Monthly Archives: August 2012

TedxRhodesU: The Tea Stop that Taught Me to listen

This is the video of my TedxRhodesU talk – I was incredibly nervous, as the opportunity to share my passion and stories that would makes others #seeafricadifferently was incredibly important to me, I wanted to make sure I took full advantage of it. I wasn’t quite as eloquent as my written speech was but I think I got my point across. Would love to hear your thoughts!


(Some) African Producers



Zanzibar: Beyond the Beaches

In May this year my hubby and I were fortunate enough to escape to the island paradise of Zanzibar for a week of sun, white-sanded beaches, turquoise water, lots of fresh seafood and cocktails served in pineapples with mini umbrellas. We got all this and so much more! Even though we were there for only 7 days we came back well rested, but also rejuvenated because of several experiences that re-affirmed our belief in Africa and the successful future that awaits our continent under good leadership and an active, informed civil society.

                        Braai – island style!                                              The beaches of Pwani Mchangani

The first experience was the churches and mosques of Zanzibar. We noticed that they were often next door to each other, and this physical closeness was also reflected in a closeness of minds, as Christians and Muslims lived side by side with an acceptance and genuine tolerance I have not witnessed anywhere else in the world – developed or developing! I recognise that a true understanding of tolerance and acceptance can only be established once you have lived in a place for some time, but at face value there was nevertheless a marked difference in the way people interacted with each other in Zanzibar compared to anywhere else I have been. The thing about religion in Zanzibar that was really striking, however, was not this tolerance but the appearance of the churches and mosques…they were of the same type, size and condition as the houses around them. They were only recognisable as places of religion because of a cross, crescent moon or loudspeaker inconspicuously placed somewhere on the outside of the building. The buildings and their imams and priests lived as the people did, and despite not being in any way religious myself, I have enormous respect for any religious institution that treats themselves as equal to their members. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a few old, big (and beautiful) churches and mosques in Zanzibar, and these have their place, but the working houses of religion are as I have just described.  There are very few ornate buildings laden with treasures while members go hungry and/or sleep outside in the rain. Zanzibar’s houses of religion, I was told by locals, often double as schools, clinics and whatever else is needed by the community – and all were welcome, regardless of which building this happened to be occurring in on that day and regardless of any religious differences. Many could learn from this sort of incredibly tolerant and advanced interpretation of religious belief.

This also translated into the way people treated each other and treated strangers – openly, honestly and with much love. Not once did a single person or place – trader, restaurant, tour guide, hotel, taxi driver, whatever – try to add the expected ‘tourist’ tax onto prices – locals in fact warned us of certain places that over-charged tourists. On trips to Barcelona, London, Kinshasa and Cape Town, among others, I’ve been charged the ‘tourist’ tax, so that was a pleasant surprise.  We saw no beggars while we were there, which suggests that the poor (of which no one can deny there many in Zanzibar, 44% of the population lives on less than US$1.25 per day) are to a large extent looked after by locals, and we saw this first hand. While on a tour through the historic, vibrant and incredibly interesting Stonetown we saw several people feeding the poor in their area, children still in their school clothes ran through the streets carrying food deliveries to the elderly, and there was a sense of community that both enviable and tangible.

                                                   The intricate antique doors of Stonetown

Only one person asked us for money while we were there. The person in question was a man with a very visibly deformed leg who required corrective surgery. He had a quotation from the local hospital indicating exactly how much the operation, hospital stay and follow-up treatment would cost, and finally a receipt book so that donors could not only receive proof of their donation but also could see how much of the total amount this man, named Samuel, had collected so far. Yes, it could have been a scam, but why bother when he could have just begged – he would have got the sympathy vote! Instead he was steadily and proactively trying to change his life, and I for one wanted to be involved, even in the smallest way, in donating to his worthy cause.

Zanzibar offered us beautiful beaches, Red Colobus monkeys in the Jozani forest (found nowhere else in the world), opportunities to feed and interact with giant sea turtles, historic beauty and interesting sites dating back over a thousand years, spice farm tours (which were MUCH more fun than I expected!) and a refreshing dose of reasons to believe, both in humanity and Africa. Sure, there are issues that need to be dealt with, there is much work to be done but what we saw suggested that things are improving, and with a people so involved and engaged that’s no wonder at all. Maybe it’s a little hippy, but then again I am a little hippy!

    Red Colobus Monkeys         My hubby, Matt, in the main Stonetown fresh market       Turtle Sanctuary

                                  A few snaps from the (communally shared and run) spice farm tour


Poverty Monitoring. 2011. ‘Tanzania, Country Report on the Millennium Development Goals 2010’


Posted by on August 23, 2012 in Tanzania, Travel


(Some) of Africa’s Scientific Discoveries & Contributions

An infographic to highlight some of Africa’s lessor know scientific discoveries and contributions, of which there are MANY more…



• McLaren, W. August 2006. ‘Mohammed Bah Abba And His Pot-in-Pot’
• Treacy, M. May 2012. ‘Device Turns Your Sneaker into a Portable Cell Phone Charger’
• Ashoka Innovators for the Public. 2008. ‘Ashoka Innovators for the Public: Mohammed Bah Abba‘
• Biofuels Digest. May 2012. ‘CleanStar launches first cooking fuel facility in Mozambique; alternative to
  charcoal cooking, heath risks, at hand in Africa’
• Noble Prize.Org. The Noble Prize in Chemistry 1999: Ahmed Zewail
• Novozymes. May 2012. ‘CleanStar Mozambique launches world’s first sustainable cooking fuel facility’
• Google Science Fair 2012 ‘Meet our 15 finalists and Science in Action winner’
• RNW Africa Desk. February 2012. ‘The Cardiopad: an African invention to save lives’
• The Right Livlihood Award. Aklilu Lemma (Ethiopia)
• Wikipedia. Sema Sgaier
• Wikipedia. Raphael Armattoe

Schooled by Students at the University of Ghana Legon

Since my last post focused on the need to listen this one will justify this approach a little more in case you’re not yet convinced. Being at the TEDxRhodesU event recently reminded me of the time I spent consulting for an ISP on a project with The University of Ghana Legon (UGL) in 2008. Both have a clock tower and when I was at UGL I remember fondly thinking of and missing Rhodes University, my Alma mater, and this weekend I had the same feelings, at Rhodes, about UGL.

 The University of Ghana Legon (May 2008)

The company I was consulting for wanted to assist the university just outside Accra to improve its student to computer ratio. To start, we met with the King of the Ga because in Ghana each traditional leader is responsible for a different sector and must focus to improve conditions in this area. King Tackie Tawiah III was responsible for education and the Ga Education Endowment Fund. Working with him and his council gave all parties concerned access to an extensive source of local knowledge that could be easily accessed during all project phases. He connected our team with others – some NGO, some corporate, and then of course the VC directly at UGL. This is the first reason to listen a little closer: the usual media portrayal of traditional leaders is as backwards and overly conservative dictators interested only in retaining power. King Tackie Tawiah proved this was not in any way a universal truth.

Commemorating the teams relationship and project launch with King Tackie Twaiah and his council

The company I was consulting for ended up not being able to assist the university but I stayed in touch with some now friends at UGL in a personal capacity. This is the way I found out the second and more important reason (in this experience) to listen and treat the people involved as the experts of their own context…

UGL managed to massively improve the student to computer ratio, and while I don’t remember the exact figures I do remember that they more than doubled the number of computers to students in 6 months. However a problem then cropped up: a minority of students were stealing the equipment. All sponsors and interested parties were contacted to request their attendance at a meeting a week later to discuss the issue.

Two days after the meeting request was sent however, and way before the meeting, the students organised their own meeting. They identified that the problem was students with lots of bags etc. being able to sneak the equipment out in among their piles of stuff. As such they decided that no students should be allowed to take bags into the computer labs but rather would have to leave the bags outside at parcel counters. The parcel counters were built by volunteer students from wooden pallets and once erected managed 24 hours a day also by volunteer students. And guess what? They were right and the problem was solved instantly – by them on their own without any intervention from the university officials, sponsors or anyone else. So much for student apathy, so much for un-involved disaffected African youth. So many stereotypes and media portrayals were proven to be not even close to the truth in this situation and are sufficient cause to take a closer look before judging based on pre-conceived ideas. For me this inspiring reaction from the students of UGL is not only a reason to listen but also to believe in Africa.

Bag-free computer labs at the University of Ghana Legon


TEDxRhodesU: The Tea Stop that taught me to listen

This is the transcript of the talk I gave at TEDxRhodesU – a summary version of this story already exists on the blog but this one expands the story as well as makes reference to new examples from other countries. Would love to hear your thoughts!

I was born in Port Elizabeth, studied at Rhodes and as all good BA students do when I graduated I went out to save the world. Being proudly South African I was keen on starting at home in my continent of birth and so off I went naively into the world. 10 years on I’ve travelled in Europe, the UK and all over Africa and these are some of the places that surprised me most. Can you guess where they are?

Surprised? So was I, but I was in for a lot of surprises working across Africa. The next surprise was less shock and more dawning realization that contrary to what I had been taught, Africa’s most valuable resources are in fact not its wildlife or minerals but rather its people. I have learnt that the most unrecognized and under-utilised resource in Africa is its people – particularly its women. Even today as the narrative of Africa is changing, the tales of the next great investment frontier focus on our gold, oil, diamonds, coal and gas. Maybe it’s just the “curse of the commodities”, but the people of our continent are as undervalued as ever. This manifests itself in our exclusion in the formation and management of aid programs, financial systems and even the monitoring of governance in our own countries.

However the few who have recognized this, and unleashed as well as nurtured this potential are reaping rewards, far greater than could ever have been expected. And so today I will be sharing with you this very simple lesson: if you want to work in a place (in any capacity: NGO, start-up, whatever) you need to listen to its people. I’m sure you’d all agree that all of us in this room are much more empowered than your average African.  But when last were you asked what needed to be done to improve infrastructure in your neighbourhood? Asked to rate your postal service? When last were you given the opportunity to nominate a Nobel Prize laureate? When last did one of the multitude of NGOs who regularly ask you for money, ask you how you would like it spent?  Or even account to you for how they spend it?

Sure, it sounds really simple. Obvious, even.  And yet so few governments, NGOs, corporations, anyone is doing so? Our continent is full of dynamic, strong, innovative, entrepreneurial people and yet we don’t seem to listen to one another. And of course this lesson applies globally – but I believe more so in Africa where the people are more often than not treated as nothing more than a source of labour – much as it was centuries ago.

The people who taught me to listen?  Their names are Anastasia and Esther, a Ugandan and a Kenyan who were my neighbours in Ngong, Kenya in 2008/2009.  Ngong is a township just outside Nairobi – about 25-30km from the city centre.  We lived in a ginormous 6 bedroom house, ironically a small house by Ngong standards.  Now don’t get me wrong, there were and are plenty of poor people living in tin shacks in Ngong – our neighbours across the road were 4 families sharing 3 shacks – BUT our neighbour to the right was a politician living in an 18 bedroom house.  It was all shacks and mansions, with nothing in between.…

So, sadly, we were living in a vastly unjust society where those who were trapped in poverty had very few options or opportunities to free themselves from its grip.  When a friend of mine came to visit us in Kenya, and wanted to do some volunteer work while there, I decided it was time to at least attempt to make some sort of difference in our neighbourhood.  My friend agreed, and a few days after she arrived we were sitting down to lunch with the two women I knew best in the community.  Enter Anastasia and Esther.  Both women were mothers and did not have jobs, yet they never described themselves as unemployed.  No Kenyan does, because even if you don’t have a job, you are always trying to start a business, sell something or do whatever piecemeal work you can find to keep you and your family alive.  Anastasia and Esther were no different.

The researcher in me quickly turned our lunch into a qualitative focus group, and the first surprising thing we learnt was that the primary barrier to employment or starting a business for these women was…any guesses? It wasn’t because of a lack of ideas, or a lack of access to funding.  Even though they lived in shacks it was not infrastructure issues that stopped them – it was a lack of affordable and trustworthy childcare.  Neither of these women had any family in Ngong, and any of their plans or activities needed to take this into account above everything else.  We explained that we each had R500 (Ksh5,000) to contribute to a business for them, and quite quickly they identified a gap in the market as well as some ideas on how to take advantage of this opportunity.  But before I tell you about all this there are a few things you need to know…

  1. Kenyans drink huge amounts of tea, as often as a cup is available
  2. This tea must be made in a very specific way to be considered proper tea by Kenyans.  Start with a pot of half water, half milk, add the teabags while this is still cold and then bring it all to the boil.  Once boiled add plenty of sugar – and there you go, the perfect cuppa!

Despite these two cultural characteristics the only place really to buy tea on the go was Nairobi Java House (the Kenyan equivalent of Mugg & Bean), and at a cost equivalent to about 40% of the monthly minimum wage per cup!  So the average Kenyan could not get tea on the go at all.  Anastasia and Esther suggested selling proper Kenyan tea, firstly from Esther’s home which was halfway up a long hill and close to several construction sites (and, we thought, thirsty construction workers) and secondly from mobile sites at taxi and bus ranks early in the morning and in the evenings to catch rush hour commuters. We even came up with a name, ‘The Tea Stop’ all before our first lunch together had even ended.

A week later the 3 of us were off on a bus to Karen circle, where a large gathering of commuters could be found, to give the mobile tea stand its first go. In the week leading up to this point we’d designed a logo, printed stickers for all equipment; bought trays and bags to transport everything around in, enough ingredients for about 1000 cups of tea, the equipment to make it in and finally a secure trunk for all this to be stored in. The permanent stand had also been set up outside of Esther’s home and so while we headed off to Karen, Esther stayed at home running this store and importantly looking after Anastasia’s children.

We only stayed 30 minutes that first session – we had a few logistical issues that made staying any longer not worth the time – but despite the limited time and despite the logistical issues Anastasia sold 35 cups at Ksh40 each, just 2 silver coins and made Ksh1400. Considering the minimum monthly wage for Kenya at the time was Ksh5500 (R550) this was a mind-blowing amount even when divided by two.

Each day was then split into two two hour shifts, one for each  rush hour, and each woman did one shift per day. This meant they were never away from their children for too long; had trustworthy and free child care in each other close by, and could continue their small home-based vegetable businesses as before.

Three months later they were earning R1200 (Ksh12000) per month working 2 hours a day each. This was more than twice the minimum wage then, and much more than both them and their employed husbands combined had earned before. And all this from a really small start-up investment and a willingness to treat the people involved as experts of their own context.

Anastasia and Esther continued to run ‘The Tea Stop’ for a further 2 years until they both moved out of Ngong. Their families average income increased by R70 per month during this time, not only because of ‘The Tea Stop’ but also because of the resources of time and seed money they could draw on  to embark on other endeavours, now that basic needs were taken care of.  Both were still running businesses when we last had contact in early 2011 – Esther was running a tailor and ‘design studio’ in the Lake Victoria region and Anastasia was a farmer in the Aberdares.

The project was a success overall, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were challenges and failures. One that stands out is that the project did not continue beyond Anastasia and Esther. We as a group failed to share or pass on our learnings, ideas and success. We proved it could be done with them but we didn’t take it beyond them. The permanent stand outside of Esther’s home did not work and soon closed and so we had wasted money on equipment for the permanent stand, which in hindsight was unnecessary. Yes despite all this the project still proves that the most important resource was not the cash available, nor any sort of corporate backing nor an extensive marketing machine, but rather the people involved. The key to this project’s success lay in understanding the beneficiary’s actual circumstances and tapping into their extensive local knowledge and insight.

One story is not enough to prove the point though and so let’s look at another…from Ghana. When the local knowledge and insight of the employees of Blue Skies Ghana was accessed they not only saved the company, diversified the product line and created a new market but also increased revenues to record highs. In 2007 Blue Skies Ghana was a fruit juice and canned fruit company who, because of their focus on exports to Europe, were suffering massive financial losses as the recession withered up their market. After several failed turnaround attempts management called the staff together to inform them that the company would have to close.  The staff, consisting mainly of fruit processors and machine operators, asked management to hold off on this for 3 weeks while they attempted to find a solution. The next day they came back suggesting that the company scale down on their tinned fruit and juice production for Europe and instead sell fresh fruit locally.  Management said this would never work – ‘we have no local distribution network, no drivers, no trucks…’, so that day each employee took home two boxes of fruit and sold them in their local neighbourhoods.  They did this for a week before collecting together all the cash accumulated and handing it over to an astonished management, who now had not only more cash in hand than they had had in months but also a new business model and market! This type of success lies waiting for all who work in Africa and are prepared to listen.

The consequences for failing to listen go far beyond the possible closure of businesses – it can cost human lives.  This has been seen throughout Africa in the fight against malaria.  Nets are distributed but are turned into fishing nets and animal traps almost as soon as they are handed over and so the very well-intended fundraising and distribution of these anti-malarial products have very little effect on rates of infection at all. Because as 45 year old Kenyan Duncan Nyambega puts it: “Dying from Malaria is much quicker and less painful than dying from hunger.”  The exact figures vary from country to country,  but use of mosquito nets for their intended purpose ranges from 26% – 51% at very most. And let’s be honest here, they’re not the best way to spend money if you’re trying to enhance food security either.

So by not taking the time to understand the beneficiaries or their local context, millions of dollars in equipment and hours worked are wasted, which in turn means unnecessary lives are lost – just because nobody listened.

There is a Swahili proverb that says ‘Listening is the most difficult skill to learn and the most important to have.’ I’d go further and say without it no project can be truly sustainable nor impactful.  It’s important to be clear that when I talk of listening I mean the broad definition of ‘to pay attention, to heed’ and not simply the biological process of hearing sound. It involves gaining an extensive understanding of the specific local context you will be working in. This would preferably be gained first hand by living local (local local not expat local –  that means not living in the one expat subrubs with all the other foreigners, it means buying your food where everyone else does, using public transport even just occasionally, socialising with your neighbours, consulting the local news and learning at least the basics of the local language/languages). If you really can’t do all this yourself then at least recognize the need heavily to involve local expertise.

Make sure you take the time to involve beneficiaries at every level,and really talk to them, so you understand their actual circumstances and the real barriers they encounter to overcoming these circumstances.  If you do these two simple things, the potential for progress and success is massive, but even bigger will be the new opportunities for you also to learn and grow at a personal level.


TEDxRhodesU, Inspiration & Blogging

Yesterday was the inaugural TEDXRhodesU and what an event! The day was one of motivation and inspiration on all levels! Whether science, teaching, tech, start-ups or even poetry is your thing, there was something for you at this event. The best bit was that even the subjects that aren’t usually my bag were presented in such unique ways and by such excellent speakers that you couldn’t help but be interested in them all! Considering this was the very first such event at Rhodes, special mention must be made of Tyron Louw and the organising committee who not only put together an inspiring and entertaining programme but made sure that the it went off without a hitch…amazing! Thank you for doing such an incredible job and allowing me to be a part of what was a life-changing day for so many people.

The day was also one that reminded me of why I believe in Africa, because if sitting in a room not only full of inspiring speakers, but also the professional organising committee and, best of all, the engaged and intelligent audience like I had the privilege to do yesterday does not make you believe in Africa then I’m not sure anything will! We heard about how South Africa is leading the way in terms of astronomy globally, to the point where at present over 360 individuals and 22 institutions currently want to make use of our MeerKAT telescope (Prof. Justin Jonas). Mark Horner showed us how he’s broadening access to textbooks through volunteer written open textbooks (i.e. with no copyright restrictions). We learnt about the difference between knowing, being and doing voluntarism, how these are different and what the impact of each could be (Corinne Knowles). I could go on and on as there was so much said and done that was worthy of mention. As soon as the links for these talks are made available I will share them.

I spoke about ‘The Tea Stop that taught me to listen’ which focused on the lessons learnt while starting a successful business with 2 Ngong (Kenya) community members.  I will upload the entire transcript of my speech tomorrow. TEDxRhodesU also motivated me to finally get back to this blog. My intention was always to update it at least weekly but then things got complicated. I’ll explain more about that in my next week so for now I’ll just end with a thanks to TEDxRhodesU for motivating me to get back on track…

The genius Andrew Buckland using his body to share a message – amazing!

Morongoa Masebe starting off her talk ‘The Teacher Named Art’ with song

Steuart Penninton being interviewed by the fabulous EMCEE Noisey

Me in action at TEDXRhodesU – last speaker of the day (12 August 2012)

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Posted by on August 13, 2012 in General, Lessons