March 25th, 2011
12:43 PM GMT
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As international attention focuses on Libya, there is criticism that another African country, which is also sliding into civil war, has been abandoned to its fate.

The intractable violence in the Ivory Coast continues unabated.

West African leaders say that the situation is a "regional humanitarian emergency."

The U.N. peacekeeping mission warns that forces loyal to former President Laurent Gbgabo are using heavy weapons to target civilians.

Alassane Ouattara, the man recognized by African leaders as the winner of last year’s presidential election, blames the U.N. for not doing enough to protect civilians. It is estimated that hundreds of ordinary Ivorians have been killed since November’s disputed election, including defenseless women protestors mowed down by government forces and then aired on YouTube.

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March 23rd, 2011
02:42 PM GMT
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Tendai Biti, the Zimbabwean Finance Minister, is a history buff. He loves to read about the Second World War and he is passionate about understanding his country in the greater context of history.

While he doesn’t want to underestimate the political challenges facing Zimbabwe, he believes the international community has failed Zimbabwe and that he and his countrymen have been “hung out to dry.”

When Biti and his party, the MDC, joined Robert Mugabe’s party in a coalition government two years ago, there was hope that the stabilization brought about by the political agreement would see a flurry of foreign investment. It wasn’t to be.

Biti is now on a mission to urge the West to engage more with Zimbabwe and quotes the impact of the 1947 Marshall Plan as proof of what can be done if there is political will.

Biti believes the international community has mismanaged recovery in the past two years. He says the West has failed to understand the dynamics of the country and been “unstrategic” in their dealings with Zimbabwe.

He identifies three attitudes hindering foreign investment in Zimbabwe. The first school of thought is “wait and see what happens.” The second approach urges Zimbabweans to “show progress, give proof they are moving” and the third way is to say, “as long as Mugabe is there we will never engage.” He says all positions are wrong. He suggests finding ways to do business with ordinary Zimbabweans.

Many who listen to his studied argument are not convinced. There is a sense that Zimbabwe – despite the unity government – is still firmly in the grip of Robert Mugabe and that the political future of the country is unpredictable.

Will foreign-owned companies be expropriated? How secure are property rights? How much longer can the fragile coalition hold? Will an early election bring more violence and intimidation?

All questions that no doubt infuriate Tendai Biti as he tries to rebuild an economy on the rickety foundations of a coalition government that even he calls an “unholy alliance.”

But here’s another: Will Zimbabwe confound the sceptics and increase investor confidence if the international community continues to be blamed for being too cautious?



March 17th, 2011
01:27 PM GMT
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I recently discovered a tiny nugget of information that I am savoring.

Don’t get too excited. It is just a word; only two syllables of linguistic pleasure. It’s a word that doesn¹t really make sense when you first read it. However, it is quite pleasant to say out loud.

Go on, say it:

“Bushpunk.”

I was doing some online research on African innovation and creativity and stumbled on the concept of ”bushpunk,” which is described as a uniquely African way of making something out of nothing. Or as some might say, “low-tech solutions to high-tech challenges.”

One blog I discovered, www.bombasticelements.blogspot.com, describes ”bushpunk” as when we, “unhitch our imagination” and repurpose or “cannibalize” objects to refashion them to meet our demands.

In Africa, the staggering growth of mobile-phone banking, for example, grew out of this need to use mobile phones for more than just making calls.

In Kenya, a similar description refers to this same sense of grassroots innovation. “Jua kali” literally means sitting in the “hot sun” in Swahili and it describes an industry of roadside inventors creating things in the open-air.

Across the continent, there are numerous examples of how people interpret objects and technology for themselves. We have all seen those homemade radios or the makeshift generators that litter the African urban landscape.

In Lagos, there is a bustling industry of pavement computer experts. In Maputo, satellite dishes are rewired to provide access to whole apartment blocks. In South Africa, I have seen kids fashion toys out of discarded rubbish that make you smile with wonder.

Then there are the local inventions that make you wonder why the research and development department of a global multinational didn’t think of it: bicycles that also charge cellphone batteries while you peddle or the vuvuzela-like washing machine for rural women to use.

It is a fascinating combination of poverty breeding ingenuity. Millions of Africans lack opportunities to better themselves but everyday they create a wealth of innovations that defy the boundaries of their village.

Harnessing the power of “bushpunk” is the next step in Africa's development.

What are the most ingenious African solutions you have seen or heard of?



March 10th, 2011
01:23 PM GMT
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As usual, it seems the Zimbabwean government isn’t singing from the same hymnbook, as the saying goes.

During a conference in Harare set up to try to encourage “investment in Zimbabwe,” a slew of mixed messages emerged that cannot have done much to change perceptions that Zimbabwe is a “business unfriendly” destination.

The investment conference attracted hundreds of delegates, among them business people, policy makers, financiers and key overseas players keen to explore business opportunities in the troubled nation.

However, instead of placating international investors, conflicting comments from the two factions in the Zimbabwean government have managed to highlight exactly why it is still deeply risky to invest in Zimbabwe.

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March 7th, 2011
11:33 AM GMT
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What sound would you associate with Africa? For me, it is the hum of generators.

From Lagos to Maputo, from Addis Ababa to Dar es Salaam, many businesses are powered by generators because power is either non-existent or intermittent.

I recently chatted with someone from the World Energy Council and he told me that in most sub-Saharan African countries about 15% of the population has access to a consistent, standard supply of electricity. It is only in three countries (South Africa, Mauritius and Botswana) that electricity access rates are above 50%, he said.

Basically, nearly three-quarters of the continent has no access to power when the sun sets over Africa. We know that seen from space at night, Africa is pitch dark while other regions twinkle with light.

The implications are huge. I concede that this realization is nothing new - the need for more power stations and for creating clean sources of energy is a widely recognized issue. However, I spend each week talking about “Business in Africa” and the striking question is, how will Africa embrace the opportunities of the 21st century if there is no stable electricity network to power growth?

As the continent continues to develop at the rates we are currently seeing, the demand for more power is only going to grow. This is, of course, only going to put further pressure on the already inefficient infrastructure.

There are solutions - and many countries are trying to rectify the situation - but the process is expensive and slow.

How bad is the electricity situation where you are? Which African country is the worst affected by power cuts? How do you deal with not having regular electricity? Is this issue one of the biggest barriers to development?



February 23rd, 2011
10:46 AM GMT
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If you are poor, one of the cheapest nutritious fast foods you can buy is a “vetkoek” or “magwenya” from a makeshift shop on a Johannesburg pavement.

Magwenya resemble donuts and make for a filling breakfast for thousands of South Africans, who buy them outside taxi ranks and train stations.

These days, however, even vetkoek are becoming pricier. Food inflation has started to hit southern Africa, belatedly. Prices last year were relatively low compared to the global average because local harvests and supply conditions were more favorable than normal. Now, economists warn people living in sub-Saharan Africa to brace for food price shocks.

The cost of one vetkoek is now one Rand; that’s only about 13 U.S. cents but it’s double the price from 2008, when I took a mini-poll among vetkoek sellers during another bout of price shocks.

Oil, flour, yeast, sugar, salt, and sometimes mince, are the ingredients in vetkoek. Most of these foodstuffs will average a 10-12% increase over the year, says one business leader in the food industry.

Cooking oil prices are due to really soar, and further impact the cost of vetkoek, because sunflower seed prices were reportedly up more than 50% year on year.

All this means that the southern African poor will continue to spend most of their disposable income on basic food. Others will forgo little luxuries.

And if prices rise to the high levels that economists predict they will there is the expectation that many more people will be hungry this coming winter.

So my questions are: Do you think food security is one of the most pressing global concerns? What are the solutions? Are you already feeling the pinch of high food prices?



February 19th, 2011
11:26 AM GMT
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(CNN) - How infectious is this wind of change sweeping through North Africa? Will it blow south? Or continue to move east across the Middle East?

These are questions that are being debated in Africa.

The East African, a Kenyan-based newspaper, recently had an article entitled, "The Revolution in Black Africa won't be played out in the streets."

The Mail and Guardian’s Zimbabwean proprietor Trevor Ncube just published a hard-hitting analysis entitled, “We are our own liberators." In it he urges the "Zimbabwean masses to do what they have got to do; the cost of doing nothing is too high."

Both articles, and countless others written in the past month, reflect a deep sense of soul-searching by Africans. Hard questions are being asked if Africans can emulate what has been achieved on the northern edges of the continent.

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February 11th, 2011
01:06 PM GMT
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There has been much criticism in South Africa in the past few months around a “youth conference,” which apparently cost millions of dollars to host.

There has been a great sense of indignation in the media about the amount of money spent on what was seen as just a “talk fest.”

Whether you like it or not, conferences are a reality of modern business life. From the big-hitting World Economic Forum in Davos to the small-town gathering of local municipal players, for example, conferences are ubiquitous events.

However, South Africans are particularly fond of putting on large meetings to talk things through. Called anything from a summit to an "indaba" or a "legotla," they are encouraged as a very African way of dealing with issues.

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February 2nd, 2011
02:42 PM GMT
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South Africans have been counting how much Nelson Mandela means to them recently. His ill heath has made many here reflect on the life of the former South African president.

The feelings are genuine. Many South Africans consider Mandela to be the grandfather of this nation's multi-racial democracy and the moral voice of the country.

For so many, he is irreplaceable. His worth is unquantifiable.

Ever since he was released from prison in 1990, people have wanted to "own" a bit of Mandela. So you can buy all sorts of Mandela memorabilia in South Africa: Images of his face can be seen on gold coins, handbags, salt and pepper shakers, place mats, clocks and a lot else.

This was upsetting to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. They were concerned Mandela's legacy would be demeaned if he became "just another face on a T-shirt," like Che Guevara. So they clamped down on excessive merchandising of his image.

It seems to have worked. Much of the stuff you can now buy has been "approved" by Mandela's office.

There is good reason for being careful about the Mandela brand – his is probably one of the world's most recognizable names. So the Mandela Foundation has been trying to ensure that his name becomes synonymous with his values, rather than cheap T-shirts. There has been a concerted effort to make sure that Mandela's legacy endures long after he has gone.

But on the streets here, as South Africans count how much Mandela means to them, his "brand" and his "image" are hollow words.

For them, you cannot put a price on what Mandela did to bring peace and democracy to this nation perched on the southern tip of Africa.



January 20th, 2011
01:39 PM GMT
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I recently spent some time chatting to the Zimbabwean Finance Minister Tendai Biti. We have talked, on camera, in the past and he is always candid and sometimes surprisingly honest in his interviews.

He has admitted to having some sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome after enduring years of brutality and imprisonment by the Mugabe regime. In the past two years, he and his party, the MDC, have been in a ‘unity government’ with Mugabe’s ZANU PF. It is, he says, a bit like "supping with the devil" or engaging in some sort of "unholy alliance." But he and his peers have persevered, he says.

Biti’s job has been to try to stabilize the Zimbabwean economy; he says his first task was to bring down hyperinflation, which he did by stopping the printing presses, which were churning out Zimbabwean dollars. By implementing what he calls ‘commonsense policies’ there has been a slow normalization of the economy.

However, foreign investors, multilateral institutions and states are still very wary of investing in Zimbabwe. The fact that President Robert Mugabe is still a player makes many people concerned about the levels of political risk in Zimbabwe. The degree of uncertainty is just too volatile for many.

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