Tag Archives for " Africa "

A satisfying thriller set in Zimbabwe

zimbabweA review of The Death of Rex Nhongo: A Novel, by C. B. George

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The Death of Rex Nhongo is framed as a thriller, but its primary value (at least to me) is the intimate portrait it paints of Zimbabwe today.

The setting: Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare

Zimbabwe, as you are probably well aware, is a large nation that lies along the northern border of South Africa. It’s also one of the most poverty-stricken countries on earth despite its abundant natural resources. For decades, the country has been ruled by Robert Mugabe, who led its independence movement from the UK. Now 92 years old, Mugabe is rumored to remain as president only to camouflage the corruption and brutality of his colleagues. Many observers consider the regime a “thugocracy.” And that is the picture that emerges in high relief in this novel.

The plot: complex and full of surprises

A complex plot lies at the heart of The Death of Rex Nhongo. The complement of principal characters includes two expatriate families, one British, the other American, as well as an extended Zimbabwean family and a thug who works for the Central Intelligence Organization that terrifies the populace. The author skillfully draws together their numerous individual stories in a series of intersections that climax in a satisfying conclusion. The action takes place after the death noted in the book’s title, though the story manages to come full circle in the end. Naturally, the plot is contrived, but it’s a satisfying read.

However, there is one really annoying element in this novel. The author imagines the internal dialogue of the eight-year-old daughter of a highly educated African-American family in what once was called “ebonics.” Extended passages in italics are worded ungrammatically and full of spelling errors. It’s absurd.

The author: unknown

The background in this engaging novel is clearly based on fact, though the story itself is entirely fictitious. The author, C. B. George, is the pen name of someone who “has spent many years working throughout Southern Africa.” He is British and now lives in London.

African Roots through African eyes

RootsHomegoing: A Novel, by Yaa Gyasi

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary debut novel, Homegoing, traces the story of a Ghanaian family over more than two centuries through the lives of two branches of its descendants, one in Ghana, the other in the United States. The book opens in the mid-eighteenth century, when the slave trade was at its peak, follows the rollercoaster fortunes of the family through the turbulent years of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and concludes in present-day Ghana, where two descendants of the family have returned to explore the land of their ancestors — and the meaning of their lives. The tale in Homegoing parallels the story told in Alex Haley’s Roots over roughly the same period.

Unforgettable characters

Gyasi has a marvelous way with words. In brief chapters, using the most economical language, she celebrates the lives of her characters in ways that will stay with readers for a long time to come. Beginning with Effia and Esi, the two half-sisters whose descendants people the novel, through the generations to follow, Gyasi spells out the legacy of slavery without resorting to stereotypes. There is evil on every side: in the British who manage and profit from the slave trade; in the Asante and Fante warriors and traders who deliver their captives to the British; in the American slave-owners and their successors, who impose lynching and Jim Crow; and in the Northerners who sustain housing segregation and practice racism with only slightly less malice than their Southern counterparts. Yet the members of the family are far from blameless: all the stereotypical afflictions of Black America are to be found here, from the cruelty of recent Irish immigrants to the drug addiction and broken families, yet each of Gyasi’s characters, no matter how unexpected, is easy to believe. This is a novel that meets the sensibilities of our time, when the passage of history has allowed us to gain perspective over the evil in our past. This is historical fiction at its best.

A big step up from the original Roots

Forty years ago, in 1976, a 900-page book titled Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published to enormous acclaim. Its author, Alex Haley, was widely known for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965. Roots won a Pulitzer Prize, a special citation in Letters for what was marketed as a novelization based on the actual history of Haley’s family.

Roots begins with the story of a man named Kunta Kinte, kidnapped in 1767 from his home in The Gambia at age 17 and sold into slavery. The tale ends two centuries later in the United States, when Kinte’s descendants — including Alex Haley — have achieved success with their hard-fought freedom.

Roots was quickly made into an epic television miniseries viewed by a total of 130 million people. Later, Haley and his book came under fire from several directions, charged with simply inventing his family history. He was also accused of plagiarism by several authors, and one of them prevailed in court. Critical treatments appeared in a devastating BBC documentary (banned by U.S. networks) and in numerous influential publications, including the Village Voice. In an article in the Voice, for example, one author wrote, “Virtually every genealogical claim in Haley’s story was false.” Though much of the criticism was doubtless grounded in racism or simple envy, even a close friend of Haley’s, Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, concedes that it’s time to “speak candidly,” adding that “most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from whence his ancestors came.” Despite all the controversy, the Pulitzer Jury refused to rescind the award to Haley.

Whatever else might be said of Alex Haley, he was a masterful storyteller. But so is Yaa Gyasi, and she has done us the favor of noting upfront that her book is a novel.

Other reviews of the novel

The New York Times ran not one but two reviews of Homegoing. The first, a brilliant essay by the African-American scholar Isabel Wilkerson, ran on the front page of the New York Times Book Review on June 12, 2016. A second review, by Times critic Michiko Kakutani, appeared in the daily paper two days later. Both reviewers found a lot to like in the novel.

Wilkerson’s review, which sprawled over three pages, referred to the book as “hypnotic” and as Gyasi’s “intimate rendering of the human heart battered by the forces of conquest and history.” She dwelled at length on the emotional power of the novel’s chapters in which “the villages of West Africa come alive.” However, Wilkerson took exception to what she saw as the stereotyping in the chapters set in the United States. “What might have happened had Africans stood together against Europeans?” she asked. It’s a good question. Sadly, history shows us that didn’t happen — although, as Gyasi’s novel makes clear, Asante warriors held out against the British in a series of wars stretching across the last three-quarters of the nineteenth century. In other words, Wilkerson was hardly the first to ask the question.

Kakutani finds the inspiration of Homegoing not just in Roots but also in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. To my mind, she was reaching to make a literary case that is hard to justify. Though Gyasi explore the mysticism that held sway in the villages of Ghana in centuries past (if not yet today), it’s difficult to find the magic in Homegoing. However, since both Garcia Marquez and Mann won the Nobel Prize in Literature, perhaps we can envision an equally bright future for Ms. Gyasi?

About the author

Yaa Gyasi, now 26, spent seven years researching and writing Homegoing, including two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was rewarded an M.F.A. She was born in Ghana, raised in Huntsville, Alabama, and now lives in Berkeley, California. According to TIME, she received a seven-figure advance for this novel, her first book.


Living the African-American experience

African-AmericanThe Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Gail Lumet Buckley’s The Black Calhouns isn’t easy to pigeonhole. Part Black history, part genealogy, and part memoir, the connecting tissue in the book is the story of the author’s extraordinary family.

The African-American experience through one family’s eyes

Born into slavery, the Calhouns quickly moved into the middle class during Reconstruction and took on leading roles in the Black elite as business owners, teachers,  physicians, and attorneys. In the early years of the twentieth century, one branch of the family emigrated to the North along with hundreds of thousands of other African-Americans seeking a better life than could be had in the Jim Crow South. Buckley traces the history of this fascinating family, then focuses on its most famous member, the superstar singer Lena Horne, Buckley’s mother. In the book’s closing chapters, the perspective shifts from Horne to the author herself. The result is an impressionistic picture of the Black experience in America as lived by some of those who were most successful despite the ever-present weight of racism.

Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the legacy of racism

Nested into the continuing saga of one family in The Black Calhouns is a powerful account of how racism has infected American society for four centuries, spanning the years of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights era. For two centuries Buckley’s family has been an integral part of this story, rising from slavery through the middle class to America’s privileged elite. Her perspective shifts from the elegant homes of her family’s owner — a relative of slavery’s outspoken advocate, Senator John C. Calhoun — to the comfortable, middle-class homes her family built in Atlanta, Birmingham, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, to the showcase houses of Hollywood’s upper crust. This is an amazing success story — the quintessential American story.

Black history in a series of snapshots

If you’re unfamiliar with Black history, The Black Calhouns will be eye-opening. You’ll learn here about the origins of the predominantly Black colleges and their role in nurturing the civil rights movement . . . the horrific prevalence of lynching in the Jim Crow South from the 1870s to the 1960s . . . the outsized role of Atlanta and Harlem in African-American history . . . nineteenth-century Irish-Black hatred and the race riots it engendered . . . the merciless racism that pervaded the armed forces before the Vietnam War . . . the shift of Black allegiance from the Republican Party of the 1860s to the Democratic Party a century later . . . the role that America’s Jim Crow laws played as a model for Hitler’s Nuremberg race laws and South African apartheid . . . and a whole lot more. No student of American history can be regarded as educated without an understanding of all these factors. No American voter should be ignorant of them, either.

About author

Gail Lumet Buckley is the daughter of superstar singer and actress Lena Horne, Hollywood’s first African-American star, and ex-wife of the award-winning Hollywood movie and television director Sidney Lumet. Harvard educated, she had a successful career in journalism before marrying Lumet and falling into the role of “the director’s wife.” She is the author of two books based on her family’s history.

February 23, 2016

The existential threat of contagious disease

contagious diseasePandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

To judge from the over-the-top rhetoric on display among the Republican candidates in the 2016 Presidential primary campaign, many millions of Americans live in abject fear of immigration, terrorism, and having their guns taken away. It’s true there are genuine reasons to fear that our lives, our livelihoods, and our lifestyles might be disrupted in the foreseeable future. But they have nothing to do with immigration, terrorism, or hunting rifles.

Any logical, clear-headed look at the world around us reveals that the true existential threats on the horizon include climate change, nuclear holocaust, pandemics, and, at a higher level of logical abstraction, rampant consumerism. However, the most immediate of these threats to our civilization appears to be contagious disease. In Pandemic, Sonia Shah’s superb survey of the past, present, and future of infectious disease. Just so it’s clear: she’s not writing about simple colds and mild flus, but about illnesses that might kill tens or hundreds of millions of people with little warning and with unpredictable consequences for the cohesion of society. The heart of the problem, as she explains, is that “epidemics grow exponentially while our ability to respond proceeds linearly, at best.”

A balanced view of contagious disease

Thanks to alarmist reporting, Americans are terrified that hemorrhagic diseases such as Ebola will “break out” and kill us by the millions. Shah patiently explains that much more common diseases are far more likely to pose threats to us, influenza and cholera in particular. A series of unfortunate mutations in either one could fashion a disease that is not just virulent (contagious) but also highly lethal. Today, for example, influenza kills only a small proportion of its victims. We tend to regard it more as a nuisance for most of us, a threat only to those who are most vulnerable. However, the “Spanish flu” (the H1N1 virus) that broke out in the final days of World War I infected up to 500 million people (between a fifth and a third of the world’s population) and killed between 50 and 100 million. Epidemiologists live in fear that H1N1 or one of the countless other varieties of influenza incubating in Southern China could put on a repeat performance — or worse. Cholera poses a similar threat.

Sanitation, Hippocratic medicine, and Christianity

One of the most fascinating passages in Pandemic is Shah’s account of the role of Christianity in fostering infectious disease for more than a thousand years.

History shows us that two thousand years ago the Romans piped clean drinking water to their cities through an elaborate system of aqueducts and made public baths available to one and all. Cleanliness was a virtue to them. That all began to change with the advent of Christianity a few centuries into the Common Era. Unlike the Jews and (later) the Muslims,  Christian clergy disdained personal hygiene, associating it with Roman polytheism and viewing cleanliness as superstitious. It was common for Catholic priests and the Protestant pastors who succeeded them in some parts to discourage their flocks from bathing. For many centuries, the vast majority of people in Christian lands lived side-by-side with their animals atop pits filled with excrement and cooked with smelly water drawn from contaminated streams or wells.

When disease struck, as it did with increasing frequency as population grew and gravitated toward the cities, the physicians who purported to combat it were in the thrall of the Hippocratic school of medicine, which attributed all disease to an imbalance in the four “humors” within the body and in external factors that exacerbated it. For example, cholera, which sickened hundreds of millions through the centuries and killed half of them, was blamed on the inhalation of what the ancient physician Galen termed “miasmas” (offensive smells). The nineteenth-century physicians who practiced medical “science” based on these beliefs “increased [cholera’s] death toll from 50 to 70 percent.” Though the germ theory of disease was first proposed in the sixteenth century, it wasn’t until three centuries later, on the cusp of the twentieth century, that practicing physicians began to accept the role of microorganisms in causing disease.

Meanwhile, progress toward improved sanitation and the availability of clean drinking water was even slower. As Shah explains in chilling detail, the construction of London’s sewer system was not prompted because public health officials understood that water used for drinking and washing was dangerously contaminated. The reason they proposed the effort was that they thought it was essential to pipe all the smelly sewage into the Thames, the source of the city’s drinking water! Only in the twentieth century did it become common for municipalities to regard drinkable water as a necessity of life.

Why is contagious disease more of a threat today than ever before?

In Pandemic, Shah describes the role of contemporary trends in making the threat of epidemic disease greater than ever. Five stand out: climate change, continuing urbanization, ever more accessible global transportation, resistance to vaccines, and the encroachment of development on previously virgin lands, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and the Amazon. The result is that an increasing number of unknown and unpredictable new tropical diseases is emerging and making their way into more and more crowded cities further and further north on the globe. All the while, diseases previously thought conquered, such as polio and measles, rise up in communities around the globe.

About the author

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Sonia Shah is an American investigative journalist who has reported from around the world, principally on corporate power and gender inequality. Pandemic is her sixth book. Though her parents are both physicians and she lives with a molecular biologist, it appears that the impetus for writing this book came from a painful personal experience with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which she contracted from her son. Shah describes her eye-opening experience at length in Pandemic.

If this book intrigues you, you might take a look at Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books. This one is included.

A terrific novel for political junkies about Africa

africaA review of The Seersucker Whipsaw, by Ross Thomas

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Clint Shartelle is a honey-tongued Southerner who wears impeccable three-piece suits and drinks like a fish. (Waitaminnit! Do fish actually drink? Whatever.) Shartelle claims to be one sixty-fourth Native American, one-twelfth African-American, and the country’s best political campaign manager. Apparently, he is not the only one who believes that. Enter Peter Upshaw, who represents a fast-growing London-based American PR firm. Upshaw carries an offer of an immoderate sum of money for Shartelle to run a campaign in a West African nation that bears a considerable resemblance to Nigeria. This — eventually — turns out to be an offer Shartelle cannot refuse. Thus begins The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas.

Africa for the Africans

It is 1966, barely more than two years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy and before the major U.S. escalation that seared the Vietnam War into the memory of all who lived through it. In Africa, decolonization was just getting underway; Ghana had been independent for less than a decade. Presidential elections are scheduled in a country called Albertia (as in Prince Albert, get it?), and the British are falling all over themselves to get out and leave Africa to the Africans. Albertia is wealthy, so competition for the presidency is naturally stiff.

A problematic three-way race

With little delay, Shartelle and Upshaw arrive in Albertia to launch the campaign for Chief Akomolo, the Big Man in the west of the country. He faces two major opponents, one in the north, the other in the east. Unfortunately, both command more populous territories and are better positioned to win than the Chief. To make matters worse, other American organizations are working for the two opponents — and one of them is the CIA. Shartelle, as strategist and manager, and Upshaw, as speechwriter and flack, realize that Akomolo can’t possibly win if they run a clean, straightforward campaign. But Shartelle, it turns out, is a genius at dirty tricks — and Akomolo’s advisers prove to be equally flexible about campaign ethics. For anyone with even the most casual experience in electoral politics, the ensuing campaign is a wonder to behold.

Dialogue that sings

To say that Ross Thomas has a way with words is akin to claiming that Barack Obama is a fair-to-middling orator. His narrative prose is superb, his characters are unforgettable, and his dialogue is priceless: witty, intelligent, and oh-so-natural.

About the author

Ross Thomas began writing novels in the 1960s and passed away twenty years ago, but his books are just as fresh and engaging today as they were when first published. The Seersucker Whipsaw is the fourth of the twenty thrillers he wrote under his own name. He also wrote five novels under a pseudonym and two books of nonfiction.

African writers aren’t all world-class

African writersA review of The African Equation, by Yasmina Khadra

@@ (2 out of 5)

Here’s a story that could have been worked into a terrific novel in the hands of a writer with a trifle of self-restraint. Unfortunately, Yasmina Khadra, reputedly one of Africa’s greatest writers, displays none of that. Every one of his characters, from a German physician to a passel of Somali or Sudanese pirates, speaks like an Oxford philosophy don — and somehow they all understand one another perfectly without any indication that they could possibly speak any language in common. Khadra’s characters are not people but mouthpieces for his philosophical and political views, which tend to be tedious.

The novel’s protagonist, Kurt Krausmann, comes upon the dead body of his beloved wife soon after the tale opens. She clearly committed suicide. (This is not a murder mystery.) The good doctor, a general practitioner in Frankfurt, goes into an emotional tailspin. His best friend, Hans Makkenroth, one of Germany’s wealthiest and best-known industrialists, presses Krausmann to join him on a long ocean voyage on his yacht. Weeks underway, as Krausmann begins to recover his senses, Somali or Sudanese pirates (it’s never clear which) attack the ship in the Gulf of Aden and drag Krausmann and Makkenroth off to the Somali coast. There the group sets out on an overland journey westward for nearly 2,000 miles through Ethiopia and Sudan to the godforsaken reaches of Darfur, meeting violent and tragic circumstances along the way. The journey, while eventful, serves primarily as a setting for the principal characters — two of the pirates as well as Krausmann and Makkenroth — to pontificate about the meaning of life and about Africa and its relation to the West. While their sentiments are well expressed — remember, I compared these characters to Oxford philosophy dons — they strike me as dated and overwrought.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s a sample: “It is true that we are insignificant. But in this perfect body which age breaks down as the seasons pass and which the smallest germ can lay low, there is a magical territory where it is possible for us to take our lives back. It is in this hidden place that our true strength lies; in other words, our faith in what we believe to be good for us . . .” and that’s just the beginning of the soliloquy. Have you EVER heard anyone actually say anything like that?

By the way, Yasmina Khadra is not a woman as his pen name suggests but a former Algerian army officer named Mohammed Moulessehoul who adopted his wife’s name to avoid military censorship.

Africa has made worthy contributions to world literature through the work of an abundance of world-class writers: Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Alan Paton, among many others. Yasmina Khadra doesn’t measure up to them.

Who’s responsible for corruption in Africa?

9781610394390_p0_v3_s260x420A review of The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Misconceptions abound in the public perception of corruption in Africa. Tom Burgis’ incisive new analysis of corruption on the continent, The Looting Machine, dispels these dangerous myths.

For starters, corruption is mistakenly believed to reign supreme in every country on the African continent. (There are 48 nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a combined population of more than 800 million.) Of course, it’s true that some African countries rank very low on Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index” (CPI) — after all, Somalia merits the very lowest score, with Sudan and South Sudan not far above it — but only Eritrea and Guinea-Bissau rank at all close to them. In between them are many other countries: Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Caribbean, South Asian. And three Sub-Saharan African nations rank in the top third of the 175 countries in the CPI: Lesotho, Namibia, and Rwanda, with Ghana close behind. Ghana scores better than Greece, Italy, and several other European nations.

Second, corruption in Africa is viewed as intractable. It’s widely believed that nothing can be done about it. Nonsense! One of the largest and most potent sources of the cash that fuels corruption is foreign aid. Institutions like the World Bank, USAID, and other national and international agencies direct most, if not all, their support to governments. This, despite the obvious evidence on the ground that a huge proportion of this aid goes straight into the pockets of the ruling elites. If foreign aid were doled out more selectively to community-based organizations, local agencies, and NGOs with grassroots operations, the picture might be very different. As things stand, only a trickle of foreign aid gets to the people who need it most: the poor.

Lastly, and most significantly, too many observers characterize African corruption as a uniquely African phenomenon that grows out of ethnic rivalries and the failure of European colonists to establish stable native governments. Those factors, while present, are only part of the story. Equally, if not more, consequential is the role of foreign investment — principally from China, the US, and Western Europe — in exploiting the continent’s abundant resources, often paying through the nose for the privilege. Corruption is a two-way street: briber and bribee need each other. And those Western investors include some of the world’s biggest US- and European-based multinational corporations — most prominently, Big Oil and the major mining companies. Chinese companies are even worse because they’re not constrained by legal restrictions at home. Prominent foreign aid cheerleaders like Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University do the African people no favors by advocating huge increases in official aid, rationalizing that some of it will actually do good. Just ask the first ten Africans you meet on the street in Lagos or Nairobi or Luanda. Unless you happen to run into a member of the privileged elite, you’ll get an earful about Western-enabled corruption.

The Looting Machine spotlights this two-way street, with an emphasis on commerce. The role of foreign aid receives little attention. The principal source of corruption in Africa, Burgis contends again and again, is its wealth of natural resources: oil, gas, gold, diamonds, copper, iron, and many other materials essential to the rich nations’ consumer economies. Citing an analysis by McKinsey, he reports that “69 percent of people in extreme poverty live in countries where oil, gas, and minerals play a dominant role in the economy and that average incomes in those countries are overwhelmingly below the global average.” This is one of the most tragic consequences of what economists refer to as the “resource curse.” Burgis asserts that “An economy based on a central pot of resource revenue is a recipe for ‘big man’ politics.”

It’s no accident that the resource curse finds its fullest expression in Africa: the continent accounts for 13 percent of the world’s population and just 2 percent of its cumulative gross domestic product, but it is the repository of 15 percent of the planet’s crude oil reserves, 40 percent of its gold, and 80 percent of its platinum — and that is probably an underestimate.”

The scope of the corruption this cornucopia of resources makes possible is difficult to comprehend. For example, “When the International Monetary Fund examined Angola’s national accounts in 2011, it found that between 2007 and 2010 $32 billion had gone missing.” That’s billion with a “B.” And this, in a country of just 21 million people — a population roughly equivalent to that of Sao Paulo, Seoul, or Mumbai.

If you want to gain perspective on poverty, war, and corruption in Africa, read this book.

The emphasis in The Looting Machine is on those countries Burgis knows well: Angola, Nigeria, Congo, with less intensive reporting from several other nations.

Tom Burgis has worked for the Financial Times in Africa since 2006, covering business, politics, corruption, and conflict. On his LinkedIn page, he describes his reporting as encompassing “Oil, mining, terrorism, the arms trade, corporate misconduct, intelligence, money-laundering, the underbelly of the global economy, forgotten warzones, tales of the human soul.” He is currently the Investigations Correspondent for the Financial Times, no longer limited to Africa.


Innovation: Look beyond Silicon Valley


Today the popular website Virgin Disruptors, one of Richard Branson’s innumerable activities, posted the following article of mine under the title “Innovation — Look beyond Silicon Valley.” I had answered the challenging question, “Have entrepreneurs lost the will to innovate?”

Innovation is alive and well among entrepreneurs—but not so much where you’d expect.

Take Silicon Valley, for example—a place long considered virtually synonymous with innovation.

Twelve companies originating from that hotbed of invention during the past decade have achieved market valuations of $1 billion or more, presumably marking them as the most successful of the lot. Five are what I would term utilities, companies that provide online services that compete with similar free offerings available from Google or open source nonprofits (MongoDB, Evernote, Dropbox, Box, and Automattic). Four provide consumer services (Lending Club, Airbnb, Square, and Uber). The others provide social networking (Pinterest), big data analytics (Palantir Technologies), and flash memory storage (Pure Storage).

Of these dozen companies, only two are true market disruptors: Lending Club, which enables peer-to-peer loans, and Square, a mobile payment service. Both undermine the financial services industry (which can use some competition!). Just two companies—out of the dozen most successful, with hundreds, perhaps thousands of other ventures that have fallen fall short of the billion-dollar mark. Are some of these truly innovative? Probably. But take a look around Silicon Valley, and you’ll find the majority of would-be entrepreneurs are navel-gazing to dream up pointless apps that solve nobody’s problems.

So, where are entrepreneurs innovating in ways that make a difference in people’s lives? Where is innovation alive and well?

Call it the Global South, the developing nations, the emerging economies, or whatever you will. That’s where.

Innovation that matters

Most people who live in the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and to a lesser degree in other regions are extremely poor. All told, more than 2.7 billion people live on $2 a day or less. They represent two-thirds of the population of India (about 800 million) and seventy percent (600 million) of the people of sub-Saharan Africa. In those regions, real innovation—innovation that improves people’s lives, and doesn’t just make money for the inventors—must address the challenges faced by people in poverty. To an extent that most of us who live in the rich nations of the North are likely to find surprising, resilient and resourceful Africans and South Asians are putting Silicon Valley to shame.

So, just as we took Silicon Valley as emblematic of entrepreneurial innovation in the North, we’ll look to sub-Saharan Africa for counterpoint—surely, the region where most of us living in the world’s richest countries have been taught to least expect business smarts to emerge. So, here’s just a smattering of recently founded African companies and their products or services for the poor:

  • EGG-energy (Tanzania) wires homes and businesses and furnishes them with reliable electricity using rechargeable batteries, charged at central locations where customers exchange them for new ones—at half the cost of energy from the local (highly unreliable) grid.
  • MPedigree and Sproxil (piloted in Ghana) use scratch-off codes with a phone number a customer may text to learn whether a medicine is authentic—in a region where thirty percent of drugs are counterfeit.
  • Moladi (South Africa) builds modular urban homes in under a week around a plastic skeleton around which a mold is fastened and a concrete-like mixture is poured. The Moladi system is in wide use building affordable and low-cost housing, “training the unemployed to house the homeless.”
  • M-PESA (Kenya) provides two-thirds of Kenya’s population with a banking and person-to-person funds transfer service using text messaging on mobile phones; the company is now beginning to expand globally.
  • Medic Mobile (launched in Malawi) provides health personnel with the tools to deliver critical information such as health alerts and the availability of drugs and to receive progress reports from patients who live hours or days away from clinics.
  • Bridge International Academies (Kenya) operates hundreds of bare-bones private schools that offer consistent, quality education for $5 per child per month, supplanting ineffective and unreliable public schools.
  • Solar Sister (Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda) provides affordable, solar energy to unserved villages in rural Africa through a direct sales network that empowers women as entrepreneurs.
  • Shujazz (Kenya) is a comic book and FM radio station reaching young people with stories full of advice on how to make money and improve their lives.
  • Other companies in the region offer such agricultural innovations as crop insurance indexed to climate indicators, paying out to farmers if rainfall is inadequate; cooperative farming projects that enlist small farmers in collectives that achieve the scale to employ modern agricultural techniques to raise crops for export; and databases of critical agricultural information (crop prices, pests, rainfall patterns, opportunities to buy and sell) via mobile phones.

Where do all these exciting new ventures come from? Some are from innovation hubs (call them incubators, if you will), both public and private, throughout the region: iHub (Kenya), Akendewa (Cote d’Ivoire), Jokkolabs (Senegal), EtriLabs (Benin), and many others. Yet other innovations spring whole from the minds of brilliant (if often unschooled) individuals like William Kamkwamba, a 13-year-old Malawian boy who used ancient physics textbooks to teach himself how to build a windmill on his parents’ farm that furnished power for irrigation and increased the family’s agricultural output by a factor of five.

Most of the examples cited here can be found, along with others, in an excellent new book, The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, by Dayo Olopade. [Note: I recently reviewed this book here.]

In places where so many things are dysfunctional or entirely unavailable, innovation isn’t just a good way to make money—it’s a necessity.

Stay tuned: you’re going to see a whole lot more come out onto the market from Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe—and anywhere else people are forced to do what they can with what little they’ve got.

A surprising analysis: why economic development happens (or doesn’t)

economic development: The Tyranny of Experts by William EasterlyThe Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

This book is full of surprises.

In The Tyranny of Experts, the author of the seminal book The White Man’s Burden drills down into the history of economic development around the world in search of its causes. What he finds has little to do with any of the factors bandied about among contemporary development professionals.

“The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich,” William Easterly writes, “is based on a technocratic illusion: the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements . . . The technocratic approach ignores what this book will establish as the real cause of poverty — the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.”

Instead, Easterly maintains, the fundamental pre-condition for successful development is democracy paired with deep understanding of local history. He calls the establishment of the World Bank “the moment of original sin . . . in which the Bank disavowed the ideals of freedom . . .”

Academia has been good to William Easterly. Presumably, when he was forced out of the World Bank because of his outspoken criticism of the Bank’s support for corrupt regimes and pro-Western favoritism, he was looking for a platform on which he could continue his campaign to shift the consensus among development professionals from top-down “solutions” to support for bottom-up, grassroots initiatives. He’s gotten that platform, but his position on the faculty of New York University has also moved him to dig more deeply into the intellectual roots of his thinking. The Tyranny of Experts is one result.

This book is intellectually very ambitious. Easterly finds the common denominator for successful development not in policies, procedures, or leaders but in an environment in which the rights of poor people are respected. On the most fundamental level, he insists, the biggest success stories in development are to be found in what we’ve grown used to calling “the West.” In these rich countries, democratic government accountable to voters left them essentially free to exercise their genius for innovation. Variations on the capitalist system provided the incentives for individual initiative and hard work, the result of which has been a meteoric increase in per capita income during the past two centuries in the West, compared with a slow increase for the Rest. Yet development professionals ignore the stunning, long-range success of the West and turn instead to models based on short-term (and usually temporary) growth spurts.

In recent decades, it has been fashionable to point to China as proof that development is best facilitated by “benevolent tyrants.” Easterly finds this argument unconvincing for at least three reasons:

(1) The major boost to Chinese productivity, and hence the biggest factor in increasing the country’s per capita income, was the grassroots movement among farmers freed from collective farms to till their own land. This development began taking hold in 1978, at the same time as Deng Xiao Peng’s accession to power, but had as much to do with the Chinese breakthrough as Deng’s actions as Secretary of the Communist Party. In fact, it was only in 1982 that the Party made official the dispersion of landholding that was already widespread throughout the country.

(2) Easterly proves that the only factor that correlates closely with sustained, high-octane development is regionalism. China, after all, lies in East Asia, home of what Easterly calls the “Gang of Four” breakthrough economies (otherwise known as the “Asian Tigers”): Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Statistical analysis proves that’s no accident.

(3) The anonymous spread of the potato “increased the calories, vitamins, and nutrients produced by a given amount of land, thus sustaining a larger population” and offers “more evidence for attributing the rise of China as an economic superpower” than any conscious policy of the Party, much less of Premier Deng. I found this claim so puzzling that I checked out Easterly’s facts: lo and behold, the American Journal of Potato Research reported more than a decade ago that “China is now the world’s largest potato-producing country, and nearly a third of the world’s potatoes are harvested in China and India.” (Who knew? I can’t recall ever seeing potatoes in a Chinese meal!)

One of the most valuable aspects of this book is Easterly’s habit of finding revealing truths in areas others never consider. The importance of the potato to China is just one example. Another is his conclusion that “one of the regional factors that held back African development was that Africa had too many nations.” (It’s obvious — once you read the book.)

The Tyranny of Experts is a brilliant inquiry into economic history, with excursions into political science, sociology, and other disciplines. By making a solid case for individual initiative as the driving force in development rather than the policies of leaders, William Easterly has made a major contribution to the field. However, there in one major area in which I take issue with the author.

Economist that he is, Professor Easterly uses per capita income as the exclusive measure of development. This choice is problematic both because it’s a poor reflection of the well-being of poor people (who are, after all, the principal concern of the field) and because it presumes that economic growth — the output of more and more stuff — is necessarily good. If I earn $700 per year (about $2 per day) and Bill Gates earns $2 billion, it’s small comfort to me that our “per capital income” is $1,000,000,350. And if Mr. Gates consumes enough water and electricity to maintain his 66,000-square foot house that could otherwise meet the needs of . . . well, lots of people, that’s far from good for the planet — or for you or me. (Not so incidentally, Easterly calls out Bill Gates for special criticism for his exaggerated faith in quantifying change.)

Incidentally, I also note that in two references in his book to those who comprise “development professionals” Easterly includes only staff of the World Bank, the United Nations, and the overseas aid agencies of national governments. He excludes NGOs, many of which employ large numbers of professionals working in development programs throughout the Global South. I find this peculiar.

There is so much more that’s worthy of comment in this outstanding book that I can’t possibly do justice to it in this short review. All I can say is, if you’re involved in any way in economic development work, or simply concerned about ending poverty, The Tyranny of Experts is essential reading. Despite its flaws, it’s simply brilliant.

You might also be interested in seeing 14 of the best recent nonfiction books, of which this is one. Also, check out 8 great books about Africa.

Race relations in colonial Africa through the eyes of a Swedish novelist

1A Treacherous Paradise, by Henning Mankell

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Among the countless books and plays written by the masterful Swedish writer Henning Mankell are nine novels and one collection of five short stories about the life and work of a troubled police detective named Kurt Wallander in the town of Ystad, Sweden. The Wallander series, which has been produced on television both in Sweden and in the UK (starring Kenneth Branagh), is one of the best collections of crime novels I’ve read — and I’ve read a lot of them. But Mankell unaccountably set aside the complex detective in 2011 to devote himself to other writing projects. If A Treacherous Paradise, his most recent novel, is any indication, he should have stuck to crime in Sweden.

There’s nothing wrong with A Treacherous Paradise that a more interesting plot couldn’t have cured. Mankell knows how to keep a story moving and to hold a reader’s attention, and he perceives the hidden complexities and contradictions in human character. However, this simple tale of a young woman named Hanna Renstrom who leaves her home in the famine-stricken Swedish countryside in 1904 and soon finds herself in Africa through misadventure is . . . well, it’s just not interesting enough. True enough, there are complications galore in Hanna’s life: she is twice widowed in the course of the novel, and she ends up owning and running a brothel. And Mankell scrapes away the surface of life in what was then called Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) to reveal the underlying fear and desperation that afflicts both masters and servants. But Hanna’s erratic behavior is frequently difficult to understand. Maybe a murder or two would have enlivened this tale!

For many years, Henning Mankell has spent at least half of every year living in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, where he works as artistic director of a local theater. He is an outspoken leftist activist and is married to Ingmar Bergman’s daughter.