Sifa a Congolese Tutsi from Western Uganda
Nonkuta and I

“I never could have imagined that my four daughters would all be in school,” said Nonkuta, a 32-year-old Maasai mother of six. “When I was growing up girls didn’t go to school. They married and went to live with their husbands’ families from the age of around 14.” Girls attending primary school in equal, or nearly equal, numbers to boys is one of the major changes I’ve witnessed in rural Africa in more than two decades.

In the book Expensive Poverty, the author states that $1.2 trillion has been spent on development aid in Africa since the end of the Cold War. It and other articles like it, imply that aid has failed. And yes, perhaps much of it has. Corruption cripples too many African economies and poverty appears to be the legacy of choice that far too many African leaders have opted for. The foreign aid model of development might have largely failed, when weighed against the investment. And yet, in my nearly 25 years of working in the humanitarian sector, I’ve witnessed immense and encouraging progress, even transformation. Africa is a different landscape today.

In the late 1990s, I career pivoted from the corporate world to the aid and humanitarian sector. Although I live in South Africa, my work has been largely in rural and far-flung parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Livestock-keeping pastoralists, farming communities and rural schools are what I’m most familiar with. Lifeline Energy, the organisation I founded, manufactures and distributes solar and wind-up radios and MP3 players for development and relief, has gifted me the unique opportunity to work in communities across major development sectors – health, education, peacebuilding, agriculture, community development and emergency response. Radio remains Africa’s most consumed medium and transcends literacy, geography and social status; and doesn’t require data. And no matter the inroads that other technologies make, people love hearing a voice on the radio who speaks their language.

The 9 biggest positive changes that my eyes have seen

1. Increased school attendance of girls

Nonkuta’s story isn’t unique. At primary level, girls generally make up half of school enrolment. Most African countries have abolished primary school fees, although the cost of uniforms, books, school supplies and transport remain barriers to attending for all children. When I started out, there were twice as many boys as girls sitting behind a desk (if there was one). Now in most classrooms I visit, there is gender balance. Secondary schools are a different story. Drop-out rates remain much higher for girls who leave because parents can’t afford fees and due to family responsibilities, early marriage, or pregnancy.

2. Renewable energy products are lighting up Africa

The cost of fossil fuels used for domestic use keeps the poorest households in life-harming poverty. In the late 1990s, there was little awareness of the perils of indoor smoke inhalation, other than from cookstoves. Families lit paraffin-burning tin cans with a cloth wick, in many places called a koroboi or itala, to provide dim light in their homes. Fossil fuels also cause fires that destroy everything, maim and even kill. Solar products for home use had not yet come to market. Now solar lights and solar home systems are becoming increasingly available and affordable. This is enabling studying and walking safely at night, extending business hours, while at the same time saving money and eliminating a fire risk. That said, clean energy still reaches far too few households and energy justice remains an important issue across the continent.

3. Women’s agency on the rise and rising

When I first started out, I seldom came across African women community leaders or women in business, other than those selling produce alongside the road. Rural women are powerful agents of change. Now it’s unusual not to see rural women heading community committees or running diverse businesses of all sizes. Despite entrenched patriarchy, many rural women have surmounted the obstacles which have prevented them from becoming successful farmers, sellers and marketers. Women have joined or founded organisations, collaborated and made their demands known; helping to raise their status and giving them access to markets. Yet, women still face pernicious challenges in accessing finance and financial services and require innovative gender-specific support to harness their economic potential.

4. Taboo subjects are slowly being addressed

In traditional societies, subjects like women’s bodies, female genital mutilation, menstruation and HIV, were considered strictly taboo. Although significant knowledge gaps persist and menstruation often interrupts girls’ attendance at school and ability to advance academically, there has been progress. I believe this is largely as a result of NGOs, UN agencies like UNICEF and ‘period poverty’ activists working with ministries of education to normalise menstrual hygiene. In many schools now boys and girls learn about their changing bodies, which goes a long way in reducing stigma. Social media has also helped through raising awareness and spreading messaging. FGM is now illegal (although still practiced) in many African countries.

5. HIV/AIDS starting as a pandemic and becoming a manageable disease

In the late 1990s, HIV/AIDs was the pandemic which was taking the lives of millions in sub-Saharan Africa. In countries like Zambia and Malawi two teachers were dying for every one being trained.. It was wiping out Southern Africa’s working class and creating a generation of orphans at an alarming rate. Millions of children were raising other children. However, with interventions like Pepfar, the development of effective drugs, and improved access to diagnosis, treatment and medication, it has become a manageable chronic disease.

6. The clever way people use mobile phones

When GSM mobile phones came onto the global market in the early 1990s, service providers in Africa couldn’t have been more wrong. No one anticipated the explosive and transformative difference that cell phones would make for the world, let alone Africa. It’s taken some time for smart phones to penetrate rural areas, and even longer for women to make use of them. But now I would say the majority of rural women have access to, or use of, a smartphone, even though they use them mainly for making calls and, at most, mobile payments. Kenya is the leader in mobile payments with M-PESA. I have an M-PESA account and when I’m in Kenya, I pay for everything with my phone because every vendor, and just about everyone I meet has an account, too. Due to language (few apps are created in local languages) coupled with the high cost of data, lack of power and high rates of illiteracy amongst rural women, the potential for the use of mobile technology is nowhere close to being fully realised. The digital divide remains real, yet the trajectory is firmly an up arrow.

7. The transformation of Rwanda

When I first started working in Rwanda in the late 90s, people were still profoundly traumatised from the genocide that took more than 800,000 lives, left one million children orphaned and crumbled infrastructure. The loss of everything felt tangible, especially hope. People would have bet Rwanda would go the way of Somalia instead of a continent leader in many metrics. All you have to do is drive around Kigali to see a modern, spotless city, that now hosts major international conferences. It’s unrecognisable from the 1990s. Government-dictated rules are everywhere – too many, in fact, as they stifle innovation. What has impressed me the most about Rwanda today are the young innovators. In their 20s, the post-genocide generation are creating opportunities and jobs for themselves and others while caring about those who are struggling. With 70% of Rwandans under 35 and 85% of the population still living off the land, innovative, collaborative solutions must be created and these motivated young people are leading the way.

8. Rise of community radio

Mobile isn’t the only technology flourishing across Africa. Here transmitters may have footprints of only 60 kms, but community radio stations are enabling isolated communities across the continent to hear news and information of interest to them, in a language they understand. As the name implies, they are built and run by the community. And women often have an equal role as journalists and announcers behind the microphone. In 1985 there were only around 10 community stations in Africa. Now there are thousands with DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Niger, Tanzania and South Africa leading the way. Community radio helps strengthen community identity and is essential for development and progress.

9. Rise of social entrepreneurship

When I came into the community of social entrepreneurs through the Schwab Foundation of the World Economic Forum 20 years ago, I had never even heard of the term. Social entrepreneurs drive social innovation and transformation, working closely with communities to meet their needs for health, education, the environment, complex emergencies, enterprise development and more. From my perspective, most entrepreneurs in Africa are social entrepreneurs.

Africa is the world’s youngest continent with 77% of the population under 35. The formal job market is limited to a few. African entrepreneurs looking for inclusive local solutions to local problems are creating jobs. These includes everything from online medical platforms, provision of mobile toilets, drone deliveries to rural areas, women-owned solar light businesses and recycling trash to curb the plastic waste crisis on land and in the ocean.

Because of my involvement with the Schwab Foundation, I joined a WhatsApp group called “the Movement” in mid-2019. The original people on the calls were largely from one of the four leading social entrepreneurial fellowship organisations – Ashoka, Echoing Green, Schwab Foundation or Skoll Foundation. Now called Catalyst 2030, the fundamental concept was that this movement would include social entrepreneurs and other social innovators from various sectors to accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Although I believed social entrepreneurs collaborated with NGOs, governments, business and communities, I believed they didn’t cooperate with each other. I was wrong.

After launching at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2020, Catalyst 2030 has more than 2400 members from all over the world. There are chapters, working groups and collaborations which convene regularly over Zoom. In Africa there are 10 chapters already of local innovators creating local solutions to local problems which are built on co-creation and collaboration and use systems change approaches.

Africa Forward is a ground-breaking initiative co-created by members of the African Chapters to rapidly accelerate actions that place African challenges at the heart of collaborative, partnership-driven opportunities. For example, the Rwanda chapter is exploring innovative ways to educate both high-density and rural population on the dangers of indoor smoke inhalation as 85% of the Rwandans still cook with firewood and fossil fuels.

These observations are mine

My list could easily scale to 50. And 50 people who work in the development sector in Africa will express 50 divergent opinions. Mine are based on personal experiences, not reports, not so-called expert opinions, not what I’ve heard at conferences, or watched on YouTube.

There’s nowhere else I’d rather live, nowhere else I’d rather work. I remain excited about what the future holds, despite the obstacles and the continuing narrative of failed aid.

Author | Kristine Pearson

Author | Kristine Pearson

Chief Executive of Lifeline Energy

Kristine Pearson is the founding Chief Executive of Lifeline Energy since 1999. She was previously an executive with a large South African banking group. Kristine is a fellow of the Schwab Foundation of the World Economic Forum; received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the African Women’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum; served 8 years on the Women’s Leadership Board of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; was named a Hero of the Environment by Time magazine and was a recipient of the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award.

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