There's an old African adage that says, “For tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”
I've just returned from another weeklong trip to Ethiopia. This time I participated in the World Economic Forum on Africa 2012, and visited some of the projects I partner on with Mercy Corps, for whom I am a board member. The adage sums up so well the philosophy, the power, and the potential of the African people. It's a phenomenal story that is unfolding. One where the impact of the many innovations fostered today will propel these nations boldly into the future.
There are few who would dispute that Africa is poised for this kind of growth on the world stage. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, there are plenty of issues and obstacles that need to be tackled — the lack of resources, poverty, corruption…the list goes on. In fact, I was struck by a comment made at WEF on Africa by Monhla Hlahla, chairperson of the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa, who, when referring to the Ethiopian economy said, “Ethiopians must get to a place where they themselves can afford to buy the best coffee Ethiopia exports to the rest of the world.” If there is one thing I have experienced on my trips to the continent, it's an unflappable optimism that these problems can and will be solved. Everywhere you turn, one encounters creative uses of technology, skillful communication, and connection of people and organizations focused on making an impact. It is this insistence on viewing a challenge as an opportunity, with spirit, hope, and optimism that will result in remarkable outcomes.
On a larger scale, this is evidenced by partnerships like the one announced at WEF by the US State Department in collaboration with Microsoft (client), US Agency for International Development, Nokia, DEMO, the World Bank Group's infoDev, African Development Bank, and Global Entrepreneurship Week called the Liberalizing Innovation Opportunity Nations (LIONS@FRICA). Modeled after the Startup America Partnership, this is an alliance that will enhance innovation in targeted, fast-growing African economies.
But it's also the people in even the most remote corners of Africa who are embracing an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit to propel this continent forward. While in Ethiopia, I visited for the fourth time a school for some of the very poorest children, made possible through loans by a locally based NGO called WISE. I saw a number of the same faces from years previous, just a little bit older. The school has grown exponentially over the years, and having spent time with the children there, I can attest to the powerful and positive impact this inspired program is having.
And our industry will play a critical role in Africa's success. Communications, when done well, is transformational. Smartly targeted and engaging stories make people part of the equation, not just passive recipients. Done right, our industry moves beyond our legacy of just influencing the influencer and instead forges connections between groups, motivates sustainable actions from people, and creates profound, enduring impact.
On a side trip I made to Derashe and Konso, Ethiopia, I visited Mercy Corps' program called “Empowering Ethiopian Women and Girls for Peaceful Change,” which allows girls to complete their secondary education. One hundred mothers and female caregivers receive loans of up to an equivalent of $150 for their income-generating activities, but with one important contingency: They must keep their girls in secondary school. As the women begin making money through loan activities, they will repay the amounts, with low interest rates, over two years. As initial loans are repaid, funds will become available to other women, based on their daughters' enrollment in secondary school. All the while building self-esteem, self-sufficiency and a circle of emerging prosperity.
An ability to create these kinds of partnerships, to harness an inherent innovative spirit, and to take advantage of the fact that this is a continent, in so many ways, freed to bypass current solutions and provide new ways of developing their economies: these are the very reasons innovation will continue to thrive. These are the stories that must be told. And this is why I am so certain that over time, slowly and surely, Africa will take its rightful place on the world stage.
Melissa Waggener Zorkin is CEO, founder, and president of Waggener Edstrom Worldwide.