“You my friend and all your kind are lazy,” he said. “When you rest your head on the pillow you don’t dream big. You and other so-called African intellectuals are damn lazy, each one of you. It is you, and not those poor starving people, who is the reason Africa is in such a deplorable state.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say,” I protested.
He was implacable. “Oh yes it is and I will say it again, you are lazy. Poor and uneducated Africans are the most hardworking people on earth. I saw them in the Lusaka markets and on the street selling merchandise. I saw them in villages toiling away. I saw women crushing stones for sell and I wept. I said to myself where are the African intellectuals? Are the African engineers so imperceptive they cannot invent a simple stone crusher, or a simple water filter to purify well water for those poor villagers? Are you telling me that after thirty-seven years of independence your university school of engineering has not produced a scientist or an engineer who can make simple small machines for mass use? What is the school there for?”
I held my breath..
This is quoted from an article by Field Ruwe, a US-based Zambian author narrating a conversation he had with a white American on a flight to Boston. The article is titled
Thought provoking yes, but unfair for various reasons.
If you live in Africa you might agree to a certain extent. Potholed streets, power cuts, corruption, no health care and too many newborns dying is still the daily grind in most countries. So is the author right, has the African intelligentsia failed to innovate and come up with some sustainable solutions for their dilemmas. But can we blame the young and educated Afropolitans for Africa’s misery?
Africa innovates in Europe
First, Africa, in my humble opinion, is overall getting better, not worse. This is not only proven by all the “Africa rise” stories that lately swirl around. Not just by the world’s enchantment with Lupita Nyong’o or this years Vanity Fair Hollywood Issue cover, where six out of twelve actors are black.
Not just with talented black actresses finally taking the center stage (Michaela Coel, National Theater) or rocking it behind the stage (Bola Agbaje’s Movie: Gone too far in London cinemas now)
Africa innovates in Africa
Whether this is Aliko Dangote, the richest African, constantly reinventing his business empire or Africans returning from the diaspora like my friend Nuru to start businesses and create employment.
Innovation also comes in its most hilarious from such as TV channel: Zambezi News TV (Twitter: @ZambeziNewsTV) A bunch of Young Zimbabweans taking the piss out of the Malaysian flight, their declining economy and politics.
Lufefe Nomjana whose business Espinaca Innovations brings healthy and affordable Spinach bred, to the slums of Johannesburg or don’t we remember Kelvin Doe, the 13 year old young boy from Sierra Leone who become a You Tube hit inventing his own batteries.
So the question is not, why does Africa not innovate it is rather:
Why do African innovations not take off?
The balding bwana of Ruwe’s story states: “After 37 years of independence you still don’t innovate.” Right, mate, ONLY 37 years of independence. This youth is the 2nd or 3rd generation of Africans born in free, free to obtain a university degree, to study abroad, to take a qualified job, to have choices. This is compared with 300 years of (White) Americans doing the same. So of course there is a difference and an advantage on the side of the Americans.
So explain, dear old world: Despite all these freedoms you have, despite all this money, why have you not found a cure to AIDS? Why have you not stopped climate change yet and invented true alternatives to fossil fuel. Maybe innovations and change is not as easy as it seems.
This brings me to the challenges of the present: Most of the innovations in Africa happen despite the government not because of them. Young innovators allover the continent are faced with extremely challenging circumstances. Many do not grow up in a culture that nurtures talent and innovation, but in circumstances that stifle it. The political establishment in many countries from Algeria to Eritrea to Zimbabwe have tough laws to protect the ruling elite. An elite paranoid and afraid of the change a tech-savvy educated and lively youth culture could bring.
The ruling class is too often still dominated by the former ‘freedom fighters’ or their sons (Kenyatta, Mugabe, Zuma, Afwerki, Kabila etc) The would-be innovators live too often amidst civil war (Somalia, Mali, DRC, South Sudan, Central African Republic) or in a country where the next tribal slaughter or terror attack could just be round the corner (Nigeria, Kenya, Burundi). So innovation in this sense is mere survival.
Ruwe finishes with a wake up call to the young African intellectual:
A fundamental transformation of our country from what is essentially non-innovative to a strategic superior African country requires a bold risk-taking educated leader with a triumphalist attitude and we have one in YOU. Our journey from 1964 has been marked by tears. It has been an emotionally overwhelming experience. Each one of us has lost a loved one to poverty, hunger, and disease. The number of graves is catching up with the population. It’s time to change our political culture. It’s time for intellectuals to cultivate an active-positive progressive movement that will change our lives forever. Don’t be afraid or dispirited, rise to the challenge.
What do you think? Why are African innovations hampered? And who is to blame?