Like much of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Eastern and Southern Africa region has seen significant economic growth in recent years, largely relying on agriculture and extractives. However, it hasn’t been able to keep up with the skilled labor demanded by the region’s required economic transformation for further growth. Surveys reveal that firms in the region now face acute challenges in developing research and development (R&D) capacity and filling technical and managerial positions – not just due to inadequate production of college graduates that have been rising over the years, but also due to low quality and relevance of current education and training at the tertiary level.
The 85 richest individuals in the world own as much as 3.5 billion of the poorest people, according to Oxfam. It's a staggering statistic, but it has friends.
The 2014 Global Wealth Databook by Credit Suisse reports the bottom 50% of the world's population own less than 1% of its wealth, the richest 10% hold 87%, and the top 1% alone possess 48.2%.
The International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group also stated in the Global Monitoring Report that while the number of people living in extreme poverty is decreasing, the gap between the haves and the have nots is increasing. Today, the world's richest 10% earn 9.5 times more than the poorest 10% of the world. Twenty-five years ago, they earned 7 times more than their less fortunate peers.
Taking a closer look at East Africa, Ben Taylor (mtega), an Open Development Consultant with Twaweza, finds that the richest 1% in East Africa own as much wealth as the poorest 91%. The six wealthiest individuals in the region own as much as 50% of the region’s population or 66 million people.
In 1884, the General Act of Berlin Conference established borders of African colonies. Many of these “exogenous” borders brought about by Scramble of Africa could be still found on modern maps, now separating sovereign states. About one third of all countries of Sub-Saharan Africa – much larger portion compared to other parts of the world – are landlocked.
Since trade with other countries is important for economic development, and since transportation by sea is much cheaper than any other type of transportation, the evolutionary process of “endogenous” formation of the nation states in other regions left few countries without access to sea. It was not impossible, but certainly more difficult, to develop as a nation without such.
I recently returned from travel to India and East Africa where I attended a round table on social enterprise with the Government of India and met impact investors focused on Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda. After listening carefully to entrepreneurs, investors, and government officials, I’m compelled to say something entirely inconsistent with conventional wisdom in the world of impact investing: there is not enough capital to support the pipeline of enterprises focused on solving our most vexing social problems. By social problems, I mean the provision of basic goods and services to the bottom of the economic pyramid where governments and markets often fail.
Take access to energy for example or access to sanitation in much of Africa and South Asia. More than 1.3 billion people on the globe still lack access to electricity and over 2.5 billion lack basic sanitation. Every 20 seconds a child dies because of poor sanitation.
These are public goods and unambiguously the responsibility of public actors. But in reality, governments often don’t have the resources, the will, or the capacity to provide these basic services to many of their citizens. And purely commercial enterprises lack incentives to provide services where financial upside is limited and the ability of poor people to pay is constrained. But this is precisely where inclusive (or socially driven) businesses and social entrepreneurs, for profit and not-for-profit, are innovating and developing new business models to solve our most pressing social challenges.
Having traveled to both East Africa and India over the past several weeks, I’ve been reflecting on what ‘innovation’ means in different contexts. It’s easy to get caught in a technology-centric worldview in places like Bangalore and even Nairobi these days. But when I get past the superficial stories and dig a bit deeper, I realize that impactful innovation is less about shiny tools and technology and more about ‘listening to users’ and transforming social processes to solve problems that matter to people.
My walk through a Delhi slum comes immediately to mind. While there I visited Operation Asha, a 2011 India Development Marketplace winner that is working to arrest the spread of tuberculosis (TB). India is one of the only countries in the world where the rate of infection is growing despite the falling incidence of the disease globally. The previous day, I sat with colleagues from Microsoft Research in Bangalore who explained the simple but critical advances they had made in writing open-source software to verify the identity of patients visiting clinics, aggregating data on missed doses, and using text messages to increase compliance.
I am standing in a camp near Dollo Ado, in southern Ethiopia near the border with Somalia. The camp is an open site on hard rocky land: the only vegetation is grey, thorny scrub. An endless wind is swirling around me, picking up the light soil under foot and coating everyone and everything with a thin film of orange. Dust devils spin lazily in the relentless hot sun, making it hard to see the plastic sheeting that is the only covering for the ‘huts’ in which 10,000 people are living. Welcome to Haloweyn, the newest refugee camp for the drought-triggered exodus from Somalia. Today is Eid-ul-Fitr, but nobody is celebrating here.
We have stopped to talk to people and understand the challenges they face, but it is hard work. Many of them have scarves wrapped around their faces to protect themselves from the wind, very few of us speak any Somali, and when we do communicate they look uncertain and dazed, as well they may. This camp is only three weeks old—less than a month ago all these people were wandering through this extraordinarily arid landscape, trying to pick their way past the lines of conflict, almost all malnourished and often sick too. That those we meet seemed to have recovered their physical health already is fairly miraculous. Their reluctance to relive their experiences seems wholly understandable.
As global powers debate ways to solve economic challenges, a more menacing fight is happening in East Africa, where the worst drought in decades has caused widespread hunger, deaths, and the loss of subsistence crops and livestock.
At the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2010 in Santiago last week, I was able to gather a wealth of information and ideas regarding the use of ICT for accountability. In a session on this topic I had the chance to discuss with people who actually implement citizen media projects on the ground and shared their experience and insights. A number of very interesting and useful ideas came up:
Accountability needs "bottom-up transparency". Many governments in developing countries do not have the capacity for gathering data that they could then publish for citizens to hold them accountable. Supporting government capacity may not be the only and not even the most efficient solution: Several participants of the session introduced projects where it is the citizens themselves that provide information about public services.