Foot Soldiers


Aside from the fact that Africa is larger in size than Bangladesh, Britain, China, France, Germany. Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Nepal, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Papua New Guinea, Spain and the United States combined, global investors see many reasons to favor Africa, the sub-Saharan region in particular. Among them: a one-billion-plus population, half of which is under the age of 20; a middle class, with its attendant disposable income, forecast to triple over the next two decades; declining poverty rate, expanding exports of manufactured goods; gross domestic product, or GDP, forecast to grow faster than 5 percent over the next two years; 22 cities expected to have a GDP of more than $20 billion in 2025; more than 36 governments have made things easier for business; and sharply rising private capital flows since 2003.


Small steps — many taken by governments, countless taken by ordinary Africans — contribute to the giant stride that the continent has made since 2000, when the cover of The Economist labeled it “hopeless.” I’ve chronicled many of those steps in my book Africa: Strictly Business, The Steady March to Prosperity. Small steps continue to propel the continent.


During a visit to the labor ward at Mulago Hospital, the main public hospital in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, Ugandan students Josiah Kavuma, Aaron Tushabe and Joshua Okello were so alarmed by the extent of suffering that they set about doing something about it. Students at Makerere University’s School of Computing and Informatics Technology in Kampala, the three designed mobile phone software to monitor the movements and heartbeats of unborn babies. They named their innovation WinSenga — Win, because it runs on Windows-operated smartphones; Senga, because it requires use of the SengaHorn, the traditional horn midwives use to listen to the sounds in the mother’s womb. To use it, a smartphone is attached to a SengaHorn fitted with a miniature microphone to relay the sounds to the software. The software analyses the sounds and produces a read-out in English simple enough for any midwife or traditional birth attendant to read and apply.


WinSenga moves beyond the SengaHorn’s reliance on sharp ears and a working clock, providing greater accuracy in determining the baby’s position, breathing pattern and heartbeats. Jubilant health experts say, depending on the price of the smartphone, the gadget will be 80 percent cheaper than an ultrasound scanner that costs at least U.S. $3,000, plus the need for maintenance. WinSenga can be updated via the Internet. Kavuma, Tushabe and Okello won the 2012 Microsoft East and Southern Africa Imagine Cup.


Fishermen in Senegal now equip their boats with GPS systems, making them less dependent on instinct, chance and extended time to return to sites of rich stock. Fishing employs about 15 percent of the local workforce (about 600,000 people) and is the country’s main foreign currency earner. The population, which consumes twice the world average of fish per year, depends on fish for 75 percent of the protein in their diet. In recent years, European and Asian fleets have hauled out massive quantities of fish from West African waters on a daily basis, crippling stocks and forcing local fishermen to stay longer at sea for smaller catches, Greenpeace reports. In May, under pressure from a mobilized, irate community, the Senegalese government cancelled fishing licenses awarded to foreign vessels. The combination of GPS, community mobilization and decisive government action is already turning the situation around for local fishermen.


In the Democratic Republic of Congo, farmers between the ages of 21 and 33 are using a new variety of cassava and better farming techniques to more than triple the yield of cassava, a staple food. Romain Twarita, 27, is the coordinator of Action Jeunes Pour le Développement de Nkara (AJDN), a three-year-old association of 22 young farmers in the southwestern DRC province of Bandundu. He reports that the 2011 cassava crop earned the group more than $25,000, against $10,000 in 2010 and $3,000 in 2009.


Espérance Nzuzi is president of Force Paysanne du Bas-Congo, a network of 264 smallholder farmers associations, including 87 created by youth, in the west of DRC. Farmers there have taken to planting moringa trees to create windbreaks and maintain soil moisture, boosting production of other crops. The moringa trees also fertilize the earth, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers. Last year, her network’s cassava yield earned $39,960 compared to $6,160 in 2010.


The small steps of foot soldiers. Where would Africa be without them?