Information technology developments in Africa have long lagged behind those in other parts of the world. But the transformation being brought about by the widespread adoption and use of mobile phones – each one a mini-computer – and the expansion of undersea fibre optic cable connections to Africa are creating the conditions for an exciting new phase of computing growth on the continent.
Despite the global economic crisis, Africa is on course to see annual consumer spending reach US $1.4 trillion by 2020, nearly double the US $860 billion in 2008 (McKinsey). On top of this, by 2050, a projected 63 per cent of Africa’s population will be urban dwellers. With Africa’s middle class the fastest-growing in the world – doubling in less than 20 years – matching computing power with this consuming urban population could unleash a treasure trove of opportunity for information technology entrepreneurs.
These developments are creating the conditions for game-changing computing in the next years. And this is encouraging the creation of a new supercomputer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supercomputer) for Africa in Kenya that will double the total number of supercomputers in Africa. Hugely powerful compared to personal or commercial computers, supercomputers use cutting-edge technology to carry out high-speed calculations involving vast quantities of data.
Expanded supercomputing power brings numerous advantages to both economic and human development. It will radically alter what can be accomplished in Africa – allowing mass data processing to be done, highly complex and data dense applications to be run, and very large research projects to be conducted on the continent rather than overseas.
Increasing computing power in Africa will bring in its wake, it is hoped, a surge in economic and research opportunities.
It will help African researchers and scientists to undertake globally competitive projects, rather than seeing this work done overseas. It will also open up a vast range of possibilities for African entrepreneurs and businesses to do complex data processing, modelling and research and will enable them to become more sophisticated operations.
The new supercomputer, the iHub Cluster, is being built in the Kenyan capital by one of Africa’s pioneering information technology hubs – iHub Nairobi (http://ihub.co.ke/pages/home.php) – in partnership with Internet products and services company Google and microchip maker Intel Corporation.
Africa’s first supercomputer is located in South Africa and is ranked 497 in terms of computing power on the list of 500 supercomputers in the world (http://www.top500.org/).
It is located in the “Tsessebe cluster” in Cape Town’s Centre for High Performance Computing (http://www.chpc.ac.za/).
“With mobile devices coming in multiple cores, it is important for developers to be exposed to higher performance computing; we are hoping to debut at a higher level than ‘Tsessebe cluster’,” Jimmy Gitonga, the project team leader for the iHub cluster, told Computer World.
Africa suffers from poor supercomputer capacity and this has had a knock-on affect on everything to do with economic development. The iHub supercomputer hopes to help universities and colleges to gain competitive edge and be able to undertake more complex research in the fields of media, pharmaceuticals and biomedical engineering.
“In Africa, we need to be on top of the mobile scene, its our widest used device,” Gitonga told Computer World.
Some of the practical applications for the iHub supercomputer in East Africa and the Horn of Africa include improving weather forecasting and drought prediction, increasing the ability to give advance warning of droughts and famines in the region.
“Most of the United Nations agencies and international agencies operating in the region have extensive field research on how to tackle natural disasters in the region. Imagine if they had affordable space where they can meet with developers and test resource-hungry applications,” Gitonga said.
The iHub also wants to offer the services of the supercomputer to researchers and organizations who have had to go abroad to have their data processed. The iHub supercomputer hopes to be used by mobile phone developers, gamers, universities and research institutions.
In the last two years, China had pushed the United States out of the number one spot for supercomputers. The Tianhe-1A located at the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin (http://www.nscc-tj.gov.cn/en/), China, was the fastest computer in the world from October 2010 to June 2011.
For those looking to see how they can make the most of the growing supercomputer capability in Africa, examples from other countries offer a good idea. Supercomputers can be used for weather forecasting, climate research, oil and gas exploration, physical simulations like when testing aircraft, complex modelling for medical research, processing complex social data necessary for delivering effective social programmes or running modern health care systems.
The UN estimates that 500 million people around the world are homeless, and UNICEF estimates India alone has 11 million homeless children on its streets (though it is difficult to pin down the figure). In order to survive another day, these children will work in one way or another. While there are many campaigns to ban children from working, and charities dedicated to getting them off the streets and into shelter, the raw fact remains: many of these children slip through the cracks and remain vulnerable, poor and neglected.
Most street children suffer from malnutrition, hunger, health problems, and abuse. They make ends meet by working various jobs or by stealing. While they have dreams, there is no mechanism for them to save for the future. It is a live-for-now existence that, if they survive to adulthood, means they will probably remain homeless and vulnerable.
Street and working children have money: it is a natural consequence of having to be resourceful to survive. But what they don’t have is access to banking services or trustworthy financial advice that can help them to gain wealth and move out of poverty and into a brighter future.
The Children’s Development Bank in India is one initiative that seeks to turn these neglected children into the next generation of entrepreneurs. The bank works on banking and co-operative principles, where savers are members and joint owners of the bank. Any child can save money with the bank and earn interest, as well as take out loans if they are over 15 years old. It was started in 2001 and was inspired by the Youth Bank in the UK. Interest made by the bank is shared by its members, as with many co-operative banks and credit unions.
The bank is managed jointly by children and adults. The children have a say in how the bank is run and on what conditions it should lend money. They also keep an eye on borrowers to prevent them from running off without repaying loans.
For these vulnerable children, it has many advantages: they can put money aside without fear of it being stolen or lost, save for important things like clothes, or pay for their education.
A key part of the bank’s mandate is helping the children build entrepreneurial skills for business. Mentors help the children choose a business model, select an occupation with minimal risk and more benefits, get training and solve business problems.
The bank has branches in India, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka.
Ten-year-old Deepak Prahlad, a street child in Delhi, dreams of being a doctor.
“I know what it takes to be a doctor. I need to study hard and need to save a lot of money,” he told the Hindustan Times. For now, he works as a rag picker but has started saving 30 to 40 rupees a day in the Children’s Development Bank. The bank has 1,300 members in the city. It pays 3.5 per cent interest on savings accounts.
“Some of them want to fly very high,” said Rita Panicker, who helped set up the bank in 2001. “We have been working with street children for the past two decades. Some of these children are very talented and have entrepreneur qualities. One of the biggest problems facing these children was that they did not have a safe place to keep their hard-earned money. In fact, it was the children who came up with the idea of the children’s bank. It started with 20 members in 2001 – and now it has 1,300 members in Delhi.”
Sudesh, a 15-year-old manager who looks after the bank’s current accounts, said: “We are extremely careful about whom to offer loans since we do not want to see our members’ savings lost because of bad loans. The skills I have learnt here are going to stand me in good stead in life.” Managers are chosen every six months by the children and they compete for the job.
Making Cents International: “It inspires youth, practitioners, policy makers and funders to more effectively share and develop parnerships, programmes and policies that support youth entrepreneurs.”
Tales of African global fashion successes have multiplied in the last few years. African fashion is seeing its profile rise as more and more shows and festivals boost awareness of the continent’s designs, designers and models. In turn, African fashion and design is being taken more seriously as an income and job generator, and as a sector able to weather the ups and downs of the global economy: people always need to wear clothes.
If the global fashion industry were a country, it would rank 7th in global GDP (gross domestic product) (Fashion Performance Network).
In 2011, the apparel retail industry was worth an estimated US $1.1 trillion, and that could grow to US $1.3 trillion by 2016. And the sector is expanding in the global South. It is forecast that India and China combined will be as big a fashion market as the United States by 2015.
One visible aspect of this is the plethora of African fashion weeks that have sprung up.
Launched in 2011, African Fashion Week in London (africafashionweeklondon.com), or AFWL, is a reflection of how far things have come and how much higher the profile of African fashion now is.
The mission behind AFWL is “to promote emerging and established African designers and African-inspired designers from across the globe.” The number of attendees grew from 4,700 in the first year to 20,000 in 2012.
In 2012 it partnered with Côte d’Ivoire Fashion Week (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cote-dIvoire-Fashion-Week/364950310210789), which will hold its third annual event in December 2013. This partnership has meant fashion designers from Côte d’Ivoire can benefit from the higher international profile of appearing at African Fashion Week in London. The theme in 2012 was “Ivorian Textile Products on the American Market.”
“London is one of the most important fashion capitals around the world,” said Côte d’Ivoire Fashion Week’s founder and CEO, Coulibaly Severin on the AFWL website. “It is a great honour for us and the African continent to have a professional international platform to promote African Fashion industry actors, African heritage, African values, African textiles through Africa Fashion Week London.”
The idea is to use the fashion week as a bridge to access the European market.
With the right support, African fashion businesses have huge potential for growth.
A distinctive “Afropolitan” aesthetic (http://afropolitanaesthetic.tumblr.com/) has grown as a phenomenon since 2005, influencing global urban design trends. It can be characterized as urban, sophisticated, tailored and boldly African in its use of colours and patterns. British designer Paul Smith (http://www.paulsmith.co.uk/uk-en/shop/) has been one of many designers to be inspired by the afropolitan look.
While African fashion trends have always influenced the global fashion business, the challenge has been to create viable global African fashion brands that can compete in the global marketplace and in turn create sustainable jobs in Africa.
Pioneers are showing that it can be done.
Featured at Africa Fashion Week in London in 2011, the Nigerian fashion brand Mmabon (mmabon.com) is now looking to pioneer new ways to buy and sell clothing in Africa. The company, which sells affordable casual and custom apparel, is launching a mobile phone app for all devices and is building its own Internet e-commerce website as well. Mmabon had been engaging with customers through Facebook and the BlackBerry smartphone, but realized it could offer a much better experience for customers through an app and an e-commerce website. This shows the future for fashion in Africa is going mobile and going online.
Founded by Elizabeth Idem-Ido, Mmabon is capitalizing on the fact Internet access is improving in Nigeria and is turning to online advertising to drum up customers. The fashion brand is trying to reach 16 to 34 year olds, of which 8 million are believed to be currently on Facebook in Nigeria, according to Idem-Ido.
There is a cultural change underway in the country: people are increasingly feeling comfortable doing commerce online and on mobile phones.
“Nigerian youths are now more willing to buy products over the Internet, unlike five years ago, with the likes of konga.com and jumia.com revolutionizing the online retail scene in Nigeria,” Idem-Ido, who is also a trained lawyer, told VC4Africa (https://vc4africa.biz/).
Konga (Konga.com) is Nigeria’s largest online mall. Opened in 2012, it offers a wide range of products for order across Nigeria. Jumia.com calls itself the “the biggest online shopping mall in Africa”, operating in Morocco, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Kenya. Another player is Ecwid (ecwid.com), which bills itself as an e-commerce solution for small businesses that “is a revolutionary shopping cart that seamlessly integrates with your existing website. It can also be added to your page on social media networks, such as Facebook or mySpace”.
Idem-Ido’s experience with Mmabon over the past two years shows how online marketing can be an effective – and cost-effective – way to broaden a company’s customer base.
“As a business, we have not physically met with 80 per cent of our current customers,” she said. “Orders have been achieved from referrals, BlackBerry Messenger contacts and our official Facebook page. Online marketing improves our visibility without owning a prime-location store and reminds, assures our already existing customers on why we are their preferred brand.”
Her fashion business began humbly as a part-time t-shirt printing hobby for her friends. Then people started ordering custom-designed t-shirts, and so she began a journey exploring fabrics in local and foreign markets.
Mmabon is now the official merchandiser for the Calabar Festival 2013-2015 (calabarfestival.com), the biggest street carnival in West Africa. Taking place in Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria, it attracts a million people.
Mmabon is receiving help from Venture Capital for Africa, or VC4Africa (https://vc4africa.biz/), a community of entrepreneurs and investors helping to build companies in Africa, to raise further investment to grow the brand and the business.
Another success benefiting from international exposure is Malian designer Boubacar Doumbia (http://www.ndomo.net/english/index.html), who is currently making fabrics for design-savvy British furniture and home furnishings store Habitat. The prints with African themes have proven a hit with Habitat customers.
He uses locally grown cotton, which is first dyed using plant-based dyes. A chemical reaction occurs when the iron in the mud is applied to the fabric and turns the existing plant dye black after three applications, or grey after two applications. The mud is washed off and the fabrics are placed in the sun to dry. It is a sustainable and chemical-free approach to dyeing fabrics and also creates vibrant patterns that have caught the attention of people in Europe and elsewhere.
Other outlets who have become enamored with African patterns and themes in Britain include Darkroom Boutique, House of Fraser and the V&A Museum, The Guardian newspaper reported.
As an Ashoka fellow (ashoka.org) – Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide – Boubacar is using the craft as a way to boost skills and opportunities for youth in Mali. He has “overhauled the traditional model of youth apprenticeship in Mali by putting young people in a central, entrepreneurial role from the outset. Rather than simply train students in the methods of textile production, he teaches professional, people and life skills, and encourages his apprentices to become self-sufficient, creative, and innovative”, according to the Ashoka website.
Elsewhere, African fashion style pioneer Gilles Belinga (https://www.facebook.com/GillesBelinga) has become a fashion phenomenon in China. The former communications engineering student had a deeply personal conversion to fashion and style upon arriving in Beijing; the buzzing and vibrant Chinese capital captured his heart.
“I discovered my talent and passion for fashion in China,” he told China Daily.
“I’ve also been given many opportunities here, so I want to pursue my fashion dream in China.”
The Cameroon native has a distinctly afropolitan take on fashion – elegant, tailored suits, strong colours, and a gentleman’s manner – and this fashionable posture landed him modeling work in fashion shows.
He arrived in China in 2008 after his parents divorced and he went from being in a wealthy family back home to having to do any job he could get to survive. He started out in Tianjin, China – an industrial city with a large high-technology sector – and then moved to Beijing to study.
It was there that he fell in love with the city’s fashion scene and hasn’t looked back.
“I never attended fashion school in Africa, but in Beijing, in this fashionable environment I realized that I like drawing clothes, matching colors and mixing fabrics,” he said.
“There are so many fabrics here, which has given me the chance to try out different things. Sometimes you might have a talent in you, but you might not discover that talent if you’re not in a place where it can come out.”
He now designs clothes and has them made by local tailors.
“When I design clothes for clients, I look at the whole person and what kind of message they want to deliver to people,” he said. “Then I check their skin color and think about style and fabric.”
He defies the elitist take on fashion that can be promulgated by fashion magazines and thinks good fashion is for everyone.
“I believe the way you dress sends a message to people about how you want them to think about you.”
He finds Beijing is full of opportunities and he is regularly stopped in the city’s trendy Sanlitun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanlitun) neighbourhood and asked to be in fashion shows.
“In China, you don’t know who you are going to meet. You could be anywhere and meet someone who can change your life.”
And he plans to perfect his skills and designs in China and then take them back to Cameroon one day.
And maybe, in time, Belinga will be the next big fashion thing.
1) African Fashion Week London: AFWL celebrates London’s unique and diverse cultural heritage, topped with the flamboyant mixing of Western and African culture through fashion at the same time promoting Africa’s rich ethnic culture and interpreting it into contemporary designs. Website: africafashionweeklondon.com
2) Gentlemen of Bacongo by Daniele Tamagni, Paul Smith and Paul Goodwin, Publisher: Trolley. Website: amazon.com
The Afropolitan: A magazine and website from South Africa packed with content from an afropolitan perspective. Website: afropolitan.co.za/
8) The Afropolitan Shop: The Afropolitan Shop is an online boutique founded by Beverly Lwenya, that desires to tell an African Design Story. It began as a blog in 2007 called The Afropolitan Network, which highlighted stories and images of the African Diaspora. The Afropolitan Shop is now a growing global brand, specializing in handmade and designer accessories such as jewelry, bags and shoes. Website: theafropolitanshop.com/
The Caribbean island of Cuba has gone its own way economically and socially since its revolution in 1959. The country has seen significant gains in its human development in the decades since, and can boast impressive education levels and good public health care.
But the country has also had a turbulent economy with periods of severe economic contraction. This has increased poverty levels and hunger, in particular during the Special Period beginning in 1990 (http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/havana/lperez2.htm) when the significant subsidies enjoyed by the country from the Soviet Union were pulled and the country saw a steep drop in its ability to import fuel and other goods. Cuba is still trying to repair the economic damage.
In the book Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, Louis A. Perez, Jr. explains: “The old socialist bloc Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) had accounted for almost 85 percent of Cuban trade, transactions conducted almost entirely in nonconvertible currency. Commercial relations with the former Soviet Union declined by more than 90 percent, from $8.7 billion in 1989 to $4.5 billion in 1991 and $750 million in 1993. Trade with eastern European countries ended almost completely.
“Soviet oil imports decreased by almost 90 percent, from 13 million tons in 1989 to 1.8 million tons in 1992. Shipments of capital grade consumer goods, grains, and foodstuff declined and imports of raw materials and spare parts essential for Cuban industry ceased altogether.”
Conducting private business in Cuba was discouraged after the revolution as the state became the dominant arbiter of all economic transactions. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba has experimented at various times with moving to a mixed economy, only to pull back and return to the old ways. But now things are changing significantly after economic reforms that have accelerated since Cuban President Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel in 2008.The reforms began in 2008 with the liberalizing of access to mobile phones, and accelerated between 2010 and 2013, when the number of people working in small businesses tripled.
Cuentapropistas – the Cuban term for entrepreneurs, named after “cuenta propria,” the ability to do business for oneself – have flocked to be officially registered as small businesses, with the number shooting up from 143,000 in 2010, to 429,000 by June 2013 (Report on Business).
Gustavo Kouri told the Report on Business magazine, “Although I enjoyed the work I was doing before – at an information centre in specialized health sciences – it wasn’t possible to earn enough to support my family.
“And then the state opened more opportunities to develop private businesses, for cuenta propia.”
For Luis, becoming an entrepreneur means the chance to “realize a dream.”
“Being able to open a place – a restaurant, a bar, a cafeteria, whatever – is a good opportunity for self-development, for people to demonstrate a capacity for business, and for them to grow personally,” she said. “It’s something incredible.”
Gilberto Valladares owns a hair salon in Old Havana, Arte Corte Studio, and has been able to employ others.
“Initially, it was a dream of dignifying and recovering a certain degree of respect for the trade of hairdresser and barber,” he told the Report on Business. “As my business grew, so did the dream.” He now employs a half dozen people from the neighborhood.
Cuba is attempting to reform and modernize its economy while holding on to the things people hold dear and see as the good achievements of the revolution: free healthcare, education and other public services.
Gregory Biniowsky is a Canadian-trained lawyer and political scientist who has spent more than 15 years living and working in Cuba and works for Havanada Consulting, a firm that focuses on sustainable development projects and social enterprise initiatives. “The irony is those that will save the Revolution are the emerging small- and medium-sized private businesses,” he said. “And those that could destroy it are those elements in the bureaucracy that resist those changes.”
The entrepreneurial spirt gripping the island is infectious. At one time, much of the only reading material available in bookshops were works with a communist or socialist theme. But Cubans now have an alternative: an English-language bookshop called Cuba Libro (https://www.facebook.com/cubalibroHAV). It is filing an urgent gap in the marketplace for English-language books and foreign works in general.
Set up by an American writer and journalist Conner Gorry (connergorry.com), who has been living in Havana, Cuba since 2002, the bookshop has become a hub for free thinking and new ideas.
“I know how hard it is to get English-language sources here,” she told The Associated Press. “So I started cooking this idea.”
Libro is the Spanish word for book and the play on words is meant to evoke a Cuba Libre, a rum-and-cola drink named for the country’s liberation from colonial Spain. The store bills itself as a “cafe, bookstore, oasis,” and its logo features a woman reclining with a cup of coffee and a good book for reading.
The idea came about when a friend of Gorry could not find a place to unload 35 books she had. In time, Gorry amassed a collection of 300 English-language books, and this embryonic library became the book shop. The store also carries magazines, including U.S. titles The New Yorker and Rolling Stone.
So far, the store faces little competition. Government book shops feature the occasional Cuban novel translated into English or the English-language versions of state-run newspapers such as Granma (http://www.granma.cu/ingles/).
Cubans are enjoying the slow thaw and what it could bring. “It is increasing in Cuba, the possibility to have different alternatives,” said Carlos Menendez, a 77-year-old retired economist Menendez.
Cuba Libro has two licenses to operate – one for selling food and one for selling used books – and is run as a type of cooperative, a group-owned private enterprise with five Cubans.
Doing business in Cuba is not without challenges. The bookshop needs to steer a steady path and avoid selling anything that would be considered “counterrevolutionary.” Gorry also needs to avoid problems with the U.S. government, which bans Americans from any financial transactions with the Cuban government.
“I’ve had to tread extremely carefully, everything above-board and legal, because I’m an American, I’m a North American, I am beholden to U.S. laws,” she said. “And so I’m not in agreement with those laws, but I abide by them.”
The bookshop has the benefit of a well-educated pool of potential customers; the annual Havana book festival is a popular draw in the country (http://feriadellibro.cubaliteraria.cu/). There is a strong thirst for self-improvement in Cuba, and to gain knowledge is to get a better paying job. To widen access to the shop, there will be a lending library for those who can’t afford to buy the books on offer, and there will also be English classes.
And how will the bookshop get restocked in a country that still exercises a lot of control over information?
“Getting donations is going to be another interesting piece of it, because importing books here is very difficult,” Gorry said.
1) Cuba Research Center: The Cuba Research Center is a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Virginia. Founded in 2013, its purpose is to provide information about Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations, to participate in public debate about those subjects, and to build bridges between Americans and Cubans interested in those topics. Website: http://www.us-crc.org/
2) Havanada Consulting: Havanada Consulting is a consulting firm which focuses on sustainable development projects and social enterprise initiatives in Cuba. Website: havanada.com
3) Havana Cuba Business: If you are engaged in or would like to learn more about Cuba-related business or travel activities, Havana Cuba Business offer a customized consulting service that will address your questions and concerns. Website: cuentapropistas.com