Monday, September 27, 2010

I'm lighting up rural communities and lifting people out of poverty

Another Kenyan Hero is born...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

'Patient' Capital for an Africa That Can't Wait

Published: April 20, 2007 New York Times


Last week, I was touring northern Tanzania when our car passed the small town of Karatu and we suddenly came upon an open field splashed with colors so bright and varied it looked from afar as if someone had painted a 30-color rainbow on the landscape.

As we got closer, I discovered that it was Karatu's huge clothing market. Merchants had laid out blankets piled with multicolored shirts, pants and dresses, much of it used clothing from Europe, and were hawking their goods.

This was not Nordstrom. A man with a tape measure dangling from his back pocket and a megaphone in his hand was shouting: ''A thousand shillings for these trousers. It's like giving them away.'' Men and women, themselves dressed in brightly colored native Tanzanian garments, sifted through the mounds of clothing, holding shirts or slacks up against their bodies to see if they fit.

Scenes like this remind you that Africa is neither all tragedy nor all renaissance. It is a diverse continent that's struggling to find its way in the global economy and has both of these extremes, but is much more in a middle place that looks like that field in Karatu: a wild, unregulated, informal, individual brand of capitalism, which we need to channel into formal companies that can grow and scale up, even with corrupt governance.

Africa needs many things, but most of all it needs capitalists who can start and run legal companies. More Bill Gateses, fewer foundations. People grow out of poverty when they create small businesses that employ their neighbors. Nothing else lasts.

Whenever you read about capital flowing into Africa, though, it tends to be from big lenders like the World Bank, which have very strict criteria and work on big projects, or from microfinanciers, giving out $50 to a woman to buy a sewing machine. Microfinance has a role, but many people don't want the pressure of being an entrepreneur. They want the stability and prosperity of a job created by capitalist risk takers and innovators. See India.

In some ways what Africa needs most today is more ''patient'' capital to spur its would-be capitalists. Patient capital has all the discipline of venture capital -- demanding a return, and therefore rigor in how it is deployed -- but expecting a return that is more in the 5 to 10 percent range, rather than the 35 percent that venture capitalists look for, and with a longer payback period.

A good example of what happens when you combine patient capital, talent and innovation in Africa is the Kenyan company Advanced Bio-Extracts (ABE), headed by Patrick Henfrey. He and his partners put together a fascinating group of both white and black African farmers and scientists to build the first company in Africa to cultivate the green leafy plant artemisia, often called sweet wormwood, and transform it into pharmaceutical grade artemisinin -- a botanical extract that is the key ingredient in a new generation of low-cost, effective malaria treatments commonly known as artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs). Malaria still kills nearly one million people in Africa every year, more than H.I.V.-AIDS.

From its factory outside Nairobi, ABE is not only processing the feedstock for the drug, but has also contracted with 7,000 farmers, most with small farms, to grow artemisia in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The crop gives farmers four times the financial yield of corn.

''We are commercializing a product that had never been commercialized,'' Mr. Henfrey said. To make it possible, though, the founders had to not only scrape together all their own money, but also had to find investors, like the Swiss drug giant Novartis and the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture capital investor based in the U.S., to put up patient risk capital. (Banks demanded collateral that ABE did not have.)

''Those little windows of support make these things happen,'' Mr. Henfrey said. ''We could not have done it otherwise.''

Nthenya Mule, Acumen's Kenya country director, commented to me that the stereotype of Africa is that it is hopeless and just waiting around for the West to come to its rescue. In reality, she added, ''there are positive things happening in Africa, but they are not happening overnight, and some are happening quietly. ABE is exemplary. You will not see it as front-page news, but in 18 months they set up a factory with 160 people interfacing with 7,000 farmers and supplying one of the major pharma companies in the world.

''Those stories need to be talked about. It is critical to see things in action. A pothole in the road does not require a workshop. Fill it. We need a new kind of drug -- let's go out and make it instead of let's talk about it for the hundredth time.''

Correction: April 25, 2007, Wednesday Correction from my last column: H.I.V.-AIDS kills more people in Africa than malaria.

Social enterprise: It takes a network

Social enterprise: It takes a network

Teaching the world to change

Teaching the world to change

Who will sit at table where list of national heroes will be drawn up?

Posted Saturday, September 4 2010 at 18:22

In Summary
Honours: The new law recognises only three national days

The next national day is Mashujaa (Heroes’) Day, formerly Kenyatta Day, on October 20. It is going to be the first national day celebrated under our new Constitution, which recognises only two other national days on the calendar – Jamhuri Day and Madaraka Day.

It was indeed a great thing to establish a Heroes’ Day. But there are pregnant questions that remain unanswered. Who should be designated a national hero? What exactly are the criteria? And who establish these criteria? There will be plenty of fireworks if this issue is not sorted out well.

Some weeks ago, precisely the same problem arose in Zimbabwe when President Robert Mugabe refused to have a trade unionist-turned opposition politician buried at the national shrine in Harare called Heroes’ Acre.

It would be too glib to say that the man – Gibson Sibanda – was denied the honour merely because he was an opposition figure. I have problems myself with the supposition that just because you shout a lot against a particular regime in power, and you have been jailed for it, therefore you deserve the same consideration as a Nelson Mandela.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s most compelling novel, A Grain of Wheat, which was published in 1967, paints a vivid picture of the frantic preparations and the nervous anticipation on the eve of the 1963 Uhuru Day celebrations. Ngugi’s warning about the follies of mistaken heroism was prophetic.

Within a few years of independence, Kenya quickly drifted into the habit of rewarding sly but undeserving lackeys and sidelining individuals who bore the real sacrifice.

Sure, I often feel Ngugi over-romanticises the Mau Mau heroes, but I am entirely in agreement that the Elder of the Golden Heart honour that is routinely awarded to the ever-changing roster of Cabinet ministers does not in any way define national heroism.

Why, to start with, should national heroes always be politicians? Shouldn’t we broaden the definition? Who, for instance, is Jamaica best known for across the entire world other than reggae icon Bob Marley? Isn’t it the same for Pele and Brazil?

The search for a new constitutional order and for comprehensive change has been a long process, longer than the 20 years we often cite. Yet the struggle towards Kenya’s self-actualisation as a country has been much longer still.

Who should the triumph belong to? The short-termers and self-publicists who imagine any change of government is a “liberation” or those who know the true markers are when something truly historic occurs?

And can we distinguish minor heroes who fought localised proto-nationalist struggles from those who had truly national agendas? Should every Mekatilili, Waiyaki Hinga or Koitalel get a statue in the capital city? If we were to examine their philosophies, what would they be about?

Most crucially, who will sit at the table where the list of the heroes is drawn up? A committee of self-important commissioners or a diverse company of thinkers and ordinary Wanjikus? How will we ensure the list is not a product of temporary political fads or the self-serving agendas of those holding power?

Let me go back again to Zimbabwe and the controversy there over Heroes’ Acre. I don’t think the brouhaha was because this Sibanda fellow was qualified to be buried at the shrine.
The fracas was really about the fact that the dominant Zanu-PF party has not openly defined its criteria for designating a person a national icon for reasons other than having participated in the liberation struggle.

Speaking of Mugabe, there is contemporary tendency to imagine the nasty things people say about him these days to mean his past liberation record is zero. A lot of African independence pioneers find themselves suffering the same fate today. But, if we start on this path, we will be demeaning Mashujaa Day.

It was Mugabe, after all, who agreed without any hesitation that his biggest political antagonist (and fellow liberation hero), the late Joshua Nkomo, belonged at Heroes’ Acre.