Congo’s Cannabis

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In a nation known for minerals, a controversial crop is on the rise.

Before he started growing weed, Koti spent his days digging holes and tunnels, mining for morsels of gold. He would smoke weed — or bangias he calls it — to overcome his fear of the darkness that he faced underground. As a teen, he saw a tunnel collapse, trapping five fellow miners — only one was rescued. “It’s dangerous,” says Koti, of the illegal minerals trade that many eastern Congolese families depend on. “People were dying.”

The tragedy frightened him, but with no other source of income, he was back at the mine the next day. Then, in 2007, a foreign mining company kicked Koti and the other small-time miners off the land. With no other job, he bought cannabis seeds from a neighbor, planted them and, six months later, harvested a crop of cannabis that measured in the kilos. “I had no other job,” says Koti, who asked that his real name be withheld out of fear of authorities. “So I decided to start growing marijuana.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s second-largest nation by area, is known for nefarious trade in copper, coltan, cobalt, tin and other minerals. But now, tens of thousands of Congolese like Koti are setting their sights on a different sort of illegal resource: cannabis. The United Nations estimates that Africa produces 10,500 metric tons of cannabis — a fourth of all the marijuana in the world. Between 27 million and 53 million Africans use the drug, making up about one-fourth of all weed users worldwide.

But while cannabis farming comes without the physical fears that accompany mining, it carries its own share of risks, wrapped in politics from across the Atlantic. Decades of U.S. and international pressure are a key reason why cannabis cultivation is illegal in Congo. In 1961, the U.S. voted in favor of the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which added marijuana to the list of drugs that were banned internationally. The way to solve America’s drug “problem” was by pinching off the global supply, or so the thinking went.

Farmers can’t receive international aid to grow an illegal crop. It also leaves them vulnerable to harassment from corrupt police officials.

The penalization of cannabis in Congo is endorsed by the U.S. at a time when many states are decriminalizing the drug at home. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has funded “alternative livelihood” programs to shift Afghan farmers away from cannabis. And in 2005, the U.S. vetoed an international attempt to “reschedule” cannabis as a less dangerous substance — a move that could have opened the doors to deregulation.

Read the full feature at OZY.

Hopes for African tech are high. But who will train the coders?













A good coder is hard to find, as Kenyan entrepreneur Tonee Ndungu knows. Nairobi is chock-full of mediocre ones, while those with real skills are in such high demand they work “five jobs at the same time,” says Ndungu, whose startup, Kytabu, aims to bring digital textbooks to African schoolkids. Ndungu searched far and wide, from Kazakhstan to India, and nearly sputtered for lack of talent.

Then he learned of Moringa School, a for-profit startup that aims to turn tech-savvy Kenyans into employable programmers and developers, coders and designers in a matter of months. After visiting Moringa’s classrooms this spring, Ngundu offered two students 14-day internships — and hired them almost immediately afterward. The pair are working so quickly, Ngundu says, that he has moved up Kytabu’s launch date by three months.

As cities like Nairobi, Lagos and Kigali become major tech investment hubs, the promise of smart new jobs has rightly generated a lot of hope. Picture far-away armies of bright young developers, coders and UX specialists quietly building the infrastructure of the global digital economy while boosting their own prospects. It’s a fine picture, indeed. But an important question remains, and it has become a quandary for entrepreneurs, aspiring techies and governments alike: Who will train the young Africans to fill the jobs?

Find out at OZY.

Is This Africa’s Real Silicon Savannah?

Jacob Kushner for OZY

Off a dirt road, atop a grassy hill, the plains of central Kenya seem endless. The nearest town is a decent hike away. But here, in the middle of nowhere, I pull out my iPhone, and within seconds I’m checking my email on a hot spot provided by Mawingu Networks. The connection is superb.

Is this Africa’s real Silicon Savannah? Even as Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria vie for that mantle and the jobs that come with it, they’ve focused mostly on cities, neglecting the farmland and actual savannahs that lie beyond. Conventional wisdom says the countryside’s lack of infrastructure makes broadband too daunting; titans like Google and Facebook are looking to balloons and drones to solve the rural Internet conundrum. Which is why Mawingu Networks’ solution is so remarkable. Not only does it bring the Internet age to the boonies, and cheaply, but it does so with a technology so old you might not know about it: TV white space.

Read the full story at OZY.

Did Obama Avoid the Difficult Questions in Kenya?

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In an age of terrorism, many countries — the United States among them — face a difficult balance between security and civil rights. For Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, the fight against al-Shabab is no less than “existential.” But human rights groups here say the way Kenya is fighting terrorists will only cause instability and insecurity in the long run. When Muslims see their peers extorted, or worse, by the police, the natural response is anger. A few may even be drawn into the arms of the terrorists, says Mgandi Kalinga, an investigator with local human rights group Haki Africa. A few is all it takes. And so, “the security situation in Kenya is compromised by the government itself,” Kalinga said.

More than any other U.S. president in history, Barack Obama has the chance to shape the course of Kenya’s fight against al-Shabab, not just because of his Kenyan ancestry, but because the United States has helped fund it and train those who are carrying it out. His visit to Kenya over the weekend offered an unprecedented opportunity to influence its parameters.

Did Obama dodge the difficult questions?

Read the full story at OZY.

In Nairobi, Social Powered Taxis?

Polina Kazak for MaraMoja

As the heavyweight Uber enters Nairobi’s robust taxi market, a start-up called MaraMoja is adapting to the local scene

In January, the taxi-app juggernaut Uber set up shop on the crowded byways of Kenya’s capital city. But already a bevy of local taxi apps operate in Nairobi. Banking on the universality of its technology, Uber has not taken local taxi culture into account much, unlike its competitors — it insists on giving users the exact same experience anywhere in the world. But the truth is that Nairobi is not Brooklyn, or San Francisco, or Washington, D.C.  From culture to infrastructure to labor force, the challenges are different.

That’s why one competitor, Maramoja (“very fast”) might have a leg up on Uber and everyone else. Based on the premise that passengers would trust a driver whom a friend recommends, it scours your phone’s address books and social networks — Facebook, for now — to find drivers your friends trust. “People told me, ‘I won’t even get in a car with anyone but my guy,” says Jason Eisen, an American consultant who co-founded Maramoja. “They tell me this horror story or that horror story. But then they all have the same problem when their guy isn’t available — they need someone else that they trust.”

Maramoja says it has data to back up its model. It ran experiments in which subjects used the app to choose between two drivers stationed equal distance away: one recommended by a friend and the other with a 3-, 4- or 5-star rating. Subjects chose the driver recommended by a friend a whopping 96 percent of the time.

Read the full story at OZY or at USA Today.

Pay by Phone? Africa’s Got It Covered

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The introduction of Apple Pay, which allows users to pay via smartphone, has generated plenty of buzz. But when it comes to mobile money, America trails years — seven years — behind another country: Kenya.

The mobile money app M-Pesa launched in 2007 and now has more than 15 million users in Kenya — plus millions more across South Africa, Afghanistan and the rest of the globe. By 2012, the value of M-Pesa transactions reached $18 billion, equal to about 41 percent of Kenya’s GDP. For those interested in emerging markets, M-Pesa has become a larger-than-life success story: It launched a hundred research papers and became a sort of holy grail for other telecom companies, which have tried — largely in vain — to replicate its model around the world.

But M-Pesa’s model may finally be spreading. Last month, Kenya’s Equity Bank introduced a new piece of technology that literally piggybacks off of M-Pesa’s success. Called a “thin sim,” the paper-thin chip slips under a standard SIM card used in mobile phones by Safaricom, the telecommunications company that owns M-Pesa. Operating like a second SIM, the device will connect to its own cellular network to allow users to make instant money transfers, just like M-Pesa.

Those in the industry are watching closely, not just to see whether another player can finally shake M-Pesa’s dominance, but also because the technology could finally make mobile payments feasible in other developing countries. If so, it could further blur the line between banking and telecom, and potentially offer market access to the hundreds of millions around the world who have a phone but no bank account.

Read more: Pay by Phone? Africa’s Got It Covered | Fast Forward | OZY

Driving Drunk in Nairobi? There’s an App for That.

It started out as a nice idea that made a sharp left turn and then took a whole new direction. A 22-year-old Kenyan developer, getting the idea from a class at Strathmore University in Nairobi, wanted to create an app to help drivers avoid bad traffic and accidents. But when he learned that a friend had just been stopped by police at an alcohol Breathalyzer checkpoint, he decided to turn it into an app that would warn drivers about checkpoints — and it took off.

Fifty people downloaded it the first day. Three days later, 2,500. Then 5,000.

But the fun didn’t last. The police soon took notice, and Brian Osoro says an officer called him to try to persuade him to take the app down. “A friend of mine who’s doing law told me this was obstruction of justice,” he says. “In my conscience, I thought, ‘This is bad.’” He read about a drunk driver — of a bus carrying students — who lost control of the vehicle and crashed. No one died, but “I thought to myself, this could be my cousin, one of my brothers. This could get them killed.” Ultimately he took it down, and today he has a much different and successful app– one that helps, not hinders, justice.

Read the full story at OZY.

Africa’s Farming Revolution Starts Here

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For more than two centuries, The Old Farmer’s Almanac seemed to hold the answer to every crop grower’s questions, like when is the best time to plant onions (“as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring”) or harvest potatoes (“after 10 weeks, usually in early July”).

Agnes Mwaki prefers to use an app. After the 49-year-old banana farmer in Meru County, Kenya, recently switched to growing onions — a more profitable crop — she needed help determining when to transplant the seedlings and when to harvest. Through a government program that provides her with a smartphone, Mwaki now uses WhatsApp to send a photo of her onions each week to an agronomist. “When I spot a problem, I just take a photo and send it to the agricultural officer, and she describes the drug [I’m] supposed to use and I buy it,” says Mwaki.

In recent years a growing group of mobile apps has moved in with access to real-time advice and market intelligence, and the latest of that technology is originating where this kind of data is increasingly vital: Africa.

Read the full story at OZY.

Is High Tech the Solution to Corruption in Kenya?

01 Sep 2006, Nairobi, Kenya — A Kenyan policeman board a minibus (Matatu) after the vehicle was stopped for a traffic offence in the capital Nairobi September 1, 2006. Thousand of Kenyans mobbed private minibuses, throwing elbows and squirming onto the loudly painted vehicles across the nation on Friday after a government push to enforce safety rules left many without transport. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna (KENYA) — Image by © ANTONY NJUGUNA/X90056/Reuters/Corbis

Even the smallest of bribes can stifle an economy when they’re magnified millions of times over.

When a police officer gets caught soliciting a bribe, most people would tend to blame the cop. In Kenya, the government is trying a new approach: clamping down on the people whopaythe cop.

And they’re going about it in a strange way, ordering that Nairobi’s public matatus— the beat-up, privately owned vans that ferry most of the city’s commuters — go high-tech. Passengers are being asked to use popular mobile banking applications like m-pesa to pay the fares. No more cash-carrying passengers, no more bribes, the thinking goes.

Many in Kenya say government officials aren’t naïve in their hope to stem corruption this way — they’re just plain lazy. High-tech solutions like digital fare cards or mobile phone payment apps abound. But Kenya may be no exception to the rule that ending bribery must begin and end with old-fashioned justice for the people who solicit the bribes.
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Read the full story at OZY.

Kofi Awoonor: ‘To Feed Our People’

Remembering the Poet Who Dreamed of a United Africa

A year ago this month, gunmen affiliated with the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab stormed the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The three-day standoff killed 67 people and wounded many more. The event riveted the world for days. Those who survived are still recovering.

Among the dead was the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor. He’d come to Nairobi that weekend to speak at Storymoja, a Pan-African literary festival. Hundreds of Kenyans and visitors from around the world had gathered at the National Museum downtown to discuss literature, memory, politics and country, and to meet luminaries like Awoonor. The poet had led a workshop, presented a talk about his forthcoming book and taken part in a press conference.

But Awoonor was at the Westgate Mall, enjoying the company of his son, Afetsi, when the first gunshots rang out. He died. The next day of Storymoja was canceled. In Accra, Ghana, later that week, hundreds gathered at the airport for the arrival of the poet’s body. He was 78 years old.

Another Ghanaian poet, Kwame Dawes, explained to me Awoonor’s significance to Ghanaian culture and African history.

Read more: Kofi Awoonor: ‘To Feed Our People’ | C-Notes | OZY 
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GiveDirectly: The Future of Foreign Aid?

Foreign Aid is broken. Can giving cash directly to the poor help fix it?

Just give money to the poor: That’s the essence of GiveDirectly’s strategy for global good. It sounds way too simple to work. What about trainings and empowerment and oversight?

But initial studies suggest it works very well indeed — and that GiveDirectly could jumpstart an entirely new way of easing global poverty.

In western Kenya, GiveDirectly grants recipient families about $1,000 over the six to nine months, more than doubling their annual incomes, on average. Recipients can spend the money however they want. So far, it seems, they’re making investments with long-term returns: sturdy tin roofs that, unlike thatched ones, don’t require constant repairs; school fees for their children; and livestock and land.

One internal study of the cash transfers found that families saw their personal assets increase an average of 58 percent over a year, while monthly incomes rose an average of 28 percent, thanks to returns on investments made with GiveDirectly cash. (The study was conducted by a researcher at MIT’s Poverty Action Lab and a co-founder of GiveDirectly.) Just across Kenya’s western border in Uganda, a three-year government cash-transfer program had similar success.

Could the GiveDirectly approach rescue development?

Read the full article: Just Give Money Directly to the Poor: GiveDirectly | Fast forward | OZY 
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China’s Second Continent

Sia Kambou/AFP/Corbis

The million Chinese who’ve landed in Africa are plucky, hugely ambitious and have an eye for opportunity. They’re also helping make China a big player on a continent once dominated by the West. 

You’ve seen the headlines: China is taking over Africa, and the United States and Africa’s former colonizers in Europe have lost sway.

Mostly, it’s true. Throughout Angola, Ghana and the Congo, some of China’s largest companies are building roads and railways. They’re backed by Chinese banks, and they’ll pay off their loans in kind through mining and oil deals. All the while, small-scale Chinese entrepreneurs are moving to Africa, opening pharmacies, trading furniture or buying land to farm, much as earlier generations did in Southeast Asia and North America. African governments are welcoming them with open arms, and for the most part, so are Africans themselves.

Earlier literature on China’s rise in Africa pushed us past the easy — and flawed — paradigm of China as Africa’s latest ”colonizer.” But in his forthcoming book, China’s Second Continent, Howard French argues the Chinese who migrate to Africa do so as individuals motivated by simple, familiar dreams of opportunity.
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A former China bureau chief for The New York Times and veteran Africa correspondent, French traveled the African continent, speaking Mandarin with Chinese men and women who had grown weary of the daily grind in their homeland. The characters French encounters are risk-takers: sometimes foulmouthed, often lucky and universally ambitious.

Read the full Q&A: Howard French on ‘China’s Second Continent’ | C-Notes | OZY

Turkey’s Rise in Africa


China isn’t the only one raising its stake on the African continent

African leaders are happy to look beyond Western aid and investments that come tied to pesky political conditions, like asking for free elections or letting the opposition out of jail. As a result, China, India and other Asian firms willing to look the other way are making major inroads across the continent.
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Now, Turkey is joining the crowd and forging a route into Africa, setting its sights on Uganda, an East African nation with untapped reserves of oil and minerals. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Read more: Turkey’s Rise in Africa | Fast forward | OZY

Africa Isn’t Rising.

Roberto Schmidt/Getty

By the books, it’s rising. Africa had six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies in the 2000s. Minerals, metals and oil are nourishing long-starved government coffers. In January, Kenya’s Revenue Authority said it had collected too much money in taxes over the previous six months — 24 percent more than during the same period the year before.

But don’t go telling your friends Africa is no longer poor. The raw numbers are misleading, and “much of Africa’s celebrated growth is vulnerable,” according to the first Africa Transformation Report, published last month by the African Council on Economic Transformation (ACET). According to ACET, African economies have failed to transform in ways that would ensure long-term gains.
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In that argument, ACET joins a burgeoning subfield of economists trying to explain the discrepancy between fast economic growth and slow human progress in some African countries. Their ranks include Dani Rodrik and other development economists, but ACET’s report may be the most prominent. They hope their ideas change how we think about national success.

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The Economics of Kenyan Cupcakes

Nairobi’s first cupcake shop demonstrates the power of a rising consumer class — and teaches a lesson about labor in emerging economies, too.

If anyone needed more evidence that Kenya’s economy is on the rise, a sort of confirmation arrived recently — in buttercream and a half dozen flavors that change daily.

Sugarpie Cupcakes in Nairobi has won plenty of fans and local press, attesting to this city’s changing tastes. The expats tend to favor Belgian chocolate, while the Kenyans prefer chai or red velvet, but overall sales have grown fast since the business launched late last year.
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Running the business is no cakewalk — but its vagaries and workarounds reveal a lot about Nairobi’s consumerist aspirations, and the economics that underlie them. A rising number of middle-upper-income Kenyans sees cupcakes as one of many small luxuries they can afford. And some among Kenya’s large, (non)working class see that as something to aspire to.

Read the full story at