi Amoako, who retired last year, told me that he is proud of the structure, which created the world’s largest man-made lake. But there isn’t an easy way to increase the country’s hydropower capacity, and drought, caused by climate change, has made the system inconsistent, meaning that Ghana will have to look elsewhere for electricity. “I’ve always had the feeling that one of the main thrusts should be domestic solar,” Amoako said. “And I think we should put the off-grid stuff first, because the consumer wants it so badly.”
Electrifying Africa is one of the largest development challenges on earth. Until recently, most people assumed that the continent would electrify in the same manner as the rest of the globe. “The belief was, you’d eventually build the U.S. grid here,” Xavier Helgesen, the American co-founder and C.E.O. of Off-Grid Electric, told me. “But the U.S. is the richest country on earth, and it wasn’t fully electrified until the nineteen-forties, and that was in an era of cheap copper for wires, cheap timber for poles, cheap coal, and cheap capital. None of that is so cheap anymore, at least not over here.”
Solar electricity, on the other hand, has become inexpensive, in part because the price of solar panels has fallen at the same time that the efficiency of light bulbs and appliances has dramatically increased. In 2009, a single compact fluorescent bulb and a lead-acid battery cost about forty dollars; now, using L.E.D. bulbs and lithium-ion batteries, you can get four times as much light for the same price. In 2009, a radio, a mobile-phone charger, and a solar system big enough to provide four hours of light and television a day would have cost a Kenyan a thousand dollars; now it’s three hundred and fifty dollars.
President Trump has derided renewable energy as “really just an expensive way of making the tree huggers feel good about themselves.” But many Western entrepreneurs see solar power in Africa as a chance to reach a large market and make a substantial profit. This is a nascent industry, which, at the moment, represents a small percentage of the electrification in the region, and is mostly in rural areas. There’s plenty of uncertainty about its future, and no guarantee that it will spread at the pace of cell phones. Still, in the past eighteen months, these businesses have brought electricity to hundreds of thousands of consumers—many of them in places that the grid failed to reach, despite a hundred-year head start. Funding, much of it from private investors based in Silicon Valley or Europe, is flowing into this sector—more than two hundred million dollars in venture capital last year, up from nineteen million in 2013—and companies are rapidly expanding their operations with the new money. M-Kopa, an American startup that launched in Kenya, in 2011, now has half a million pay-as-you-go solar customers; d.light, a competitor with offices in California, Kenya, China, and India, says that it is adding eight hundred new households a day. Nicole Poindexter, the founder and C.E.O. of Black Star, told me that every million dollars the company raises in venture capital delivers power to seven thousand people. She expects Black Star to be profitable within the next three years.
Like many of the American entrepreneurs I met in Africa, Poindexter has a background in finance. A graduate of Harvard Business School, she worked as a derivatives trader before leading business development at Opower, a software platform for utilities customers that was acquired by Oracle last year. (Unlike many of these entrepreneurs, who tend to skew white and male, Poindexter is African-American.) She decided to start the company in 2015, after she began to learn about energy poverty. She recalled watching TV coverage of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia. “There was a lot of coughing in the background, and I was thinking, That’s someone with Ebola,” she said. “But it wasn’t. It was from the smoke in the room from the fire.” Last year, in the Ghanaian community of Kofihuikrom, one of the first towns that Black Star served, the company erected twenty-two solar panels. Today, the local clinic no longer has to deliver babies by flashlight. The town chief, Nana Kwaku Appiah, said that he was so excited that he initially left his lights on inside all night. “Our relatives from the city used to not come here to visit,” he said.
When I visited the Tanzanian headquarters of Off-Grid Electric, in the city of Arusha, the atmosphere was reminiscent of Palo Alto or Mountain View, with standing desks and glassed-in conference rooms for impromptu meetings. Erick Donasian, the company’s head of service in Tanzania, grew up in a powerless house three miles from the office and joined the company in 2013; he said that, along with his enthusiasm for the company’s goals, one attraction of working there is that it is far less formal than many Tanzanian businesses, where “you have to tuck your shirt in, which I hate the most.” Off-Grid’s Silicon Valley influence was clearest in the T-shirt Helgesen wore. It read “Make something people want,” and sported the logo for Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s most famous incubator, where Helgesen’s wife had recently developed a bartering app.
Helgesen, who is thirty-eight years old and lanky, with hair that he regularly brushes out of his eyes, grew up in Silver Bay, Minnesota, a small town on the shore of Lake Superior. At fourteen, he came up with the idea of leasing the municipal mini-golf course for a summer, and tripled revenues by offering season passes and putting on special promotions for visiting hockey teams. As a sophomore at Notre Dame, in 1999, he set up a Web site that posted the college’s freshman register online, so that, as he put it, “you’d actually know who that cute girl you saw in anthro class was.” Helgesen started similar sites at other colleges, but, he told me, “I wasn’t as good a programmer as Zuckerberg. Even if I’d gotten it completely right, it would have been more Friendster than Facebook.” His first major company, Better World Books, founded in 2002, took the model of charity used-book drives and moved it online. It’s now one of the biggest sellers of used books on Amazon, and has helped raise twenty-five million dollars for literacy organizations, including Books for Africa.
Helgesen made his first trip to Tanzania in 2006, to visit recipients of Better World’s funding and to go on safari. “I was staying at a fancy lodge near Kilimanjaro, and I remember thinking, How do things really work around here?” Helgesen said. He paid a local man to take him to the nearest village. “I was peppering him with questions: ‘Do young people go to the city?’ ‘How much does coffee sell for?’ ” The experience, he said, “flipped my mind-set from ‘People in Africa are poor and they need our help and our donated books’ to ‘This is what an emerging economy looks like. This is young people, this is entrepreneurialism, this is where growth will be.’ ” During a second trip to Africa, he went scuba diving in Lake Malawi (“to see the cichlid fish, which keep their babies in their mouths”), and was invited to dinner by his scuba instructor. “It was a decent-sized town, maybe twenty thousand people, but absolutely no electricity,” Helgesen said. “It was all narrow alleys—they were bustling, but they were pitch-black.”
In 2010, Helgesen won a Skoll Scholarship to Oxford, for M.B.A. students seeking “entrepreneurial solutions for urgent social and environmental challenges,” and spent the year researching the renewables market. He found two like-minded business partners, and, in 2012, they set up shop in Arusha. At first, they planned to build solar microgrids to power cell-phone towers and sell the excess electricity to locals, but, Helgesen said, “it became clear that that was a pretty expensive way to go.” So they visited customers in their homes to ask them what they wanted. “Those conversations were the smartest thing we ever did,” Helgesen said. “I remember this one customer, she had a baby, and she would keep the kerosene lamp on low all night, as a night-light. It was costing thirty dollars a month in kerosene. And I was, like, Wow, for thirty dollars a month I could do a lot better.”
Helgesen decided to “start with the customer, and the price point they could pay, and build the business behind that.” Matt Schiller, the thirty-two-year-old vice-president of business operations, said that, in some ways, it is an easy sell. “If we talk to a hundred customers, not one says, ‘I’d rather have kerosene,’ ” he told me. “Not one says, ‘I’d like the warm glow of the kerosene lights.’ In fact, when we were designing the L.E.D.s, we focus-grouped lights. And the engineers assumed they’d want a warmer light, because that’s what they were used to. But, no, they picked the bluest, hardest light you can imagine. That’s modernity. That’s clean.”
There were solar panels in sub-Saharan Africa before companies like Off-Grid arrived, but customers generally had to pay for them up front, a forbidding prospect for many. “Cost is important to the customer at the bottom, but risk is even more important,” Helgesen told me. “A bad decision when you’re that poor can mean your kids don’t eat or go to school, which is why people tend to be conservative. And which is why kerosene was winning. There was no risk. You could buy it a tiny bit at a time.”
Off-Grid, like several of its competitors, finances the panels, so that people can pay the same small monthly amounts they were paying for kerosene. Customers in Tanzania put down about thirteen dollars to buy Off-Grid’s cheapest starter kit: a panel, a battery, a few L.E.D. lights, a phone charger, and a radio. Then they pay about eight dollars a month for three years, after which they own the products outright. The most popular system adds a few more lights and a flat-screen TV, for a higher down payment and about twice the monthly price. Customers pay their bill by phone; if they don’t pay, the system stops working, and after a while it is repossessed. That scenario, it turns out, is uncommon: less than two per cent of the loans in Tanzania have gone bad.
Despite Off-Grid’s Silicon Valley vibe, it faces challenges unfamiliar to software companies. Aidan Leonard, Off-Grid’s Arusha-based general counsel, told me that the company “requires a lot of people walking around selling things and installing things and fixing things. There’s a lot of hardware—someone’s got a physical box in their house, and a panel on the roof, and they have to pay for it on a monthly basis.” Poindexter, of Black Star, put the problem more bluntly. “We’re a utility company,” she told me, and utilities are a difficult business.
In America, utilities are burdened with infrastructure, such as the endless poles and wires that come down in storms. Off-Grid doesn’t have to worry about poles, and the wires only run a few feet, from panel to battery to appliance. Still, the company is working with technology that is brand-new and needs to be made cheaply in order to be affordable. When solar energy first came to Africa, it was expensive and unreliable. Arne Jacobson, a professor of environmental-resources engineering at Humboldt State University, in California, is a couple of decades older than most of the entrepreneurs I met in Africa. He got his doctorate studying the first generation of home solar in Kenya, in the late nineteen-nineties. “In Kenya, I was trying to understand the quality of the panels that had started to flood the market,” he said. Much of the technology had “big troubles. Chinese panels, panels from the U.K., all this low-quality junk coming in. Later, L.E.D.s that failed in hours or days instead of lasting thousands of hours, as they should. People’s first experiences were often really bad.”
Jacobson has spent his career in renewable energy; he helped build the world’s first street-legal hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicle, in 1998. He now runs Humboldt’s Schatz Energy Research Center. (“You want to know why a lot of early solar research happened in Humboldt?” he asked me. “Because there were a lot of back-to-the-land types here, and they had cash because they were growing dope.”) After seeing the unpredictability of solar technology, he created, in 2007, what he calls a “de facto consumer-protection bureau for this nascent industry.” The program, Lighting Global, which is run under the umbrella of the World Bank Group, tests and certifies panels, bulbs, and appliances to make sure that they work as promised. Jacobson credits this innovation with making investors more willing to put their money into companies such as Off-Grid, which has now raised more than fifty-five million dollars. His main testing lab is in Shenzhen, China, near most of the solar-panel manufacturers. He also has facilities in Nairobi, New Delhi, and Addis Ababa, and some of the work is still done in the basement of his building at Humboldt, where there’s an “integrating sphere” for measuring light output from a bulb, and a machine that switches radios on and off to see if they’ll eventually break.
Because many of Off-Grid’s potential customers have experience with bad products, or know someone who has, the company takes extra steps to build trust with its clients. After an Off-Grid installer shows up on his motorbike, he opens the product carton with great solemnity; in an Ivorian village, I watched along with seventeen neighbors, who nodded as the young man held up each component, one by one. He then climbed onto the roof of the house, nailed on a solar panel about the size of a placemat, and used a crowbar to lift up the corrugated-tin roof to run the wire inside. He screwed the battery box to the cement-block wall and walked the customer through the process of switching lights on and off several times, something the man had never done before. The company also offers a service guarantee: as long as customers are making their payments, they can call a number on the box and a repairman will arrive within three days. These LightRiders, as the company calls them, are trained to trouble-shoot small problems. They travel by motorcycle, and if they can’t make repairs easily they replace the system with a new one and haul the old unit back to headquarters.
This sales-and-installation system presents some engineering challenges. When the company expanded into Ivory Coast, last year, it had to redesign its packaging to fit on the smaller motorcycles used there. It also runs into problems coördinating coverage across a vast area where most houses don’t have conventional addresses. “We had to build our own internal software to make it possible,” Kim Schreiber, who runs Off-Grid’s marketing operations in Africa, said. “We optimize, via G.P.S. coördinates, the best routes for our riders to take. The LightRider turns on his phone every morning, and he has a list of his tasks for the day, so he knows what parts to take with him.”
Solar companies also contend with the complexity of the mobile-payment systems. In Ghana, where many customers don’t use mobile money, Poindexter’s Black Star team instead sells scratch cards from kiosks, which give customers a code they need to enter on their meter box to top up their account. Off-Grid delivers these codes over the phone, but the company still needs a call center, manned by fifteen people, to help customers with the mechanics of paying. Nena Sanderson, who runs Off-Grid’s Tanzanian operation, showed me the steps entailed in paying a bill through a ubiquitous mobile-money system called M-Pesa. There are ten screens, and the process ends with the input of a sixteen-digit code. “And I have a smartphone,” she said. “Now, imagine a feature phone, and imagine you may not know how to read, and the screen is a lot smaller, and it’s probably scratched up. Mobile money is a great enabler, but it’s not frictionless.” One of Off-Grid’s competitors, PEGAfrica, has printed the whole sequence on a wristband, which it gives to customers.
Because one of the biggest obstacles to the growth of solar power in the region is the lack of available cash, many of these companies are essentially banks as well as utilities, providing loans to customers who may have no credit history. That can make it hard to figure out what to charge people. “What you see in this space is at least eight to ten decent-sized pay-as-you-go solar companies, all trying to parse through what the actual end price to the customer really is,” Peter Bladin, who spent many years in leadership roles at Microsoft and now invests in several of these firms, told me. Bladin first started studying distributed solar—solar electricity produced near where it is used—in Bangladesh, where the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus used his Grameen microcredit network to finance and distribute panels and batteries. Lacking that established financial architecture, companies in sub-Saharan Africa are constantly experimenting with different plans: Off-Grid began by offering ten-year leases, but found that customers wanted to own their systems more quickly, and so the payments are now spread out over three years. PEGAfrica customers buy their system in twelve months, but the company gives them hospitalization insurance as a bonus. Black Star is a true utility: the customers in the communities where it builds microgrids will always pay bills, but the charges start at only two dollars a month. (The business model depends on customers steadily increasing the amount of energy they buy, as they move from powering televisions to powering small businesses.) Companies like Burro—a Ghanaian outfit launched by Whit Alexander, the Seattle entrepreneur who founded Cranium games—sell lamps and chargers and panels outright, saving customers credit fees but limiting the number of people who can afford the products.
This uncertainty about the most practical financial model reflects the fact that in sub-Saharan Africa there is a great deal of economic diversity, both between countries and within them. One morning, I found myself walking down a line of houses in the Arushan suburb of Morombo. At the first house, a two-room cinder-block structure with a broken piece of mirror on one wall, a woman talked with me as we sat on the floor. The home represented a big step up for her, she said—she and her husband had rented a place for years, until they were able to buy this plot of land and build this house. She had a solar lantern the size of a hockey puck in her courtyard, soaking up rays. (Aid groups have distributed more than a million of these little lamps across the continent.) She assured me that she planned to get a larger solar system soon, but, for many of Africa’s poorest people, buying a lantern is the only possible step toward electrification.
Next door, a twenty-six-year-old student named Nehemiah Klimba shared a more solidly built house with his mother. It had a corrugated-iron roof on a truss that let hot air escape, and we sat on a sofa. Klimba said that, as soon as he finished paying off the windows, he was going to electrify. He and his mother were already spending fifteen dollars a month on kerosene and another four dollars charging their cell phones at a local store, so they knew they’d be able to afford the twenty dollars a month for a solar system with a TV.
One door down was the fanciest house I’d seen in weeks. It belonged to a soldier who worked as a U.N. peacekeeper, and the floors were made of polished stone. There was an Off-Grid solar system on the roof, but it was providing only backup power. The owner had paid a hefty fee to connect to the local electric grid, so he faced none of the limitations of a battery replenished by the sun. In his living room, he had a huge TV and speakers; a stainless-steel Samsung refrigerator gleamed in the kitchen.
“This is how the solar revolution happens—one hot sales meeting at a time,” Off-Grid’s Kim Schreiber whispered to me as we watched one of the company’s salesmen, an Ivorian named Seko Serge Lewis, at work. We were visiting the village of Grand Zattry with Off-Grid’s Ivory Coast sales director, Max-Marc Fossouo. A couple of dogs tussled nearby; a motorbike rolled past with six people on board. In the courtyard next to us, a woman was doing the day’s laundry in a bucket with a washboard. Her husband listened to the sales pitch from Lewis, who was showing him pictures on his cell phone of other customers in the village.
“That’s to build up trust,” Fossouo said. He’d been providing a play-by-play throughout the hour-long sales call. “This customer is on a big fence,” he said. “He’s stuck in the trust place. And I’m pretty sure the decision-maker is over there washing the clothes anyway.” Fossouo was born in Cameroon and went to school in Paris. In his twenties, he spent seven summers in the U.S., selling books for Southwestern Publishing, a Nashville-based titan of door-to-door marketing. (Rick Perry is another company alum; so is Kenneth Starr.) “I did L.A. for years,” he told me. “ ‘Hi, my name is Max. I’m a crazy college student from France, and I’m helping families with their kids’ education. I’ve been talking to your neighbors A, B, and C, and I’d like to talk to you. Do you have a place where I can come in and sit down?’ ” All selling, he said, is the same: “It starts with a person understanding they have a problem. Someone might live in the dark but not understand that it’s a problem. So you have to show them. And then you have to create a sense of urgency to spend the money to solve the problem now.”
The man turned down Lewis’s pitch. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to make the monthly payments in the lean stretch before the next cacao harvest. “That’s crap,” Fossouo whispered, pointing again to the man’s wife. “He loves this woman, he can move the world for her.” When we went to the next house, Fossouo took over. This prospect was a farmer and schoolteacher, and they talked in his classroom, which had a few low desks with shards of slate on top. Fossouo had the man catalogue everything that he was spending on energy: money for kerosene, flashlight batteries, even the gas for the scooter that he borrowed when he needed to charge his phone. Then Fossouo showed him what he had to offer: a radio and four lights, each with a dimmer switch. “Where would you put the lamp?” he asked. “In front of the door? Of course! And the big light in the middle of the room, so when you have a party everyone could see. Now, tell me, if you went to the market to buy all of this, how much would it cost?” Fossouo tried angle after angle. “You have to think big here,” he said. “When I talked to your chief, he said, ‘Don’t think small.’ If your kid could see the news on TV, he might say, ‘I, too, could be President.’ ”
“This is great,” the man said. “I know you’re trying to help us. I just don’t have the money. Life is hard, things are expensive. Sometimes we’re hungry.”
Fossouo nodded. “What if I gave you a way to pay for it?” he asked. “So the dollar wouldn’t even come from your pocket? If you get a system, people will pay you to charge their phones. Or, if you had a TV, you could charge people to come watch the football games.”
“I couldn’t charge a person for coming in to watch a game,” the man said. “We’re all one big family. If someone is wealthy enough to have a TV, everyone is welcome to it.”
The hour ended without a sale, but Fossouo wasn’t worried. “It takes two or three approaches on average,” he said. “You always have to leave the person in a good place, where he loves you stopping by. This guy wants to finish building his house right now—his house is heavy on him—but it won’t be long.” As we talked, the first prospect came over, asking for a leaflet and a phone number. His wife, he said, was very interested.
The arrival of electricity is hard for today’s Westerners to imagine. Light means differences in sleeping and eating patterns and an increased sense of safety. I talked with one Tanzanian near Arusha who had traded in a kerosene lamp for five Off-Grid bulbs, including a security light outside his door that went on automatically when it got dark. “Crime is here,” he said, “but also dangerous animals. Especially snakes. So it’s good to have lights.” Everywhere I went, I met parents who said that their children could study at night. “You can feel the effects with their grades now at school,” one Ivorian father said. Several town chiefs told me that they hoped to get classroom computers, and one planned to mechanize the well so that townspeople would no longer need to pump water by hand. Farmers in West Africa were getting daily weather reports from Farmerline, a Ghanaian information service that uses G.P.S. to customize the forecasts. “If a farmer puts fertilizer on the field and then it rains, he loses the fertilizer—it washes away,” Alloysius Attah, a young Ghanaian entrepreneur who co-founded the service, told me. “And the farmers say they can’t tell the rain anymore. My auntie could read the clouds, the birds flying by, but the usual rainfall pattern has shifted.”
“Our killer app is definitely the television,” Off-Grid’s Schreiber said. “If the twenty-four-inch is out of stock, lots of people won’t buy.” Wandering through newly electrified towns, I saw teen-agers watching action movies. Black Star’s Poindexter told me, “There was a kid in town that I liked, Samuel, and when I came back after the power was turned on his arm was in a cast. He’d watched a karate show on TV, and he and his friends were playing it, and he broke his arm. I was horrified—I was, like, society is not prepared for this. And then I remembered that I did the same thing after I watched ‘Popeye’ as a kid. I ran right into the hedge and had to get twenty stitches. That’s kids and TV.”
In Daban, after I asked what the most popular program was, everyone began laughing and nodding. “ ‘Kumkum’!” people shouted. “Kumkum Bhagya,” an Indian soap opera set in a marriage hall and loosely based on Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” airs every night from seven-thirty to eight-thirty, during which time village life comes to a standstill. “All the chiefs have advocated for everyone to watch, because it’s about how relationships are built,” the local chief, Nana Oti Awere, said. Of course, the changes brought about by electrification will affect local communities in unpredictable ways that will play out over many years. One mother I spoke to explained that the TV “keeps the children at home at night, instead of roaming around.” The Ivorian farmer who told me about the effects on his children’s grades went on to say, “In the old time, you had to go outside and talk. Now my neighbor has his TV, I have my TV, and we stay inside.”
A decade ago, most experts would have predicted that foreign aid, rather than venture capital, would play a central role in bringing power to sub-Saharan Africa. Off-Grid Electric has been funded by sources including Tesla and Paul Allen’s venture fund, Vulcan. Allen, one of the world’s richest men, is worth twenty billion dollars, or roughly half of the G.D.P. of Tanzania, a country of almost fifty-four million people. Should he be able to make yet more money off the electrification of African huts? There’s more than a whiff of colonialism about the rush of Westerners and Western money into Africa. As Attah, the young Ghanaian who helped found Farmerline, put it, “There are a lot of Ivy Leaguers coming to Africa to say, ‘I can solve this problem, snap, snap, snap.’ They’re doing good work, but little investment goes to community leaders who are doing the same work on the ground.”
“I don’t know what that is, either—it could be the Olsen twins.”
The Westerners I spoke to, though they pledged to hire more local executives, didn’t think that the drive to help was incompatible with the desire to make money. As Poindexter put it, “There is a level of responsibility that I feel, and that I think any appropriate investor needs to have, about extraction versus contribution. I am not willing to be an extractive capitalist here, but I think that capitalism has an extremely important role to play in these communities.” Helgesen—who, despite his occasional oblivious tech-dudishness, spends most of his time in very remote places trying to provide power—is unapologetic about his company’s funding sources. Billionaires, he says, have the capital to make companies grow fast enough to matter. “Paul Allen didn’t invest because he thought it was the easiest way to make more money,” Helgesen said. “I got an awful lot of ‘no’s along the way from people who wanted easier money.” In any event, it’s not clear that other sources of funding are available, at least from the U.S.: Trump, pulling out of the Paris climate accord earlier this month, said that the country would not meet its pledge to help poor nations develop renewable energy, dismissing the plan as “yet another scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States through the so-called Green Climate Fund—nice name.”
Even when aid agencies are well funded, they haven’t always delivered. Over the last decade, a strong critique of aid, ranging from William Easterly’s “The White Man’s Burden” to Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid,” has laid much of the blame for Africa’s continued underdevelopment on the weaknesses of sweeping programs planned from afar. Still, aid agencies and global-development banks have a useful role to play in the energy transition. It will be years before it makes financial sense for solar companies to expand to the most remote and challenging regions of the continent. As new companies launch, they will need an infusion of what Helgesen calls “ultra-high-risk capital.” Private investors will supply it, he says, “but they want forty per cent of your company in return, which makes it hard to raise capital later on, because you’ve already sold off such a big chunk.” Some aid agencies have funded private ventures in the early stages, to help them get off the ground or reach new geographic areas. U.S.A.I.D. gave Off-Grid five million dollars toward its early costs, and, over the past few years, a Dutch development agency has given the company several hundred thousand euros as it has extended into the impoverished lakes region of Tanzania, where it otherwise wouldn’t have been profitable to go. Currency risks pose another problem: Poindexter told me that when she builds a Ghanaian microgrid she has invested in an asset with a twenty-year life span in a country where inflation is highly unpredictable. “We just had an election in the U.S. with huge consequences for policy,” she said. “But over here every election is potentially like that.” And, like anywhere in the world, national governments can make things easier by establishing clear policies. Rwanda’s leaders, for instance, specified the regions in which the rapidly developing country planned to extend its grid, thereby delineating where solar would be needed most.
“African leaders used to think solar was being pushed on them,” Clare Sierawski, who works on renewable energy with the U.S. Trade and Development Agency in Accra, said. “But now they all want solar. It’s a confluence of things. Mostly, it’s getting cheaper. And governments were tuned in to it by the Paris accord.” Ananth Chikkatur, who runs a U.S.A.I.D. project in the city, had just returned from taking thirteen high-ranking Ghanaians on a trip to study solar power in California. “Renewable energy should not be considered an alternative technology,” he said. “It’s becoming a conventional technology now.” Rwanda is not the only nation expanding its grid, and many countries are turning to large solar farms to generate power. Burkina Faso, for instance, has plans for solar arrays across its desert regions.
Distributed generation, however, is especially essential in rural areas, and it is growing fast—maybe, according to some observers, too fast. The investor Peter Bladin told me that the push for quick returns on investment could lead some companies to try to “squeeze more out of poor households” and warned about “mission drift, trying to make money off the backs of the poor in a dubious way.” Earlier this year, three principals from the impact-investment firm Ceniarth, which had put money into Off-Grid and similar companies, said that it was backing out of the industry for the time being. In an open letter, they wrote that the hype of venture capitalists and the lack of government regulation “puts consumers at risk and places a great deal of responsibility on vendors to self-police.” The gush of money, they cautioned, “may be too much, too fast for a sector that still has not fully solved core business model issues and may struggle under the high growth expectations and misaligned incentives of many venture capitalists.” Helgesen, unsurprisingly, disagreed with their analysis of investor over-exuberance. “It’s like looking at a Palm Pilot and saying, ‘This is not so great,’ ” he said. “Or even an iPhone 1. The iPhone 1 was a necessary step to the iPhone 7. People who have raised real money have not raised it on the premise that we’ll be selling the same stuff in ten years.” But he wasn’t waiting for the technology to mature. “We have to think about the future, and we have to sell something people want today,” he said.
Most customers I met had little interest in the fact that their power came from the sun, or that it was environmentally friendly. Since these communities weren’t using power previously, their solar panels fight climate change only in the sense that they decrease pressure to build power plants that consume fossil fuel. But some observers hope that the experience in Africa—which today has more off-the-grid solar homes than the U.S.—could help drive transformation elsewhere. Already, a few dozen American cities have pledged to become one-hundred-per-cent renewable. (Pittsburgh did so the day after Trump held up its theoretically beleaguered citizens as a reason for leaving the climate accord.) The U.S. has already sunk a fortune into building its electric grid, and it may seem far-fetched to think that users will disconnect from it entirely. But, as Helgesen told me, “As batteries get better, it’s going to be a lot more realistic for people to stop depending on their utility.” He thinks that, in an ideal world, technological change could lead to cultural change. “The average American has no concept of electrical constraint,” he said. “If we accept some modest restrictions on our power availability, we can go off-grid very quickly.”
For many people in the countries I visited, solar power is creating a new hope: for electric fans. When I was there, Off-Grid Electric was expanding from the relatively cool highlands around Mt. Kilimanjaro to the scorching, humid lowlands of West Africa, and in every village we visited the message was the same: The TV is great, the light bulb is great, but can I please have a fan? Many homes are poorly ventilated; windows are expensive, and can attract burglars. Fans, however, draw a comparatively large amount of current, threatening to quickly drain the battery that a solar panel has spent the day filling. And, unlike light bulbs or televisions, fans have moving parts that easily break. “Our customers tend to make heavy use of their equipment,” Off-Grid’s Schreiber said. Still, she promised one village after another that fans were coming soon.
Shea Hughes, Off-Grid’s product manager, is one of the employees charged with delivering on that promise. Hughes told me that he hopes to someday make Off-Grid’s product powerful enough to perform industrial tasks: pumping water for irrigation, milling cacao, and so on. “I’m confident solar is capable of doing that,” he said. “You just add more panels and you get to the power requirements you need. And as the price drops, well . . . ” He had recently been to a consumer-electronics fair in China. “I was amazed to see the prices,” he said.
For the moment, though, a workable fan would be nice. “We’d always thought a fan would take too much power for the current systems we’re selling,” Hughes said. “But the people in Ivory Coast were so insistent that we went back and looked at it.” Because of the emerging market for super-efficient appliances, in the U.S. and elsewhere, some manufacturers had a product that, as long as you kept it set to medium, drew only eight and a half watts. (The standard incandescent light bulb that hung in American hallways for generations drew sixty.) “We’ve told the manufacturer to eliminate the high-speed option,” Hughes said. “Now medium is high. And in our tests people are satisfied with the air speed. But they say the battery tends to run out at 3 or 4 A.M., and they typically sleep till 6 A.M. So it’s not perfect, but it’s getting there.”
*The New Yorker
Sudan: China’s Original Foothold in Africa
June 22, 2017 | 0 Comments
Thanks in part to U.S. neglect, China’s footprint in Sudan has grown exponentially over the past 20 years.
By Joseph Hammond*
China’s legacy in Sudan is immediately visible in downtown Khartoum. Near where the Blue and White Nile join to form the world’s longest river sits the People’s Friendship Cooperation Hall, a gift from China to the People’s Republic to Sudan that dates to 1976.
The complex, which includes a conference hall, meeting rooms, a theater, and banquet hall, stretches for nearly a kilometer along the Nile. The building has aged well and remains one of Africa’s modernist architectural gems; a Chinese extension in 2003 expanded and refurbished the building without impacting its charm In 2014, the People’s Friendship Cooperation Hall hosted the third China-Africa People’s Forum while Chinese sources hailed Sudan as an important country in Africa.
The building is not far from where the British Empire suffered one of its greatest defeats in 1885. That year General Charles George “Chinese” Gordon was killed when the besieged Imperial garrison at Khartoum was overrun by Mahdist forces. A British-led force sent to relieve him arrived just hours too late to lift the months long siege. Before his death in Sudan, Gordon was heavily decorated by the British Empire for his role in suppressing the Taiping Rebellion in China, which the Communist Party of China in recent years has come to see as an anti-imperialist uprising. As such “Chinese” Gordon provides a compelling historical link in Sudanese-Chinese relations, as both countries can claim to have suffered under the same colonial oppressor.
Chinese-Sudanese relations date to 1959, when Sudan became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to recognize China. Today, China is the largest investor in Sudan, as it is in the continent as a whole. But China’s relation with Sudan is exceptional because of the absence of competition from the United States. Other than Coca-Cola, very few American products are readily available to Sudanese consumers.
Sudan has been under U.S. sanctions since 1995 in part due to the country’s past ties to terrorists like Osama bin Laden. That same year President Omar al-Bashir signed Sudan’s first oil deal with China.
“It is surprising, the coincidence that U.S. sanctions began around the same time China invested in our oil industry,” a Sudanese government official offers sarcastically.
Yet China’s oil empire in Sudan began rather reluctantly. When first approached by Bashir’s government to invest in oil concessions, the Chinese officials suggested Sudan look to Chevron instead.
In June 1997, the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company was established with the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) taking 40 percent ownership and Malaysia’s Petronas taking 30 percent. India’s ONGC Videsh acquired 25 percent when a forerunner of Canada’s Talisman Energy had to leave due to sanctions.
China has invested in other aspects of the industry until it controls as much as 75 percent of the Sudanese oil industry. Sudan currently produces 133,000 barrels of oil per day — a fraction of what it produced before the south of the country seceded in 2011, taking most of the country’s proven oil reserves with it. Today, Chinese companies are looking for new oil deposits in Sudan as increasing oil production is one of the government’s priorities.
“China’s first experience in investing in Africa was in Sudan,” says Ibrahim Ghandour, Sudan’s foreign minister. “They started in oil but, now have other interests in trade, mining, and construction.”
However, in one area Chinese involvement in Sudan is exaggerated: China has been falsely accused of being an major source of armaments for Sudan. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s arms transfer database, arms from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine made up the majority — 77 percent — of imports into the Sudanese arsenal from 2007-2016. China was responsible for a modest 19 percent of all military exports to Sudan over the same period.
China’s presence in Sudan is not without controversy. For example, Sudanese labor law requires that international companies consist of staff which is 80 percent Sudanese, but the foreign minister admits that Chinese companies have failed to comply with this. However, he insists that the Sudanese benefit more than locals in many other African countries from Chinese companies.
“Yes, Chinese companies are in violation of this but, it is the smallest possible violation. Within the oil industry today most of the engineers and technical experts in Sudan and South Sudan are Sudanese. They were trained in China, and we see more and more of them… Sudan is the only country in Africa where over time more locals have gotten jobs from Chinese companies,” says Ghandour.
Though not typically seen as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative, Sudan sees itself as playing a critical role in the development of China’s plan to link East Asia with western Europe. The Sudanese government believes Port Sudan on the Red Sea will be an important loop on that belt.
“We are in discussions with China to work with them on developing a new free-trade area near Port Sudan, which will focus on attracting Chinese companies and of course support the One Belt, One Road Initiative,” says Sudan’s state minister for investment, Osama Faysal. “However in the long term American companies may have a competitive advantage in Sudan due to their spending on R&D.”
If the United States was reluctant to engage in transaction diplomacy back in 1996, when Sudan offered to turn over Osama bin Ladenfor sanctions relief, China has proved a willing partner. Now the Trump administration is poised to lift economic sanctions on Sudan later this year, but it will be a while before the knockoff “Starbox” coffee shops and Khartoum fried chicken eateries disappear.
Khartoum is talking about new business opportunities with American companies and the wider world. That said, despite some resentment among the local Sudanese toward the Chinese, China’s influence will likely continue unabated.
Elsewhere in Africa, China has thrived by under-cutting the competition and accepting higher risks than American companies. However, China’s influence will survive for political reasons as well.
Bashir, who has ruled Sudan since 1989, has pledged to step down in 2020. However, Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party has no intention of yielding power, and in this regard is consciously emulating China. China was the only non-Muslim country outside Africa invited to the fourth national congress of the NCP held this year. Communist Party of China officials — fluent in Arabic — furiously scribbled notes during Bashir’s speech. A few rows away an NCP party member wore a lapel pin from the China Executive Leadership Academy in Pudong, known in Sudan as CELAP, where some NCP leaders have undergone leadership training. As the party has reformed itself as part of a national dialogue initiated in 2014, China has presented an explicit model where competition takes place within parties, not between them.
“China offered a completely different model of human development a model very different than Europe and Britain,” says Ibrahim Mahmoud, the vice president of the NCP who led the reform. “That is an example we are closely following.”
*Culled from The DiplomatJoseph Hammond is a fellow with the American Media Institute and former Cairo Correspondent for Radio Free Europe. He has been contributing as a freelancer to The Diplomat since 2010.
Innovation is the key to keep Africa moving forward
June 22, 2017 | 0 Comments
African Solutions Are Needed For African Problems-Prophet Shepherd Bushiri on his Corporate Side
June 21, 2017 | 17 Comments
By Ajong Mbapndah L
In just two years, Prophet Shepherd Bushiri Founder of the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG), says his Ministry has registered over 300,000 new members. But why is the ECG such a crowd puller in so short a time? Blending the spiritual needs of his followers, with skills to navigate daily challenges with success seems to be the winning recipe.
“We do not just preach, in words and deeds, the gospel of the living Jesus Christ. We also teach and empower people on how to face daily economic challenges of their lives through entrepreneurship programmes and also skills development,” says Prophet Bushiri.
With headquarters in Pretoria, South Africa, Prophet Bushiri says in addition to his spiritual work, he has the vision to seek African solutions to African problems.
While many may be familiar with the religious side of Prophet Bushiri, the man of God has a rapidly growing business empire with the Shepherd Bushiri Investments. From aviation to real estate, farming, financial, education and IT services, Prophet Bushiri is slowly but steadily carving a niche for himself in the African business landscape.
‘At the ECG, We Don’t Attract Billionaires, We Produce Billionaires,’ says Prophet Bushiri of the sustained efforts to also boost the entrepreneurial skills of his followers.
Mr Shepherd Bushiri, thanks for accepting to grant this interview could you start by introducing yourself, who is Prophet Shepherd Bushiri the man of God, and Entrepreneur?
Thank you for affording me this opportunity to speak with you. I truly appreciate you taking time out of your schedule for this.
I am a Malawian born Man of God currently based in Pretoria, South Africa. I am married to Prophetess Mary Bushiri and we have two beautiful daughters.
I am the founder of the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) and its headquarters is in Pretoria South Africa.
In just two years in South Africa, the church has achieved over 300 000 registered members just in South Africa.
Further, we have branches in Africa, Europe, Australia and North and South America.
I often get asked: Why is your ministry growing fast? Simply put, it is because we do not just preach, in words and deeds, the gospel of the living Jesus Christ. We also teach and empower people on how to face daily economic challenges of their lives through entrepreneurship programmes and also skills development. People are able not just to read and hear about the word of God; they also see, live and experience it.
You are President of Shepherd Bushiri Investments (SBI), can you tell us about your group, and how it has evolved over the years to what it is today?
We started with a vision of creating structures and systems that could empower young Africans with skills development and employment. This vision has turned into a reality.
Today, we own and manage a number of business entities under Shepherd Bushiri Investments (SBI). We are in Travel and Aviation for VIP’s and Presidents, through SBI Airways, where we have four jets that allow for comfortable air travel at affordable rates. We are in financial services where our Trading and Stock Exchange Services industry specialists provide comprehensive, integrated solutions to the Banking & Securities, Insurance, and Investment Management sectors.
We are also in Real estate where our industry practice providing world-class standards of differentiated residential and commercial property services and delivery. Hospitality Services. Currently, we own Sparkling Waters Hotel and Spa, situated in the heart of South Africa’s Magaliesburg Mountains, it is a luxurious three-star hotel, the ideal holiday or conference venue. Further, we are also in Mobile Telecommunications Services through one of SBI’s largest group of specialists providing cutting-edge mobile services specifically designed for PSB Network members.
Other entities include: SB University, SB Mining, SB Mobile Network, SB Trading Exchange Platform, SB Media, SB Real Estates and SB Agriculture.
How did you get the seed money or capital and at what point did the big break come for the SBI Group?
After I began my ministry in Malawi, I realised that for a ministry to go far, I needed more money. Besides that, I am a father, a husband and a family man. I needed money to take care of my family. Using my small savings from personal endeavours, family assistance and well-wishers I ventured into farming. I was growing and selling maize on a family land—by the way, maize is Malawi’s staple food. I started saving and investing every fortune I got from my maize sales. With days, my investments began to grow. These profits afforded me the opportunity to be where I am today.
The key word is ‘saving’ and ‘investing wisely.’
There are definitely other business ventures of yours that we are not aware, is Prophet Shepherd Bushiri willing to share them with us?
SBI businesses are the ones stated above.
What ties do you have with your home country of Malawi and any projects you have carried out there?
I am a proud and patriotic Malawian. I go to Malawi often on philanthropic work. We distribute relief maize to the poor, we go to prisons, we reach out to the sick, the orphans and the elderly.
Malawi is a beautiful and friendly nation. It is my home.
What are some of the challenges you faced growing the group, and how will you describe the business climate in Africa, atleast in countries where you currently do business in?
Well, challenges of doing business—ranging from corruption, dwindling consumer buying power and soaring taxes—will always be there. SBI, however, is turning them into success by advancing a business and investment culture that puts the clients first. Africa is a great continent with great potential. Opportunities are many and I think they will always be there.
What I envision, of course, is an Africa with African solutions—be it politics, economics and social life. We need to sit down as a continent and build reasoned, African based solutions to our problems.
How does Prophet Bushiri balance his pastoral duties with the corporal responsibilities he has at the SBI?
Time management is essential for all works that one does but most importantly is having a strong team. Fortunately, our team is excellent.
Any biblical precedent for this blend of spiritual duties and corporate interests which seems to be working for you?
I need to emphasise here that there is a tradition of vilifying Men of God whom have been blessed them with a fortune. There is this perception that Men of God are not supposed to be involved in business, to get rich, for instance. I don’t know where this perception comes from, but, if you read the Bible, you will note that men of God were rich including Abraham. It really sets a good example but then you do not just get rich. You must be a great worker—something which I am.
What is the reaction of your Church members to the business successes of their leader and for those who will want to register the same what message do you have for them?
My congregants are heavily encouraged with my success in business. They see me as a source of hope and also the definition of succeeding in doing business even when you are a Christian.
With the motto ‘At ECG, We Don’t Attract Billionaires, We Produce Billionaires’, I aim to transfer knowledge and skills of doing business in my congregants through the Monday Evening Service called the Diplomatic Service. During this weekly service, I train my congregant on how to begin, grow and manage a business using Godly ways.
I am telling you we are making unprecedented progress!
Africa has witnessed a proliferation of churches, and the opulence in which the Pastors or owners of some of the mega churches live is at odds with the everyday toil and pain of their follows, how do your own followers feel about your wealth, how do you feel when in all the wealth you have followers who live in misery, and what is your response to criticisms that religious leaders like you exploit followers for selfish ends?
Wealth comes from God—it’s a blessing, a gift that we are all born with. What matters is to listen to God for He is the one who has the keys to unlock it for us. The key thing is PRAYER and hard work.
I have never been involved in exploiting my church members. What they contribute to ECG is for the growth of the ministry—not my personal life. This is the reason I started venturing in business so that I do not meet my needs using money from church.
From your take Prophet Bushiri, how can Africans make the distinction between real and fake prophets, genuine men of God and adventurers?
I am a Man of God, heavenly ordained. I cannot speak for others. I feel it’s the sole responsibility of God to make that distinction.
We end with business which was the main thrust of the interview, what projects will the SBI Group be working on in the years ahead?
We are interested in growing our entities and expanding to almost every country in Africa. We also want to support more especially—the elderly, orphans and youth.
Africa Could Help Feed the World – If Its Fertile Land Doesn’t Vanish
June 19, 2017 | 0 Comments
By Younouss Youn*
Ouagadougou — The 23rd World Day to Combat Desertification was celebrated in Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou on June 15 with a call to create two million jobs and restore 10 million hectares of degraded land.
Three African heads of state took part in the celebrations: Ibrahim Boubacar Kéita from Mali, Mahamadou Issoufou from Niger and Roch Kaboré from Burkina Faso. The Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Monique Barbut also attended the event.
Two-thirds of the African continent is desert or drylands, and nearly 75 percent of agricultural land is estimated to be degraded to varying degrees.
According to the UNCCD, two-thirds of the African continent is desert or drylands. This land is vital for agriculture and food production, but nearly 75 percent is estimated to be degraded to varying degrees.
The region is also affected by frequent and severe droughts, which have been particularly devastating in recent years in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.
“Degraded lands is not an inevitable fate. Restoration is still possible. However, what will be more difficult is to feed 10 billion human beings in 30 years. The only place where there are still lands to do that is Africa. We need these lands to feed the whole planet. Therefore restoring lands is assuring food security for the whole planet,” said Barbut.
The high-level meeting that gathered 400 experts from around the world ended in the Call from Ouagadougou, urging citizens and governments to tackle desertification by restoring ten million hectares of land and by creating two million green jobs for youth, women and migrants.
“By 2050, the African population will double to two billion people,” Barbut noted. “I fear that as the population depends up to 80 percent on natural resources for their livelihoods, those resources will vanish given the great pressure on them.”
She added that young people emerging from this demographic growth will need decent jobs.
“In the next 15 years, 375 million young people will be entering the job market in Africa. Two hundred million of them will live in rural areas and 60 million will be obliged to leave those areas because of the pressure on natural resources.”
Talking specifically about Burkina Faso, which hosted the celebration, Batio Nestor Bassiere, the minister in charge of environmental issues, said, “From 2002 to 2013, 5.16 million hectares, 19 percent of the country’s territory, has been degraded by desertification.”
The situation is similar in most African countries. That’s why “it’s nonsense to sit and watch that happening without acting, given that the means for action are available,” said Barbut.
The Call from Ouagadougou comes from a common willingness to save the planet and Africa particularly from desertification. Gathered to discuss the topic “Our land, our house, our future,” linked to the fulfillment of the 3S Initiative (sustainability, stability, and security in Africa), the Call from Ouagadougou also invites African countries to create conditions for the development of new job opportunities by targeting the places where the access to land can be reinforced and land rights secured for vulnerable populations.
Development partners and other actors have also been called on to give their contributions. They were invited to help African countries to invest in rural infrastructure, land restoration, and the development of skills in chosen areas and among those facing migration and social risks.
For that, the UN agency in charge of the fight against desertification and its partners can rely on the firm support of the three heads of state who came for this 23rd World Day to Combat Desertification.
The President of Burkina Faso Roch Kaboré let the audience know that they are all “engaged to promote regional and global partnerships to find funds for investment in lands restoration and long term land management, wherever they will have opportunities to speak.”
Representing the African Union, Ahmed Elmekaa, Director, African Union/SAFGRAD, said drawing attention to the resolutions of desertification, land degradation and drought and on climate change are at the top of the African Union’s environmental agenda.
Taking advantage of the celebration, the national authorities gave the name of the very first executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, Hama Arba Diallo, to a street of the capital Ouagadougou. Experts from many countries also had the opportunity to visit sites showing the experience of Burkina Faso in combating desertification.
At a dinner ceremony held immediately following the closure of the ceremony, the UNCCD announced the winners of the Land for Life Award, Practical Action Sudan/UNEP from Sudan; Watershed Organization Trust from India. The Land for Life China award was given to Yingzhen Pan, Director General of National Bureau to Combat Desertification, China.
From Africa To Geneva And Back: Why A New Dad Returned To His Roots
June 18, 2017 | 0 Comments
By MARC SILVER*
Would you rather raise your kids in Europe or Africa?
That’s the question that Carl Manlan faced. Carl, who’s from the Ivory Coast, and his wife, Lelani, who’s from South Africa, started their family in Geneva, Switzerland, where they were working at the time. They have two children, a daughter named Claire, born in May 2012, and a son named Liam, born in September 2014.
Geneva is a great place to raise kids, Carl says. “Lots of opportunities to stimulate kids outside of the home, playgrounds for kids. You don’t really find that in most cities in Africa.”
But he wanted to be a dad in Africa. So he and his family moved to Johannesburg and then Accra, where he works as a chief operating officer for a foundation. I spoke with Carl about his decision to be an African dad in Africa.
What is behind your decision?
Raising my two African children in Geneva has limitations. There are experiences they will not be able to have because of the geographic location.
In Geneva she could see pictures and images from Africa but the visual and sensory experience of being here is something I cannot replace, even with social media. In Ghana, we see many people, kids, selling things in the street. It’s something I saw growing up.
Does your daughter ask you why there are kids living on the streets?
She asked that question when we were driving her to school. Part of the explanation we gave her is that there are many children who cannot go to school, and they have to find a way to make a living.
What if she looks back and says, Gee, Dad, Geneva would have been a nicer place to live?
Maybe she would say, ‘My life in Geneva would have been much better.” But my answer would be, “It’s a decision we made as parents. We think it is important for our children to understand the continent where their parents come from, to be part of the local culture, to hear the local languages, to see the challenges we have to resolve as a society.”
Are you worried about health risks in Africa, where there are high rates of communicable diseases like malaria?
We focus on prevention — anti-mosquito spray and lotion on the body. And if something goes wrong we are fortunate to be able to access medical facilities.
Are you kind of the “new African dad”?
I wouldn’t say the ‘new African dad.’ But there are fathers taking a different role in Africa.
As fathers, we cannot just relay on the nanny. Raising children is a commitment. If parents delegate that responsibility they may not be helping society. Because having children is a commitment we’ve made to society, to make sure they become good citizens. And becoming a good citizen starts at home.
Any other advice for new dads?
What was your dad like?
My father was a doctor and used to travel a lot. It took a while to make time to connect. With my kids, when I travel for work I make sure we have a conversation about my traveling before I go. I explain what I’m going to do. When I come back I bring a book from the country I’ve been to. And as much as possible it’s 100 percent dedication to an activity for my children.
How did you connect with your dad?
In my teenage years in Abidjan, he’d wake me up in the early hours, around 5 in the morning, and we’d go for a walk. During these walks he would speak about being a professional and what it entails, how as a medical doctor he was committed to save people’s lives and sometimes it means he cannot be home. Being able to walk with him when it was just the two of us is something I cherish a lot.
But he woke you up at 5! Teenagers love to sleep late, right?
I would look forward to the nudge in the early hours, that voice that troubled my sleep. I am grateful for those moments because it was our moment.
And he was very good at increasing the pace as a training in perseverance.
Going for an early walk became a habit. Even now I wake up early and I walk my walk. I’m not a runner but I walk my walk. It’s a quiet moment, a special moment. It gets me ready for the day.
Do you plan to teach that custom to your kids?
I don’t know if my children will want to do that. But I will definitely try and see what the reaction is.