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2014-03-27 18.16.53

Olopade (L) and Keating (R). The very short dress is worth acknowledgement.

After a long day on Capitol Hill (post to follow) yesterday, I ventured to Dupont Circle, where I learned that Arizona State has an office, for an event with a former Fellow of the New America Foundation.  Dayo Olopade, spoke on her new book, The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa.   I wasn’t able to get an especially clear picture of Olopade’s book from the talk, but it seemed that she has traveled widely throughout east and west Africa during her Fellowship and sought to challenge assumptions of Africa as a stagnant continent lacking the capacity for innovation (although the way she articulated this didn’t particularly resonate with me).  Mimi Alemayehou, Senior VP at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) was also on hand to provide refreshingly candid remarks for a government official and Josh Keating of Slate moderated.

Olopade jumped on the technology bandwagon to make this point, particularly citing cell phone penetration across Africa.  As regular readers may know (from posts such as this one), I find the reliance on technological patches in the African context to be a bit tiresome and overwrought.  As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Niger, I lived somewhere there was no cell phone coverage and where phones were something of a luxury confined to males who mostly used them as a status symbol.

Olopade also spoke on the importance of electricity, noting that she had been in Bole Airport in Addis Ababa when it lost electricity and out on the dance floor in African clubs when the lights went out. From this she segued into a commendation of General Electric, which is apparently working in Africa to train youth in the skills it needs for its commercial enterprise.  Such an approach smacks of something of neo-colonial, Booker T. Washington endeavor to me.

I enjoyed Mimi Alemayehou’s remarks much more.  She did a masterful job of weaving personal anecdotes into her remarks, a particularly rare talent for a government official to exercise.  As a sign of Africa’s dynamism, she noted a conversation with a Senegalese youth, who registered his business online in Delaware to circumvent the high costs of business registration in Senegal.

Speaking of an internship with the World Health Organization in Africa, she recalled a conversation with a doctor, who badly wanted a bike so that he could go on outcalls and save his patients time.  Alas, Alemayehou was unable to get this remark documented in a WHO report.  She noted that this experience showed her that donors value statistics and numbers and that ‘we never really ask the people on the ground what they want.’

In regards to Africa’s economic development, she sounded all the notes that resonate with me – most importantly,  regional integration – ‘how about trading with your neighbor?’  She added that African countries will also struggle as long as they do not add value to their own products, noting that European nations export tea and coffee produced in Africa.

Perhaps most intriguingly, Alemayehou spoke critically of Chinese engagement in Africa (Olopade seemed to have a more mixed perspective), noting that US investment in Africa is more transparent than China’s.  She also spoke of the reluctance of Chinese companies doing business in Africa to employ Africans in managerial positions.

I hadn’t heard of the New America Foundation before, but they provided great food from Bukom Cafe and an opportunity to meet a senior government official in an intimate setting, so kudos to them.

2014-03-27 18.11.07