Writer Dayo Olopade

Dayo Olopade is a fascinating tour guide on a trip through 17 African countries. Her recent book The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules & Making Change in Modern Africa is not just a great read, but she writes from the inside out as a 21st century phenomenon – a global citizen. While reared in Chicago and wholly American (though her Ivy League credentials are not one of a “typical” American), her parents are Nigerian immigrants. 

Unlikechildren of immigrants of the past who strove to assimilate – especially if their families left because of poverty and discriminitation in their countries of origin – this new 2nd generation is different. They travel freely between the old country and the new, cross-fertilizing and understanding more about their cultural DNA. They also serve as change agents, bringing ideas and skills back and forth between Africa and the USA. This is increasingly common in the form of tech transfer, but in Olopade’s case, she is transfering her observations and insights, useful to anyone interested in global development and travel to Africa.Thus did Olopade spend three years in Africa, embedded in local culture. While American, with American experience, insights, and an topnotch education, she also was able to interpret what she saw with the help of family, language skills, and the ability to blend in – and experience wholly unavailable to non-black Americans hanging out in Africa. I found her personal story as fascinating as those she describes.

She reports on a wide variety of developments, many of which I learned about researching my  upcoming book, 100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women. My interests were micro:  the tools that help with the basics, like solar lamps, clean cookstoves, vaccinations, latrines, water treatment.  She focuses on business models and methods of getting things done, but our interests often overlap; we are reporting the same phenomenon, though using different structures.

Jugaad, a term used by Indian engineers and designers, loosely translates as “frugal engineering”. When designing for the world’s lowest income customers, tools must be designed in the simplest way possible to get jobs done. If they break, there’s no one there to fix them, and spare parts would be hard to distribute. Using the simplest technology consuming the least amount of materials keeps costs down; just so the tools work.

Olopade’s book is a tribute to kanju, creating systems to distribute goods and services when conventional networks and infrastructures are lacking, a whole informal economy that replaces schlerotic or non-existent bureaucracies and infrastructures.  Given a hopelessly ineffective public school systems, creative entrepreneurial educators run private schools at very low prices, to much better effect. Given the absence of sanitation and sewers, ecosan centers have sprung up.  MPesa (included in my book, I’m happy to say) has revolutionized banking and money transfer in Kenya. Previously unbanked people can now send, receive, save, and invest money. It’s amazing. 
Enjoy Olopade’s interview here – she is a rising star.

Kanju doesn’t substitute for effective infrastructures; hopefully systems will develop to provide better health care, for example. But it’s great to read her descriptions of the vitality and plain chutzpah of Africans grabbing opportunity and creating value. Wish there were more women for her to write about. But their exclusion from so many realms is what motivated my book.