Channel: Africa – TED Blog

Embodying Sankofa: 5 African artists influenced by history

At TED2013, graphic designer Saki Mafundikwa highlights the beauty of traditional African written languages, urging designers to draw inspiration from them. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

At TED2013, graphic designer Saki Mafundikwa highlights the beauty of traditional African written languages, urging designers to draw inspiration from them. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Zimbabwean designer Saki Mafundikwa has a powerful vision for the future of African art. As the founder of the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ZIWA), Mafundikwa is working to bring African art back to its roots. ZIWA, the first school of graphic design in Zimbabwe, and one of the first schools to emphasize the use of digital technology to teach the visual arts, places the continent’s rich artistic history at the center of its curriculum.

Saki Mafundikwa: Ingenuity and elegance in ancient African alphabetsSaki Mafundikwa: Ingenuity and elegance in ancient African alphabetsThis idea sits at the heart of today’s talk, in which Mafundikwa encourages African artists  to take a look at their own cultural heritage for artistic inspiration, rather than looking to the outside world.  He sums up the concept with the Ghanaian glyph Sankofa, which means literally “return and get it” — or “learn from the past.” Says Mafundikwa, ”We must go to the past so as to inform our present and build on a future.”

In his talk, Saki Mafundikwa celebrates Africa’s creative heritage by surveying the continent’s history of written language. Jumping across nations, Mafundikwa describes the fascinating writing systems of societies from the Akan to the Bantu to the Yoruba. He points out that, contrary to popular belief, African writing may date back hundreds of years earlier than the scripts of Mesopotamia.

In the spirit of Mafundikwa’s call to action, here is a look at a few African artists who are incorporating their heritage and traditions into their work. These artists offer diverse perspectives, putting Mafundikwa’s ideas into conversation as they contest and corroborate them.

“Glance towards the unknown” by Fathi Hassan. Source: FathiHassan.com

Born to Sudanese and Egyptian parents, artist Fathi Hassan explores his Nubian heritage through the written word. He imagines scripts inspired by his ancestors’ calligraphy, creating beautiful but illegible text. In doing so, he emphasizes the language loss that occurred under imperial domination and recalls his upbringing in a primarily verbal, illiterate society. Hassan was the first artist to represent Africa in the emerging artists category of the Venice Biennale. [Fathi Hassan]

“Ibiebe ABC III” by Bruce Onobrakpeya. Source: National Museum of African Art

“Ibiebe ABC III” by Bruce Onobrakpeya. Source: National Museum of African Art

Nigerian printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya also places the alphabet at the center of his work. He invented the Ibiebe script, a fusion of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy with the writing found in the Urhobo groups of Southern Nigeria. Onobrakpeya was educated by the Zaria Rebels, a school of Nigerian artists who emphasized the decolonization of African art from Western influences. His art received an honorable mention at the Venice Biennale, and he was honored with UNESCO’s Living Human Treasure Award in 2006. [Wikipedia]

Beyond the scope of the aestheticized written word, cultural heritage manifests itself in different ways in different mediums. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the acclaimed male choral group from South Africa, celebrates its Zulu heritage by keeping isicathamiya and mbube singing styles alive. Half a century and three Grammys later, the group has evolved to create the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Foundation, which opened in 1999 to teach children of Zulu heritage about traditional isicathamiya music. [Mambazo]

“Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors” by Wangechi Mutu. Source: Flickr/Cea

“Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors” by Wangechi Mutu. Source: Flickr/Cea

Nairobi-born painter and sculptor Wangechi Mutu explores the landscape of post-imperial Africa in the face of globalization. She blends the aesthetics of traditional African art with images of the female body, giving her work a feminist and African feel. Blending the modern and the traditional, “her works document the contemporary myth-making of endangered cultural heritage.” Mutu’s work has been displayed at the MoMA, the Tate Modern and the Pompidou Center, among others.  [Saatchi Gallery]

“Boy on a Globe,” by Yinka Shonibare. Source: yinkashonibare.com

British-Nigerian sculptor Yinka Shonibare offers an opposing artistic vision. Counter to Saki Mafundikwa’s desire for African artists to return to their roots, Shonibare blurs the lines of social categories as he explores his transnational heritage.  Shonibare emphasizes the hybridity of his identity as he incorporates vivid African-style textiles with Victorian attire to create a fusion of cultural crossbreeds. He considers culture to be an artificial construct, and in incorporating the different facets of his own identity, he aims to stretch and erase preconceived notions of social groups. His work focuses on individuality, rejecting traditional groups in favor of modern fluidity. Shonibare’s work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, and he won the Turner Prize in 2004.

Why Africa is booming: Further watching and reading on the economic turnaround of the continent


Economic growth in Africa is about to climb off the charts, says Charles Robertson at TEDGlobal 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

In today’s talk, economist Charles Robertson turns up the heat on an idea that’s been simmering for several years: that Africa is seeing rapid economic growth. Charles Robertson: Africa's next boomCharles Robertson: Africa's next boomLooking at statistics and at the precedents set by China and India, Robertson brings this idea to a full boil, saying that economists haven’t been nearly optimistic enough in their predictions for the continent. While Africa is currently a $2 trillion economy, by 2050 it will be a $29 trillion economy, he says — bigger than Europe and America combined. It’s a bold talk, full of inspiring graphs all pointing up, up, up.

Africa has, for a long time, conjured up images of famine, disease, poverty and war. But increasingly, entrepreneurship, technological innovation and investment in education are becoming part of the outsider’s mental picture.

Here, a selection of TED Talks fueling that shift:

Euvin Naidoo: Why invest in AfricaEuvin Naidoo: Why invest in AfricaEuvin Naidoo: Why invest in Africa. Kicking off TEDGlobal 2007, themed “Africa: The Next Chapter,” South African investment banker Euvin Naidoo takes a data-driven look at the investment opportunities in Africa. The signs he sees that the economy is in a turnaround: decreasing inflation, currencies stabilizing and a growing middle class.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Want to help Africa? Do business hereNgozi Okonjo-Iweala: Want to help Africa? Do business hereNgozi Okonjo-Iweala: Want to help Africa? Do business here. At TED2007, the first female Finance Minister in Nigeria asked the audience to focus on the less-told story about Africa, the one of business opportunity.
Juliana Rotich: Meet BRCK, Internet access built for AfricaJuliana Rotich: Meet BRCK, Internet access built for AfricaJuliana Rotich: Meet BRCK, Internet access built for Africa. While tech is booming in Africa, the sector is continually challenged by one thing: internet outages, says Juliana Rotich. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2013, she shares an invention that could make spotty internet a non-issue.
Neil Turok: My wish: Find the next Einstein in AfricaNeil Turok: My wish: Find the next Einstein in AfricaNeil Turok: Find the next Einstein in Africa. Physicist Neil Turok grew up in Kenya and Tanzanaia, and taught in Lesotho, and the kids he encountered along the way were extremely bright. Accepting the TED Prize in 2008, Turok encourages investment in math and science education across the continent.
Andrew Mwenda: Aid for Africa? No thanks.Andrew Mwenda: Aid for Africa? No thanks.Andrew Mwenda: Aid for Africa? No thanks. Africa is not simply a country of despair, and portraying it as such creates a narrative of pity, says journalist Andrew Mwenda in this blistering talk from TEDGlobal 2007. Here, he points our attention to the challenge beyond aid: wealth creation.
George Ayittey: Africa's cheetahs versus hipposGeorge Ayittey: Africa's cheetahs versus hipposGeorge Ayittey: Africa’s cheetahs versus hippos. Ghanaian economist George Ayittey takes on the issue of corrupt leaders at TEDGlobal 2007. In this talk, he introduces us to the “Cheetah generation,” who feel deep accountability, who take charge and who innovate — creating a whole new Africa.
Jacqueline Novogratz: Invest in Africa's own solutionsJacqueline Novogratz: Invest in Africa's own solutionsJacqueline Novogratz: Invest in Africa’s own solutions. At TEDGlobal 2005, Jacqueline Novogratz tells a hilarious story of a sweater, which shows how traditional aid can have unintended consequences. The founder of the Acumen Fund, Novogratz advocates for a businesslike model to approaching poverty in Africa.
Eleni Gabre-Madhin: A commodities exchange for EthiopiaEleni Gabre-Madhin: A commodities exchange for EthiopiaEleni Gabre-Madhin: A commodities exchange for EthiopiaMost Africans are small farmers, points out economist Eleni Gabre-Madhin at TEDGlobal 2007. Could supporting them increase wealth and create a surplus of food at the same time? A plan for a commodities exchange in Ethiopia.

And below, resources where you can read much more about what’s happening in Africa now:

Charles Robertson is the chief economist of Renaissance Capital and a co-author of the 2012 book, The Fastest Billion: The Story Behind Africa’s Economic Revolution. Written by a panel of African economists, this book is great stop for anyone looking to read more about the economic explosion in Africa. Even better, the book’s regularly-updated website, which has detailed reports on African agriculture, the middle class in Nigeria, and how China is influencing Africa through investment.

In which country does Guinness sell more of its flagship beer than any other? The answer, as of two years ago, is no longer Ireland — it’s Nigeria. Check out this article in The Telegraph about how the multinational alcohol brand has seen compound annual growth of 13 percent on the continent since 2007, and how it is rebranding Guinness as a result.

The Economist first began to notice change in Africa in the 2008 article “Booming Africa,” noting that the Sub-Saharan region was bucking the global trend and appeared unaffected by the U.S. economic slowdown. Three years later, in the story “Africa’s Hopeful Economies: The Sun Shines Bright,” the magazine reversed its infamous diagnosis that Africa was the “hopeless continent” with the revelation that 6 of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies were in Africa. Most recently, in March of this year, the magazine ran a package titled “Africa Rising: A Hopeful Continent,” and declared, “African lives have already greatly improved over the past decade. The next ten years will be even better.”

The May/June issue of Foreign Affairs took a more tempered look with the article, “Africa’s Economic Boom: Why the Pessimists and Optimists are Both Right.” Authors Shantayanan Devarajan and Wolfgang Fengle write, “At first glance, these two narratives seem irreconcilable. It turns out, however, that both are right, or at least reflect aspects of a more complex reality, which neither fully captures. The skeptics focus so much on the region’s commodity exports that they fail to grasp the extent to which its recent growth is a result of economic reforms (many of which were necessitated by the misguided policies of the past). The optimists, meanwhile, underestimate the degree to which the region’s remaining problems — such as sclerotic institutions, low levels of education, and substandard health care — reflect government failures that will be very difficult to overcome because they are deeply rooted in political conflict.”

Another indication of growth in Africa—a booming travel industry. This summer, Bloomberg News shared that Starwood, Hilton and Marriott hotel groups were all greatly expanding their presence in Africa. (Marriott, for example, increased the number of hotel rooms it planned by 55 percent over the course of a year.) Meanwhile, Skift.com noted that tourism in Thailand grew from non-existent to employing 15 to 20% of the workforce in just a few decades, and predicted that the same would be true in African countries. “In 50 years, Africa will be talked about with the same fervor that global hotel groups and tourism marketers now use to fawn over Asia,” the article predicts.

In July, Yes! Magazine declared an “African economic renaissance” in an article titled “What the US Can Learn from Africa’s Booming Economy.” The lessons here that the West can take, according to the author? Provide local service for local communities, use technology to level the playing field, and consider creativity a major strength.

In January, Jake Bright of The Daily Beast noted a major shift in how Africa was being discussed in global investment circles in the article “Africa is Rising: Inside the Continent’s Great Economic Leap.” The piece begins: “In corporate boardrooms and global-investment seminars, more CEOs and business leaders are talking about Africa. That much was evident at a recent New York Stock Exchange investor conference, where along with references to Africa as the ‘new Asia’ or ‘home of the next Google’ there were forward outlooks by Wall Street analysts, representatives of the continent’s 29 stock exchanges, and presentations on Africa’s tech industry, now claiming mobile-banking innovations outpacing the United States and Europe.”

Others have also noted that Africa is fast becoming a source for technological growth. Check out the Businessweek slideshow, “Digital Innovation is Booming in Africa,” published in May. It looks at the continent’s mobile phone banking technology, cheap solar paneling for villages, and touchscreen tablets’ increasing presence in schools.

Last month, the International Business Times took a look at the latest in Africa and identified “Seven Drivers That Could Transform Africa into the World’s Economic Powerhouse.” Among them: the prevalence of cities on the continent, increased stability, growing trade, the world’s biggest workforce, increased spending on education, the explosion of cell phone use and loads of uncultivated cropland.

And finally, BBC News takes a deep dive look at, “Africa Rising — but Who Benefits?”

Architecture infused with fractals: how TED speaker Ron Eglash inspired architect Xavier Vilalta


A nighttime view of the Lideta Mercato, an unconventional shopping mall in Ethiopia designed with local traditions in mind. Image: Xavier Vilalta

If you look closely at the Lideta Mercato — a shopping mall in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, designed by TED Fellow Xavier Vilalta — you will notice a unique pattern on its skin, inspired by the beautiful, bold patterns found on Ethiopian women’s dresses. But if you look closer, you will also notice something else: that the design is based on fractal geometry.

Xavier Vilalta: Architecture at home in its communityXavier Vilalta: Architecture at home in its communityIn today’s talk, Vilalta shares that when he first was approached about designing this mall, his instinct was “to run away.” He hated the idea of building a big, Western-inspired mall that was generally empty because no one could afford the shops, that needed tons of energy to cool because its glass façade trapped the heat, and that took no inspiration whatsoever from Ethiopian traditions around it. In this talk, Vilalta shares how he approached this design, which is currently in the process of being built, by making the mall more like an Ethiopian open-air market with small shops. Rather than glass walls, he used concrete blocks with square cutouts to create a textile-like façade that would allow cross-ventilation.

But there is one story he didn’t tell in the talk: how he recognized that the pattern of the façade needed to follow fractal geometry. For that story, we’ll need to back up several years, to 2009.

At that time, Vilalta — who lives and works in Barcelona, Spain — had a Catalan client who wanted to build a vocational school in Ethiopia, the Melaku Center. Vilalta tells the TED Blog that, because his architecture is all about connecting buildings to the nature and culture around them, thinking about this project was a challenge. “It was the first time I was operating in an environment that was not like mine,” he said. “Trying to relate the project to the site, I had to really understand a whole new culture.”

Ron Eglash: The fractals at the heart of African designsRon Eglash: The fractals at the heart of African designsHe began doing tons of research on design, architecture and culture in Ethiopia and nearby African countries. And he happened upon a book: Ron Eglash’s African Fractals. Entranced, he watched Eglash’s TED Talk, “The fractals at the heart of African design,” and kept on reading about how fractals — mathematical, recursive patterns that explain the geometry of nature, with smaller parts mirroring larger parts — also form the basis for the layout of African villages and the patterns that appear in African art.

Vilalta was fascinated.

“I found it extremely interesting, this scientific way of looking at African art and architecture. That was a whole new discovery for me,” says Vilalta. “This opened new possibilities in terms of architectural design. Thinking with fractals and geometry in designs was like a complete new world.”

Vilalta designed the Melaku Center campus — which is as big as three square blocks in Barcelona — on a fractal-based hexagonal grid, creating smaller communities within the school. Classrooms, workshops, administration buildings, a library, living spaces, dining spaces, a health care center, a supermarket and more were laid out in a scalar, circular mesh. Once the design was completed, Vilalta reached out to Eglash with an email. It struck up a working friendship that exists to this day.

And a rendering of the campus. Imagey: Xavier Vilalta

And a rendering of the campus. Image: Xavier Vilalta

Eglash tells the TED Blog, “I get a lot of inquiries, some of them pretty off the wall – hate mail from neo-Nazis, or strange declarations from mystics. Xavier’s email, on the other hand, was the kind you actually want to get.”

After a few correspondences, Eglash mentioned the TED Fellows program to Vilalta, as he had met several TED Fellows while giving his talk at TEDGlobal 2007. Eglash says, “[The Fellows] had a terrific combination of creative energy and practical skills. I knew [Xavier] would fit right in.”

At Eglash’s prompting, Vilalta decided to apply. He joined the TED Fellows class of 2011.

But Eglash’s influence didn’t stop there. Later, when Vilalta was commissioned to design a master plan for a university in Angola, he used fractal geometry again to place each building. And in the Lideta Mercato in Ethiopia, he used fractal design as a means of enclosure.

“The fractal geometry is a part of the design of the façade, it’s done with the same patterns as Ethiopian women’s dresses,” explains Vilalta. “These fractal geometries are used as something that people can relate to, as something of their own culture. But at the same time as something that has function. It’s for ventilating and lighting the building too.”

Eglash gives this new work the thumbs up.

“The Lideta Mercato design is beautiful, of course, but for me it is especially satisfying to see how [Xavier] has managed to nurture the fractal tradition from Africa into this new form, and help the next generation carry that into the future,” says Eglash. “It’s more than just aesthetics: the scaling structure provides a practical means of providing airflow and improving the building’s ecological fit.”

Another view of the Lideta Mercato. Notice: the very cool outdoor gathering space on the roof.

Another view of the Lieta Mercato. Notice: the very cool outdoor gathering space on the roof.

Sure, people walking past the building are unlikely to say, “Oh look, the façade uses fractal geometry.” But the design does strike an unconscious chord. Vilalta tells a story that illustrates this.

“This building is now getting finished, and I saw someone standing in front of the billboard there in the construction site with his wife and pointing to the billboard, and pointing to his wife, and saying, ‘Look, this is like your dress,’” he says. “For me it’s like, ‘Okay, they understood.’ The architecture needs to belong to people, you know? … When people make it theirs, that’s when it feels good.”

Watch Vilalta’s talk for more on the Lideta Mercato and on the biggest project he has ever taken on, an apartment complex called “Le Grand Tapis” in Tunis, Tunisia, which has a truly amazing park on the roof. Watch Eglash’s talk to understand much more about what fractals are and how they underpin African art, design and architecture. And in the TEDxMadrid talk below, hear more about how fractals have infused Vilalta’s work. (English speakers, just turn the closed captioning subtitles on.)

The moon’s path is full of thorns: Fellows Friday with Johnson Urama



Nigerian astronomer Johnson Urama wants to promote the future of astronomy in Africa by looking deep into history. With his African Cultural Astronomy Project, he is gathering the lost ancient astronomical traditions and stories of indigenous Africa, hoping to show modern Africans that the science of the skies is relevant to their past, present and future.

The TED Blog interviewed Urama to find out much more. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

So, tell us about yourself.

I’m from the southeastern part of Nigeria. By training, I’m an astronomer, and teach astronomy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. But I have a passion for indigenous astronomy — the ancient cultural astronomy of parts of Africa. Our forefathers had some knowledge of astronomy but it was, unfortunately, not written down, so much of it has been lost. My organization, the African Cultural Astronomy Project, is trying to recover part of this knowledge and use it to create awareness and interest in modern astronomy — and science in general — among Africans today.

How old are African astronomical systems? Have they been dated?

African astronomical systems are as old as the people themselves, because our forefathers depended on the skies for navigation, for agriculture, for their calendar, for their rituals. Practically everything revolved around the sky. The calendar, largely based on astronomy, determined farming periods, and everything was organized around that. Before the advent of the modern calendar, the African calendar was lunar. And even now, in some parts of Africa, calendars are still based in lunar systems.

How was the information lost?

The information was passed down orally in folk tales from generation to generation, and the present generation has no time to give for such folk tales. People are migrating to urban centers, and they’re just interested in Western education. Nobody talks about our indigenous knowledge.

A typical ancient wall painting in parts of southeastern Nigeria, which could be portraying astronomical information. Photo: Johnson Urama

A typical ancient wall painting in southeastern Nigeria, which portrays astronomical information. Photo: Johnson Urama

Give us an example an indigenous African astronomical practice or story.

Among the Hausa speaking people of West Africa, for example, they have it in their folk tales that the moon and the sun were friendly until the sun gave birth. Then the sun called the moon and asked him to hold her daughter while she went and washed herself. The moon took the sun’s daughter, but was not able to hold it, for it burnt him, and he let it go, and it fell to Earth — that is why humans feel hot on earth. When the sun returned, she asked the moon where the daughter was, and the moon replied, “Your daughter was burning me so I let her go, and she fell to Earth.” Because of that, the sun pursues the moon. Another variant is that the moon’s path is full of thorns, while that of the sun is sandy, and because of that the moon cannot travel as quickly as the sun. So when the moon can proceed no farther, he gets on the sun’s path, and the sun catches him. When the sun has caught the moon, the people take their drums and ask the sun to spare the moon. This “catching-up” occurs during an eclipse of the sun — usually partial or annular.

Also, among the Igala speaking people of Nigeria, when an eclipse happens it is believed that the world wants to come to an end, so the people start beating drums, buckets, plates and bowls as a plea to their god to spare the world. And when the eclipse is over, they start chanting, “Thanks be to our gods, for they have heard our prayers.” It is also believed that the moon has two wives — and these are the brightest stars that stay very close to the moon when it appears in the night, the most loved one staying closest to him.

On a practical level, how do you go about gathering these traditions? Do you approach community members for knowledge?

Some of the traditional practices are what we grew up with, and we are just trying to interpret them in scientific or astronomical ways. We also have some works of earlier ethnographers who studied the practices of different African ethnic groups many years ago — and some of these archival materials are now interpreted in terms of modern astronomy. Sometimes we also interview very old people who possess knowledge of ancient practices and traditions that are still unrecorded. Our cultural astronomy conference held in Cape Coast, Ghana, in 2006, had a training workshop component. Our 2014 may also incorporate a training workshop.

Mr. Ezeja Atama: the atama (chief priest) Ugwuojome of Nsukka sitting inside his shrine. Such priests examine the motions of heavenly bodies to come up with the calendar of her people. Photo: Johnson Urama

Ezeja Atama, the atama (chief priest) Ugwuojome of Nsukka, sitting inside his shrine. Such priests would traditionally examine the motions of heavenly bodies to come up with the calendar of the people. Photo: Johnson Urama

What will you do with the information that you gather? How will you store it or disseminate it?

Probably we’ll publish some as books, and some just as articles in academic journals. After the Ghana conference, we published a book on African cultural astronomy. There is also another book project about cultural astronomy worldwide. I made a contribution to that, but it was just about Nigerian perspectives.

I’ve heard you speak about some of the constellations over Africa. You said that as an astronomer, it’s interesting to be in Africa because of its dark skies.

Yes, Africa still has access to a good portion of dark skies. There’s simply not as much light pollution, or even radio pollution, as in some other climes. It’s not just only light; all this radio communication stuff is a problem for observing in radio frequencies. So Africa is still largely dark, and that is a plus for astronomy. Also, we have access to the center of the Milky Way galaxy, where you have lots of interesting stuff — star-forming regions, for example. In the northern hemisphere, there are a number of places that don’t have good access to that region of the sky.

Do you encourage other astronomers from around the world to come to Africa and bring equipment, knowledge and education?

There is an Office for Astronomy Development, located in South Africa, whose major goal is to facilitate the development of astronomy in a number of places like Africa, parts of Asia and a number of other places like the Caribbean islands, where modern astronomy is not yet well-developed. And there are a good number of people currently working on promoting African astronomy. Like TED Fellow Hakeem Oluseyi, who leads the One Telescope Project – he’s working toward having at least one telescope in every nation in Africa. There are also educational initiatives like Universe Awareness, Global Hands-on Universe, and so on.

The Odegwoo shrine in Lejja, southeastern Nigeria is associated with fertility. Its worshippers sit at the north and south sides. And the north-south orientation is based on the local philosophy that the "ingredients" needed for procreation are very fragile and should not be exposed to the radiant heat from the Sun (on the east-west axis).

The Odegwoo shrine in Lejja, Nigeria, is associated with fertility. Its worshippers sit at the north and south sides. The north-south orientation is based on the local philosophy that the “ingredients” needed for procreation are very fragile and should not be exposed to radiant heat from the sun (on the east-west axis).

Do you want to get young people interested in indigenous astronomy because it’s part of their history and culture? Or is it also important on a practical level?

I am invested in this because I’m an African. I understand some of these practices, some of the language, some of the stories. And I find it a good vehicle for communicating modern astronomy. The feeling among most of us — especially in equatorial Africa — is that we have no stake in astronomy. If you go towards the southern and northern tips of Africa, you find a higher level of interest and participation in modern astronomy. But closer to the equator, maybe plus or minus 20 degrees, there is lack of interest.

Part of the problem here is that people don’t find it easy to relate to astronomy. Many African people see astronomy as something that is very foreign; there is an attitude that the average African has no business with astronomy. In Nigeria, for example, people are just interested in oil, on the Earth. We don’t talk of anything in the skies. But I try to use indigenous, cultural astronomy to help them understand that our forefathers had knowledge of this for thousands of years. This has been an essential part of our lives. It’s just that we lost it somewhere, and we need to get it back. Astronomy should not be something foreign to us.

Given that interest in astronomy is low, how many students do you have in your astronomy program?

We have two levels. At my university, astronomy is a compulsory course for physics students, so every student is exposed to it. I got involved in astronomy through that course, which I took in my third year. And the other level is post-graduate. In a typical year, we have maybe maybe five to 10 students admitted to do an MSc in astronomy and maybe another one or two for a PhD.

There must be many different traditions throughout African cultures — a very rich body of knowledge.

Of course; it’s quite diverse. In Nigeria alone, we have over 200 ethnic groups. And when you talk about all of Africa, there are several hundred. That is why we’re also trying to encourage more people to come into this cultural astronomy project: it is always better if there is somebody from a particular ethnic group wanting to study their own indigenous astronomy. If you don’t understand the language, it’s difficult to research astronomy practices. Africa is quite vast, so we are trying to get as many people as possible involved. The hope is that, as we work in different regions and different ethnic nationalities, we’ll be able to see how we can begin to fit all the knowledge together.

Further reading on China’s investment in Africa … and what it means

At TEDGlobal 2013, Dambisa Moyo shares a shift afoot in Africa -- that with increased Chinese investment in the continent, people are beginning to see their economic system as the ideal. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

At TEDGlobal 2013, Dambisa Moyo shares a shift afoot in Africa — that with increased Chinese investment in the continent, people are beginning to see their economic system as the ideal. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

In today’s talk, Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo describes how China’s growing presence in Africa is challenging a centuries-old tenet of Western political thought.


Dambisa Moyo: Is China the new idol for emerging economies?Dambisa Moyo: Is China the new idol for emerging economies?For more than 200 years, Moyo argues, liberal democracy has ruled the roost. Particularly in the West, it’s long been considered the political system most likely to deliver economic success and social development — a system of political rights, enjoyed by individuals, this line of reasoning goes, is the necessary bedrock for market-driven growth and prosperity.

But Moyo points out that China has turned this idea on its head: China’s state capitalism has propelled the country’s explosive growth without extending expanded political rights to its citizens. In this provocative talk from TEDGlobal 2013, Moyo suggests that many in Africa now look admiringly at the Chinese example. Across the African continent, democracy is often absent, incomplete or ineffective. But Chinese companies (led by China’s government) are getting things done fast in Africa — and it’s impressed many, particularly those most disadvantaged by decades of economic and political inertia.

So, Moyo says, China’s visible economic impact raises a powerful (and some might say troubling) question for Africans: Why wait for lackluster democracy tomorrow if you can get a job or a new roof over your head today?

China’s presence in Africa is, depending on who you talk to, great news for the continent or completely opportunistic, a form of “new colonialism.” Here’s a selection of articles and stories that capture the diversity of thinking on the subject.

  1. Howard French, formerly of The New York Times, is the doyen of reporters covering China in Africa. In this article for the Africa Demos Forum, French opens up the story beyond the sheer facts and figures of Chinese investment in (and migration to) the continent. In particular, he highlights the extraordinary opportunities the Chinese are bringing with them, and the different mental perspectives Chinese and Americans bring to bear on Africa.
  2. This interview from PRI’s The World aired during the recent US government shutdown. The guest, Kenyan business analyst Aly-Khan Satchu, argues that Sino-African partnerships look even more attractive during times of dysfunction in Washington. (Read Adam Davidson telling the TED Blog why the government shutdown was a form of economic suicide.)
  3. Yun Sun, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, chooses not to see the opportunities for international investors and governments in Africa as a zero-sum game. In this report, she shares why it’s in the best interest of all for African countries, China and the United States to find ways to collaborate.
  4. This monograph by David E. Brown, a career US foreign service member, looks at China in Africa from the perspective of American strategy. Its title, “Hidden Dragon, Crouching Lion,” gives you a hint as to his conclusions: the US should be worried.
  5. A short, interesting discussion from The Atlantic—not so much “Is China Transforming Africa?”, as its titled, but “How is China transforming Africa?” The participants, including Jeremy Goldkorn and Isabel Hilton, do a good job of moving beyond the China-bad/America-good narrative that often accompanies the subject.
  6. Deborah Bräutigam, a professor of international development at Johns Hopkins, writes a blog that offers regular counterarguments to pieces published in The Economist and elsewhere. In this piece for Foreign Affairs (from 2010), she echoes Dambiso Moyo’s conclusion: China provides African countries “with some things they very much want: employment opportunities, new technologies, and badly needed infrastructure.”
  7. Reaching back a little further, to 2008, China Rising is a series of radio stories from NPR that examined some of the historical antecedents to China’s current influence on the continent.
  8. This interesting discussion, hosted by The China Africa Project, moves the debate to its logical next step: many African economies are projected to enjoy enormous growth in coming years. Does that mean Africa ought to think of China not so much as a partner, but as a competitor?
  9. The China Africa Project also collects various radio and podcast segments related to this topic.
  10. In his recent TED Talk, Charles Robertson predicted that the slow and steady growth seen in Africa over the past 10 years is about to skyrocket. Charles Robertson: Africa's next boomCharles Robertson: Africa's next boomThe chief economist of Renaissance Capital and co-author of the 2012 book, The Fastest Billion, Robertson predicts that Africa will grow from a $2 trillion economy today to a $29 trillion economy by 2050. In this detailed report, Renaissance Capital looks at the trade ties between China and Africa, showing how Chinese investment is improving its trading position.

7 TED Talks on the need to encourage entrepreneurship

Peace strategist Mohamed Ali speaks at TEDCity2.0, bringing us to the city of Mogadishu. Photo: Ryan Lash

Peace strategist Mohamed Ali speaks at TEDCity2.0, bringing us to the city of Mogadishu. Photo: Ryan Lash

Could unemployment be a factor that leads to terrorism? Mohamed Ali: The link between unemployment and terrorismMohamed Ali: The link between unemployment and terrorismIn today’s talk, peace strategist Mohamed Ali (not to be confused with the boxer) introduces us to the youth of Mogadishu, Somalia — 70 percent of whom are unable to find jobs. In this talk, Ali highlights just how appealing the messages of terrorist organizations and gangs can be to these young people. These groups offer a sense of purpose to those who are waiting for their lives to start.

But Ali sees a possible antidote: encouraging entrepreneurship, so that young people are empowered to create their own opportunities. In this talk, Ali tells the story of his Youth Leadership and Entrepreneurship Summit in Mogadishu — and the incredible people there who started a motorbike rental company, founded the first florist in Mogadishu, and more.

In this talk, Ali notes a fascinating correlation. Here, more TED Talks that point to the importance of encouraging entrepreneurship.

Cameron Herold: Let's raise kids to be entrepreneursCameron Herold: Let's raise kids to be entrepreneursCameron Herold: Let’s raise kids to be entrepreneurs
There is a group of kids who have trouble paying attention in class and who aren’t amped about after-school activities: kids who might excel at starting businesses. While our education system teaches us to want “a good job,” in this talk, Cameron Herold stresses the importance of encouraging children who might start their own companies to provide good jobs for others.
Jessica Jackley: Poverty, money -- and loveJessica Jackley: Poverty, money -- and loveJessica Jackley: Poverty, money — and love
Kiva.org offers microloans to people in the developing world to help them start or grow their businesses. In this talk, the founder of the organization shares how she flipped her thinking on charity from being something offered out of a sense of guilt to being an exciting opportunity to work with a person to improve their life, while validating their dignity. By encouraging individuals to grow their business, this type of giving can even raise up entire communities.
Anil Gupta: India's hidden hotbeds of inventionAnil Gupta: India's hidden hotbeds of inventionAnil Gupta: India’s hidden hotbeds of invention
The developing world is full of inventors with genius ideas for how to solve their community’s unique problems. And we can encourage them, says Anil Gupta. In this talk, Gupta introduces us to the Honey Bee Network, which helps build connections and identities for entrepreneurs in India, so that they can find resources and a market for their ideas. Why the name “Honey Bee?” Because Gupta sees his role as that of a bee, pollinating promising ideas.
George Ayittey: Africa's cheetahs versus hipposGeorge Ayittey: Africa's cheetahs versus hipposGeorge Ayittey: On cheetahs vs. hippos
There are, at the moment, two Africas. There is the Africa of the hippos, i.e. the current ruling elite, who are happy with the status quo and who are rattled by corruption. And then there is the Africa of the cheetahs — those moving fast to bring innovation all around the continent. These cheetahs are young entrepreneurs who aren’t willing to wait for the government to do things for them, but who do it for themselves. “Africa’s salvation rests on the backs of these cheetahs,” says Ayittey.
Ludwick Marishane: A bath without waterLudwick Marishane: A bath without waterLudwick Marishane: A bath without water
Young Ludwick Marishane and his friends had an idea—could you bathe without walking miles to get a jug of water? Marishane tells the story of how he researched formulations and wrote an entire business proposal on his mobile phone, and brought DryBath to the market with the needs of his community in mind. His point: those under the age of 18 can be successful entrepreneurs.
Majora Carter: 3 stories of local eco-entrepreneurshipMajora Carter: 3 stories of local eco-entrepreneurshipMajora Carter: 3 stories of local eco-entrepreneurism
Entrepreneurship can transform the lives of individuals, while also easing the strain on the environment, says Majora Carter. In this talk, Carter introduces us to three people — one in Chicago, one in Los Angeles, and one in West Virginia — who thought up marketable ideas to address the needs of their community. Their business ideas are fascinating — and also remarkably green.

My City: Juliana Rotich on Ushahidi, BRCK and life in Nairobi


Nairobi, seen from Uhuru Park. Photograph: Joshua Wanyama. See a photogallery of Joshua’s other images of Nairobi.

Juliana Rotich was not expecting our interview to end in tears. Neither was I. But on reflection, we were both completely ok with it. After all, that’s what happens when terrorism becomes personal. For Rotich, that happened at the end of September, when al Shabaab terrorists attacked the Westgate Mall in the northwestern part of Nairobi, killing at least 67 people and holding many others hostage for days. What for many of us was a series of terrible pictures on the television news was for Rotich a much more intimate story. She knew the mall — an upscale, modern building in a bustling part of Kenya’s capital city. It wasn’t somewhere she hung out often, but it was a perfectly pleasant place to meet friends and pick up a frozen yogurt. She also knew some of the people caught up in the days’ events; a colleague’s wife and four young children had all been there when the shooting broke out, and thankfully all escaped safely.

Yet it wasn’t recounting any of these unsettling details that got to Rotich, the softly-spoken, even-keeled cofounder of the nonprofit data and mapping collective, Ushahidi. (Rotich is also the co-developer of Internet-enabling device, BRCK, a central figure in Kenya’s technology start-up scene, as well as a TED Fellow Juliana Rotich: Meet BRCK, Internet access built for AfricaJuliana Rotich: Meet BRCK, Internet access built for Africa.) What made her tear up was describing her team’s response to the events, which came in two distinct forms. First, they quickly adapted Ushahidi’s software to highlight Red Cross locations in Nairobi at which people could donate blood. Next, they designed, developed and rolled out Ping, a group check-in tool for friends and family to contact each other in time of crisis and cut down on inefficient round robin calls when phone bandwidth is almost certainly compromised.

“We didn’t meet to create another application,” Rotich said of Ping’s rapid roll-out. “We met to deal with the reality of what had happened. But this team is made up of very special people. They’re really conscientious and caring, and when they come together and they see a problem, they try to figure out a solution.” It’s at this point that her voice breaks. “I was supposed to head to New York for the Clinton Global Initiative,” she adds. “But I really didn’t want to leave Kenya. After that one meeting, I was so inspired to continue to work harder for Ushahidi and for this team that comes together when people have a problem.”

Rotich’s passion for both technology and community isn’t new. It comes across equally clearly in our other, less emotionally-charged conversations, during which she unfailingly shows herself to be a deeply thoughtful observer of the African technology industry and a skeptical supporter of progress in her adopted home city. And, perhaps not surprisingly, she is an unflinching advocate for women in tech. At iHub, the innovation hub and technology incubator she both works from and advises, she actively promotes a culture that’s welcoming to all. “I do appreciate that Kenya is still very much a patriarchal society, so sometimes you deal with condescending attitudes outside of the microcosm of the iHub,” she says. “But by and large, our culture within iHub is very much one of doing and making, and everybody is part of the story.”

Abigael Wangui (seated) of the iHub UX Lab talks to Dr Sheila Ochugboju (standing). at the iHub in Nairobi. Photograph: Joshua Wanyama. See a photogallery of Joshua's other images of Nairobi.

Dr Sheila Ochugboju (standing) talks to Abigael Wangui (seated) at the iHub in Nairobi. Photograph: Joshua Wanyama. See a photogallery of Joshua’s other images of Nairobi.

Her relationship with the city itself was arguably ambiguous even before the Westgate massacre. Born and raised in rural Kenya, about 50 kilometers from the western city of Eldoret, she moved to the United States to study at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and ended up living and working in the US for more than a decade — first at Sprint Telecom in Kansas City, then later as a data analyst in Chicago. In 2011, she and her husband relocated to Nairobi. Making the city their base was, she says, a difficult decision.

She explains, “I was worried about the basics. Would we have running water? Would we have electricity or backup power?” These are not questions you generally need to ask in the developed world, but such issues are a fact of life in Nairobi. It’s why BRCK, which can be described as a “backup generator for the internet,” is far more than just a cool toy. Reliable Internet access in Kenya is never a given.

Happily, Rotich describes experiencing a “soft landing” and finding a home in the quiet Kilimani neighborhood, located close to the iHub’s always-busy office. Both are in Nairobi’s own version of the Silicon Valley, sometimes known as the “Silicon Savannah.” (Proximity was more than just a convenience; traffic in Nairobi is a disaster, meaning that commuters can spend hours in stationary traffic during rush hour. If it rains? “Park up and find something else to do.”) Nonetheless, Rotich is still reluctant to describe herself as a Nairobian, preferring instead to refer to herself as “location-agnostic” and describing the city as “another node in my network.” In particular, she remains skeptical about some of the so-called progress in the city. “I’ve been traveling back and forth to Nairobi since 2002, and every year I would look out of the window of the plane and see more lights. Currently the pace of growth, particularly in real estate, is frenetic,” she explains. “You go down a street one day and then the next there’ll be a shiny big building there. In one sense, this is a good thing, but in another, I really wonder if we’ve thought about the kind of growth we want and need.”

For Rotich, the daughter of an architect, what’s missing in the new, tall and shiny buildings shooting up all around her are two things: a philosophy of responsible design that pays heed to the environment and its needs and abilities; and any sense of Africa. For a country that’s still asserting its identity after gaining independence from the UK in 1963, this is a problem. “Right now, the types of buildings that are coming up are not rooted in anything that tells me that this is home, this is Kenya, this is Nairobi. And that makes me feel a little bit sad,” she says. As for sustainability? Forget about it. In her opinion, Nairobi isn’t living up to its solar potential. “It’s hot out here!” she adds incredulously. “We’re not tapping into the fact that we have a lot of sun as well as we could.”


Built in 1969 and designed by David Mutiso and Karl Nostvik, Juliana Rotich says she loves this building. “It is a historical building that is equal parts modern with some African inspiration,” she says. Photograph: Joshua Wanyama. See a photogallery of Joshua’s other images of Nairobi.

Then there is the other side of the city, the part the tourists don’t usually see but which nonetheless forms a critical layer of Nairobi’s urban fabric. “For each affluent suburb, there’s an accompanying slum,” says Rotich, bluntly. In other words, for every leafy neighborhood like Karen, there’s the stark contrast of Kibera, a slum that’s home to hundreds of thousands of people. (With no official census, it’s impossible to give an exact figure, but Kibera is thought to be the largest urban slum in Africa.) “Very early in the morning, you’ll see people walking all the way from home on one side of the city to work on the other.”

The next challenge for the city’s government, she says, is to tackle the slums head-on, and upgrade the housing conditions for the less well-off. But for now, this doesn’t seem to be a priority. Rotich worries that the political elite seems prepared to ignore the plight of so many fellow Africans. “If they’re really committed to [changing] inequality, changing where people live and the conditions of the environment in which they live is probably the first, most empowering thing they could do for a society.” Does she get a sense that it’s happening? “Not yet.”

Nonetheless, despite the colonial baggage, the dubious motivations of the political class and the unsustainable ambitions of the real estate developers, Rotich remains committed to life in Nairobi, at least for the time being. At least the general elections held earlier in 2013 exhibited far less violence and corruption than in previous years, and her team gives her hope.

“I’m happy about the network here and the work that we get to do here, and I think there’s a lot more of that to come,” she says. “I feel like this is a good place for us to continue to grow. And I’m really excited about this idea of exploring how we might create an environment for people to make more things like the BRCK or like Ushahidi. That is still a very interesting question to me, and I think this is the right place to figure out the answer.”

See a photoessay of some of Juliana’s favorite places in the city, including her favorite restaurant in Kibera and, well, the place she goes to coo at baby elephants, shot for TED by Joshua Wanyama »

And, check out all the places Juliana describes in this annotated map. (Click the pins for more details):

This profile is part of a series of TED articles about interesting people and their life and work in a particular city. See also interviews with Robin Nagle, trash anthropologist at the Department of Sanitation in New York City, and Gabriella Gomez Mont, urban innovator in Mexico City. To see a whole host of other city-related content, go to TED’s Cities topic page »

Nairobi in pictures: Juliana Rotich shares her favorite spots in the Kenyan capital city


Juliana Rotich didn’t grow up in Nairobi, but the Kenyan capital has been her official full-time home since 2011. Now, she describes the city as “another node in my network.” It’s a suitable metaphor for a woman who’s immersed in the technology business, from her work at the nonprofit data and mapping collective, Ushahidi, to her development of the Internet-enabling device, BRCK. Here, she shares some of the places she loves about her current home town, including a good place to pick up chapati and a place to admire baby elephants. That’s right. Baby elephants.

Photographs by Joshua Wanyama, the co-founder and CEO of online marketing agency Pamoja Media, which is currently working on developing a mobile network for African farmers to maximize agricultural production. Born and raised in Nairobi, Wanyama is a 2009 TED Fellow, the curator of TEDxNairobi and an avid photographer. He runs the African micro stock photography website Africa Knows.


View over Uhuru Park There is a viewpoint over Uhuru Park from Lavington. It’s green in the foreground with the city in the background. See Uhuru Park on a map.

Read the profile of Juliana Rotich and her life in Nairobi »


Kenyatta International Conference Center Built in 1969 and designed by David Mutiso and Karl Nostvik, I am in awe of this building when I see it. It is a historical building that is equal parts modern with some African inspiration; the interior also has some beautiful fractals. Kenyatta International Conference Center, Harambee Avenue, Nairobi. See KICC on a map.

Read the profile of Juliana Rotich and her life in Nairobi »


Kipande House This is an old colonial building in the middle of the city. I like the classic look of it; it seems to exude immortality. See Kipande House on a map.

Read the profile of Juliana Rotich and her life in Nairobi »

I spend a lot of my time in the iHub building. The Ushahidi office is several floors below the iHub in what we refer to as the Batcave. We are corny like that. Here, Abigael Wangui (seated) of the iHub UX Lab talks to my fellow TED Fellow Dr. Sheila Ochugboju (standing). Bishop Magua Building, Nairobi.

iHub and Ushahidi I spend a lot of my time in this building. The Ushahidi office is several floors below the iHub (we refer to it as the “Batcave.” We are corny like that.) Here, Abigael Wangui (seated) of the iHub UX Lab talks to my fellow TED Fellow Dr. Sheila Ochugboju (standing). iHub, Bishop Magua Center, George Padmore Lane, Nairobi. See it on a map.

Read the profile of Juliana Rotich and her life in Nairobi »

Ngara Market I love the stalls and vendors in this colorful market. See it on a map.

Ngara Market I love the stalls and vendors in this colorful market. See the Ngara Hawkers Market on a map.

Read the profile of Juliana Rotich and her life in Nairobi »

Auntie Naite Cafe As a team, we often go for lunch at this shack in Kibera (that's me in this picture!) It has fantastic pilau rice, chapati and meat. I think it is owned and run by a Nubian family. If Anthony Bourdain ever came to Kenya, I would take him here.

Auntie Naite Cafe As a team, we often go for lunch at this shack in Kibera (that’s me in this picture!) It has fantastic pilau rice, chapati and meat. I think it is owned and run by a Nubian family. If Anthony Bourdain ever came to Kenya, I would take him here. See Kibera on a map.

Read the profile of Juliana Rotich and her life in Nairobi »


Kikoromeo Ann McCreath of this clothing label is not only a great designer, but a good friend who once kept her store open past closing hours for me and helped me pick out skirts, dresses and jewelry for a big event I was attending. I felt so spoiled. Kikoromeo, Yaya Center, Kilimani, Nairobi. See the Yaya Center on a map.

Read the profile of Juliana Rotich and her life in Nairobi »


Nairobi National Park The National Park is within 20 minutes of the city, making Nairobi very unique because you can get away and quickly get to a savannah-like atmosphere with lions, elephants and rhinos. Though elephant and rhino numbers are dwindling because of increased poaching activity; very worrisome. See Nairobi National Park on a map.

Read the profile of Juliana Rotich and her life in Nairobi »


David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust An orphanage for baby elephants… Seriously, you can’t go wrong with baby elephants! David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Nairobi National Park, Bogan Gate, Magadi Road, Nairobi. See the elephant orphanage on a map.

Read the profile of Juliana Rotich and her life in Nairobi »

To see a whole host of other city-related content, go to TED’s Cities topic page »

Gallery: A school and a clinic, built from compressed clay

Kéré designed a primary school for Gando in 1999 and, with the help of residents of the village, construction was completed in 2001. The school’s walls are made from compressed clay, and the ceiling is made of corrugated metal on a steel truss to let air flow in freely. It has three classrooms, separated by shaded outdoor spaces. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

Kéré designed a primary school for the village of Gando in Burkina Faso in 1999. With the help of residents of the village, construction was completed in 2001. The school’s walls are made from compressed clay, and the ceiling is made of corrugated metal on a steel truss to let air flow freely. The school has three classrooms, separated by shaded outdoor spaces. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

Diébédo Francis Kéré grew up in a small village in Gando, Burkina Faso, before heading to Germany to study architecture. And as a student there, he came up with a very ambitious project.Diébédo Francis Kéré: How to build with clay... and communityDiébédo Francis Kéré: How to build with clay... and community

“I wanted to open up better opportunities to other kids in Gando. I wanted to use my skills to build a school. But how do you do that when you’re still a student and don’t have money?” he says in this moving talk. “Fundraising was not an easy task. I even asked my classmates to spend less money on coffee and cigarettes, and sponsor my school project.”

Amazingly, in just two years, Kéré raised $50,000. To hear how he rallied his village to help with the construction of the school — and how he got them to accept his very out-of-the-box idea to construct it out of compressed clay — watch this incredible talk.

Below, see more images of the primary school that Kéré and his village built, as well as the school extension they completed seven years later. Also, take a look at the school’s teacher housing and Kéré’s most recent project, a health center in what he’s dubbed “Opera Village.”

A look inside one of the primary school’s three classrooms. After Gando’s school was built, two neighboring villages were inspired to build their own schools. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

A look inside one of the primary school’s three classrooms. After Gando’s school was built, two neighboring villages were inspired to build their own schools. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

A group of women and girls enjoy the shade outside the primary school. After completion of the building, local authorities opted to pay for the teaching staff. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

A group of women and girls enjoy the shade outside the primary school. After the building was finished, local authorities opted to pay for the teaching staff. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

One of the challenges of Gando’s schools: attracting talented teachers to the rural location. And so, the village built six homes for teachers and their families, which are arranged in an arc to the south of the school. Construction was completed in 2004. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

One of the challenges of Gando’s school: attracting talented teachers to the rural location. And so, the village built six homes for teachers and their families, which are arranged in an arc to the south of the school. Construction was completed in 2004. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

A detailed look at the roof of the teachers housing. The barrel vaults are made of compressed clay. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

A detailed look at the roof of the teachers’ housing. The barrel vaults are made of compressed clay and corrugated steel. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

By 2007, more than 280 students from Gando and its surrounding villages had enrolled at the primary school and the community realized that the school would need more room. Once again, the community contributed to building an extension, working with their hands to created the colorful windows and vaulted ceiling. The building was completed in 2008. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

By 2007, more than 280 students from Gando and its surrounding villages had enrolled at the primary school, and the community realized that it needed more room. Once again, the community contributed to building an extension, working with their hands to created the colorful windows and vaulted ceiling. The building was completed in 2008. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

A group of children takes a break under a mango tree outside the Gando school extension. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

A group of children takes a break under a mango tree outside the Gando school extension. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

Here, a new project: a health clinic in the Opera village in Laongo, Burkina Faso. This is the entrance. Photo: Francis Kéré

Here, a new project: When a large section of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, was washed away in a flood — a section where Christoph Schlingensief had been planning to build an “Opera House for Africa” — Kéré dreamed up the idea for “Opera Village,” a way to help the people who lived there rebuild. The site, which is under construction now, will contain a theater, an arts school and many guest houses. This is a look at the new health clinic on the site. Photo: Francis Kéré

And a look at the beautiful façade of the clinic. Photo: Francis Kéré

Here, a look at the beautiful façade of the health clinic at Opera Village in Laongo, Burkina Faso. Photo: Francis Kéré

An approach to global aid where all are treated as equals



By Lisa Katayama

In a developed country where the dialogue around human rights is very charity-minded, it’s rare to find young people with visions of engaging rural farmers in developing countries as equals. That’s why Tokyo native Doga Makiura stands out.

When Doga was 13, he left his home in Japan and enrolled himself in a boarding school in England. “I was weird, I wanted to meet different people,” he says. Now a student of social policy and economics at the University of Bristol and the author of a new book (in Japanese) that debunks stereotypes of Rwandans, the now 20-year-old spoke to us about how he went from being just a regular private school kid to catalyzing win-win business scenarios between his native Japan and Rwanda using technology and agriculture. Our first question:

What first inspired you to explore the developing world? Here’s Doga –

I saw an opportunity to raise the potential of the 1.2 billion people who are said to be in poverty. Rather than just helping them out, I wanted to go and work with them together as equals, as business partners. After high school, I took a gap year. I knew developing countries were dramatically changing every single minute, and that things would be too different if I waited four more years.

Can you tell me more about your first trip to Rwanda? What brought you, and how did you launch into the work you ended up doing there?

It was in August 2012 when I first visited Rwanda. A friend in Japan had started a project in Bangladesh called e-Education Project, a Japanese non-profit that uses IT to solve educational problems in developing countries. He wanted me to undertake a huge project in Rwanda. I didn’t have any specific plans during my gap year, so I accepted.

I found out that students taking chemistry practical exams in rural schools were at a great disadvantage compared to urban students because they don’t have a lab or tools to experiment with. So we shot videos of lectures given by the best urban chemistry teachers, burned them onto DVDs, and disseminated this content to rural schools. Most e-learning platforms require internet access, but DVDs don’t. Rwandan students could now watch chemistry experiments from anywhere as often as they want. In 2013, national exam results in chemistry increased by an average of 46% in 5 rural schools with over 700 students using DVDs from e-Education.

Can you tell me a little bit more about how you structure the work you do with rural farmers in Rwanda? How do you stay in touch with them, and how do you connect them with your contacts in Japan who are trying to get them to adopt advanced agricultural techniques?

Over 80% of the population in Rwanda is employed in the agricultural sector, yet these farmers often only produce the food they feed themselves. It’s logistically very difficult for rural farmers to sell their products in the market, but there is always an abundance of surplus crop piled up in front of their farms every year.

Due to an influx of refugees from the conflict in the Congo, the demand for more food was getting higher, and I thought I could connect these two parties, the farmers in rural Rwanda with surplus crop and the Congolese refugees, whose food supply was being managed by UNHCR. So I became a middleman, coordinating with agricultural cooperatives in Rwanda to understand how much surplus each cooperative or farm has, and finding out how much food the UNHCR was needing where. I went to the farms with a truck, purchased their surplus crop, and transported this food to the UNHCR refugees. The farmers now had extra income, and the refugees had more food. Win-win. The team I set up with the cooperatives work on this even when I’m not there.

I then began to tackle the inefficient production process that many of the Rwandan farms were using. I began working with a venture company in Kigali that owned smart-agriculture technology to make agricultural logistics more efficient using information and communications technologies (ICT). In Japan, there are a few companies who adopt ICT in their farming production processes; they were looking to export their technology to an expanding economy. I connected these Japanese people with big cooperatives in Rwanda and the Ministry of Agriculture. Rwanda also hosts numerous international events advocating for the using of ICT in agriculture, so I brought the Japanese people to these events and set up meetings for them to understand the agricultural situation and make the necessary contacts for business opportunities.

The traditional model [of global aid] was the developed country helping the developing country, but in the 21st century we have to work together to be mutually beneficial, and not just provide one-way help. For example, Japan could provide technology to Rwanda in exchange for resources, creating a win-win situation, an equal stance. It’s fair trade in a greater sense.

Are there any existing models of this kind of bridging that you would like to model after, or do you think a whole new model is necessary?

The conventional model has had a propensity to only benefit the host country. If a successful model in a developed country is to be adopted in a developing country, it should be adapted with a bottom-up approach. Technologies such as Google’s HelpOuts that connect skilled people with people who want to learn these skills can support this movement. There are plenty of opportunities to match the people with right people and make a difference in their lives.

Tell me about your book.

I recently published a book in Japanese that portrays the recent image of Rwanda. It’s a very, very optimistic book. Many people have this image of Rwanda from the film Hotel Rwanda, of the genocide of 1994. That was less than 20 years ago, yet it’s very different now. The capital city of Kigali is known as the Switzerland of Africa. It’s one of the safest place on the continent. If you just look at the crime rate in Kigali, it’s lower than Tokyo. Rwanda is actually being focused on by many international corporations as a country full of opportunities, not for sending aid but for foreign investment and cooperation. It’s quite amazing. I’m planning to write another one that focuses more on the culture.

I imagine that Japan and Rwanda are quite different culturally, right?

There are actually some interesting similarities between Japan and Rwanda. They’re both mountainous, tiny countries with no natural resources. The Japanese have bushido mind; we tend to listen to people first before stating our own opinions. The Japanese don’t talk unless spoken to, and they’re quite shy. Negotiations thus tend to be quiet and entail a lot of listening. A lot of Japanese who went to Rwanda realized that the Rwandans are like this too — very different from other Africans –who tend to be more like Americans and say their opinion first before asking for the other’s.

What is one thing you know that you wish everyone knew?

The potential of developing countries. Whenever people start up something, a charity or a business, they see things too domestically. The Japanese market is shrinking because of the aging population, but there is potential everywhere in the world, and developing countries are fairly untouched. We should keep reminding ourselves that we can do business like we do domestically between Japan and developing countries. There are so many new opportunities for people to explore, they just have to look more broadly.

Lisa is the founder of The Tofu Project (http://thetofuproject.com/), a nonprofit organization that empowers social entrepreneurs and creative innovators through storytelling, design, and events.

Andrew Mwenda on progress in Africa


SinceTheTalk-AndrewMwenda Andrew Mwenda: Aid for Africa? No thanks. Andrew Mwenda: Aid for Africa? No thanks. In 2007, journalist Andrew Mwenda took the stage at TEDGlobal in Arusha, Tanzania, and decried the symptomatic disease affecting his home continent: aid. The surprising take certainly got the goat of some members of the audience, including U2 frontman Bono, who has devoted so much time to promoting the need for African aid and who spoke up from the audience as Mwenda was talking. Mwenda, however, stood his ground, and still does so today, working as the strategy and editorial director at Independent Publications, where he uses The Independent to urge his audience to look afresh at the state of Africa.

We caught up with him over email to find out what he’s been up to in the years since the talk; an edited version of the conversation follows.

What are the most important things you want someone seeing your TED Talk to know now?

That Africa cannot be developed through charity channeled through governments but by trade and private investments by the private sector. That most international media coverage tends to purvey prejudice rather than convey news.

You have been arrested multiple times for your work. Just last month, the Daily Monitor was closed. What is the current status of press freedom in Uganda?

Yes, I have been arrested several times for my work. By 2010, I had 24 criminal charges against me in Ugandan courts. I launched a successful challenge of some of the draconian laws, and two of them were struck down by the constitutional court. Today, the number of criminal charges I am facing in courts of law in Uganda is 12.

In your TED Talk, you passionately called for the Africa story to be reframed from one focused on poverty, despair and aid. Do you feel this has this happened in the ensuing years?

Yes, there is increasing recognition that Africa has successful stories to tell, as evidenced in a recent “Africa Rising” cover of The Economist, and the programs “African Voices” and “Market Place Africa” on CNN. The other western media are increasingly telling positive stories about Africa — especially about innovations in mobile telephony and sustained economic growth.

Has the system of supporting entrepreneurs and funding innovation changed or improved in Africa in the past five years? If so, how?

There is increasing interest in Africa, but it is still too early to say that we are seeing massive transfer of funds to finance innovation. However, FDI [foreign direct investment] to Africa and trade between Africa and other parts of the world, especially China and India, has grown by leaps and bounds since 2007.

Tell us about your company. What does it do and what are your ultimate goals?

We are a media company that publishes The Independent – a magazine like Time or a newspaper but better than them. It is weekly; we circulate in Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan. We also publish special series of our magazine focusing on particular sectors that are succeeding in creating economic opportunities for millions.

You were nominated a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum. Is there any danger that the establishment you object to is in fact assimilating you?

Of course, the danger is always there. And on occasion, it succeeds. However, the best way to mitigate the tendency towards co-optation is to be aware of it so that whatever you do, you have at the back of your mind that you risk being co-opted (you use the word “assimilated.”) The point, however, is that one has to sometimes work with the establishment to achieve shared goals and oppose it when it is necessary. The real danger is not co-optation by the system but becoming too rigid and fanatical in one’s opposition to the establishment that one loses sight of the many positive aspects of cooperation. I learned from Nelson Mandela that one can work with opponents in a principled way around a shared objective without getting compromised.

You have described politics as “a dumping ground for mediocrity.” Clearly that’s not just a problem in Uganda. But what do you think is the solution? Do you see change happening any time soon?

Change is always slow in coming — and when it comes, it does not always follow a simple linear progression. Look at Egypt and all the upheaval it is going through today. Many people expected the democratization process to go smoothly. But reality is rarely like that. I am optimistic because I can see Africa is rapidly changing — a new and more vibrant and educated youthful population is taking charge.

How TEDxLuanda is helping to rewrite Angola’s next chapter, from civil war-torn state to innovation hub

TEDxLuanda is the only event in the nation of Angola. Organizer Januario Jano (right) introduces the event with TK (left)

TEDxLuanda is the only TEDx event in Angola and its theme always hinges on the country’s future. Organizer Januario Jano (on the right) co-hosts in 2013, introducing speakers on the theme “Connect the Dots.” Photo: Midan Studio

Luanda, the capital of Angola, is a city of stark contrasts. An oil-rich economy draws tons of wealthy expatriates to its center, while the very poor swarm around its outskirts. An antiquated government limps along as a young, educated and global-minded new guard begins to gain their foothold. Even the skyline is changing; everything’s growing upwards as skyscrapers of cement and glass replace flatlands. Memories of a civil war are still fresh, but the country also vibrates with a fusion of cultures— diverse African ethnic groups mixed with European and Latin American immigrants, and all of them speaking Portuguese.

With so much in flux, Luanda is in the midst of an identity crisis. Emerging from somewhere in the middle of it, designer and artist Januario Jose is hoping to connect the divides and start building a new future for Luanda—and Angola at large—beginning with TEDxLuanda.

The idea for TEDxLuanda was seeded miles away from Angola in a city that might just be called Luanda’s complete opposite—London. Jose left his hometown to attend university there, and in London he was invited to watch TED Talks with a group of friends. He treasured this feeling of community pulled together around ideas. Shortly after getting his degree, he returned to Luanda to begin his design career. As he began holding informal design events, he noticed how foreign the concept of design was to his community. He also noticed that there were other knowledge gaps. At the same time, he could sense the community’s collective potential and thirst for a new, modern Luanda and a brighter future for Angola.

“I wanted to do something here that could engage the audience and challenge them to start thinking and acting instead of complaining,” he says. He wanted to set up a platform to showcase and encourage the work of the young creators and thinkers. TED felt like the best starting point because students already knew it. Local businessmen, “in their ties and gray suits,” knew it too.

TEDxLuanda is the only TEDx event in Angola. And Jose defines its main purpose as nurturing the upcoming generation. But Jose hopes that the older generations can also learn from the ideas and solutions presented there too. Instead of dwelling in the past, the event aims to give a lens to see what Luanda can strive to be. When recruiting volunteers and attendees, Jose goes to universities to source the bright-eyed, the hungry and the passionate. The reason he says he does this—because a whole new generation is growing up without the weight of war and without the forced perception of identity it brought along with it.

TEDxLuanda volunteers pose excitedly at the welcome table. Photo: Midan Studio

TEDxLuanda volunteers pose excitedly at the welcome table. Photo: Midan Studio

For many, Angola’s decades-long civil war was the only reality they’ve ever known. The war ended just over 10 years ago, in 2002, so even Jose grew up with its ruins in the backdrop. Meanwhile, the government has changed little in his lifetime. Jose has found himself fascinated with the questions: What can a country become when it’s no longer stuck in perpetual divisiveness? How do the people craft a sustainable, collective identity—one that transcends a wartime state-of-mind?. He says, “We need change so badly. We need to get some fresh air through this system. The old system is still corrupted. The world is dynamic; it’s opening up.”

All of Jose’s TEDx events have hinged around this common theme: Angola’s future.

The novelty of TEDxLuanda has pushed it into the media spotlight, and the percolating noise and conversation around change have sometimes reached the ears of people who are not so keen on having traditions disrupted. Jose worries that any kind of talk about modern political systems could perturb government regulators. So, he takes extra care to make sure the event is apolitical. But personally, Jose, and a great number of individuals in his world, believe that the Angolan government, while more flexible than in the past, is still too set in its ways and need to learn how to adapt to the changing needs of the community. Because they only recently transitioned from a poor to an extremely rich state, they don’t know how to spend money wisely, he says. Strangely, the venues Jose booked for both of his TEDx events mysteriously shut them out at the very last minute with only a murky, half-hearted explanation: “It was not up to us.”  For these events, he had to scramble to find a new venue just weeks before they were set to happen. Though he casts no blame, he insinuates that there are individuals who are not pleased by the cultural and political shifts that are on the rise.

As any TEDx organizer can tell you, putting together an event with hundreds of moving parts is no small feat. Although the reception of TEDx in Angola has been huge and enthusiastic, this same intensity has left Jose feeling a bit burned out. After wrapping up another successful TEDx event earlier in June, he’s felt pressure to produce his next event and to expand his reach to other cities in Angola. But so far, he’s been a one-man team with only a few helpful volunteers here and there. He wishes he had a permanent core team that stayed with him throughout the year. Next year, he is considering a break in order to find that superstar group to help continue the spread of ideas. Jose believes the people of Luanda have already proved that they are craving a new mode of thinking. It’s now up to them to provide the muscle to help it continue to prosper. “Organizing [TEDxLuanda] has helped me be a role model to the Angolan youth,” he says. “If I leave, I want them to take it on and keep doing it.”

In spite of being physically exhausted, Jose persists because he believes that a platform that connects the creative community is necessary as Angola begins to rewrite its narrative. At the very least, TEDxLuanda is a symbol for innovation and evolution. But, the true impact of TEDxLuanda can be seen in the spinoff of three other TEDx events in Portuguese-speaking African cities in surrounding countries—TEDxMaputo in Mozambique, TEDxSãoTomé in São Tomé and Principe and TEDxPraia in Cape Verde.

Luanda’s story is a thread in a larger tapestry. It’s not just Luanda or Angola that’s reaching for something greater. It’s all of Africa. Jose compares his path with other young Africans who’ve left their homes to get an education in Europe or the US and then have returned back to their country to live and work. From Jose’s perspective, there doesn’t seem to be any room to make an impact in Europe and the US; everything’s already been done and hardly anything is relevant. But in Africa, there is so much room for change and every solution is necessary.

“Africa has a future. This is the time it’s rebuilding its image,” he says. “It is a great challenge for people who like challenges, like me—for people who like to dig their hands in to make a difference. This is the perfect place to be right now.”

Onyx Ashanti, a sci-fi obsessed electronic jazz artist, takes the stage. Photo: Midan Studio

Onyx Ashanti, a sci-fi obsessed electronic jazz artist, takes the stage. Photo: Midan Studio

Somi unveils an odyssey of song and soul in ‘The Lagos Music Salon’



This week, East African singer Somi releases her first major-label album, The Lagos Music Salon, in the United States. Already, it is #1 on the iTunes Jazz Chart, #1 on the Amazon Jazz Vocal Chart, and #1 on the Amazon Pop Vocal Chart. The TED Blog caught up with the jazz-soul vocalist and songwriter—who was was born in Illinois to Rwandan and Ugandan parents and traveled frequently to East Africa—to talk about taking risks, navigating creativity within a multicultural life, and the artistic promptings that led her to explore the city of Lagos.

Tell us about your new album, The Lagos Music Salon. Does it refer to a real salon?

It was inspired by a recent 18-month creative sabbatical I took in Lagos, Nigeria. I called it a “salon” for a number of reasons — including a regular performance series I began while collaborating with fellow artists I was meeting in Lagos. But it’s also about creating a space for reflective conversations I was having with myself and with the city itself.

The idea for the performance salons came out of what I thought was a lack of intimate cultural spaces in Lagos that allowed for real artist-to-audience engagement. Even though Nigeria has this huge culture and music and art scene, the performance spaces are limited — shockingly so. I found that the performance spaces were mostly either these tiny places where the performer served as background music, or these hyper-produced, overpriced spaces, most of which were hotel conference rooms. At the time, I couldn’t find anywhere that regularly allowed for and encouraged the fundamental conversation between artist and audience.

While creating this new music, I wanted to be able to have that kind of concert and conversation with the Nigerian audience. At the time, I was writing my experience of the city, and I wanted to get critical feedback from from Lagosian people to know whether I was appropriately representing the experiences of Lagos living. I wanted my work to be something that Lagosians could be proud of, too. So I began producing salons. The very first one was more of an atelier — a showcase of work in progress. A friend of mine owns an art gallery, the African Artists Foundation, in a neighborhood called Ikoyi. We set up 66 chairs, had some hors d’oeuvres, organized a reception, and I performed all of the new material with my newly formed Lagos band. We were surrounded by all this beautiful artwork. Afterwards, we had champagne and cupcakes.

What was the initial response?

The initial response was wonderful — many people in the audience told me they connected with the work and really appreciated it. That feedback was critical for me, as was the experience of hearing it myself in a live context—experiencing how the work lived in my own body. I decided to produce more salons. I invited local artists to participate, and it just grew into this thing that happened every few months. It was a wonderful space for me to work through the music before going into the studio to record it. It also was a wonderful way of engaging the local arts community and establishing relationships with fellow musicians who were there. It was also an incredible learning experience in terms of taking off my often overly-cerebral, New Yorker jazz head to experience and create music on a more visceral level. I got to work with African musicians who have a very different kind of creative process than the New York-trained or conservatory musician might.

Above: watch the album teaser for The Lagos Music Salon, Somi’s major label debut on Sony’s OKeh imprint, released this week.

Why Lagos, specifically, and not a city in Uganda or Rwanda, where your parents are from?

There are a number of reasons. One, I was always very curious about the cultural energy there. I had been before to visit and to perform, and I realized how many parallels there were between Lagos and New York, in terms of size, energy, pace. It’s actually bigger than New York — 20 million people — and it’s always been a cultural giant on the African continent in terms of music, literature, fashion and visual arts. They’ve got the third largest film industry in the world.

So I was curious: Why is there so much cultural production in Lagos? What is it about the place that makes it such a cultural force? I mean, it’s partly a numbers game, because one out of every four Africans is Nigerian, but there’s something really special about the place. It’s not just about this moment, when everybody — no matter what industry — is looking at Africa as this new, emerging market to invest in. It’s about generations of cultural export and leadership. In the ’70s, every major label was actually in Lagos. Everybody passed through there, whether you’re talking about a Miles Davis or a Miriam Makeba or Nina Simone or Hugh Masekela.

I also moved there because I was curious about how, as an African woman, being in an African city might affect my lyrical, musical narratives and impulses. I decided not to go to my home cities of Kigali or Kampala because I didn’t want my experience colored by familiarity. I also thought I might have felt pressured by cultural expectations and obligations. The discovery of Lagos afforded me the privilege, and maybe freedom, of being a foreigner, and with that came a number of opportunities.  Basically, I wanted to go somewhere that gave me enough Africanisms to help me feel at home, but enough “foreignness” to keep my perspective totally fresh.

There are also substantial financial resources that the Nigerian government has committed to investing in the cultural sector. That was the first time I’d seen that in an African context. The World Bank came out with a report some years ago about how, in the global recession, creative economies in the developing world were the only place that they saw remarkable growth. The Nigerian film industry alone created about 100,000 jobs in 2011.

Did you have a residency there to start with?

Initially, I was invited to teach a residency at a university about five hours north of Lagos. I used that as a soft landing. After the first month I decided to stay for 15 months. While completing the residency, I found partnerships that gave me the support system necessary to set up there for the additional months. But I had no agenda when I moved. I just wanted to get out of New York, after having been there for a decade. I’d just lost my father, and I wanted to heal my heart. I also just walked away from my label, my management, my agent — all at once. I felt either I’d outgrown them, or we still just hadn’t gotten to this understanding of the larger story I’m trying to tell.

Artistically, I had so much more I wanted to say. As an African woman living in the United States, I have to negotiate my identity as an African and a Westerner, whereas on the continent, I am in a more transnational cultural space. I was curious how my work would shift once I was no longer culling over my cultural heritage through a diasporic lens. It’s a very romantic lens because you’re always sort of celebrating or privileging a longed-for place. Now, when I listen to Fela Kuti in Lagos, for example, I understand and hear it completely differently. That understanding could only have come from here. I loved his music from the perspective of an East African in New York. But now that I’ve experienced where the music is from, I realize there’s so much more that I had not heard or identified in the music before. So I think what I’m most proud of with this record is that there’s a keen sense of place that’s so fundamentally inside of it. I hope when people hear it, they feel as though they’ve traveled with me.

Above: watch the music video for “Last Song,” a track from The Lagos Music Salon. “If this were my last song, would you hum along? If this were my last song, would you try to remember everything?”

It’s a pretty courageous thing to do, to just move to another country.

Six months into it, I kind of had a freak-out moment. Like, what have I done? Did I just throw my career in the toilet? I felt like I was just out there in the wind, writing, and not knowing what I was necessarily there to say or talk about. Then, suddenly, I found that this body of work was emerging. It was mostly through my journals, snippets of melodies in the sound diary I was creating with my pocket recorder, or poetry that I had written. I realized it was, again, not about a particular genre. I mean, if you listen to the record, it’s got jazz, soul, some hip-hop, both traditional and popular Nigerian music, and other stuff. I decided not to censor those impulses.

I think, for me, that was what was the most frustrating for me as an artist prior to going to Nigeria—that folks always want to put you in a box. I understand that to commodify our art at times, people need to put labels on it. But that was very frustrating for me, because I am not just a jazz musician, I’m not only an African voice. I have all these influences. How can I not—as a half-Ugandan, half-Rwandan who grew up between Illinois and Zambia and who is living between New York and Lagos?

Speaking of genre, is this album a huge departure for you? You’re known in the jazz community — and this album is being released on Sony’s jazz-based imprint.

I would say my career has been rooted in the jazz community, but jazz is not my musical pedigree per se. There are a lot of purists who’d say I’m not really jazz, because I’m not that singer who sings a long list of standards. I’m a songwriter, first and foremost. The fact that I ended up in the jazz room is sort of a running joke in my band, because I’m always like, “How did we get here?” I don’t remember even hearing jazz until I was in college for the first time. My parents didn’t really listen to it.

What did they listen to?

My mom is a huge lover of Western classical music. She loves opera. She is also a great keeper of Western Ugandan folk songs. She has a beautiful voice. She’s not a professional singer, but she’s a beautiful singer. And my father listened to a lot of what you might call world music roots sort of stuff. I studied the cello, and listened to a lot of classical music as a young person, most of my life. We lived in Champaign, Illinois, which is a small university town. The radio offerings at the time in the ’80s weren’t so diverse.

I think that most African-Americans who have a more “indigenous” cultural and social African-American experience have a different engagement with jazz because it’s more their own cultural legacy. That’s not really the case for African immigrant families. There are a lot of Africans who love jazz, but there also many who just aren’t exposed to it. It’s very rare to have grown up listening to jazz as an African child.

Somi embraces Lagos with open arms. For more of Somi's images of Lagos, vist her site www.somimusic.com.

Somi embraces Lagos with open arms. For more of Somi’s images of Lagos, vist her site http://www.somimusic.com.

There’s African jazz, isn’t there?

There is, but it developed in very particular pockets on the continent — mainly South Africa and Ethiopia — and has very strongly rooted traditions. And it’s a very specific kind of sound. Interestingly, you’ll usually find very parallel or mirrored social and political movements between the African experience and the American experience in terms of civil rights. Especially South Africa: South African jazz developed in conjunction with its apartheid and civil rights movements, parallel to how it played out in the US. The reality, though, is that what we know as American jazz is directly linked to African music, so there really should be more of a conversation between here and there anyway.

How much did you notice that there was a disconnect between the musical heritage of your youth and that of your African-American peers?

It wasn’t that it was an issue. I think the reason I ended up ultimately being drawn to jazz was that it’s a genre that expects, if not demands, improvisation. And it also privileges the individual voice in an ensemble. Not to say that other genres don’t appreciate improv or don’t appreciate the individual members of a group, but the trademark solo improvisation in jazz — being willing to be a very clear individual voice in an ever-changing ensemble — always felt like an appropriate musical metaphor that reflects my own social malleability, and the improvisation necessary as a person whose life includes very layered social and cultural experiences. Maybe that’s why the jazz audience were the first to get what I’m doing. I find that when people don’t know how to define a type of music, we just call it “jazz,” right?

But I’ve also learned a great deal from the musicians I’ve surrounded myself with, and my band members, because I find that jazz musicians have the widest musical vocabulary. That’s probably because they’re always being asked to improvise, not just play what’s on the page, which was a huge departure for me as somebody who grew up mostly in the classical music idiom. It freed me in a lot of ways. It allowed me to be all of myself, to bring in the African influences, and make space for my Midwestern, maybe soul influences, and my classical roots, and not feel problematic. If anything, it made my music richer.

I began work on this album long before I was signed to Sony, and when I started I was prepared to put this record out entirely independently. I decided, “I’m just going to be all of myself. Whatever I feel like the music or my voice is asking for, or deserves, or wants to say, or how it wants to say it — that’s what I’m going to honor first. I’ll deal with how that fits into a commercial context when the work is done.” But I’m very happy that Sony is committed to helping me manifest that vision.

Somi and the colors of Lagos. Photo: www.somimusic.com

Somi and the colors of Lagos. Photo: http://www.somimusic.com

Any highlights on the album you’re excited about?

Sure. The record has two producers, from Lagos and New York, who complemented each other with kind of the jazz-head and the African pop sensibilities. Cobhams Asuquo, based in Lagos, is one of the most celebrated producers on the African continent right now. My New York-based producer Keith Witty is also a beautiful bass player and composer.

And I have a couple of really amazing special guests — Angélique Kidjo and Common, both of whom are Grammy-winning artists. I’m honored that they agreed to be a part of this, Angélique being like an older sister — originally from Benin — and Common being a wonderful MC. He’s on the song “When Rivers Cry,” which is about the environment, about the need for a committed green movement on the African continent. I wrote it when Wangari Maathai, the first African female Nobel Prize Laureate, passed away.

Angélique and I did a piece called “Lady Revisited,” a reinterpretation of Fela Kuti’s original “Lady,” but speaking out against domestic violence and legislation that’s not in favor of women in some parts of the African continent. Angélique has always been a real womanist and a champion of African female causes, so I wanted to have her voice on it.

Ambrose Akinmusire, a Nigerian-American trumpet player out of the West Coast, plays on “Brown Round Things,” a song about a loss of innocence. There’s just a whole cast of both American and African artists, both in Lagos and in New York.

What next?

I’m in the process of trying to create a salon tour, which I’m super excited about. Instead of doing typical shows in typical concert venues, I’m collaborating with a number of community art spaces to recreate the original Lagos-style salons. The first of these will happen in a few major US cities this September, but we’ll also collaborate with African arts communities in those cities. I hope to help people really experience what that first salon felt like, with the 66 chairs and the cupcakes, the truth-telling and the intimacy.

Overall, I hope this project helps people to think about African narratives in a more nuanced manner. I think people expected me to come back from Nigeria with a very particular sound. I want people to come away with an understanding that there are very singular, personal experiences and stories that need to be told. I’m hoping to play my part in championing some of those voices and stories.

AK-47s transformed into jewelry and watches, thanks to a chance meeting in a TED hallway

The metal in this watch was once an AK-47, serial number 6113110. Through Fonderie 47, social entrepreneur Peter Thum has helped decommission 45,000 weapons in Africa. Photo: Courtesy of Fonderie 47

The metal in this watch was once an AK-47. Through the company Fonderie 47, social entrepreneur Peter Thum has helped decommission 45,000 of these assault rifles in Africa. Photo: Courtesy of Fonderie 47

The watch looks both futuristic and retro at the same time. A swirl of visible gears and carefully calibrated dials, it charts time in an unusual way — the hour jumps into place at the top, the minute is marked in a semicircle along the bottom, and the seconds swoop above. It’s a statement watch, the kind of piece that people inevitably ask about.

This watch — which at $195,000 is no small investment — comes in a rose or white gold finish. But the metal underneath has a history. Before being crafted into a high-end timepiece, this metal formed an AK-47. Each watch has the serial number of the weapon destroyed to create it displayed across the side. And each purchase funds the destruction of an additional thousand assault rifles in Africa.

This watch was dreamed up by social entrepreneur Peter Thum, the founder of Ethos Water and a TED attendee. Thum calls the AK-47 “the most infamous and destructive gun in the world” and through the company Fonderie 47, he transforms these weapons into jewelry — rings, cuffs, earrings, necklaces and more. The watch is the company’s pièce de résistance.

The idea for Fonderie 47 was born out of a chance meeting at TED2009, when Thum struck up a conversation with fellow entrepreneur John Zapolski. “We met in between sessions in the lobby,” Thum remembers. “Like a lot of people at TED, you meet in the hallways — and then they become people that you know and interact with for the rest of your life.”

As the two talked, they discovered that they had both recently traveled to Tanzania. “I don’t remember how we got to this topic, but the subject of security and guns came up,” says Thum. “We were talking about the AK-47, and we both said, ‘We should talk about this more.’”

The AK-47 is a gun designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov for the Soviet military in 1947. While it has become one of the most widely used shoulder weapons in the world, in Africa it is especially prevalent. Because of its low cost, ease of use and long-term durability, the AK-47 has become the gun of choice for rebels, militia members and terrorists in Africa. (An interesting watch: the PBS Frontline special, “On the trail of an AK-47.”) In April, Al-Shabaab gunmen used AK-47s in a horrifying attack on a university in Kenya that left 148 people dead. The curve of the AK-47’s magazine has become eerily iconic in images from conflict regions.

A stockpile of weapons. Photo: Moises Saman

A stockpile of AK-47s and other assault rifles. Thum makes these weapons the raw material for something beautiful. Photo: Moises Saman

Both Thum and Zapolski were concerned about the proliferation of assault rifles in Africa and wanted to come up with an idea to take AK-47s specifically out of circulation. They wondered: could they transform these weapons into something benign — even something beautiful?

“John was thinking about an art installation. I said, ‘I think we should try to make it into something that would live in the world, something that would be a part of people’s lives and that would get talked about,’” says Thum. “The idea evolved from there … We focused on watches because they are also mechanical — but at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of things that human beings make … The AK-47 is not a refined thing. Swiss watchmaking, at its highest levels, is probably one of the most refined things that human beings do. So it seemed compelling to take this object that was about death and destruction and make it into something that was also a machine, but one of beauty.”

Creating this watch ended up being a much bigger challenge than Thum and Zapolski, who left the company in 2012, originally imagined.

“It might have taken us longer to finish the first watch than it took Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel,” says Thum. (History buffs will note that is almost true, though not quite.)

The first issue: figuring out how to get AK-47s in an ethical way. The solution came in 2011, when Thum got permission to transform AK-47s confiscated in Virunga National Park in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This stunning park is in the North Kivu province, a seat of conflict since 1998.

Peter Thum examines TK. Photo: Moises Saman

Peter Thum examines a cache of confiscated weaponry. Photo: Moises Saman

The next hurdle: getting the AK-47s to the United States, which has strict laws about the import of weapons. “We made a lot of different attempts and tried a lot of different angles, all of them legal,” says Thum. The solution: destroying the weapons locally and then transporting them. “We brought them back in our luggage,” recalls Thum. “We brought them across the border of the Congo and Rwanda, and then checked our bags at the airport in Kigali and flew back to New York.”

And yet, this method led to another challenge — finding people who would work with the material. “The steel looked like junk,” says Thum. “People who make luxury jewelry and watches are accustomed to working with materials that are easier to work with — precious metals like 18-karat gold and 24-karat gold that are soft and have low melting temperatures, With steel, the melting temperature is much higher. Their equipment isn’t really built to work with it.”

Thum found an initial collaborator in a friend of a friend, a blacksmith who proposed building a forge to heat the steel to a high temperature. He then pounded the metal using an anvil and hammer into molds, in order to create usable parts. Because the effects of the economic recession were still being felt at the time, Thum says he actually had an easy time finding factories willing to take the project on.

Thum landed on the name Fonderie 47 — “fonderie,” because it’s French for “foundry,” and “47” for “AK-47.” In 2011, he began talking to investors — including many from the TED community — and offering the first products.

The brand has grown steadily ever since. James de Givenchy created a collection for Fonderie 47, and the watch was designed by Adrian Glessing and produced by Swiss watchmaker David Candaux. Every purchase funds the destruction of more AK-47s.

“As of the end of last year, we destroyed a little over 45,000 assault rifles in [the Congo and Burundi],” says Thum.

Photo: Mines Advisory Group

Before becoming jewelry, these weapons are destroyed locally. Fonderie 47 works with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mines Advisory Group to destroy weapons. Photo: Mines Advisory Group

The real value here is that these guns are unlikely to be replaced. “There’s a significant difference in the economic value of the AK-47 in Africa versus the global trading price,” says Thum. “The upper end of the price range for an AK-47 type weapon is $534 and the lower end of the range is $349. So if you look at the value of 45,000 AK-47s that are legacy weapons, it would cost between $15 and $24 million to replace them.”

In the summer of 2012, Thum and his wife, actress Cara Buono, had the idea to take things a step further and create products made out of weapons secured in the United States. They founded a new brand, Liberty United, to make pendants, charms and rings.

“The idea was very similar,” say Thum. “We partnered with American cities and police departments to give us guns from buyback [programs] or evidence that had been released from crimes. We take guns and bullets as material and transform it.”

So far, Liberty United is working with police departments in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Syracuse, New York; Cook County, Illinois; and Newburgh, New York. The price of these pieces tends to be lower, and the design is overseen more tightly by the company, as fabrication is done in New York and Rhode Island.

Photo: Courtesy of Liberty United

Liberty United is a different spin on the same idea—this line of jewelry is crafted from the metal of weapons collected by buyback programs in the United States. Photo: Courtesy of Liberty United

Both companies physically transform weapons. But beyond that, both also have at the core of their business model funding further work to defuse violence. Fonderie 47 gives financial support to Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a Nobel Peace Prize laureate that secures and destroys weapons in Angola, Cambodia, the Congo, Libya and Iraq. And Liberty United funds a variety of youth education programs in cities, including the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network’s Youth Violence Reduction Partnership and the Syracuse Model Neighborhood Facility’s Journey 2 Manhood Program.

This makes sense, as Thum is one of the pioneers of the social entrepreneurship movement. “When I first came up with the idea for Ethos Water in 2001, there was almost no information about companies like this,” says Thum, noting that Ben & Jerry’s, Newman’s Own and The Body Shop were virtually the only companies out there with a social good component at the time. “We’ve gone from very few of these companies as examples to almost every college and business school having courses taught on social entrepreneurship.”

The fact that people are learning about social entrepreneurship has the domino effect: it gets people interested in starting these businesses, creates more demand on a consumer level, and pushes large companies to enter the arena too.

Ethos Water got Americans to think about the global water crisis in a way many hadn’t before, says Thum. “It was a tool that used consumerism to flip a switch in people’s minds about the importance of the issue by getting them involved at a very light-touch level,” he says. (Watch his talk on social entrepreneurship from TEDxSMU below.) “The idea for Fonderie 47 is similar. The gun issue in Africa is one that hasn’t received the same kind of attention in the United States as other issues. I think in large part because it’s complicated and not easy to solve.”

He continues, “The good thing about the growth of this field of people becoming social entrepreneurs — whether they are doing so in a pure non-profit environment, a pure for-profit approach, a hybrid business, or by trying to alter large organizations — is that each idea can be viewed as an experiment.”

He’s excited to see what happens with Fonderie 47 and Liberty United. “The more experiments you run, the more people you have trying, the more likely it is that one of those people will come up with a recipe that makes a change.”

Avoiding the hunger season: How a TED Fellow is working to save African cassava from whiteflies


Laura Boykin, right, and fellow researcher Donald Kachigamba, at left, inspect African whiteflies feeding on cassava leaves at a farm near Namulonge, Uganda. While scientists once assumed there was only one species of whitefly worldwide, Boykin’s work has identified at least 34. Photo: Courtesy of Laura Boykin

For decades, the farmers of East Africa have battled the African whitefly, a tiny insect that infests the cassava crop. Cassava, also called manioc, arrowroot or tapioca, is an important food all over the world — more than half a billion people (yes, billion with a b) rely on cassava for their daily meals. For East African farmers, a whitefly infestation can completely destroy the year’s crop, and with it the food security for their families.

Yet surprisingly little is known about the whitefly itself. It’s only in the past few years, in fact, that scientists even knew whether there was more than one species — and now, it turns out, there are at least 34. Who’s counting? Computational biologist Laura Boykin, who studies the Bemisia tabaci whiteflies that plague East Africa, using genomics, supercomputing and evolutionary history. With the data she’s gathering, now publicly available via WhiteFlyBase , she hopes to help researchers breed new strains of cassava that resist the whitefly.

We asked Boykin to tell us more about her work, how she discovered this problem … and how she realized she had the right skills to help solve it.

Tell us about the whitefly and cassava. Why is this problem crucial to solve?

700 million people around the world depend on cassava for their daily calories. Without it, for many families, there’s no food and there’s no income. To understand the importance of cassava in a farmer’s life, read The Last Hunger Season, by Roger Thurow. Depending on the country, farmers typically have a one-acre plot, which might include beans and other crops. In Kenya, for example, they’ll grow maize and sweet potatoes, and cassava is a backup. It’s planted and takes a while to grow, so when all the other crops are gone, the family thinks, “Okay, the cassava will get us through the hunger season.” But if it’s rotten due to whitefly, there’s absolutely no food.

Whiteflies transmit two viruses that kill cassava: cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease. In tandem, these cause 100 percent loss of the crop. It’s a massive problem, especially in East Africa. I’m one of 15 principal investigators working on a new project whose mission is to give farmers a cassava plant that’s resistant to the viruses and the whiteflies. How do we get there? Whiteflies are a global problem, creating havoc on every continent. So first, it’s identifying what whiteflies and viruses are present in East Africa.

African cassava whiteflies(Bemisia tabaci) feed on underside of cassava leaves near Namulonge, Uganda. The viruses whiteflies transmit destroy cassava plants and render their roots inedible. Photo: Laura Boykin

The African cassava whitefly feeds on the underside of cassava leaves. The viruses that these whiteflies transmit destroy cassava plants and render their roots inedible. Photo: Courtesy of Laura Boykin

Where did the problem originate?

Cassava originates from South America, and was taken to Africa in the 1700s. But these viruses aren’t found in South America. The hypothesis is that they’d been lying dormant in African native vegetation. We think that the whiteflies feed on native shrubs, then go feed on cassava, transmitting the virus from the shrubs to the cassava plants.

Fortunately, the viruses haven’t yet spread to West Africa, the biggest cassava-producing place in the world. Right now, the virus is concentrated in a pocket of East Africa: Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The hope is that we can control the whiteflies enough so that they don’t spread.

When did whitefly infestation start becoming a noticeable problem?

In the 1990s, researchers were attempting to control cassava mosaic disease that was breaking out in East Africa. They thought they had a control for it via traditional breeding. Then the cassava brown streak virus emerged; it turned out that whiteflies loved the new varieties that the researchers rolled out to control the first virus. In essence, the researchers had been trying to breed for virus resistance without taking into account that there might be different species of whiteflies.

We’ve done modeling based on genetic data indicating that Africa is the origin of the species, so it makes sense there will be the most diversity there. With that information, we are working to ensure that the people who are doing the plant breeding get the resistance right for all the whitefly species that the plant might encounter.

How did scientists not know that there was more than one species of whitefly?

This is the interesting part. The idea that there was only one species of whitefly worldwide was held for so long and became so ingrained that no one seems to care what the data says now. Meanwhile, the funding to do work on whiteflies — especially in sub-Saharan Africa — has been so scarce that no one was able to even look to see what’s there. It’s only been in the last seven years or so that people have started to do sampling of the region. The more we sample, the more we realize there are tons more species of whitefly in Africa than we ever thought.

One of the difficult things about identifying new species is that scientists are under pressure to not change their names, because then all the names within the governmental regulations have to be changed. There’s also pressure from chemical companies, who market their products for specific species. If we say there are 34 species — and not one — they have to test their products on all 34. We are creating more work for people, and there’s enormous resistance. But the science is the science. We need our solutions customized to the right enemy. It’s a non-negotiable point.

By the way, the whitefly is highly regulated around the world. Countries have massive regulations on whitefly moving across borders. It can transmit viruses to tomatoes, sweet potatoes and ornamental plants. They are dreaded worldwide.

Cassava root infested by cassava brown streak virus. Healthy cassava root is a solid, creamy white. Photo: Laura Boykin

Cassava root infested with cassava brown streak virus, transmitted by the whitefly. A healthy cassava root has a center that is a solid, creamy white. Photo: Courtesy of Laura Boykin

Take us through your day. What do you do with whiteflies?

I have whiteflies in the lab, and we extract the DNA or the RNA. It sounds simple, but it’s probably three days’ worth of work. The majority of my time is then spent trying to deal with the data we generate from this material. We have these really cool sequencing machines, amazing HiSeq, MiSeq genomic-generating machines, in which we put the samples to generate their genome. The machine spits out a ton of data, and then we have the task of trying to make sense out of billions of base pairs — billions of As, Ts, Gs and Cs at a time. I work with a supercomputer called Magnus, which is the southern hemisphere’s fastest supercomputer. Who doesn’t love that?

I should note that the majority of the research is based in sub-Saharan Africa. We have partners at the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute in Tanzania, at the Department of Agricultural Research & Technical Services in Malawi, and at the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Uganda. Where I work at the University of Western Australia, we’re just contracted to do the things with equipment that’s not available in the region — basically, crunching numbers. A big part of what we do is also strengthening the skills of young African scientists. We have Ph.D.s who come for access to the genomic machines and the supercomputer. We’re in the genomic revolution. We have more genomic data than we know what to do with. So part of my goal is to train students on the skills to analyze all this data.

How did you become drawn to this subject — whitefly, cassava, small farmers, Africa?

I’m trained as a plant taxonomist, which is why I’m so into getting the species named correctly. But I realized at some point that I probably wouldn’t get a job doing that. Realistically, how many plant taxonomists actually have jobs at universities? Not many. So I thought if I learned how to analyze DNA data rather than focusing on the organism, I’d have a skill set I could apply to any problem.

I worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory for about four years. That was my first exposure to a supercomputer. I analyzed influenza and hepatitis C sequence data, to find clues to give the CDC about vaccines — on what strains could potentially be the next outbreak in the population. Those sorts of skills are invaluable for work with insects, because they invade the ecosystem like viruses invade our bodies.

I didn’t start working on invasive insects until a postdoc in Florida at the USDA. There, the whitefly problem lies with ornamental plant and tomato growers. Europe put an embargo on Florida flowers due to whitefly, and that was a big deal. So it wasn’t that I was particularly interested in insects. I just decided to put my skills to this problem, because in my opinion, fighting whiteflies is as important as vaccine selection. Farmers are struggling; let’s use what resources we have to get help.

A happy smallholder farmer in Uganda with healthy cassava. The white root indicates there is no cassava brown streak virus, which renders the root inedible. Photo: Laura Boykin

A farmer in Uganda shows what a healthy cassava looks like. The majority of small farmers in East Africa affected by cassava devastation are women. Photo: Courtesy of Laura Boykin

Why Africa?

I always took a global approach to figuring out how many whitefly species there were. I became interested in sub-Saharan Africa because, scientifically, it sits at the base of that [evolutionary] tree. The fact that they’ve been around for millions of years fascinated me.

In 2012, I attended an Agricultural Research Connections workshop hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Kenya. During that trip, we visited a smallholder farm and I saw the devastation caused by whiteflies. At that moment, I was sold that this is what I needed to be doing. That was it. The situation was unacceptable, and my skills could be applied to the problem. I hadn’t considered before that I could pass them on to the next generation of scientists. I decided the best use of my time on Earth was to make a difference here.

So, when we were doing this big negotiation for our current funding, and it went through several rounds — if it didn’t come through, I was going to go home and live with my mother on the west side of Phoenix, Arizona. This work hits the absolute core of who I am.

Why does this work resonate so deeply with you?

My mom was a single mom — she had two kids and struggled to make ends meet. I thought to myself, these women — because the majority of these farmers are women — sacrifice everything for their kids. They are just like my mom. She sold hot dogs at Phoenix Suns basketball games to put me through college after her day job teaching school. In Africa, it’s like that, times a million. Women are the backbone of society.

These are the poorest people on the planet — how in the world can we not help? Why would I turn away from this? I wish that people who might not think they could help would consider the problem for just a split second. There are really smart people out there, and if everybody just gave a little bit of brain space, we could figure it out a lot quicker.

The collaborators on our project work around the world. Here we are visiting the cassava fields at the National Crops Resources Research Institute, Namulonge, Uganda. From left to right: Dr Peter Sseruwagi, Dr Donald Kachigamba, Dr Titus Alicai, Dr Chris Omongo, Dr Laura Boykin, Professor John Colvin, Dr Sarina MacFayden. Photo courtesy of Laura Boykin

The collaborators on this project hail from around the world. From left to right: Peter Sseruwagi, Donald Kachigamba, Titus Alicai, Chris Omongo, Laura Boykin, John Colvin, Sarina Macfadyen. Photo: Courtesy of Laura Boykin

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were some sort of mechanism to get everybody who complained of being bored or underutilized at their job to drop everything and help with problems like this?

Exactly. I do think people want to work on real-world problems, if given the chance. For example, five computing students at UWA helped us make a database with all of our genetic information. They’re not biologists or agriculturalists, but when we made the opportunity available online, they stepped up, in spite of my colleagues’ skepticism that non-biologists would volunteer. They developed WhiteFlyBase, because they want their computational work to mean something. They had the skills, there was a problem, they contributed — done. The best news is they are now finalists for the Western Australian technology awards for their work.

Another example: recently, in Uganda, we interviewed Ph.D. students for a project. One application stood out to me — a mathematical modeler. I said to the team: “You guys, we need him.” They said, “He didn’t rank. He hasn’t got the agricultural skills.” But he turned out to be amazing, and he’s coming to the University of Western Australia to work with us. Having a diverse team is key to solving problems.

At the end of the day, the most magical part of this project are the people I have met in East Africa. The smallholder farmers, my friends and colleagues in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Malawi make me want to keep doing science. For example, one of my collaborators, Dr. Joseph Ndunguru — who has singlehandedly has brought biotechnology to sub-Saharan Africa — is one of my idols in science. He’s so in love with trying to find solutions for smallholder farmers, it’s contagious.

There’s this drive, this work ethic. Nothing is too hard, because the problem is so big. There’s no complaining about trying to get papers into Nature or Science, or “impact factor.” My colleagues have got farmers coming to them who have nothing to eat — so it’s pretty straightforward. That’s what I call “impact”: science applied to people’s lives. All my days are now inspired by these farmers, and I will work as hard as I can.

Joseph Ndunguru, head of the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute in Tanzania holds a “gene gun” used to transform cassava. Boykin refers to him as "my idol." Photo: Courtesy of Laura Boykin

Joseph Ndunguru, head of the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute in Tanzania, holds a “gene gun” that can be used to inject cassava with resistant genes. Photo: Courtesy of Laura Boykin

The Next Einstein Forum begins

The Next Einstein Forum is bringing together scientists working across the globe with those working in Africa. Each of these 15 young scientists was named a "gamechanger" at the conference — and might just be the next Einstein. Photo: Courtesy of NEF

The Next Einstein Forum is bringing together scientists working across the globe with those working in Africa. Each of these 15 young scientists was named a “gamechanger” at the conference. Could one of them be the next Einstein? Photo: Courtesy of NEF

Why did Albert Einstein have such a unique scientific mind? Because he came from a disadvantaged background, says TED Prize winner Neil Turok.

“When new cultures enter science, especially disadvantaged cultures, transformation can happen,” he said today in his opening remarks at the Next Einstein Forum Global Gathering 2016. “I believe that the entrance of young Africans into science will transform science for the better.”

“Can you imagine a thinker who combines the brilliance of Einstein and the compassion of Mandela?”

The Next Einstein Forum is being held March 8-10, 2016, in Dakar, Senegal. It is the first global science forum taking place on African soil, and it’s bringing together 700 scientists, mathematicians and technologists from 80 countries — nearly half of them women and under the age of 42. The forum is the latest development toward Turok’s 2008 TED Prize wish: that we celebrate an African Einstein in our lifetimes.

Turok is the founder of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), which offers a creative STEM education to African students and aims to improve the statistic that less that 1% of global research is done in Africa. AIMS has opened centers in Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania — and in February 2016, Turok signed a partnership agreement with the government of Rwanda to open a sixth center there.

The Next Einstein Forum is key for pushing the work of AIMS forward, because it brings together students from AIMS centers with scientists working all around the globe. Panelists and hosts at the forum include the presidents of Senegal and Rwanda, the ministers of higher education from Morocco and Cameroon, and the ministers of science and technology from Nigeria and Ethiopia, as well as the head of the US National Science Foundation, the editor-in-chief of the journal Nature and working scientists like Nobel Prize winner Aaron Ciechanover.

Watch the Next Einstein Forum live. And sign the forum’s campaign to collect a million signatures, calling on African governments, leaders, entrepreneurs and students to invest in STEM education and research.

Video: Three views of tech innovation in Africa


When you watch a video on TED.com, we’re proud of the advertisement you see afterward — it’s not your usual blaring video ad. We ask all of TED.com’s sponsors to make their post-roll video as thoughtful and idea-driven as the TED Talk it’s helping to support. In fact, we’ll sometimes work with the sponsor to create original video just for us. And we helped make three new videos that are running now on the site — but only seen by our audiences in Africa — that we wanted to make sure the whole world could see too.

These three fascinating videos from TED and IBM show how technology is helping solve problems in three case studies across Africa, filmed on location in Nairobi, Kenya; Cape Town, South Africa; and Lagos, Nigeria. They showcase three innovative projects that use IBM and Watson technology for insight and everyday problem-solving in local conditions.

Along the way, this ended up being the most ambitious content project the TED Partnerships content studio has ever produced. The biggest challenge? Something as old-fashioned and stubborn as the time of day.

While navigating the diplomatic labyrinth of visas and permits in multiple countries wasn’t easy, managing a fluid creative process with a team that spanned 12 time zones proved even more daunting.  Over the course of six months, the creative team met literally morning, noon, and night … at the same time. Weekly telecom gatherings included the client in Dubai, the ad agency in Singapore, the filmmaker in Melbourne, Australia, the films’ subjects across Africa, and creative staff at TED in New York.

Integral to the storytelling for each film was close coordination and input from the people leading these efforts. In Lagos, Nigeria, Professor Benjamin Aribisala selected two of his most outstanding students who collaborated with the creative crew to map out the best way to tell the story of the IBM Africa Skills initiative at Lagos State University. The film captures the program on screen, in the computer lab, and even in the homes of the students as they map out their futures in Nigeria’s booming technology sector.

And the commitment of the film subjects was intense — so intense that Auriel Cupido, our Cape Town call center agent and Watson co-worker, sacrificed her chance to watch a make-or-break South Africa World Cup rugby game in order to do the final shoot overlooking Table Mountain. (The game did play on speaker out the window of the transport van during the shoot. South Africa lost to New Zealand.)  

After adapting for some very early mornings and late evenings, we think the series brings a unique and personal perspective to some innovative work.  The subjects of the films include:

  • And a story of how the next generation of innovators are test-driving some powerful new platforms; professors and students from Lagos State University and Nairobi’s United States International University tell the story

The films were translated into French, Arabic and Portuguese and are now appearing as post-roll video on ted.com throughout Africa.  And with the project finally under wraps, the creative team is enjoying a few extra hours sleep.

World Lion Day: A visit to big-cat filmmakers Beverly & Dereck Joubert

Wildlife filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert speak at the pioneering TEDWomen 2010.

Wildlife filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert spoke at TEDWomen 2010 about their commitment to saving Africa’s big cats from extinction. The biggest factor that threatens these majestic animals: trophy hunters.

Dereck and Beverly Joubert have been living in the bush in Botswana, making wildlife and conservation films together, for more than 30 years. Their films have shaped an intimate and profound narrative about the interconnected relationship among people, animals and the land, adding layers of understanding based on years of close and constant observation of animal behavior. (Their latest film, The Soul of the Elephant, was just nominated for an Emmy.)

This summer, TEDWomen host Pat Mitchell visited the Jouberts in one of the Great Plains safari camps and preserves they founded: Great Plains Conservation, launched a few years ago in Botswana and Kenya. Mitchell sends this timely report — Wednesday, August 10, it turns out, is World Lion Day.

Out on a game drive, from left: Dereck Joubert, TEDWomen host Pat Mitchell, Mitchell's husband Scott Seydel, and Beverly Joubert.

Out on a game drive at Great Plains Conservation in Botswana: From left, filmmaker Dereck Joubert, TEDWomen host Pat Mitchell, Mitchell’s husband Scott Seydel, and filmmaker Beverly Joubert.

On this visit, we talked about how much has happened since their 2010 TEDWomen talk about their Big Cats Initiative. I well remember how they stunned the TEDWomen audience, describing the shocking decline in big cat populations in Africa. They told us that the number of lions had gone from about 450,000 when they were growing up to less than 45,000 in 2010 – a literal decimation – with similar declines in cheetah and leopard populations. Sadly, they told me now, the number has declined even further since then, and is approaching 20,000.

The Jouberts told me they still receive hundreds of messages a week about their TED Talk. This talk, along with their films about the lions of Duba Plains and the leopards they’ve tracked over many years, have raised public awareness about the threats to the big cats: habitat encroachment; community pressure, where conflicts arise between animals and people; and, of course, the biggest single factor, hunting. The Jouberts helped lead the fight to ban hunting in Botswana, and as a result the animal population, including big cats, is increasing here.

But in many other countries in Africa – where big cats are an important attraction in the safari experiences that bring more than $27 billion a year into local economies – at least five lions are lost per day. Working with the National Geographic Society on the Big Cats Initiative, the Jouberts are committed to changing that.

Meanwhile, they told me, they have a new cat film in production for Nat Geo Wild — not about big cats this time, but the smaller ones, the ones we call “domesticated.” The film will explore behavioral links between the cats we pet and love in our homes and the cats we admire from a safe distance.

TEDWomen host Pat Mitchell shares this epic selfie along with a lion spotted at Great Plains.

TEDWomen host Pat Mitchell shares this epic selfie with a lion spotted at Great Plains.

At this year’s TEDWomen conference in October, I’ll be sharing updates, ideas and perspectives from the front lines of conservation, in Africa and in many other places. These battles to sustain our natural environments are being fought by champions like the Jouberts, who are seeking a better balance between us and the world we inhabit.

Main theater passes are still available for TEDWomen 2016, to be held in San Francisco October 26-28. Find out more about TEDWomen 2016: It’s About Time >>

Just announced: TEDGlobal 2017 heads back to Africa



Ten years on, TEDGlobal returns to Africa, and applications are open now to attend. TEDGlobal 2017: Builders. Truth-tellers. Catalysts. happens August 27–30, 2017, in Arusha, Tanzania.

Our conference in Arusha ten years ago felt like history in the making. The ideas and connections forged then have had untold impact. As curator Emeka Okafor says: “At the end of TEDGlobal 2007, we talked about ‘Planting Seeds.’ Ten years later, we will be mapping and imagining new directions. TEDGlobal 2017 will showcase the brave and the bold, the makers and creators, pioneers and builders, the advocates and activists.”

We want to invite anyone passionate about the future of Africa, and the future of the world, to come and be part of something special.

“Our speakers will provoke and confound, illuminate and clarify,” Okafor promises. “Join us in examining this emerging tapestry of activity across Africa.”

TEDGlobal 2017 takes place August 27–30, 2017, at the Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge in Arusha, Tanzania. We’re planning pre- and post-conference events as well, including tours of local tech clusters and enterprises, as well as excursions in the legendary Northern Circuit, a collection of parks and lands that encircle Arusha. Learn more and apply to attend >>

PLUS: On Tuesday, Oct 4, we’ll open applications to become a TEDGlobal 2017 Fellow, to attend the conference and join a group of 400 emerging leaders in fields from art and science to business and social justice. Watch this blog for details on how to apply.

Sneak preview lineup unveiled for Africa’s next TED Conference


On August 27, an extraordinary group of people will gather in Arusha, Tanzania, for TEDGlobal 2017, a four-day TED Conference for “those with a genuine interest in the betterment of the continent,” says curator Emeka Okafor.

As Okafor puts it: “Africa has an opportunity to reframe the future of work, cultural production, entrepreneurship, agribusiness. We are witnessing the emergence of new educational and civic models. But there is, on the flip side, a set of looming challenges that include the youth bulge and under-/unemployment, a food crisis, a risky dependency on commodities, slow industrializations, fledgling and fragile political systems. There is a need for a greater sense of urgency.”

He hopes the speakers at TEDGlobal will catalyze discussion around “the need to recognize and amplify solutions from within the Africa and the global diaspora.”

Who are these TED speakers? A group of people with “fresh, unique perspectives in their initiatives, pronouncements and work,” Okafor says. “Doers as well as thinkers — and contrarians in some cases.” The curation team, which includes TED head curator Chris Anderson, went looking for speakers who take “a hands-on approach to solution implementation, with global-level thinking.”

Here’s the first sneak preview — a shortlist of speakers who, taken together, give a sense of the breadth and topics to expect, from tech to the arts to committed activism and leadership. Look for the long list of 35–40 speakers in upcoming weeks.

The TEDGlobal 2017 conference happens August 27–30, 2017, in Arusha, Tanzania. Apply to attend >>

Kamau Gachigi, Maker

“In five to ten years, Kenya will truly have a national innovation system, i.e. a system that by its design audits its population for talented makers and engineers and ensures that their skills become a boon to the economy and society.” — Kamau Gachigi on Engineering for Change

Dr. Kamau Gachigi is the executive director of Gearbox, Kenya’s first open makerspace for rapid prototyping, based in Nairobi. Before establishing Gearbox, Gachigi headed the University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park, where he founded a Fab Lab full of manufacturing and prototyping tools in 2009, then built another one at the Riruta Satellite in an impoverished neighborhood in the city. At Gearbox, he empowers Kenya’s next generation of creators to build their visions. @kamaufablab

Mohammed Dewji, Business leader

“My vision is to facilitate the development of a poverty-free Tanzania. A future where the opportunities for Tanzanians are limitless.” — Mohammed Dewji

Mohammed Dewji is a Tanzanian businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and former politician. He serves as the President and CEO of MeTL Group, a Tanzanian conglomerate operating in 11 African countries. The Group operates in areas as diverse as trading, agriculture, manufacturing, energy and petroleum, financial services, mobile telephony, infrastructure and real estate, transport, logistics and distribution. He served as Member of Parliament for Singida-Urban from 2005 until his retirement in 2015. Dewji is also the Founder and Trustee of the Mo Dewji Foundation, focused on health, education and community development across Tanzania. @moodewji

Meron Estefanos, Refugee activist

“Q: What’s a project you would like to move forward at TEDGlobal?
A: Bringing change to Eritrea.” —Meron Estefanos

Meron Estefanos is an Eritrean human rights activist, and the host and presenter of Radio Erena’s weekly program “Voices of Eritrean Refugees,” aired from Paris. Estefanos is executive director of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights (EIRR), advocating for the rights of Eritrean refugees, victims of trafficking, and victims of torture. Ms Estefanos has been key in identifying victims throughout the world who have been blackmailed to pay ransom for kidnapped family members, and was a key witness in the first trial in Europe to target such blackmailers. She is co-author of Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death and The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond, and was featured in the film Sound of Torture. She was nominated for the 2014 Raoul Wallenberg Award for her work on human rights and victims of trafficking. @meronina

Touria El Glaoui, Art fair founder

“I’m looking forward to discussing the roles we play as leaders and tributaries in redressing disparities within arts ecosystems. The art fair is one model which has had a direct effect on the ways in which audiences engage with art, and its global outlook has contributed to a highly mobile and dynamic means of interaction.” — Touria El Glaoui

Touria El Glaoui is the founding director of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which takes place in London and New York every year and, in 2018, launches in Marrakech. The fair highlights work from artists and galleries across Africa and the diaspora, bringing visibility in global art markets to vital upcoming visions. El Glaoui began her career in the banking industry before founding 1:54 in 2013. Parallel to her career, Touria has organised and co-curated exhibitions of her father’s work, the Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui, in London and Morocco. @154artfair

Gus Casely-Hayford, Historian

“Technological, demographic, economic and environmental change are recasting the world profoundly and rapidly. The sentiment that we are traveling through unprecedented times has left many feeling deeply unsettled, but there may well be lessons to learn from history — particularly African history — lessons that show how brilliant leadership and strategic intervention have galvanised and united peoples around inspirational ideas.” — Gus Casely-Hayford

Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford is a curator and cultural historian who writes, lectures and broadcasts widely on African culture. He has presented two series of The Lost Kingdoms of Africa for the BBC and has lectured widely on African art and culture, advising national and international bodies on heritage and culture. He is currently developing a National Portrait Gallery exhibition that will tell the story of abolition of slavery through 18th- and 19th-century portraits — an opportunity to bring many of the most important paintings of black figures together in Britain for the first time.

Oshiorenoya Agabi, Computational neuroscientist

“Koniku eventually aims to build a device that is capable of thinking in the biological sense, like a human being. We think we can do this in the next two to five years.” — Oshiorenoya Agabi on IndieBio.co

With his startup Koniku, Oshiorenoya Agabi is working to integrate biological neurons and silicon computer chips, to build computers that can think like humans can. Faster, cleverer computer chips are key to solving the next big batch of computing problems, like particle detection or sophisticated climate modeling — and to get there, we need to move beyond the limitations of silicon, Agabi believes. Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Agabi is now based in the SF Bay Area, where he and his lab mates are working on the puzzle of connecting silicon to biological systems.

Natsai Audrey Chieza, Design researcher

Photo: Natsai Audrey Chieza

Natsai Audrey Chieza is a design researcher whose fascinating work crosses boundaries between technology, biology, design and cultural studies. She is founder and creative director of Faber Futures, a creative R&D studio that conceptualises, prototypes and evaluates the resilience of biomaterials emerging through the convergence of bio-fabrication, digital fabrication and traditional craft processes. As Resident Designer at the Department of Biochemical Engineering, University College London, she established a design-led microbiology protocol that replaces synthetic pigments with natural dyes excreted by bacteria — producing silk scarves dyed brilliant blues, reds and pinks. The process demands a rethink of the entire system of fashion and textile production — and is also a way to examine issues like resource scarcity, provenance and cultural specificity. @natsaiaudrey

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