Why the name? Why the blog?
“The Smoke that Thunders” is a literal translation of “Mosi-oa-Tunya”, the local and original name for what became known as Victoria Falls after the British colonized modern day Zambia and Zimbabwe. As the story goes, the falls, first viewed from afar, was thought to be a giant bush fire because of the huge amount of mist forced up from the gorge. When its discoverers approached it, they were confronted with a very different reality: it was of course not a fire, but a massive curtain of falling water and one of the natural wonders of the world.
The story strikes me as being a useful metaphor for the apparent disconnect between the common Western world view of Sub-Saharan Africa and the very different reality that I and many others experience on the ground. Viewed from afar, the region is thought by the majority to be synonymous with corruption, poverty, disease, and violence. However, those who seek out a fuller picture are met by a much richer and more dynamic reality; one that includes a healthy dose of opportunity, growth, beauty, friendliness, and even stability. I am not here to say that those negative aspects do not exist, that they do not play material roles in African societies, or that they are not proportionally greater than in more developed regions, but just that the reality is much more complex, positive, and fluid than many have been led to believe.
This information asymmetry is not all that surprising. Popular media (including that which comes from news channels, Hollywood movies, and non-profit marketing campaigns) oversimplify and put a negative spin on their messages for easier and more broad consumption, we rely on mental heuristics to form actionable opinions with limited information, and the region has been undergoing widespread and very rapid change over the past couple decades.
So what? Well besides the out-dated and sometimes offensive nature of the inaccuracy, it comes with a pretty hefty price tag in lost value creation. If the risk profile of Sub-Saharan Africa is seen as too high and its economic attractiveness seen as too low to warrant taking on such risk, then market forces will see investment diverted elsewhere. In the absence of such inflows, aid and charity will remain the dominant source of foreign capital, unintentionally reinforcing systems of dependency. With little perceived opportunity, smart enterprising people will allocate their time and mental capacity to other places and challenges. Unsavoury destination branding will also cause tourists to spend their vacation time and budgets in other parts of the world. Without these inputs, the region will be less able to fuel its growth and significant numbers of people who are in fact trapped below a standard of living that is acceptable to them will be more likely to remain there.
Of course, this is not entirely reflective of the current situation. India, Brazil, China and even the US among others have increased their investments and trade with Africa on a large scale. Many non-resource sector businesses like Coca-Cola, Nestle, Google, and Barclays are already heavily engaged in ways that are strategically inclusive of lower-income consumers. Tourism is growing across many parts of the continent as is social entrepreneurship. To be sure, there’s been a recent wave of very credible publications coming about-face with headlines like “Africa’s fast-growing middle class has money to spend (The Economist)”, “Africa: A Continent on the Move (Mckinsey Quarterly)”, and “Africa: Open for business (Harvard Business Review)”. All of this seems to be helping Western business people update their views on Sub-Saharan Africa as a region host to investment-ready markets and under-tapped opportunities offering the promise of sustained long-term growth in sectors well beyond just mining. I mean, when the Oppenheimers get out of the diamond business and deploy significant capital in agriculture and consumer goods, that’s a pretty good sign that Africa’s core value proposition is evolving. So it would seem that, from many indications, change in long-held perceptions of the region is in fact beginning to take root—and for good reason.
Given my background and where I’m seeing a great deal of potential, this blog will primarily be a platform for exploring the opportunities for information and communication technologies (ICT) to serve the needs of the so-called base of the income-pyramid (BoP), particularly in the context of supporting micro- and small-sized enterprise (MSE) development. In my mind, it’s these two broad groups who really represent the smoke that thunders. Further, because I think the institutional framework for realizing these opportunities and implementing related solutions matters a great deal, this blog is also meant to explore how and why ethical market-based solutions must play a leading role in poverty alleviation.
Though not the core purpose of this blog, I do hope it will help to provide another frame of reference for understanding the changing African reality; one that is focused on opportunity and is derived experientially from the vantage point of a pragmatic optimist with lofty business ambitions and a desire to affect deep social change along the way.
So, onwards and upwards!