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Talking about Africa in Switzerland

Joi Ito’s decision to blog about the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos has convinced me that it’s not a bad idea to weigh in from this strange and surrreal gathering.

The fun of Davos is the chance to get great one on one time with incredibly smart, interesting people. The drag of Davos is the fact that it’s often difficult to get beyond people’s set “stump speeches”. It’s hard to make it to Davos without being obssessed with one or more topics. Give someone an open forum and they’ll almost inevitably gravitate to their topic of choice, whether or not is has anything to do with the topic at hand. (This morning’s discussion with religious leaders took an odd turn into a discussion of monetary policy as a result…)

So I’m trying to be conscious of my tendency to steer every conversation to developing world issues. I remember university classes that got derailed with young feminists asking “Does that include women?” after any general statement. I’m trying to avoid asking “Does that include Africans?” at every junction.

(The president of Georgia is giving an interview about ten feet away. This sort of thing makes it awfully hard to pay attention…)

But I got frustrated at last night’s dinner on wireless technology. The conversation focused on getting the maximum revenue per user (in the local terminology “RPU”, pronounced “ar-poo” from smartphone users. But, when I did my predictable “What’s the potential for wireless in Africa?” bit, folks chimed in immediately. Most impressively, the cellphone company president chairing the meeting spoke about his initial failure to understand African markets and then talked about the huge success his company is having in half a dozen African nations. We talked afterwards and he’s bullish about some of the information via cellphone projects Geekcorps is working on… as revenue earners for African cellphone companies. Very, very cool.

All of which raises the issue for me: how do we get business in Africa to be a main topic of interest, rather than an afterthought?

Geeks, by defailt, want to talk about the newest, fastest, coolest and smallest. But it turns out that the most interesting stuff may be the cheapest, most useable and most pervasive. And since cellphone penetration in the developed world seems to have hit a plateau, you’d think this would be the main topic on people’s minds, not an afterthought your humble activist blogger would need to tease out…

(Turns out the political advisor to the new Georgian president is a former classmate of mine. As a result, I got to shake the president’s hand. Davos is strange.)