Last week I attended my first TED conference. Held on an expansive lodge on the foot of Mount Meru, in the Tanzanian town of Arusha, TED Global 2017 promised to “share bold ideas, tough truths and jaw-dropping creative visions”. It delivered. For three full days, 700-plus attendees from around the world were treated to talks from writers and scientists, artists and academics, politicians and activists. But amid the laughter and the occasional tears, for me there were intermittent bouts of anger.
Among TED’s “astonishing group of speakers” was a creature anyone who watches the African continent will know well: the tech entrepreneur. From Morocco to Madagascar, Africa has emerged as the last frontier for entrepreneurs, a land overflowing with problems that any intrepid explorer, armed with a Harvard degree and a bright idea can make his name and fortune solving (it’s nearly always “his”).
In 2015 Ory Okolloh, former policy manager for Google Africa – herself a Harvard graduate – expressed concern at what she saw as “the fetishisation around entrepreneurship in Africa”. “It’s almost like it’s the next neoliberal thing,” she said. “Like don’t worry that there’s no power, because, hey, you’re going to do solar and innovate around that. Your roads are terrible, but Uber works in Nairobi and that’s innovation.”
And there were many innovators at TED. Bright young things whose eyes glistened as they spoke about how they were “excited and humbled” by the opportunity to help. It was all very virtuous, and all very useful, so why was my pulse throbbing in my temple?
What sat so uncomfortably with me was that not only does the narrative of the white saviour in Africa seem untarnished, it is now celebrated as the entrepreneur creates much-needed jobs, solves seemingly intractable problems and is clad in a T-shirt and not a dog collar. Our wide-eyed adoration ignores that success is only partly down to ambition and graft. There are cultural and economic impediments for the African innovator.
The economics are fairly obvious. As the journalist and author Aimee Groth wrote in 2015: “Entrepreneurs don’t have a special gene for risk – they come from families with money.” Access to capital, and to the collateral to put up, makes all the difference.
The cultural explanation is, as always, far more nuanced, but equally debilitating. I suspect it to be pan-African, but can only speak for the parts of south, west and east Africa where I’ve lived. There, I’ve seen a system that privileges everything foreign and white. While the Chinese might today be the preferred partner of African governments, Europe and America remain the standards of excellence. It’s a bias the Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam called “the colonial mindset”, as he explained in his TED talk why the nutritious indigenous grain, fonio, had been shunned in favour of imported broken rice that was of little nutritional value.
There is also a far more traditional and conservative view of what rewarding work is. In a context marked by poverty and where identity is still largely collective rather than individual, one person’s success belongs to the community. As such, brilliant young people are encouraged – sometimes pressurised – to study a narrow range of subjects with the intention of becoming an employee in the best national or international companies, rather than take on the risks of becoming an employer.
Once in work, you’re expected to give back and help more children access the education you’ve had. Depending on how many other people in your family have reached the lofty heights of the African middle class, you might find yourself the only source your family relies on to meet the costs of ill-health, death or even marriage. The westerner whose individualistic culture tells him that he owes his success to himself, and has responsibility for none but himself, is free to try the untested, and even to fail.
These are difficult things to say. Would I prefer Rwandese mothers, for instance, to die in childbirth because the drone delivering blood and plasma is designed by a foreigner? Certainly not. But to pretend the world is a level playing field and there isn’t institutional inequality or institutional privilege would be to do nothing to change the system, and heaven knows that what Africa needs isn’t benevolent white people, but a global system that allows it to thrive on its own terms.
• Eliza Anyangwe is a freelance journalist