10 Biggest Mistakes About Africa (Part 2)

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8 December 2011

Some sobering thoughts from What the Future’s Warren Kimmel.

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Warren Kimmel

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Following up on last week’s post, here’s Part 2 in a series looking at the Ten Biggest Misconceptions about Africa that we found after returning from filming the first six episodes of What the Future (WTF).

3. TRADITIONAL DRESS IS SO LAST CENTURY

This is a misconception that I will confess to sharing up until this trip set me straight. Part of Africa’s allure and romance has always been tied up with the way people look and dress. The proud bearing, the magnificent tribal garb, flowing robes, animal skins, piercings, body make up and traditional weapons. Now that may all sound like a bad Hollywood movie set in colonial days, but it’s surprising how prevalent that idea remains.

From my end, I did grow up in Africa so I guess my preconceptions were a bit more up to date than that but nevertheless I expected, for example, when we arrived in Nairobi, Kenya – to see one of two things. Men and Women in traditional Kikoys with magnificently lush and tropical prints (often incorporating giant images of the president?!) or poor inhabitants of the nearest slum wearing threadbare, soiled t-shirts from the late seventies and shorts with more holes than cloth. Now I’m sure you could find the former if you gate crashed a wedding in the Nairobi suburbs, and seeing some of the poverty in the slums of Kenya is still a soul crushing experience, but over the last twenty years something amazing has happened in Africa. Everyone has started to dress like us.

Now you may think that is a terrible thing that we have lost the vibrant and authentic cultural expression of African clothing, but clearly, that’s not what the locals are feeling. The street markets of Africa are loaded with the western mega-brands that we all know and covet, as well as the cheaper me-too Marques and all the commodity stuff. And don’t forget the uber-cheap Chinese knock-offs. It’s all here and it’s all selling like hotcakes. Here’s how it works: Our ridiculously wealthy and acquisitive consumer culture in Europe and North America has become more and more easily bored with the clothes we wear, and fashions are forced to change on a seasonal basis now, sometimes more than once a season.

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We seem happy to pay for all of this variety so it must confer some value on our lives but the fact of the matter is that when you throw out that pair of jeans, that coat or those GAP-chinos, you are throwing out clothing that has hardly been used. These mountains of lightly worn garments make their way in giant bundles to the markets of Africa and within six months of seeing the latest Ralph Lauren Polo Shirt on the streets of London, you can buy it (for a tiny fraction of the price) in the market of a Nairobi slum. This process has had some incredible and unexpected consequences.

Perhaps the most surprising is that you cannot really tell from looking at a person, where they come from and what their social standing is. Rich and poor and everyone in-between shops these markets because everyone wants to be in fashion. Walking through Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa, everyone looks neat, clean and very cool. You may be struggling to stay alive or living in a hovel made of cardboard and mud, but on a Sunday afternoon you can still afford to walk down the street looking fine. And the truth of the matter is that the clothing is generally well made, has years of wear left in it, and at the prices on offer, the value is infinitely better than when it was for first on sale, new, in Copenhagen.

It really was one of the things that I just wasn’t expecting and filled me with joy. Yes, It’s not perfect, Yes it pretty much wiped out the local tailoring trade and yes it seems a pity that after flying half way round the world I couldn’t buy my wife or kid anything they hadn’t seen at our local Zara the year before. But the tailors have been replaced by clothing stores and dry-cleaners (Tens of them – in the slum!). The locals can hold their heads up and feel part of global fashion, wearing what they see in the magazines or on the TV. And as for finding traditional outfits for my loved ones – I spent fifteen US dollars, bought myself three Marks & Spencer shirts, a Kenneth Cole jacket and a pair of imitation CROCS and figured I’d pick them up something at the Airport duty free.

4. LEAPFROG IS NOT JUST A KIDS GAME IN AFRICA

One of the most exciting and unexpected changes that’s taken place in Africa is a mashup of Western technology and African Infrastructure development (or rather the lack of it).

Okay, it sounds like a mouthful, but it isn’t really, and when you see it on the ground; it is quite wonderful. Episode 2 of WTF is all about this idea so if you haven’t seen it already go and watch it now…. it’s OK we’ll wait.

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So the situation is this: Africa has terrible infrastructure. Communications, banking, roads and railways etc. – all pretty diabolical by Western standards, and often the crumbling – remains of the colonial era . Now in most countries these services and industries are controlled by government and there is excruciatingly little change or progress to be seen here (some might argue that this is the root of the problem, but that’s for another day). At the same time, however, globalization continues apace. The progress and distribution of world technological innovation seems unstoppable and the tech. Industries by contrast are almost always in the private sector and constantly hungry for new markets to exploit. So far, so pretty. But what happens when these two worlds collide? Well that’s where the magic is to be found.

No matter how much you love your new iPhone and think it has changed your whole life, on the whole it’s not really true because our Western infrastructure is already so developed, the smartphone is really just an enhancement of an existing capability. Even if you lost your precious little homage to the genius of Steve Jobs, you would still have your computer, phone, fax etc. – a whole tapestry of overlapping communication and technology choices.

In Africa on the other hand, most people have no phone, no fax and certainly no computer. A large percentage of the population still have no electricity. From this perspective a lot of people in Africa are effectively living 200 years in the past. It’s a sobering idea. And all of a sudden, along comes the technology of cell phones. In a complete End Run around the governments of the continent, private companies have blanketed most countries in Africa with cheap, reliable and robust cell phone coverage so that within a matter of a few years the local populations have gone from living in Victorian times to carrying around the worlds most advanced personal computer in their pockets. This is not a convenience or a luxury or a distraction for them like it is for us.

So far, this is still a story of European technology and free trade helping out a less advanced group of nations. But what happens next is the Leapfrog part and the beautiful thing about Africa. The genius bubbles up from the street.

This is a life-altering event on every level. Once you have your own phone, you have effectively been set free. Free from the government, free from your family, your spouse, free from a communal lifestyle you almost certainly never chose for yourself.

This freedom changes the way people think, behave and interact and the opportunity is being grabbed with both hands. Small businesses that could never be afforded or managed without modern communication infrastructure are mushrooming everywhere. All you need to start your own business is a cell phone. And most of the carriers will give you one of those for next to nothing. The cell phone becomes your address, your identity and your livelihood all bundled together – and this is exactly what’s happening. And because it is not government run there is no corruption and there is real competition in the space. Services are cheap, simple, reliable and available everywhere.

Now so far, this is still a story of European technology and free trade helping out a less advanced group of nations. But what happens next is the Leapfrog part and the beautiful thing about Africa. The genius bubbles up from the street. Episode 2 of WTF explores a mobile money system pioneered in Kenya that literally leads the world. And the whole thing was invented by the customers themselves. The cell phone company became aware that many of their customers did not have access to a bank account and could not send money to their families living in the rural areas.

What they did instead was send them cell phone minutes. These minutes had value both as call time and as a kind of currency that could be passed around (It is simple, easily tracked and not subject to inflation, theft or corruption). It was a wonderfully elegant African Life Hack and the cell phone company decided to run with it and they enabled the same system to work with real Kenyan shillings. Kenyans now have a smarter, simpler and easier way to transfer money to stores, employees, customers and friends than anywhere else in the world.

They have literally leapfrogged the entire world in one creative jump. The change it has brought is unimaginable and the cell phone companies are making a fortune. It is an unqualified success and perhaps the best illustration of leapfrogging in Africa.

By the way, hope you’re enjoying the show on T+E! See you tonight at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT and thanks for watching!

Warren

Warren Kimmel

What The Future host Warren Kimmel is a seasoned traveler having lived and worked in Europe, Africa and North America. Born in South Africa, he now lives in Canada with his wife Janet, his two children, Jacob and Ella, and the dog, Lily. Born to an engineer father and musician mother, Warren’s professional life has always been divided between a love of the arts and a passion for innovation. WTF is a perfect marriage of these two passions and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Warren. He was instrumental in conceiving and producing WTF because of his performance experience, natural curiosity and desire to understand.