Can We Build A Better Understanding Of Africa?

Jun 29, 2012

Part 1 of TED Radio Hour episode Africa: The Next Chapter. You can watch the three TED Talks featured in this segment — Ory Okolloh On Becoming An Activist, Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger Of A Single Story and Eleni Gabre-Madhin On Ethiopian Economics — on

TED team member Emeka Okafor guides us through three TEDTalks on some evolving views (and misconceptions) of the African continent — from outside and in.

About Ory Okolloh's Talk

In her talk, On Becoming An Activist, Ory Okolloh tells the story of her life and her family — and how she came to do her heroic work reporting on the doings of Kenya's parliament.

About Ory Okolloh

Ory Okolloh is a blogger and open-government activist. She runs Mzalendo, a pioneering civic website that tracks the performance of Kenya's parliament and its parliamentarians. Okolloh is part of a wave of young Africans who are using the power of blogging, SMS and Web-enabled openness to push their countries forward and help Africans to connect.

About Chimamanda Adichie's Talk

In her talk, The Danger Of A Single Story, novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

About Chimamanda Adichie

In Nigeria, Chimamanda Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun has helped inspire new, cross-generational communication about the Biafran War. In this and in her other works, she seeks to instill dignity into the finest details of each character, whether poor, middle-class or rich, exposing the deep scars of colonialism in the African landscape along the way.

About Eleni Gabre-Madhin's Talk

In her talk, On Ethiopian Economics, economist Eleni Gabre-Madhin outlines her ambitious vision to found the first commodities market in Ethiopia. Her plan would create wealth, minimize risk for farmers, and turn the world's largest recipient of food aid into a regional food basket.

About Eleni Gabre-Madhin

Economist Eleni Gabre-Madhin has ambitious vision — to found the first commodities market in Ethiopia, bringing rates and standards to the trade of crops. The director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Madhin studies market reforms, market institutions and structural transformation in Africa.

About TED Team Member Emeka Okafor

Emeka Okafor is an entrepreneur and venture catalyst who lives in New York City. He is the curator of Maker Faire Africa. He was the director for TED Global 2007 that took place in Arusha,Tanzania, and is a member of the TED fellowship team. His interests include sustainable technologies in the developing world and paradigm-breaking technologies in general. His blog, Timbuktu Chronicles, seeks to spur dialogue in areas of entrepreneurship, technology and the scientific method as it impacts Africa.

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There's been a lot of talk about narrative in Africa.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Corruption.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Focusing just on the negative stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It's important because misreading is really the chance for complication and opportunity.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: What we really need are African solutions that are appropriate for Africa.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: If no one else will tell our stories, let's do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Africans have to do it in conjunction with everyone else.

STEWART: On today's program, we take you to Uganda, Ghana and Tanzania, the latter the homes of the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro and host to the 2007 TED Global Conference, which was titled "Africa: The Next Chapter." Which begs the question what were the previous chapters?

Well, if you believe everything you read or ingest from the mainstream media, Africa's a continent crippled by corruption and in desperate need of help. At the conference, and at subsequent TED gatherings, TED speakers, mostly Africans, from all different countries, have explored and explained why a new narrative about Africa must emerge.

They believe there are great things to come in Africa in the 21st century. On today's show, we'll hear from a man who made millions at Microsoft and then returned home to Ghana to start a university. And from a Ugandan journalist who believes with deep conviction that aid is what really hurts Africa.

But first, the director of that original TED conference in Tanzania is with me now. Emeka Okafor, welcome to the TED RADIO HOUR.

EMEKA OKAFOR: Thank you for having me.

STEWART: The conference in Tanzania was titled, "Africa: The Next Chapter." What does that mean?

OKAFOR: Well, our thinking at the time was that we had to unveil an Africa that wasn't that well known to a number of people, a number of audiences. And the way to go about doing this was more or less highlighting the work of individuals in a broad range of fields, from health to education, politics, arts, you name it.

Work that spoke to the fact that they were actually rolling their sleeves and getting it done, that they were not spending that much time talking about it. And even if they were, they were saying things that might be provocative, uncomfortable, but in many ways of a catalytic nature.

The chapter that, in a sense, was emerging existed but wasn't broadly known.

STEWART: Ory Okolloh described her father dying of AIDS, as well as dying as a result of inadequate health care.


ORY OKOLLOH: The first time he got sick, he recovered. But what happened was that he had to be on medication that, at that time, cost $30 a pill. You know, so money ran out.

STEWART: And it's very interesting how she uses the story to make her point. That, if that was the only thing you knew about her, you might make certain assumptions.


OKOLLOH: Now, imagine if this is all you knew about me. How would you look at me? With pity, you know? Sad - this is how you look at Africa. This is the damage it causes. You don't see the other side of me. You don't see the blogger, you don't see the Harvard-educated lawyer, the vibrant person.

And I - I - I just wanted to personalize it, because we talk about it in big terms and you wonder, you know, so what? But it's damaging. So what is to be done? First of all, Africans, we need to get better at telling our stories. Blogging is one way we're doing that. Afrigator is an aggregate of African blogs that's - was developed in South Africa.

So we need to start getting better. If no one else will tell our stories, let's do it. This is the Swahili Wikipedia and Swahili is spoken by about 50 million people in East Africa. It only has five contributors. Four of them are white males, non-native speakers. The other person is a Tanzanian - first Swahili blogger. He's the only African who is contributing to this.

People, please, we can't whine and complain the west is doing this. What are we doing? Where are the rest of the Swahili speakers? Why are we not generating our own content? You know, it's not enough to complain. We need to act.

STEWART: Emeka, have you found that the African press and the alternative press have done the kind of work that Ory suggests?

OKAFOR: Oh, yes. It's a very different landscape to what it was in 2007. The Internet-based press, the blogs...

STEWART: Mm-hmm..

OKAFOR: ...and stuff have flourished to the point where I sometimes feel that maybe it's not even necessary for me to blog as much as it was in 2003. But there's just been a profusion of locally and (unintelligible) content that is being put together by individuals who have an interest in Africa across the board, from recipes right through to political activism. .

And beyond that, we have more publications, even on radio. We also have many more platforms. I wouldn't say that we're completely there, but people do realize, generally speaking, that we need a vibrant number of voices speaking about a very, very broad range of things.

STEWART: Another way people get information is through literature, which another TED speaker in 2009 approached the importance of literature and telling of stories. Chimamanda Adichie, she's an award-winning author. Tell our audience a little bit about her and then we'll talk about her TED Talk a little bit.

OKAFOR: Well, Chimamanda was born in the period after the ending of the Nigerian Civil War and she paints a picture of contemporary post-independence Nigeria that many of us can recognize. And Nigeria - and this is not just particular to Nigeria, you would find the - this in a number of other African countries, where you see this overlay of how adopted religions and a - a need to be like the west but also to sort of - tying yourself to where you're from traditionally created all these interesting conflicts.

And she speaks to that, at least I think so, in her books. And I think one of the things that I find particularly striking about her work isn't just that she's become successful as a writer, but she also sees it as important to assist with the rebuilding of the literary communities on the ground within the continent, which is essential.

STEWART: Let's listen to a little bit of her TED Talk, which was called, "The Danger of the Single Story."


CHIMAMANDA ADICHIE: The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of a equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different, rather than how we are similar. It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power.

There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the word and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too, are defined the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men was - were physical abusers like the father character in my novel.

I told him that I had just read a novel called, "American Psycho," and...


...and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.


STEWART: Her point is so fabulous.

OKAFOR: It speaks to the fact that if, for a number of reasons, you haven't been exposed to variety...

STEWART: Mm-hmm..

OKAFOR: come to define subsequent exposures to individuals from that space as being part of this unvariegated (ph) reality that you've had up until that point. You know, so I think we're talking about balance. We're not talking about sugar-coating. No one is saying that we should more or less highlight something over and above the next thing, but let's have this full panoply of stories across the board.

STEWART: When you were assembling the groups of people who would speak at the TED conference in Tanzania, obviously you had to address economic issues. And one of the people who spoke was Eleni Gabre-Madhin. She's an Ethiopian woman by birth, who then went to work for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. She returned home as well.

One of her big issues she talked about - I'm paraphrasing, I'm really boiling this down - was the way to empower farmers was with information about their crops and the price of crops so that they could compete effectively, I guess is the right way to put it.

When you wanted to talk about economics, what did you want to make sure it addressed, specifically with her?

OKAFOR: A number of things. One is the distortion of markets which occurs even in the best of nations. It's something that is hugely disproportionate in Africa across the board. The fact that farming is seen as something that young Africans shouldn't do because it's associated with poverty; the fact that when we look at this country, the United States, and we see what happened in the mid-west and the role places like Chicago played in evening out pricing and providing security...

STEWART: Mm-hmm..

OKAFOR: ...for farmers, none of this is existent across the continent. And her project, the Commodity Exchange, that is now live and working in Ethiopia, her speaking about it touched upon all these things.


ELENI GABRE-MADHIN: Like its agriculture, Africa's markets are highly undercapitalized and inefficient. We know from our work around the continent that transaction costs of reaching the market and the risks of transacting in rural agriculture markets is extremely high. In fact, only one-third of agricultural output produced in Africa even reaches the market.

Africa's markets are weak, not only because of weak infrastructure in terms of roads and telecommunications, but also because of the virtual absence of necessary market institutions such as market information, grades and standards and reliable ways to connect buyers and sellers.

Well, I'm not here today to lament about the situation or wring my hands. I am here to tell you that change is in the air. After having spent more than a decade understanding, studying and trying to convince policy makers and donors about what was wrong with Africa's agricultural markets, I decided it was time to do something about it.

I currently lead in Ethiopia an exciting new initiative to establish the first Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, or ECX. Now, the Commodity Exchange itself, that concept is not new...

STEWART: And so our audience knows, Eleni Gabre-Madhin became the CEO of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. I want to make sure we said that.

OKAFOR: And she was soldiering on and saying this was going to be done. It - once again, it was another example of, well, it would be great to have commodity exchanges but we haven't built one yet. Her story was this is why we are building one. This is the impact it will have on the people in the most rural areas of our country.

The fact that since she has gone along and built this institution, others across the continent have sent the importance of it, you know, the essence of showing how it's done by doing in many ways is exemplified by what she does in very concrete terms.

STEWART: Emeka Okafor, we're going to have you back at the end of the program for some final thoughts, so thank you for sticking around. And as well, thank you so much for helping us open up the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.