A new view of Africa at TEDxEuston in London

By Chikwe Ihekweazu and Ike Anya

It can be somewhat of a challenge living in western societies as an African. The media is often filled with stories that stereotype our continent as one filled with corruption, ethnic strife and violence. The occasional flicker of good governance is celebrated as a rare outlier of hope from an otherwise hopeless continent. We do ourselves no favours either. Many of our so called leaders carry themselves with grandeur incompatible with the grim realities of life for most of our people. Watching the plethora of channels now available in the West from Africa – NTA, AIT or BEN TV- only serves to reinforce the stereotype. At a friend’s place recently his 10-year old son could not imagine why his father insisted on watching “NTA Network News” on the Nigerian Television Authority despite its extremely poor technical quality; its rambling on for a full hour covering mundane events in the 3 arms of central government and its lavish detailed accounts of visits to the “first ladies”. So as we construct our lives in the West and our experiences of the continent become distant, a new generation grows up in a society so fundamentally different from the ones we grew up in and search desperately for role models.

Mallam El Rufai

With the growth of internet access and use across the continent, multiple sources of uncontrolled information become an increasingly dominant factor in shaping our thinking. Nearly a decade ago, the TED conferences began in the USA (initially as a niche event) where a few thousand people met to listen to great inspiring speakers and network with others on the power of ideas. As it opened up its talks to more attendees and to more people to listen via the internet, in 2007 it decided to bring the conference to Africa for the first time. TED Global in Arusha was a landmark event. “TEDsters” from all over the world were exposed to an endless series of African entrepreneurs, journalists, artists, professionals and politicians who had chosen an alternative path in re-defining their relationship with the continent. Talks by Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Patrick Awuah, Chris Abani, Dele Olojede, Ory Okolloh, Patrick Mwenda, Eleni Gabre-Madhin among others awed attendees with their ideas and energy. When these talks started becoming available on-line, they became an internet phenomenon as the links were sent around African internet communities, inspiring a whole new generation to think positively about their engagement with the continent.

Mallam Nuhu Ribadu

Recently the organizers of the TED conferences, realizing the power of TED in galvanizing communities, and its own limitation in terms of scalability started a new programme called TEDx. TEDx would keep faith with the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading”. The program was designed to give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences. Having attended TED Global in Arusha in 2007, which inspired us to start the Nigeria Health Watch blog we applied for and got a license to host a TEDx event called TEDxEuston in Euston, London to continue the conversations started in Arusha and re-invigorate ourselves and others to engage constructively with our continent.

As we put the speaker list together, we were pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm of our invited speakers. We found a pleasant venue in one of the halls of the University College London, which styles itself as London’s global University. Once registration opened, places were quickly snapped up and sold out two full days before the event. It was exhilarating to see how many Africans and friends of Africa in London were willing to give up their entire Saturday to be informed, challenged and inspired.

Chika Unigwe

December 5 2009 was a cold, dreary winter day in London but as people trickled into the venue, anticipation continued to grow. The hall was soon full and the stage was set, designed to reflect the chosen theme for the day “Our destiny in our hands: How new ideas are shaping our interaction with Africa”. At 2 pm the hall was full of glamour and energy. The first session was aptly titled “Stories of Hope”. Audrey Brown- a South African journalist working with the BBC- started by exploring how the knowledge of our history works in defining our perception of our realities, alluding to her personal history of growing up under apartheid south Africa. Then came Onyekachi Wambu; a journalist and film maker – challenging conventional wisdom of how we choose our leaders, drawing comparisons with the historical evolution of other civilizations and how they have evolved systems to control the instinct of dominance intrinsic in many societies. Publisher ,Bryan Pearson, a true friend of the continent, explored some of his experiences travelling in Africa throughout his life and the joys and challenges that this has brought. The session was ended by a new Nigerian writer; Chika Unigwe. Chika held the audience spell bound by challenging us on the lens through which we saw the world and how that influences our thinking and reality. While working on her new book “On Black Sisters Street”, she explored the realities of African prostitutes in Brussels, not by sending them questionnaires or by organizing focus group discussions but by joining in their reality, eating, living and just being with them as a “sister”.

The second session of the day was themed around entrepreneurs driving change in Africa. An attendee later told us that if Funmi Iyanda’s talk was all she heard on the day, she would have left satisfied. Funmi followed up on the theme introduced by Chika. She explored her own history growing up in very simple conditions in Lagos. Now she is trying to tell the stories of numerous “ordinary” Nigerians, who through sheer ingenuity are eking out a living while contributing to their societies despite being ignored by the formal societal institutions as lost causes. Funmi, regarded by most Nigerians as our answer to Oprah held the audience entranced as she took them through various clips from her new project Talk2Funmi showing the faces and lives of ordinary Nigerians. Lawrence Mbugua took the stage exploring how the Diaspora by investing in Africa can change the lot of people much more than any Government can. He gave a series of examples of financial services being offered on mobile phone platforms across the continent. Bola Olabisi ended this session with her thought provoking talk on her efforts to highlight the impact female inventors are making on the continent and around the world. She has taken it up as her life’s goal to empower women to be active in harnessing benefits from their innovations by copyrighting their inventions and getting some credit for their huge inputs into our societies.

At this point you could feel the expectation rising as it became time for the final session of the day “Seeking transformational leadership”. The session began with a video of one of the most watched TED talks by Patrick Awuah. Patrick told the story of how having reached the pinnacle of a career in corporate America working for Microsoft, he packed

his bags and returned to Ghana to set up a University concentrating on training Africa’s next generation of leaders. In exploring his own motivation, he recalled some examples of what he referred to as “breathtakingly bad decisions” being taken by the people managing Ghana’s economy at the time.

The first live speaker was Mallam Nasir El Rufai who had spent the entire day sitting quietly at the back taking notes from all the other talks. He explored his own transformation from a private sector person to a public sector leader and how his experiences in the private sector influenced many of the decisions in the public sector. Describing his experience in leadership in Nigeria, he had come to the conclusion that ethnicity and religion were being used as a tool by politicians to divide the country for political capital and ended with an assertion that in the final analysis there were only two types of leaders: good ones and bad ones. He ended his talk with a surprising assertion that most of the continent’s resources should be spent on developing the infrastructure in its cities as a priority over rural areas. Love the man or not; you could not but admire the rigour with which he built his argument and sold it to the audience.

Segun Aganga a managing director at Goldman Sachs then recounted his experiences from childhood and the great educational institutions that produced his generation of Nigerians and how these have all been literally run to ground. In response to this, Segun, in collaboration with others launched the Nigerian Leadership Initiative. Then came Remi Adeseun who had given up a career as a successful entrepreneur with a medical technology company for his third career as Regional Director West Africa of Smile Train, the world’s largest cleft lip and palate charity. Remi held the audience spell-bound as he challenged us in our tendency to over celebrate our few “high achievers” to the detriment of the institutions they represent. The final talk was by Mallam Nuhu Ribadu who arrived straight from the airport in Heathrow. Nuhu has been forced out of Nigeria since he led the prosecution of many of Nigeria’s most corrupt politicians; many who are now king makers in the present reality in Nigeria. Nuhu took the audience through some of the real challenges he faced while the Chief Executive of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in Nigeria and the sacrifices that he is being forced to make as a consequence thereof. But he made it clear that he was very aware of the potential cost of taking the stand he did but still believed that such sacrifices were necessary in the building of every nation. He said that his belief in Nigeria and its future remains unshaken and that the onus was on our generation not to abdicate our responsibility and leave the country in the grips of the few individuals that seem to define the image of the country. He left the hall in pin drop silence.

As the day ended and the talks merged into a cocktail reception, people felt energized and reinvigorated. Conversations were heated between the speakers and attendees on what to do and how to do it. You could feel the energy in the room. We were advised to be patient with the various ideas emerging in our subconscious, but to move decisively in making these ideas reality.

All the talks on the day will be available online at www.TEDxEuston.com from January 2009.

Chikwe Ihekweazu and Ike Anya on behalf of the team TEDxEuston organising team

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  • Plenty good talk but very little real action. We Africans are full of nice ideas and know how things should be managed and run, but put them in positions of power and their self centered and selfish traits takes over at the detriment of the masses which they are supposed to serve.