Paradigm #5: "Leave Africa to the Africans"

I write about a series of energy related paradigms that require shifting. One paradigm every week, ten weeks in a row. This is the fifth one.


Last night I arrived in Kenya. One big reason for this travel is to validate a couple of ideas -energy and currency-related- that kept me busy over the past months. I decided to go for it, book a ticket, and see where things would take me. My aim was to meet as many people as I could: startup entrepreneurs, software developers, mobile currency initiatorssolar power distributors. The answer to my questions was given to me hours before I even landed: Fati, the Guinean lady sitting next to me told me to "Leave us alone, that is 90% of the solution already".

"Needy and not so competent"

Over the past decades many Europeans and Americans have been convinced that they need to help the "poor Africans". This resulted in a plethora of foundations, NGO's, governmental aid initiatives and whatever else one could think of to alleviate the sense of guilt many descendants of colonists and plunderers are feeling. Their ideals oftentimes ended in colossal bureaucratic "Non-Governmental" structures that did anything but solve problems. Their ideal would usually be to impose a "western, democratic model" upon the "needy and not so competent locals". I am appalled by this attitude. Who do we think we are? 

Other people's money

Now, when you board a plane to or from any African country, take a sightseeing tour through business class and see for yourself how many of the most expensive tickets are bought by people that work for NGO's. When you walk through a city centre in Africa, you'll notice that the biggest cars all have NGO officials in the passenger seat, while their local chauffeur drives them around. The costliest gated condominiums are all occupied by "non-governmental western aid workers" and their security staff. Somehow we have come to believe that we are offering help, while most Europeans and Americans in Africa wouldn't even think of really mingling with local communities, let alone actually help them. Most Non-Governmental Organizations merely exist to spend ridiculous amounts of other people's money. Referring to all those NGO's and not-for-profits Fati stated: "I do not trust anybody that defines themselves by what they are not".

"I do not trust anybody that defines themselves by what they are not".

It is rather arrogant to think that Africans are better off when they live like Europeans or Americans. The European model does not even work in Europe, nor does the American model work in America. Ideally Africans live like Africans, use African standards, African culture, African resources and African heritage. 

The Christmas war

Fati reminded me of a short war that took place between Burkina Faso and Mali around Christmas of 1985: the Agacher Strip war, which was -like almost any war- fought over fossil energy resources. At first mediation attempts seemed to fail, until the presidents of both countries gathered in Guinea. They had artists perform at night to break the ice after long days of hard negotiations. One of the artists, Ibrahima Sory Kandia, a descendant of a long heritage of "Griots", storytellers, commenced his performance comparing the names of Burkinabe and Malinese families. He reminded both parties of their common descent many generations before. The evening ended with leaders embracing one another, and the war ended after five days. One year later the International Justice Court in The Hague evenly divided the land over both countries, which was satisfactory to all parties involved. 

Startups changing the world

My desk for this week is at Kenya-based startup incubator Nailab, as you can see in the picture above. Within the first half hour I met with young Kenyans developing platforms to exchange tech jobssoftware for livestock managementand an awesome initiative to increase visibility of motorcyclists through LED lighting wearables. Over the past four years the first startups at NaiLab have already grown into serious proportions, and the vibe I sense on the work floor is that the only way is up. I feel humbled by this immensely strong undercurrent of individual initiative that empowers so many young Kenyans to build a fantastic future through helping others. 

Why don't we just leave Africans alone so that they can develop their own systems, their own currencies, their own solutions, their own culture? I believe the key of empowerment is to merely catalyze -spark and let go-. My decision is to share all ideas and network with local entrepreneurs here, in an attitude of learningunity and collaboration, and let them decide how they value and utilize them. I trust this will result in "For-profit, for-impact, for-Africa" initiatives and already feel honored to contribute as a catalyst. Spark and let go. 

Arash (1977), activist entrepreneur, startup coach, speaker, aims to contribute to a culture of empowerment in an economy of abundance. Watch his TEDx here.

You can read Arash' other articles in this series here:

Paradigm #1: No energy savings will save us

Paradigm #2: Alternative is not alternative

Paradigm #3: Thank you fossil fuels!

Paradigm #4: Colonialism is over? Think again

Stay tuned for paradigm #6 next week