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Help me surprise my Dutch friends with “Surprising Africa”

So… it’s speech season, that odd moment in the year where people around the world invite me to say something insightful, provocative, or at least entertaining to audiences of students, conference-goers, librarians, or anyone who happens to have wandered into the room. Between now and the first week of December, I’ve got fourteen talks scheduled on my calendar.

Needless to say, there’s some overlap between these talks. I don’t know enough about thirteen different subjects to give thirteen different talks without having talk 12 be titled “Great Red Sox Games I Have Watched on Television”, so I borrow, recycle and generally reuse talks. There’s a good chance that I’ll give some version of the talk I gave at NYU last week to audiences in New Hampshire, Barcelona and Budapest.

But every so often, conference organizers throw me a curve ball and I find myself assigned a topic. That’s the case with next week’s talk at the PICNIC conference in Amsterdam. PICNIC is a wonderful event, a multi-day conference at a former industrial site near the center of town, filled with interesting innovators in new media. I had a blast last year, dropping in while enroute to South Africa, and this year, I’m lucky enough to share the main stage with friends like Clay Shirky and Genevieve Bell. But this is one of those conferences where I didn’t get to pick the topic, and where I’ve been assigned a title for the talk: “Surprising Africa”.

It’s not the title I would have chosen. I have visions of someone sneaking up behind a continent, yelling “boo” and then giggling. But I get the general point – I’m supposed to give the Africa Rising/Africa 2.0/African Cheetahs frame on the main stage on Thursday, helping build excitement for a day-long session on Friday with the same title, an event where I’ll give a quick talk on citizen media in Africa. All well and good. But it’s unclear what stories to tell, given that I don’t want to steal the thunder of friends who are also sharing the stage. Erik Hershman of Afrigadget and Ushahidi, who I generally steal from liberally, will be there, as will Binyavanga Wainaina, whose brilliant and fierce “How to Write About Africa” I quote in nearly every talk. (I get to share the stage with Binyavanga, which should leave me feeling good and properly self-conscious about any Africa clichés I manage to work into my talk.)

So, friends, I’m appealing for help. I’ve got roughly a half an hour to share a couple of stories with a smart audience that probably doesn’t know much about the continent. The goal, as always, is to help people develop a more realistic picture of the continent, focusing on opportunity as much as hardship, technological innovation as much as conflict, HIV/TB/malaria, etc.

I’m likely to tell stories about:

– How mobile money emerged in East Africa, and why companies like Safaricom and Celpay are changing the rules for how money moves in a 21st century economy

– How mobile phones and talk radio have helped make government more accountable, and helped monitor elections

– How Kenyan bloggers and activists responded to an electoral crisis in their country, creating unique tools for crisis reporting

– African blogging and the rise of aggregators like Afrigator

– Innovative projects, like mPedigree, which is tracking medications in African pharmacies to help detect pharma fakes

The unifying theme is likely to be, as always, what we pay attention to in Africa and what we ignore. With that in mind, what other stories should I be sure to tell? What stories have we heard too much about and don’t need to be told? Any and all (constructive) suggestions appreciated.

8 thoughts on “Help me surprise my Dutch friends with “Surprising Africa””

  1. This might be a good place to start: “Even the Poorest Can Be a Thriving Market” in the Harvard Business Review recently.
    Gives a nice context to the huge potential for productive and creative activity from Africa- not just seeing is as a new ‘bottom of the pyramid’ market to sell to.


  2. All ties in to the rise of the Africa 2s.. neither very rich, nor very poor – but growing middle class (buying all those mobile phones for starters).
    Same middle class that is buying TVs.. So in terms of media, broadcasters are investing in new content (like football) – which impacts (e.g. commercialisation of the sport), and gives companies an audience to sell to Africa 2s. Mobile TV on the way..

  3. Ethan – You mention the tech edge of mobile applications and African society. It might be an idea to remind the rest of world that a significant percentage of africa’s mobile users are non-literate, but they charge through Nokia menus as if they were Tokyo teenagers. Point being that most of the folks here have found ways of maintaining comms, despite what development theorists might anxiously think of as numerous barriers (literacy, exposure to technology, language etc).

    An example of a Maasai “Lion Guardian” from southern Kenya on his donated Nokia-brick here: http://lionguardians.wildlifedirect.org/2008/09/03/lions-kills-cow/

    An interesting tie-in: a collared lion wearing a satphone, emailing his position to a mapping server. The info is then available to the Lion Guardian co-ordinator, who deploys the Lion Guardians where needed:


  4. Pingback: Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project » mobile applications, and more tech-babble

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