Twenty-twenty-four heralds two intertwined silver anniversaries: my 25 remarkable years of heading Lifeline Energy and two and a half extraordinary decades for Lifeline Energy. Instead of a lavish celebration with confetti and cake, over this year, I will be sharing 25 (hopefully) interesting conversations I’ve had with individuals from across Africa.

Thankfully, my penchant for documenting my experiences in notebooks and snapping pictures has left me with a treasure trove of memories to sift through. I invite you to join me on this journey as I delve into the untold stories and hidden gems that have shaped my and Lifeline Energy’s legacy.

Africa in the late 90s / early 2000s

When I “crossed over” into Africa’s aid and humanitarian sector, as it was called, I was fresh from six rewarding years in the South African corporate sector and already relatively well-travelled in Africa and Asia. We started as the Freeplay Foundation, a UK, US and South African non-profit. Our mission was clear: to provide the then-cutting-edge technology (it’s true) of wind-up radios manufactured by the company we were associated with but separate from, Freeplay Energy, to those communities, displaced populations and underserved classrooms that needed them but couldn’t afford to buy them. We would raise funds, partner with organisations working locally and distribute the units responsibly.

Radio was the undisputed lifeline for mass communication. At the same time, in rural areas, electricity was non-existent, batteries were hard to come by and of poor quality, and their ongoing cost made them beyond the reach of most people. Millions of dollars were being spent on radio programmes for development, but much of it was going unheard for lack of access. Our large power-independent radios solved many issues. Radio was suddenly democratic, allowing groups of people to listen for as long as they liked, with no additional costs. Listeners could tune in 24/7. Displaced people could stay informed in their language. Schools without trained teachers now had a voice on the airwaves, delivering school lessons and sparking young imaginations.

Zambian school
Rural Zambian radio school with an adult mentor following the instructions of the radio teacher.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, Africa was a tumultuous period and a vastly different development landscape from what it is today. A snapshot of back then:

– The aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide destabilised the Great Lakes Region. Due to its scale, the conflict in mineral-rich Eastern DRC (still ongoing) is often referred to as Africa’s World War, which led to widespread displacement and millions of deaths. The world’s largest refugee population at the time was in Western Tanzania housing half a million, mainly Burundians, who had fled the war still going on in their country. Conflicts raged in Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Ethiopia/Eritrea and Angola, displacing millions of vulnerable Africans.

– The (misguided) Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) prescribed by the World Bank and IMF were aimed at liberalising markets and promoting economic growth and stability, however, they created more problems than they solved. The SAPs were issued without consultation with African governments and led to austerity measures, including cuts in public spending on health, education and social services, which exacerbated job losses, disease burdens and poverty.

– When I needed to travel from my home in South Africa to West Africa. I flew via Paris or London where I also obtained visas. Once when travelling from Niamey, Niger to Addis Ababa, I caught a 9-hour road lift to Ouagadougou, flew to Paris, Frankfurt, Cairo and then Addis – a 48-hour journey.

Entering Burkina Faso
Leaving Niger and entering Burkina Faso (without a visa).
– Leapfrogging traditional landline phone lines, Africa was the first and most prolific adopter of GSM technology. I recall borrowing a UN satellite phone in the Sahara Desert as the technology was still largely found only in cities. Most hotels had the i-pass dial-up system which required a landline and modem. A painfully slow internet connection at the Sheraton Hotel in Addis in 1992 would set you back $1 per minute.

– Although the Chinese built the Tanzam railway in the 1970s, linking Tanzania and Zambia (their first major infrastructure project in Africa), Chinese influence was yet to be noticeable.

– HIV/AIDS emerged as a crisis of unprecedented scale, with profound consequences worldwide and nowhere were its effects more devastating than in Southern Africa. The epidemic exacted a heavy toll, claiming millions of lives and orphaning millions of children while straining healthcare and education systems to their limits. Ministries of health, NGOs and religious institutions struggled with stigma, discrimination, lack of medicines and misinformation.

Unless you lived in Southern Africa during this period, it would be hard to imagine the destructive impact of the virus, especially on children and grandmothers. Radio was the only way populations outside cities could be reached. This fact alone made our power-independent radios even more important.

Training Rwandan child-heads of households
Training Rwandan child-heads of households on the correct use and care of our Lifeline radios.

The Aid sector

Also, at that time, Africa’s aid and development sector was characterised by a complex mix of international organisations, multilateral institutions (UN, World Bank, IMF) governmental bodies (ministries of health and education), bilaterals (USAID, SIDA) and big international NGOs (CARE, Save), all at the forefront of delivering humanitarian support. These entities were instrumental in providing humanitarian assistance, yet navigating their bureaucracy and red tape posed considerable challenges for a lean and agile non-profit like Lifeline Energy, including being paid on time. Social entrepreneurship, social innovation and human-centred approaches were still largely concepts in the future.

From my experience, most of these organisations seemed disconnected from the realities of local communities. Decision-making processes were often slow and rigid, with little consideration for local traditions, cultures, or dynamics. Initiatives tended to be top-down and heavy-handed, lacking in entrepreneurial thinking or locally-based approaches. Is it better today? Yes, but that’s for another blog.

Nonetheless, we collaborated to integrate Lifeline Energy’s radios into a wide range of communication initiatives across the continent and in different sectors. I was privileged to have met remarkable people who were effecting positive change in extraordinary ways, including in the UN system.

UN Resident Representative in Niger
Visionary UN Resident Representative I worked with in Niger, Steve Ursino, with Tuareg leaders.

My 25 blogs

My work has allowed me to travel extensively across Africa, visiting 35 of its 54 countries. Spending time in remote communities has enriched my understanding of the diverse tapestries of life, customs and traditions. From these encounters, often facilitated by interpreters, I draw inspiration for the conversations and stories I aspire to share – bridging the gap between past experiences and the evolving landscapes of Africa I so deeply love.

Kristine Pearson's fieldnotes
25 years of learning, stories, observations, facts, conversations – my field notebooks.
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