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TEDGlobal 2007 Session 3: The Marketplace

So much of the new Africa centers around the marketplace, broadly defined: the connection points that enable commerce, community, communication and more generally: Growth. Today’s first session approached these questions of infrastructure from different angles, offering distinct and distinctly optimistic visions for a revitalized Africa.

Economist Eleni Gabre-Madhin began the session on an inspiring note, outlining her ambitious vision to found the first commodities market in Ethiopia, bringing rates and standards (not to mention trading systems, warehousing and data centers) to the trade of crops. Her scheme would create wealth, minimize risk for farmers and turn the world’s largest recipient of food aid into a regional food basket. “There is no place in the world and no time in history that small farmers have had to bear the burden of risk that African farmers bear today,” Gabre-Madhin said. “But I’m not here to lament or wring my hands. I’m here to tell you that change is in the air.” Despite the early hour, she brought the audience to its feet in a rare 9AM standing O.

Throughout each conference, we integrate 3-minute talks from audience members (who often have as much to say as the speakers). Here, Priceline founder and veteran TEDster Jay Walker, re-issued a challenge that he first put to us at TEDGlobal in 2005. His goal: Creating 10 million jobs in the developing world. His assumptions: (1) If you have capital tool (a bicycle, a sewing machine), you have a job. (2) The cell phone is today’s most valuable capital tool. His conclusion: The proliferation of cell phones in Africa could mean a proliferation of jobs. His question: What is the job? If you have a cell phone, and can speak English, what job could you do? Walker threw out a few ideas — singing lullabies, telling a story, translating or simply chatting — that have ultimately proved flawed. If you have a better idea, he wants to hear it…

Now, one strong TED tradition is intermingling serious conversation with serious fun. And so, an interlude of: Zip Zap! This circus school’s mirth belies a serious agenda: teaching the children of South Africa to work together and trust one another, as they’ll need to do to build the new South Africa.

Back on point: Private equity pioneer Idris Mohammed made the case for private investment on the continent, outlining not only its financial rationale (explored earlier by Euvin Naidoo, Carol Pineau) but its social significance. He points to the enormous gap between aid money (lots) and private capital (little) flowing to Africa as a roadblock to sustainable development. “I want to make Africans rich,” he said. “If you make Africans rich, they’ll be less poor. That’s my development strategy.” (Big laughs)

And Jacqueline Novogratz, charismatic founder of the Acumen Fund, provided, as always, one of the most balanced approaches to development. She offered, with wit and warmth, the key learnings of her years working in Africa:

  • Dignity is more important than wealth

  • Traditional aid is never going to solve the problems of poverty
  • The market alone also will not solve the problems of poverty

Her approach is realized through Acumen, which she described as a “non-profit venture capital fund for the world.” It takes a business-like approach to improving the lives of the poor, providing investment and grants (what she calls “patient capital”) for grassroots, entrepreneurial projects, and demanding accountability to insure success. Her balanced approach seemed to strike a chord with the crowd, which gave her a standing ovation. (Watch Novogratz’s TEDTalk from the last TEDGlobal, held in Oxford, UK in 2005. )

As in yesterday’s first session, the program closed on a fiery note, with a grab-you-by the throat speech by Ghanaian economist George Ayittey. A natural orator, Ayittey unleashed an almost breath-taking torrent of controlled anger toward Africa’s corrupt leaders and the complacent populace that allows them to thrive. “We call our governments vampire states, which suck the economic vitality out of the people,” he said. (I could be wrong, but I believe at one point, he also used the phrase, “military fufuheads.”)

But even Ayittey voiced a guarded optimism, in what he calls the “Cheetah Generation,” a “new breed of Africans” taking their futures into their own hands, instead of waiting for politicians to empower them. (He compares them to the previous “Hippo Generation” who are lazily stuck complaining about colonialism, yet doing nothing to change the status quo.) “With cheetahs we can take Africa back, one village at a time.” And the audience says: One more standing O.

For more extensive descriptions of each talk, see Ethan Zuckerman‘s real-time posts on Eleni Gabre-Madhin, Idris Mohammed and Jacqueline Novogratz.

Watch for these talks on TED.com beginning midsummer 2007.

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