The Chinese aren't Here to Fix Africa

A couple of years ago, a co-worker and I were taking the 5-hour trek to from Ngara to Mwanza Tanzania. We passed by a long stretch of roads being paved; the usual infrastructure projects popping up across the back roads of Africa. What was hysterical to see were the Chinese men along the route, decked out in floppy hats, gloves, and long sleeved shirts, burning up in the heat, screaming orders to their Tanzanian workers through a loud speaker. I laughed because they looked damn ridiculous, but my coworker nodded his head in approval saying, “the Chinese are doing good work! They will lead Tanzania into a good future. No more need for white people!” Now, what is sadder about this? The fact that he defines innovation and development solely based upon infrastructure projects, or the fact that this thinking will leave one to believe that groups like the Chinese are leading innovation on our continent? For me, a [self-proclaimed] gender and development professional, innovation is not always linked to infrastructure projects or grandiose architectural displays of “Westernization.” Innovation is far beyond Middle Easterners and Asians controlling our cities landscapes with their version of architecture and what is good and “creative.” For me innovation must be young Africans using our insight to solve crucial social problems; issues like poor health services, debilitating political corruption, or lackluster institutions of higher learning, must be attacked in our generation.

Innovation can be taking a social problem within the context of our respective countries, and looking for sustainable solutions. So, innovation can be realizing that there are no medical evacuation mechanisms in all of West Africa, and that people die everyday in this region because they cannot reach proper medical facilities in time. Innovation is what 25-year-old Dr. Ola Orekunrin displayed when she started Flying Doctors Nigeria. After her 11 year old sister fell ill in Nigeria and her family realized that the nearest air ambulance facility was located in South Africa, Dr. Orekunrin worked and fought to break down bureaucratic doors and naysayers to develop West Africa’s first and only air ambulance service. She has shone light on the fact that quality emergency care services are few and far between on our continent and we can be the ones to address that discrepancy. Innovation can also be finding ways to tackle corruption and lack of transparency in our countries. Take Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan-born Harvard educated lawyer, who created the blog Mzalendo. It is a website which provides an unprecedented look at the work of Kenya's parliament, attempting to make accessible to the public information on the voting
patterns and governmental activity of their parliamentary leaders. This is Information that was previously unavailable to Kenyan citizens is now online and accessible to citizens. Now, is this the answer for Kenya or other countries? Maybe not, but its getting people talking, its spotlighting the fact that we actually may not know what our “elected” officials are up to, and its making officials accountable for funds raised and used, and activities approved.

Innovation can be addressing the problem within higher education in Africa, in that the routine memorization that many university institutions are calling “learning” can actually be hindering the intellectual development of African students. Innovation is when Patrick Awuah introduced a liberal arts education to West Africa with Ashesi University. With the university’s mission described as a place to “cultivate within [their] students the critical thinking skills, concern for others, and the courage it will take to transform their continent,” Ashesi is literally molding Africa’s next wave of conscious leaders and socially responsible innovators. With classes like “African Philosophical Thought”, and a new engineering school whose future student body will include 50 percent women, Ashesi is creating a new learning environment focused on personal and academic growth. They offer an important leadership seminar series that pushes students to address issues like wealth distribution and good governance in Africa, and with 95% of graduates staying on the continent after graduation, Ashesi is shaping tomorrows Africa right now.

So who is really leading innovation in Africa today? Well, if you define innovation as building crazy Kenyan skyscrapers, or new futuristic Nigerian hotels that serve flavored foam, it would in large part be outsiders. But lets be honest, the Chinese, the Middle Easterners, and the plethora of Europeans designing, building, and reconstructing our nations will not solve our social issues. This idea that innovation is problem solving, well, this leaves many answers to our continent’s social issues in our very own hands. As Africans, on the continent, and in the diaspora, we have a responsibility to create, innovate, and revolutionize how we address the issues crippling many of our nations today, and we can all start right now.