Category Archives: Lessons

(Some) African kids changing the world

1) Kelvin Doe

Kelvin Doe is my hero and the most inspiring person on the planet in my book. He’s only 15 but recently became the youngest person EVER to be invited to MIT’s ‘Visiting Practitioner Programme’. His claim to fame? His incredible ability to turn trash into batteries, generators and even radio transmitters. Completely self-taught, he has used these skills to create a community empowerment radio station, which he runs as “DJ Focus”. But despite his genius he is incredibly down to earth, humble and the sort of person we should all aspire to be. Be warned, this video is the most motivating and heart-warming I’ve ever seen, tissues will be required!

2) Richard Turere

A 13 year old Maasai herdsman from Kenya was losing his family’s livestock to lions from the nearby Nairobi National Park. Rather than trying to kill the lions, like most people in his community felt forced to do, he used incredible resourcefulness to invent a solar powered lighting system that now protects the cattle from his own and several other villages.  By providing a different way of protecting the cattle, he has also done a lot to help the lions.  By safeguarding human lives, protecting livelihoods and building harmony with the natural environment, Richard shows us how little it takes to come up with completely new solutions when we truly pay attention to local circumstances.

3) Nadege Iradukunda

Nadege is an 18 year old Rwandan who is dramatically reducing the cost of running schools by setting up bio-digester plants. A bio-digester plant uses natural biological processes to converts food waste into energy! The plants help schools in Rwanda not only to reduce their environmental impact but also to save on heating and lighting costs by as much as 40%.  This in turn makes education much more affordable and accessible to more Rwandan children. Since the inception of the project she has overseen the deployment of 15 bio-digester plants, serving more than 15000 students.

4) Ludwick Marishane

This 17 year old South African is no stranger to invention, and when in Grade 9 (12 years old) he even invented his own bio-fuel! The invention featured below is called Dry-Bath and is a way to properly cleanse your body without using any water. Ludwick says he specifically invented this for the millions of people across the world who don’t have enough access to clean water, and so help with the prevention of diseases such as Trachoma. Beyond this though, he sees this particular invention as a way to save water, protecting and preserving this scarce resource.

5) Laetitia Mukungu

Laetitia (18) founded and steered to success the Women’s Rabbit Association of Kenya. After a volunteer teaching stint she realised that the biggest impediment to quality education was a lack of funds at home, which impacted on the schools’ resources and even affected their ability to provide uniforms and stationery. She decided she needed to start an income generating project and decided on rabbit breeding! Watch this to find out why she chose rabbits, as well as how 15 families have been transformed by this one inspiring individual.

6) Miriam Nsekonziza and Precious Nyabami

Having only very recently been announced as the winners of a regional science, technology, engineering and mathematics competition (March 2013) little information is currently available on these two 17 year old’s achievements. What is known is that their study can be considered, in the inventors own words, ‘as a major breakthrough in the wake of concerted efforts by the government to ensure access to clean water for all households in the country.’ Their studied covered methods of tapping of rainwater from rooftops.

Rwanda article


A response to Robert Bates’ piece ‘Africa through Western Eyes: The world’s dark continent or capitalism’s shining light?’

Robert Bates recently wrote a piece ( documenting his understanding of the history of and reasons for Africa’s image in the West. I found the piece thought-provoking but have to say I don’t agree with everything he said.  After reading it I felt it necessary to respond to some unsubstantiated claims, particularly relating to what I saw as his unfair and uninformed portrayal of the organisation Africa The Good News. Let me at this stage declare that I have written for them (as an unpaid volunteer) in the past and plan to do so again in the future. I support Africa The Good News’ mandate and believe that they have an important role to play in inspiring, informing and mobilising the people of our continent – our greatest strength and resource.

He wrote: “It is partly because some people think the best way to repudiate the negative stereotypes of Africa is to pump out wholly ‘good news’. An account on Twitter called @AfricaGoodNews is a case in point. Its handler tweets links to positive reportage of Africa: such “Angola May Produce One Million Eggs a Day…” and “Doing Business in Fast-Growing Africa – Europe Edition…”.

It is one facet of a larger rebranding project. Whilst some observers may approve, seeing them as necessary correctives to the boilerplate journalism mentioned above, others are already finding them clichéd and boring or downright misleading; a facile PR exercise designed to encourage (mainly Western) investment.”

My first objection is to the selective representation of the sort of information shared by Africa: The Good News’ Twitter account.  In it the writer has quoted (out of context and incompletely) two mundane, banal and Eurocentric tweets. He doesn’t show the tweets about opportunities to be involved in volunteer-created textbooks, feedback on research and census studies, economic market information and news of general political, cultural, environmental, economic and even entertainment events from across the continent.  All these, I would like to add, seldom appear in Western media, even in the “back pages” so to speak. Is this news primarily positive? Yes, that is the entire point of the organisation, but more on that later.

My second concern is with Bates’ portrayal of Africa: The Good News as a Twitter account and no more. It is far more than that, and he has neglected to mention the organisation behind it.  A little research would have revealed that the organisation was originally founded as an offshoot of the very successful South Africa: The Good News, which had been founded a few years earlier by Steuart Pennington. Its aim was and is to counteract the overwhelmingly and exclusively negative portrayal of South Africa in the local and international media. It was not about creating an artificially positive alternative reality, but rather was aimed at ensuring that the real South Africa, both the good and bad news, got the balanced coverage it needed and deserved.  This all started when Steuart went to a ‘Farewell, and Congrats you’re getting out’ party for some friends emigrating to Australia, and found himself getting angry at the endless negative stories and statistics about South Africa doing the rounds at the event. What made him really angry was not so much that these things were being said, but that they rang true at first hearing and he did not have the facts at hand to refute or confirm them. After taking on a couple of the guests, and earning himself a night on the couch as a result, his wife suggested he do something about it instead of moaning about it.

So he started doing some research, and discovered that not only were many of these common ‘truths’ on the downfall of South Africa overexaggerated or downright wrong, but also that there were many good things happening too. He found himself motivated and inspired to join the ranks of those working towards the future we all dream of for South Africa, and so the organisation was born. After a few years of running the rapidly growing and successful South Africa: The Good News the team recognised that a similar platform was needed for the continent as a whole, which led to the birth of Africa: The Good News. Of course both these organisations are (hopefully) changing the attitudes and actions of investors (local and international) but the arrogance inherent in the assertion that Africa: The Good News is just an investor propaganda machine quite frankly infuriates me. Even if this assertion was true (which it is not) why should Africa not be able to market itself to investors by showcasing its strengths? Virtually every city and country in the world does that!

South Africa: The Good News and Africa: The Good News take the view that since the negative side of Africa gets so much coverage there really is no need for them to add to it. Does this mean they only publish naively positive stories? No. When reports such as the Global Competitive Index come out they are shared in their entirety, not just the positive parts. Does either organisation blindly act as if either South Africa or the continent as a whole doesn’t have any problems? Again, no. They do, however play an active role in correcting these instead of swooping in from afar, dismissing inconvenient details as irrelevant and rushing away without offering any solutions or alternatives. I see no reason to give more credit to negative news than positive simply because of their outlook – I’ll admit Bates never actually says this outright but the implication is pretty clear. If this analysis of Africa: The Good News had been based specifically on reliability of sources, accuracy of data or even the dates of data published etc. and then substantiated I would have paid more attention. Let me be very clear that I don’t believe any of these are in question, however a rational review of them would have at least been useful and much more fair.

My final complaint is not against the portrayal of Africa: The Good News specifically, but the general assertion that reporting on good news from the continent is found by “others” to be “boring”, “cliched” and “misleading.” Those are pretty serious claims to make and if they had been made against a specific journalist we would now have quite a row on our hands.  Why should it be any different when made about an entire group of (unnamed) journalists?  Who are these “others” he refers to?  The fact that no one specific is mentioned makes it difficult to challenge him on specific facts – probably the intention of these vague, unsubstantiated claims in the first place.   There is no logical reason why good news should be reported any less than bad news, and all reporting should be judged on its accuracy and reliability, not simply it’s positive or negative tone.

Since Bates started with Twitter let’s go back there now: a quick search  of the word ‘Africa’ shows the enormous number of people in Africa and across the globe who have warped and inaccurately negative views of the continent. Africa: The Good News is an important and laudable initiative for a grossly misunderstood and maligned continent. All Mr Bates’ attack on this organisation does is show how very necessary initiatives like this still are.


Using Twitter to be (more) Successful

During the recent #WiredWomen’s conference, one of the major discussions that occurred on and off-line revolved around the use of social media platforms (mainly twitter) to develop and enhance a brand, personal or as an organisation. Delegates wanted clear and specific guide lines on best practise and so, instead of just talking about being ‘good’ at twitter, I decided to measure who was getting Twitter right during the conference by monitoring the hash tag. I did this by using a variety of tools (including tweetreach and NodeXL) and in so doing was able to establish exactly which tweets and tweeps were successful. This then allowed me, to identify common characteristics of success.

Before we get to those though, it is important to clarify exactly what is meant by being good or successful at Twitter.  Twitter is about people, connections, networks between these connections and influence within networks and among connections. Why should you care about this? Personally or professionally, it is a quick and easy way to connect with like-mind people all over the world. This has, and does, turn into business, travel and growth opportunities if managed correctly – I wouldn’t have been a panellist at this conference if it hadn’t been for Twitter! With only 140 characters you can reach hundreds, even thousands, of people in seconds at the same time, and if you’re connected enough there is no quicker way (electronically or otherwise) to disseminate information. Twitter is THE crowdsourcing tool and anything from IT problems to a need for directions to a specific location can be found almost immediately through your connection’s varied locations, knowledge and interest areas. There is also no quicker way to stay up to date with news and events from around the world, often information is released on Twitter even before the press picks it up. Beyond this, live tweeting can allow you access to conferences and the like that you never would even have known about before. This is of particular value because access to early industry news disseminated intelligently will enhance your position within your industry. I could go on and on but these are the main reasons I believe it’s worth spending a little time on understanding how to ensure you maximise the benefits received from Twitter, which was after all the point of this exercise!

The most evident characteristic of successful #wiredwomen tweeps was engagement. Those at the centre of the #wiredwomen twitter network not only engaged with others the most at the actual conference, but also had engaged so broadly in their general pre-conference twitter activity that they had already come into contact with many network members long before the network was even formed. This also meant that they were automatically the most influential in the network, as they had already built trust, rapport and established their position as experts. This sounds simple, obvious even, but is definitely a case of easier said than done! The key was a combination of the clear demonstration of expertise, including (very importantly) the offering of this freely, with being human! By that I mean: joining the conversation rather than preaching from a pedestal, not talking exclusively about one subject (even if you are a business) while simultaneously maintaining a consistent persona, responding to others calls for help, asking for help, sharing success and exciting news, admitting to failure or a gap in knowledge and in general sharing more of yourself. If you want someone specific to join a conversation or see specific information mention them directly – that’s how conversations get started.

To ensure you are part of relevant conversations you need to use hash tags, as they enable you to join or even start conversations.  Hash tags are the easiest and most commonly used way to find conversations that you’re interested in and ensure that your voice is heard in this conversation. You may have much to contribute, but not making use of the relevant hash tag is like putting yourself on mute. It also limits your potential to connect to only those currently in your network, as opposed to the entire twitter network. There were some very informative and important tweets that went unnoticed at the #wiredwomen conference because the authors didn’t use the hash tag and as such excluded themselves from delegate’s radars. This may – again – sound like rather obvious advice, but I think you’d be surprised at the number of tweets directly related to the conference but not containing the hash tag, and there must have been many more I have missed since they are by their very nature disconnected and so difficult to find.

Whether you’re using a hashtag or not, the more you tweet the more likely you are to be heard. There is however a very fine line between creating a high profile account and alienating respondents who will get bored with too many tweets. Those that tweeted the most at #wiredwomen were among the most connected in the network, but were not the most retweeted or mentioned. Those that were among the most retweeted and mentioned did tweet more than average but, more importantly, seemed to have found the balance between frequency, relevant content and timing. For example, successful #wiredwomen tweeps allowed others time to respond in between tweets or before sharing the next bit of the story/information. Not only does this engage those involved more, but, also, by lengthening the time over which the conversation occurs, increases the likelihood that other connections will be exposed to it.  There is no magic number of how often you should tweet – it depends completely on the subject involved, relevancy of issue etc. but good advice is to use the same filter you do in normal conversation and life where you wouldn’t dominate completely but rather listen too.

When analysing the content of specific successful #wiredwomentweets it was immediately noticeable that:

  • Tweets that pointed to links, videos, infographics, pictures, etc. enhanced tweeps experience and as such engaged them more and for a longer period of time. Not surprisingly, funny tweets had the same effect.
  • Tweets containing simply a headline and link were much less mentioned, commented on or retweeted than those that also included insightful comments or thoughtful responses.
  • Tweets that were 120 characters or less were retweeted and commented on much more than longer ones, simply because space was left to do so! Tweeps love sharing breaking news, interesting and useful information – it only increases their profile -and are much more likely to do so if they can add their own two cents too.
  • Tweets specifically mentioning tweeps by username where more often responded to than those not, as people are much more likely to respond when they feel like the message is directed specifically at them.
  • Statements that were backed up with a source were mentioned and retweeted at a significantly higher rate than those that appeared to be opinion only.

Since the #wiredwomen were such an incredibly connected group (as was evident when the hash tag trended nationally in South Africa) it would be safe to say that these tips for successful tweets are not only relevant for users within this network but much more broadly too. As such, following this advice will ensure your twitter account yields all the benefits discussed and more!



Any #wiredwomen wanting specific information on their personal twitter performance during the conference (retweet rates, number of mentions etc.) are welcome to contact me on twitter (@TraceAdjoa) or e-mail (

#wiredwomen reach

Most retweeted tweets and tweeps

Most mentioned tweeps during the 2012 #wiredwomen conference


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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!


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