Sho's Africa Post

Friends Plus Teresa During Fantasy Football Season,

            Unless you lost Internet over the past four months and/or were incarcerated in one of those prisons where you can’t speak to anyone, text anyone, or deal drugs you all know I graduated from grad school in June. This Labor day while I basked in the Tahoe sun and listened to patrons discuss their serendipitous, $100,000 radical inclusion Burning Man vacation I came to the realization that this was the first time in my adult life where, for the most part, I didn’t miss being a student.   The one thing I missed out on was having the chance to research the unknown parts in some of my passions.  For me, I’ve always loved traveling but have never ventured over to Africa.

            If you pick up a Jared Diamond book you’ll discover that the continent of Africa is the domicile to 25% of the languages spoken on this earth, the birthplace of some of the world’s best coffee, and home to ten out of twelve of the fastest growing economies.  So why has this entire continent, with so many diverse and vibrant cultures, been relegated to a monolithic idea of an area perpetually engulfed with massive poverty, stagnant growth, and a forever war torn area?

            There’s no arguing that a large part of Africa has suffered through decades of mismanagement aid projects, self induced massive inflation, and brutally corrupt leaders. But if you’re looking for a blog post feigning some kind of insight into the depths of despair third world patrons go through on a daily basis, this isn’t one of them. Instead, I traveled to Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya to gain a better understanding of the rapid industrial expansion Africa is experiencing.

            My first stop was Uganda.  My mother always said there are two distinct parameters to evaluate the greatness of a nation. How many Bollywood movies they watch and how much their citizens want to give back to their country.  Uganda didn’t disappoint in either measurement. For starters, it was a joy to meet so many citizens sharing the same joy brought on by international films filled with long drawn out musicals with the archaic plot line of whether the man from the poor family gets the girl from the super rich family (Spoiler: He gets the girl). But beyond our Bollywood bonding, I was amazed by how the big cities of Uganda had a United Nations vibe where immigrants from Canada, South Africa, and parts of Europe all called this East Africa nation their home.

            Their reason? One fellow who I sat next to on the airplane, who we’ll call “Annoying”, stated that he moved from Toronto to Kampala, Uganda because he could make a direct impact immediately, but also because he didn’t have to do it at a break neck pace. Mr. Annoying, along with citizens from England and South Africa, flocked to Uganda because they could start small business like a Mexican restaurant or a bakery because capital was cheap, but they didn’t have to work the strenuous 15-hour days a western entrepreneur had to if he/she had to start a business in North America. 

            In my next stops in Tanzania and Kenya I once again ran into numerous former Western citizens up rooting their life because they feel Africa is the next economic frontier. An ex-Wall Street banker I met at a bar in Nairobi, Kenya explained his passion for investing and seeing companies grow. He felt that with anyone with a large amount of capital should come to Africa for its low barrier to start a business and cheap cost of labor (he was, though, disappointed by the difficulty of getting cocaine). By no means are foreign investments a rarity these days. In the March 2nd, 2013 edition of The Economist recent data shows that in the past five years, no other continent has received as much foreign direct investment as Africa. Furthermore, over 5,000 citizens from all over the world have come to Africa in the past decade to start a business.

            But, make no mistake; local citizens have been the main fuel that has spurred this break-neck financial expansion occurring in East Africa. Over the past three years, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania have grown at an average rate of 5% and roughly 90% of that growth has come from domestic citizens. On each of my stops I attended an entrepreneur and venture capital conference. As a Silicon Valley native, I was expecting these conferences to be comprised of Tyrion Lannister size hipster male tech workers presenting software and apps to mask their poor self esteem, third grade level social skills, and the fact that the only girl they’ve seen naked was when they walked in on their mom during one winter break in college.

This was far from the case.  I had the pleasure of meeting countless individuals working on issues such as water rights, female access to education, and improving quality products for farmers.  Many people were baffled that so much money in America was being thrown into technology companies. I met a man, in Zanzibar, Tanzania, who was setting up an easier way for motorcycle drivers to lease their bikes for much cheaper.  In many parts of Africa most people get around on the backs of motorcycles (an experience that makes you fear for you life, but is incredibly cheap and efficient). He said, “I am amazed at the talent that in the American tech community. They have the ability to solve some of the biggest problems, but many choose to focus on trivial matters that have a minute impact on the world. I think this is a wasted opportunity. It’s my privilege to create a business that can help so many people in my country, and that’s the only way I look at my business.  Many people all around the world wish they had the same community and resources that reside in Silicon Valley.”

            While the inner nerd in me was mesmerized by the economic transformation occurring in Africa, the time I spent on checking out the sites in East Africa was just as mind blowing. This blog post is already too long to go into detail about the amazing environmental landscape I had the privilege to see, but if one is looking for natural forestry and aquatic beauty then they should consider a trip to Africa. There are no words that can explain the awesomeness of a safari (or as I like to call it a “Shofari”). The people who you meet that are committed to protecting the wildlife are heroes.   Sitting down over tea with Safari guides, who have been giving tours for over thirty years, was just as interesting as seeing that one wild animal holding Barack Obama’s birth certificate.  Having the opportunity to raft the Nile over one weekend was a dream I had since I was in third grade.  Even as the number one Tahoe fan, I had never seen a body of water so pristine and blue.

            And just like every country in the world, besides China, people will blow you away with their kindness.  Regardless, of economic stature, the people I met in all three countries I visited were honored to have visitors. To the fault of my own, I ended up in the tourist’s nightmare where I was alone at night walking back to my hotel. Not once did I ever feel threatened and not once did a person ever ask for money after helping with directions.  Many justified their philanthropic gesture by explained they were happy to have people visit and taking money was thug-life behavior deterring future tourists. In the over thirty countries I’ve visited I’ve never encountered this kind of benevolent behavior.        

            Perhaps the most surprising fact was the agony that I thought many Africans experienced was never apparent.  They never felt sorry for themselves for living through a brutal dictatorship, like many had in Uganda. Nor did the citizens of Tanzania want any sympathy from the outside world over the countless times large multinational oil companies pillaged their resources and left them with less then their fair share.  I had the opportunity to attend a number of culture shows and art exhibits. The people of East Africa were proud of their heritage and culture and were incredibly enthusiastic about sharing it with strangers.

            I can say I met over two hundred people on this trip. The only time I met so many people in such a short amount of time when I was a volunteer in Las Vegas on The President’s 2012 re-election campaign. If you gave me an assignment asking me to give you a list of the different thing these two groups wanted in life I would fail. These were people just like you and me (but taller, better skin, and probably better basketball players). Whether it was my driver or the police officer I had to bribe, all of them had the same “American” dream of sending their kids to college, having a safe environment for their family, and having the desire to leave this earth a better place than why they arrived.

            If you don’t believe me, that’s fine, I get it. For far too long we in the Western world have only been given images of Africa in despair and not of rapid development.  But if you have time and money, be a student and take some time to learn about an area in the world that should be getting far more attention and respect that it has in the past.