Weekly Feature

George Osodi/AP
Lagos, Nigeria

Doing Business with Africa

August 20, 2008
by Liz Colville
The money-saving and energy-conserving skills of entrepreneurs in Africa are creating a wide range of inspiring gadgets and life-changing initiatives.

Africa’s Economic Future is Now

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Nigerian finance minister in Nigeria and a current director of the World Bank, gave a speech at TEDGlobal 2007. In her talk, Okonjo-Iweala notes that typical discussions about Africa focus on the negative: malaria, AIDS, poverty, civil war. But Africa is also a fertile potential source of investment opportunities. She argues that aid needs to be directed toward building up African-based businesses and an infrastructure that supports those businesses. Watch her speech, available on the TED Web site.

Low Cost, High Utility

KickStart, based in East Africa, has been seeking out inventive technology since 1991. It takes techniques for improving irrigation, fuel, electricity and food production and introduces them to small businesses in mostly rural communities. Not only do the concepts create opportunities for entrepreneurs, they also help the citizens. KickStart’s tools include the Actionpac Stabilized Soil Block Press, which manufactures blocks of cement and soil used in building, and MoneyMaker manual irrigation pumps, used by farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Mali.
Techies are finding their place in Africa as builders of “appropriate, adapted technologies for tough developmental problems,” via nonprofit organization Geekcorps. Geekcorps’s Mali division makes gadgets like the CanTV, which allows a radio station to stream videos to TV sets via Wi Fi.

Communication Alternatives

The spread of communication technology is key to establishing economic growth. It is often simpler to set up a cell phone network in a poor African country than to put in phone land lines. Cell phone subscriptions are climbing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world, according to recent data from the GSM Association. The charity ONE reports on the data in its blog.
Erik Hersman, founder of Afrigadget and author of the blog White African, envisions “The Africa Network,” which would be an “Afrocentric community portal, built in a user-friendly manner, adapted to both computer and mobile phone use … Mixing the best and most useful elements of Craigslist, eBay, Blogger, eSnips and GMail will provide an online destination and home for rural and urban Africans alike.” He presented his proposal at the Where 2.0 Conference.

Financing Change in Africa

One way to add juice to a local economy is via microfinancing, funding the business ventures of impoverished aspiring entrepreneurs. A pioneer in this field, Muhammad Yunus, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his efforts leading Grameen Bank, which typically gives people a very low default rate of 2 percent on their loans. Visit the Web site of the Grameen Foundation to find out more about the people helped through the bank’s efforts and learn how microfinancing works.
Kiva.org allows regular citizens to microfinance specific African projects through their Web site.

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