Thucydides, Democracy and Africa

Bertrand Russell once said that one reads a book either to enjoy it or to boast about having read it. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponessian War (HOTPW) provides both reasons. For one the name Thucydides is very much in vogue currently as a result of the geo-political problem known as Thucydides Trap. This describes a situation in which a rising power and an established power are driven towards conflict by factors within and without their control.

But this book at the same time provides significant reading enjoyment. It gives numerous insights into human nature as well as military and political strategy. On numerous occasions he outlines both the immediately ostensible goals of a course of action as well as its ulterior and knock-on effects. His dissections of negotiations and parleys also provide a good measure of wisdom in how to analyse whether a proposition is beneficial for both parties involved in it or for only one party.

That being said, he acquits himself of his task of chronicling history admirably and in a balanced manner. He does this despite executing various duties as an Athenian officer in the course of the war. What is most troubling is how towards the end of the book Athens becomes riven by factions part of which contribute considerably to its eventual downfall from its lofty heights.

From these events, as well as from the general political climate globally, the question of whether democracy really is the best system of government for man comes into question. This question has been raised earlier on the blog.

Before proceeding I wish to point out that my ancestors followed a democratic system of government. I hail from Kenyan Meru stock. (There is Tanzanian Meru which is also Bantu.) So my ancestors happened to have some form of democratic system in which there were two sides of government per age-group namely the Kiruka and the Ntiba. Each ruled for a period of 7 years. During Kiruka rule the Ntiba would form some kind of opposition and vice-versa. During a change of guard market places would be uprooted, policy errors dissected and the litany of wrongs by the immediately preceding regime was generally denounced. This provided some sort of societal catharsis and cleansing. It was a unique system of government which even colonialists found remarkable, this deep within ‘the dark continent.’

This is not said in order to talk up the Meru people, but rather to make the point that this is not a reactionary view against the prevailing system of government globally. As a Meru, I respect my ancestors; as a Kenyan I respect the law; and as a child of the universe I hope to have the good sense to acknowledge a system that works well elsewhere. That being said, for all we know the OECD could well be the modern version of the Delian league. As can be seen from history, for the most part democracy works. So let us launch into its analysis.

Chief among the concerns that democracy addresses is the human desire for justice; both in terms of equitable governance and before courts of law. The concentration of power within a monarchical system makes it very easy for persons with access to the king’s ear (or hand or generally those close to him) to defeat the law, and in effect be above the law. Within a democracy, the judicial system sits outside the reach of the executive and (in theory) provides some form of check and balance to the executive and the legislature. The phrase “in theory” is bracketed because the nomination of Gorusch to the SCOTUS shows that in many situations the judicial system is very much a part of political rough and tumble. It is also for this very reason that presidential election petitions are overwhelmingly in favour of the incumbent, not just in Africa but globally.

In terms of equitable government, democracy makes an entity’s governors accountable to those governed. In theory this makes the governors pursue choices that are politically expedient, such as ensuring that proceeds from national resources such as say the Suez Canal, are distributed equally among all citizens. In practice and human nature being what it is, governors frequently seek to subvert this accountability by dividing and conquering the governed along whatever fault-lines are available. Once divided the citizens will vote for ‘their man,’ regardless of how equitably he has governed or how accountable he has been.

Another concern which democracy addresses is that it provides some pressure valve or ventilation so to speak on the geo-political system. When citizens are pre- occupied with their own leaders and elections, they are unlikely to start expanding their territory at the expense of their neighbours. Conversely, should one neighbour such as India see that a border is contested with say Pakistan, then it is in their interests to fund the Pakistani opposition or faction which would support their claim to the disputed territory. This was a move that classical Grecian city states used frequently as is accounted within HOTPW. 

On the flip side, democracy presents certain knotty questions which do not have straightforward answers. Most of these occur in fringe cases but eventually, in accordance with the law of entropy they will likely affect the socio-economic well-being of a political entity.

First and foremost is that democracy provides the means for factional interests to override national interests to the detriment of all. This happens moreso during times of crisis. For example towards the end of the Peloponessian war, Athens was politically and militarily paralysed by factions to such an extent that at some points had the Spartans walked in they would have easily conquered Athens.

A more insidious demerit is the assumption that citizens have the capacity to discern the best course of action. One underlying premise of democracy is that the (vast majority of) citizens are mature, informed and educated voters. Or to use psychological terms, the expectation is that voters are at the stage of post-conventional development. Out here in Africa, with poverty levels and unemployment rather high, this is a rather faulty premise. For example, when the USA was thinking through the issue of slavery, crowds would gather to hear Stephen Douglas and Lincoln debate on the issue. They would in this manner gain an informed opinion on the issues at hand and could be trusted to thereafter select the best course of action. In today’s multiplicity of media sources, sound-bite segments and photogenic politicians the voters are getting more and more opinions and less and less information and often alternative facts. In the even that a democracy is guided rather than direct, then the system must be engineered to make it so. Thereafter the system itself must be defended. This most illuminating piece by Jonathan Rauch points out where and how the American system was engineered as a guided democracy and dismantled into a direct democracy.

Last (that will be tackled here) but not least is a tangential result of the above problem. In many cases progress requires one to adhere to a temporarily disadvantageous line of action in exchange for a long term benefit. One of the best examples of this is the difference between India and China in economic progress. By virtue of the fact that Chinese political action is guided and controlled, they have the liberty to pursue a steady course of action for a long duration without fear of needing to appease disaffected or disgruntled voters. If they wanted to delay joining the WTO, they did. If they wanted to move populations into a city and farm maize on that land, they could. If they need to set up tariffs and incentives for domestic commerce they can. India on the other hand has had several changes in the direction of its commercial and economic policy. Sometimes the economically correct party was voted out of power. As a result India’s economic growth has to some extent been hindered by its political system of government.

A more extreme expression of this problem is that in today’s media-bombarded, instant-coffee, Ctrl+C-Ctrl+V generation delayed gratification is increasingly a hard sell. It wants what was advertised, and it wants it now. By this means democracy’s chief weakness is emphasised which is its tendency to result in massive debts, whose repayment results in widespread disaffection resulting in the rise of demagogues, fascists and tyrants. The irony of this particular problem is that Greece, which itself bequeathed the world democracy as a system of government, is currently reeling under the effects of imposed but necessary austerity measures after freeloading on the Euro for a while. On the flip side of this, Iceland which was also hard-hit by the effects of the 2008 recession, is set to vote in pirates and comedians.  But Iceland after following rather unconventional economic paths are currently on a solid footing going forward.

In summary, it should be clear that for all its merits, democracy presents loopholes through which the fabric of a political entity can be worn thin. As such these must be guarded against. But generally speaking one should not criticise without offering alternative solutions. The question would then arise, what really is the best system of government for man? I would propose a monarchy, specifically one under-girded by Mosaic law. At which point there would be a general hue an cry about how outdated this is. But that discussion on the perfection of Mosaic law can be left for another day.

The meaning of Donald Trump

“It’s unbelievable.”
In the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to what is simultaneously the best and the worst job in the world, ‘yuuuge’ introspection has been going on in national capitals, foreign policy think tanks, economic think tanks, by firesides, on social media, everywhere. How did we get here? When did the rain start falling on us? Dear God, please forgive us our sins and deliver us from evil…

It goes without saying that the effects of a Trump government/administration/regime will be widespread and far-reaching. For starters he will control the US’s arsenal of nuclear weapons from Jan 21st, so if Putin ticks him off cockroaches could be running the world 100 years on from now. Cockroaches are the only creatures unaffected by nuclear fallout. US generals have been researching the constitution to cross-check how much they have to obey his commands. US generals can be a handful. During the Bay of Pigs showdown JFK, JFK himself was one day away from losing control of them. Bush 2 followed hawkish advice, plunged into Iraq, then ended up having a rather public dust up with these generals.
Across the pond, someone said that one could hear a pin drop in the capitals of Eastern Europe as US election results came in. Eastern Europe has traditionally relied on the Cold-War NATO doctrine of ‘an attack against one is an attack against all’ to stand their ground in the face of the Russian military juggernaut. This doctrine has been questioned by Trump on the campaign trail. And so it remains to be seen whether and how much he will stand by US allies should Putin extend his reach beyond Crimea. Angela Merkel, as close to a philosopher queen as Europe has had in a while, has quickly and quietly taken up the mantle of the defender of Europe. Increased patrols on the Russian border have been agreed upon beginning in early 2017. Joint air force patrols have become a normal thing in Scandinavian countries.

In Asia things are a bit dicier. China’s military budget continues annual increments, alongside construction of airfields in the Spratly Islands. To say that these islands are hotly contested is a gross understatement. Their very name is an issue and reflects where a person is leaning on the matter. Besides Ghina, Japan and the Philippines also claim ownership and control. At stake are massive underwater oil reserves, besides territorial control of trade routes. The problem with this issue is that it threatens to draw in two big powers into a contest of egos, prestige and credibility despite it not being a core concern for the United States. This issue, by extension, serves as a litmus test for US containment of Chinese expansionism in Asia. Duterte, who has presided over a massive anti-drug pogrom in the Philippines, has flip-flopped between US and Chinese allegiance but `looks forward to working with’ Trump. Other countries reading into this are South Korea (North Korea’s neighbour) as well as India and Indonesia. These are not small populations.

In the Middle East, Iraq and Syria continue to present conundrums to any and all think tanks. Non-interference means continued bloodshed and chemical weapon usage. Engagement risks snowballing out of control. Russia’s only aircraft carrier is in the Baltic Sea threatening Turkey and the Baltic States. Saudi Arabia and Iran are backing opposing sides. Turkey, no longer the ‘sick man of Europe,’ is taking advantage of this transition to create a buffer zone for themselves. In the process the Kurds are losing hope of an independent autonomous state. And after all that Syria’s shared border with Israel could always serve as a flashpoint for Arab-Israeli conflict.

‘Out here’ in Africa, the prospect of a Trump presidency presents both an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity stems from the West finally understanding how electorates elect known demagogues and what post-poll protests are. Also, Trump is unlikely to stand by trade treaties such as AGOA among others, greatly reducing African sources of foreign currency as well as denying a leg up on the economic ladder. Africa will be forced to trade with herself, something which she is absolutely not doing enough. The threat is darker. A Trump presidency officially calls into question democracy as a system of government for man. Besides that the platform on which Trump ran is likely to embolden repression of human rights and strengthen autocratic regimes. The fall of the Iron Curtain meant that the US no longer needed to prop up pro-West dictators. As such democracy had a field day in the early 90’s in Africa. So now we may be looking at the sunset of that day.

Globally also, climate change is fast becoming the biggest threat to societal stability. The polar ice caps are melting faster and faster, reducing their reflection of solar insolation as well as raising sea levels. This has knock-on effects meaning the said warming accelerates. In terms of human effect it means unstable weather, exacerbated food scarcity, increased poverty, emigration from coastal areas and so forth. Climate change has been one of Obama’s most understated and undersold legacy areas, both in terms of what he was able to achieve as well as how he achieved it. His accord with China on this laid the groundwork for groundbreaking global agreements on this. Trump is a patent climate-change denier and looks set to appoint an EPA head who is a staunch fossil fuel advocate. In his world it’s all ‘climate be damned.’ China’s Xi Jinping is now officially on record warning Trump not to backtrack on this.

Someone once joked that death had the wrong list earlier this year. And someone else later clapped back that they now understood why death had that particular list. Jokes and effects aside we can now look at the causes. How did we get here? In this context ‘here’ means both Trump and Brexit. Polling has officially fallen into disrepute as a valid source of credible information. The media also has culpability in this matter and continues to mix up signal and noise. Before we go too far, it must be noted that Hillary lost white counties that voted for Obama twice. The implication is that the US has been voting for anti-establishment candidates since Bush senior or junior depending on how you look at it. The media is getting the narrative wrong in the sense that it is spotlighting Van Jones whitelash theory and the entire alt-right as opposed to the simple and basic economic anxieties theory.

That being said, this alt-right deserves a special mention for the wrong reasons. Now the danger with close elections is that the extreme wing of the winning side mistakes their side’s win as a direct mandate for them. This is what is happening with the alt-right. In a year when Republican messaging and communication strategists shed tears at the official appropriation of ‘American exceptionalism’ by the Democratic party during the DNC, the Republican Party’s fired up base had rather different views on what makes America exceptional. This happened in a year when 6/6 of America’s Nobel Prize winners in science and economics are immigrants. The beneficial effects of immigration on demographics, the economy and innovation among others, cannot be overstated.
But looking further out, how do we correct our assumptions and mental models? What social and philosophical outposts accurately pointed in this direction? Who was previously discounted or overlooked but turned out to be right? The least recent predictions should carry the most weight. I will start with homespun thinkers.
1. Oyunga Pala, one of Kenya’s foremost and controversial writers on Kenyan masculinity wrote a think piece all the way back in August about how human nature is drawn to bad boys. It’s kind of like the way spiders mesmerise flies against their will and then eat them up. I will admit that spent a portion of my teenage years filtering Pala’s views on masculinity. Most importantly he contrasts Obama and Trump as being different responses to the call to manhood. One response is to be a good man a la Obama, the other is to be good at being a man a la Trump – screw norms, survive, reproduce, rule.
2. David Ndii has written an insightful analysis on economics going back to the 1800’s. In summary his take is that globalisation (and I might add neo-liberalism) has hollowed out the industrial cores of Western society. As such globalisation can now officially be critiqued for its long term benefit to the majority of society. Ndii references Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, those widely acclaimed historical sages, while outlining their conflicting theories for us. Most importantly he quotes an oft-hidden and oft-discounted tenet of free trade ideas. That free trade depresses wages in industrialised countries. He references Greece as an ironic twist of history.
3. Michael Moore predicted Trump’s rise in a widely quoted article. It covered very accurately the Rust Belt, the place of the older white man in modern day America, and of all things the schadenfreude of reality TV! It sure is going to be an interesting ride these next four (or less hopefully) years. I think it says something that it is Oyunga Pala and Michael Moore; ie men who have spent time analysing the male psyche; who saw his rise before the rest of us.
4. Noam Chomsky predicted the rise of a Trump-like figure 6 years ago. Chomsky is the most widely quoted and cited scholar alive today. His Wikipedia article says that he favours anarcho-syndicalism. He also tends to think that the Republican Party, by virtue of being climate change deniers is the most dangerous organisation in human history.
5. Peter Turchin is the closest thing to Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov’s fictional series called The Foundation. Hari Seldon was a historian-and-mathematician who would feed historical data into mathematical models and produce socio-political predictions accurate enough to almost be 100% correct. Peter Turchin has written several pieces on societal development and decline. He predicts a reckoning within the American system around 2020. The factors which he aggregates are ‘elite overproduction’ expressed in terms of elite income and wealth gaps (idle rich gentry who then aggregate into camps with increasingly polarised positions), societal economic inequality and finally the stagnation/decline in living standards for the majority of a populace.
6. Naval Ravikant, founder of Angelist, wrote two prescient think pieces on the American democratic system. He describes a two-party gatekeeping system to the castle of the American government. The system functions by distributing or re-distributing prosperity or poverty as the situation dictates. It claims to serve the masses, but all too often benefits the elites. His pieces, especially American Fall, dovetail quite accurately with Hillary Clinton’s statement ‘apres moi la deluge.’ An interesting caveat on the system – some of the sentinels guarding this castle included mass media. But mass media’s monopoly on news, truth and public opinion has now been disrupted by social media, a truth borne out by the fact that Clinton out-spent Trump in swing states 3-1. Trump’s twitter handle as well as fake news on facebook were a ruthlessly effective counter-strike. Naval’s theory is also backed up by the fact that Obama was the first social-media candidate. Unfortunately for us Trump has been the second. Despite the best wishes of the gatekeeper system, direct democracy as opposed to guided democracy, has officially arrived.
7. Balaji S Srinivasan a partner at Andreesen Horowitz places the new divide at the growing gulf between the nation-state and technology. His theory postulates that the Westphalian nation-state has been eroded over time in much the same way that the ‘divine right of kings’ was eroded over time. Balaji also proposes that technology has been eroding the boundaries of nation states and what it means to belong to a political grouping. He sees the rise of the EU and Mercosur free residence agreements as an accelerating trend which may be replicated here in Africa. With time, the power of trans-national corporations could exceed that of nation-states. (Goldman Sachs vs Greece comes to mind.) Balaji poses the question “Who will be around in 2025, Google or the EU?” He advocates a book called The Sovereign Individual which was written by authors who predicted Wall Street’s Black Tuesday, the pending collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Yugoslavian War. The book states that we have moved from an industrial society to an information society.
And with that, the main theories concerning the rise of Trump have been covered. So we can finally cover my personal hopes and wishes in this whole matter. On the one hand I wish Trump brings up the birther issue and forces Obama out of America. Then Obama can come home to Kenya. Then we can elect him president, bigly! Then we can live happily ever after. My plan is so good, it will make everyone happy. Everyone tells me this. It’s unbelievable.

On Ngugi, Dylan, Gadaffi and the new Thai king

There has been typical social media outrage over the fact that Ngugi wa Thiongo did not win the Nobel Prize for literature. More to the point that it went to a musician and lyricist. Bob Dylan writes some good music man. The fact that Nobel has tried contacting him without avail is besides the point. I wanna weigh in with my perspective from early 21st Century Kenya. Let us hope that it does not sound like “Those grapes! They were so full of wrath!” lol

The source of art is conflict, whether internal or external. Someone once said a comparison of Swiss and Italian art reveals this dichotomy. The Swiss had peace for 500 years and it produced Swiss watches and chocolate. The Italians had 30 years of murder, warfare and violence and it produced Michelangelo, da Vinci and the Renaissance. On this basis, Chimamanda Adichie once rightly asked why we dont have Kenyan stories about the Mau Mau rebellion. Half of a Yellow Sun, arguably her magnum opus, is her candid perspective of the Biafran war. That is a portion of Nigerian history which is hard to resolve and which few people can revisit while accurately splitting hairs the way they need to be split. The same is true of the Mau Mau rebellion. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that history is written by conquerors. And out here, I still feel like it’s the home guards in power. In my opinion this is what has muzzled art on this topic. It takes an atypical personality type to produce art on this matter without attracting the wrong kind of attention.

Ngugi wa Thiongo is arguably Kenya’s most notable writer, either him or Prof. Ali Mazrui. I respect them. For goodness’ sake I have never written a short story, let alone a novel. So I doff my hat to him. The problem is his rendering of the Mau Mau rebellion is a bit too socialist. And I mean socialist in the sense that it emphasises ‘the movement’ over the individuals. In so doing it fails to capture the individual lives, the pathos, the dire straits and essentially the heroism of the Struggle for Independence. These were men and women who walked into forests with sticks and a sense of oppression. When they re-emerged they had handmade guns and a feeling of freedom. These were men and women who forfeited their comfort and lives to live in dark caves. They strategised, regimented, planned raids, procured resources, dealt with snitches, harried their enemy and basically conducted a war on wholly unfamiliar terms. They fought for their land, for their loved ones and for liberty among other high ideals. Shortly afterwards a State of Emergency was being declared here in Kenya and troops were being shipped in from places on and off the continent to contain the insurrection. It was not contained. Eventually the Union Jack was lowered and the Kenyan flag flew free for the first time – a new dawn for a new nation.
Now, a lot can be said about the fact that World War 2 was demographically draining for British society; that after losing the colonial crown jewel named India, there were no more resources left to run the other colonies; that America pressed for the liberation of the colonies. But let the signal not be lost in the noise, let the facts above see the light of day. Let it be known that those men and women who fought for Kenya’s independence were real heroes. Once when Idi Amin wanted to extend his coasts to Lake Naivasha one of those generals offered Mzee Jomo to go and deal with the man. They had sand, gravitas and character. In startup parlance they got stuff done. We have just come out of Mashujaa Day, or Heroes Day in English. That heroism is part of our national history and heritage. The ideals for which they fought must be striven for. It is this elevation of the best in the human spirit, the highlighting of the evils and the glories of human struggle that literature on the Mau Mau must capture. It is these notes which Ngugi wa Thiongo failed to hit in The River Between and Weep Not Child. And it is for this reason that I don’t think he deserves that Nobel prize. Yes he has kinky black (now grey) hair and all, yes I identify with him but… this is my opinion.

Which brings us to a footnote on this home guard business. Kenya emerged in 2013 from a bruising electoral cycle with a few unresolved strands, the monster of tribalism rearing its ugly head and some home guards back in the driving seat. Frankly speaking I did not vote for the current government and for a considerable while I was highly critical of it. Actually I still am. But after observing alternatives societies for long enough, I am convinced that we actually don’t have it that bad. Yes, our system is very uniquely flawed but it is not yet broken. And as the saying goes “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is not to condone mediocrity, corruption or the hundred and one things that ail our country. No, a hundred times no. We may think that we have it rough but there are places that have it much worse off. The main reason I say this is because we have an example to look to a bit further north, which is Libya. It may be an extreme example, but it fits the bill. Gadaffi may have been a bit off-kilter, and seriously unpopular in certain quarters of his country, but Libya under Gadaffi was orders of magnitude better than Libya today. Word on the streets is that housing was in order, water was not a problem (in that dry land!) and education was provided for. I hear refrigeration for newly-weds was also taken care of but that may be a bit of a stretch. Granted, we are not sitting on motherlodes of oil to facilitate such largesse but besides the social net they had peace.

The point that Libya’s history makes is that in situations where there is a 55%-45% split and the very legitimacy of a government comes into question, the presidency is a unifying figure. Mark I said the presidency, not necessarily the president. We laughed at the new Thai king in a tank top (watu wa 80’s ndio sisi) and carrying a poodle being saluted by generals, but I think we need to doff our hats off for the generals saluting him at attention. If ever there was a lesson in there for us it is this; respect the seat, even if you didn’t root for its occupant. I think the point that must be raised in honour of those generals is this; of the leaders among that splintered 45% in Libya, who is unifying the country now? This is a hard gospel to take, and I say this with utmost respect for the opposition here in Kenya, based on gaining the new constitution and toppling Citizen Moi. We haven’t dealt with our African eminent personalities homework and so we still have too much steam in the system. We must tread carefully and practise how to live together as many peoples in one nation.

The story is told by Paulo Coelho of two brothers who lived in Ancient Rome in the time of Emperor Tiberius. One was a poet and the other a soldier. The poet achieved instant fame because he wrote delightful poems acceptable to the day and the times. The other brother was a soldier, a toughie who fought wars in distant lands. One night the father of the two sons had a dream in which an angel appeared to him and told him that the words of one of his sons would be learned and repeated throughout the world for all generations to come. Later he asked which of the sons that was and the angel told him it was not the poet, but rather the soldier. And the soldier’s words were “My Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. But only speak a word and my servant will be healed.” The point made by that story is that everyone plays a central role in history yet normally does not know it.

Time is ephemeral. History has sides. Let us tread on the right side of history.

There and Back Again I: DEMO Africa 2016

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers… -Mac ad by Apple 1984

Yawn.. Stretch…     Ding! “Landing in 10 minutes. Cabin crew please take your seats…” Ding!  This was the captain of The Zambezi River on flight 761 from Johannesburg to Nairobi. I was waking up.  Shake my head… rub my eyes… The interesting thing is I hadn’t been asleep. I had been wide awake, but I was waking up from a dream. And that dream was DEMO Africa 2016. Pinch myself. Wake up sleepy head!

I will be honest with you DEMO has been on my bucket list since 2013. So this was a dream come true. And I really didn’t want to wake up J But besides it being a personal goal, DEMO Africa 2016 was a parallel universe. Otherworldly, overwhelmingly, different.

DEMO Africa is Africa’s best launchpad for its top startups. And when I say ‘best from Africa’ it very literally means that. This year the number of startups launched was 30 and this year about 720 startups from across Africa applied. Now by definition a startup is a curious thing. It has a sideways view of a value chain or gap which it then decides to get into and rearrange or fill. So when you get 700 startups applying, even if it is from across the continent, then you know that the future of entrepreneurship in Africa is bright. Going by these numbers DEMO Africa curates the top 0.5% of startups coming out of the continent over a given duration. Unverified sources tell me that there were panels looking at 2 sets of 10 startups each. So each startup was assessed by two separate panels. Thereafter the total scores per startup were averaged across all the panels which assessed them. In summary the selection process was rigorous, transparent and competitive. It is partly what makes DEMO Africa what it is. This process resulted in a talented set of entrepreneurs being selected. We shall discuss the Kenyan startups shortly and the rest of the startups in a later article.

2016 cohort.jpg

The 2016 Bootcamp Class.

For starters it was hosted at Sandton Convention Centre (SCC) which is South Africa’s biggest and best convention centre. So it is arguably the best in Sub Saharan Africa. Rumour has it that it is booked one year in advance. For example, the attendance was approximately 400-500 persons. The conference had one wi-fi network assigned to it and that network was always up and fast. This was covering all social media uploads and downloads – whatsapp, instagram, facebook, twitter, livestreams, periscope, snapchat etc. 500+ people.  As Willy Semaya captured in his article on twitter activity, there were 4500 tweets with the hashtag #DEMOAfrica. And that was only Twitter, and specifically that hashtag. And wifi was always on. That was just the wifi, which should give an indication as to the scale of SCC. We shall deal with the name Sandton later.

To dial it back a bit, I am from Nairobi, and we call Nairobi the Silicon Savanna of Africa – the unrivalled epicentre of innovation in Kenya and East Africa. There is a place similarly called the Silicon Cape of Africa and that is Cape Town. Cape Town has been running away with the brand of being the innovation and entrepreneurial hub of South Africa. Now Johannesburg, being the economic capital of SA has decided it will not just stand by and watch as that brand is stolen out from under its nose. And so in the past week, there was a series of events which planted it solidly on the map as a rival in that space.

  1. LeaderX was aimed at SME’s and spurring innovation not necessarily large scale, but SME’s and innovation all the same. It was geared towards a slightly older, more experienced demographic. A mid-career executives thinking of taking the big leap and unsure about what they were getting into.
  2. The launch of the South African Business Angels Network.
  3. Simodisa was an evening cocktail bringing together some people from within LeaderX and the South African Business Angel’s Network. The keynote speaker was one VC who goes by the name Vinny Lingham who is one of the sharks on Sharktank SA, in other words our version of Kris Senanu or Myke Rabar. At Simodisa I had the opportunity of meeting a mid-career oil and gas engineer with 3 patents about to launch out. He inspired me because too few Africans are diving into the deep end of innovation with technical solutions.
  4. Then there was DEMO Africa.

So as you can see there was a wide range of levels, events and demographics which one could plug into and participate in both spurring as well as celebrating entrepreneurship. In the light of this sequence of events, we must recognise the strong and effective hand of the City of Johannesburg for orchestrating it. In a strange twist of events, the mayor of the city, who had been deeply involved, had originally been selected to open the conference. However, voters expressed their displeasure for the ANC and voted the ANC out of Jo’burg, Pretoria and Cape Town. As a matter of fact, my taxi from the airport to the hotel featured a live radio interview with the new mayor expressing his thanks to the voters and staking out his line item deliverables. So the original mayor of Jo’burg who was a rather effective person was no longer in a position, to undertake this duty, both literally and figuratively. Bad things do happen to good people sometimes. But we digress.

The preparations for DEMO Africa began weeks in advance. Our cohort was being guided online by Innovate Africa’s team which is led by Stephen Ozoigbo. Innovate Africa took us through the business plan canvas, how to calculate customer lifetime value, and most importantly how to value a startup for vc negotiations. We learnt that when discussing funding with vc’s, you should preferably not mention company valuation until as late as possible. As an aside Stephen operates out of Silicon Valley, California and is one of the most experienced and probably centred people in the VC space I met. I should have gotten a selfie with him.

Also, the ICT Authority of Kenya very graciously bought the air tickets for Kenya’s five startups to attend the conference. In many cases, startups are stilling fleshing out cash flow on to the bare bones of a market opportunity. So for startups to raise the funding to attend can be a task. For example, a number of startups missed the bootcamp two days prior to the main event for financial reasons. During day one of the bootcamp is when we taught how to handle negotiations with venture capitalists. During day two of the bootcamp, a lady from University of Cape Town (Silicon Cape things) took the class through how to structure and plug a pitch. Experience and expertise was shared during the bootcamp and all of Kenya’s five startups benefitted from it. The bootcamp itself was so good that one DEMO Finalist from Egypt called Ehab said that even if he never demoed then he had gotten enough value for money and time so far. In short the Kenyan government is involved in innovation here, and we Kenyan startups were grateful for that.

Now that we are mentioning the startups let me give a special mention to the Kenya Team

  1. Anthony Nyagah from Strauss Energy. Strauss are Kenya’s sole representative in DEMO Africa’s Top 5 and will be going to Silicon Valley later this year. They are replacing roofing tiles with solar tiles. An interesting component of their technology is that the energy storage is done not via battery but via a technology called compressed air energy storage (CAES). CAES achieves conversion efficiency of 75% compared to 60% with the latest lithium-ion batteries. This CAES is provided by a demo 2015 finalist called LiGE who’s operations director, Margriet Leaper, I had the opportunity of meeting.
  2. Patricia Mithika from Boresha Ltd who is doing digital content for peer-to-peer learning. We spent a good 4 days together and she has a golden heart, much better than mine :-). Not to mention the fact that we happen to be from the same area in Meru! Boresha Ltd has users outside Kenya, which is proof of a valid opportunity and business model. 20160826_120716.jpg

Patricia doing what she came to do…

  1. Brian Ondari from AirKlip was the youngest member of the team. A true innovator, he paid a grand total of USD 100/- for his accommodation in SA. That’s the power of AirBnB. AirKlip is also in educational technology helping students plan their coursework, classes and exams.
  2. Millicent Micere and Isis Nyong’o from Mum’s Village. Mum’s Village is an online community for mothers and especially first time mothers. Motherhood can be overwhelming and the community provides a place where experiences can be shared, resources identified and targeted marketing done. One of their most interesting products is called The Milky Way. Let me leave it at that. Millicent and I were classmates in campus and I find this important because Strathmore IT graduates have been said not to stack up against Chiromo or ‘Juja Boys’ or Moi University graduates. So that fact that 2 DEMO Africa finalists were Strathmore graduates should be proof that we measure up against the best of them out there. Millicent is also one of the most humorous ladies I know. Much love Millie!

 

20160826_132819.jpg

BBIT class of 2016 lol

20160826_132902.jpg

Serious discussions in our own personalised deal room 🙂

  1. Then there was me plugging anti-money laundering solutions for the African market.

As you can imagine selecting the best 30 from across Africa was difficult judging strictly on the basis of the Kenyan startups. More on the other African startups and the experience itself will follow in the next two days in a different post.

A word must be reserved for the organising teams who made sure that 29 out of 30 startups made it to the event, including visa organisation, air tickets for some, audio-visual set up, food, drinks and logistics over the four days, scheduling the pitches, confirmations for various events, slotting in speakers and panellists per industry experience, planning, backup-planning, exit-planning and more planning. These were Harry Hare the leader, in conjunction with LIONS Africa, the City of Johannesburg, Google, Intel, Microsoft. Harry’s team comprised Mbugua Njihia, Pamela Sinda (whose brother used to school me in basketball in high school) Hany Zuhudi(who I once shared an office with at 3Mice) Francis Nderitu and Engineer Martin Obuya.

IMG_20160826_170934 - Copy.jpg

With Hany Zuhudi after it ended…

20160823_174916

With Mbugua Njihia at Michelangelo Towers. First Day of Bootcamp

 

Wanted: Parttime CMO

An innovative startup within Kenya’s banking compliance technology space is looking to hire a parttime Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) to head up their Sales and Marketing unit.

The CMO will report directly to the CEO and will be responsible for the following deliverables:

Meeting enterprise fintech sales targets within Kenya

Developing a lead pipeline and sales process

Determining marketing strategies, channels and sales operations for the company in its desired markets

Interfacing with the technology team to ensure clients and products are kept ahead of the technology curve.

The desired candidate should possess the following skills and requirements:

Demonstrable ability in closing enterprise technology sales in East Africa

An undergraduate degree in either commerce, computer science or IT-related fields. Further certification within marketing would be an added advantage.

Experience in either financial technology sales or banking technology sales

A general understanding of banking systems and processes

An understanding of regulatory and compliance requirements would be an added advantage

An unhealthy disregard for the status quo and the big boys such as Oracle and SAS.

Applicants should send their cv’s to david.marete@ujuzicompliance.com by the 1st of September 2016. The cv’s should be accompanied by a go-to-market strategy containing action points for immediate execution within their first hundred days.

The Return of the King (James)

The human psyche is hard-wired for the legend of lost kings roaming in forgotten nothingness and then returning to reclaim their throne from a big bad wolf and establishing law, order and justice. It is the stuff of myth and legend. It is meaning, it is the cosmos… It is the story of lost humanity seeking salvation and receiving redemption. That legendary, mythical, meaningful, je ne sais quoi is the central allure of the Bible, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the animation classic The Lion King among other cultural greats.

In one modern example of this drama we have LeBron James looking to reclaim his status as the undisputed king of basketball. The plot-twist is that the big bad wolf, arch-rival and nemesis in this case is one diminutive (by NBA standards) Stephen Curry who has stormed into the NBA and broken an un-written rule that the NBA is supposed to be a physical game. Steph Curry pranced onto the NBA big-stage wearing Under-Armour sneakers and shooting 3-pointers like tomorrow was never going to come. This coupled up with his legendary ball-handling skills had fans arriving for Golden-State-Warriors-games hours early just to watch Steph practise, not even play.

At a deeper level, Steph Curry’s meteoric rise represents a dilemma that basketball and sports in general face in this new era of ADHD audiences. With youngsters spending more time on their phones, Nintendo wii’s and playstations than out climbing trees or playing with a ball (whatever type it may be), drawing kids onto the basketball court is ever more necessary to get children interested in the game. The attendant marketing and influence of NBA was at risk of being gobbled up by digital games and Snapchat. Now a child watching 6-foot 8′ LeBron dominating opponents on the court will despair of ever attaining that size or skillset. On the other hand, Steph weighs in at a much more attainable 6-foot 3′ but has a skill set that can be acquired and makes a big difference on the court. On that basis that same despairing child is more likely to get out and play the game. As a result he is likely to follow the NBA and in this manner, the NBA maintains its influence and relevance to the next generation.

That being said, in the basketball universe you can tell a person’s age by which great player they favour. The oldest I know prefer Michael Jordan, he of the Chicago Bulls 23 vest and whose shoe brand still outweighs many clothing lines. MJ is Obama’s favourite as can be evidenced by his Medal of Freedom award. After MJ came Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers who flamed out into the night like a comet from the Kuiper belt. Then came LeBron James of Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers. My generation of ball-players know him as King James despite his scant 2 NBA rings. Stephen Curry is the newest contender for king of the ring. By competing for this title Steph is preventing King James from getting his 4-5 rings and thereby interrupting an ongoing coronation.

So those are the stakes being played for in the coming finals matchup between Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. That being said, what you will read below is my take on how it might play out this season. Before we begin it must be noted that the GSW are a team that has been built from the ground-up for shooting from the 3-point perimeter and beyond. The traditional basketball mindset considers this a revolutionary change in philosophy and perspective. And it is, because it totally opens up the floor and makes defense much much harder. The amount of space that needs to be covered requires a much higher expenditure of energy. Towards the end of a game heavy on 3-points players just get exhausted. This is exactly what happened in last year’s final series; after one game LeBron simply collapsed on the floor. This year we may just see the tables being flipped. As has been said by an astute observer before, range can mean everything. Teams not dynamic enough to adapt to this form of play will be caught ‘flat-footed’ like French knights marching into a hail of longbow arrows at Agincourt. The results resound down through history.

 

When Miami Heat vs. Toronto Raptors was at 3-2 in Toronto’s favour, it was statistically improbable for Heat to win the series. The level and intensity of playoff basketball makes it very hard for a team to both claw back to 3-3 and then go on to win 3-4. So by forcing game 7 on the Raptors Dwayne Wade was kind of sending some brotherly love King James’ way. Or might this be wishful thinking?

The way things have been going, Raptors will likely be swept by the Cavs in 4 games. Looking at the quarterly scoreline of Game 2 of Cavs vs Raptors shows that Cavs were able to impose their will on the Raptors. In quarter 1 they got the gas out the Raptors tank. In quarter 2 they built a solid lead. And then in quarters 3 and 4 they practised defense while matching basket for basket, for the most part. As a King James fan it is tempting to think that after the magnitude of the Game 1 win the Cavs toyed with them. So much so that Kyle Lowry had to leave the bench mid-game and go ‘decompress.’ The heat was on and the pressure was just too much. Now in terms of defense, Toronto are rated 4th overall while the Cavs are rated 5th. Golden State Warriors feature in defensive rankings except as the hardest team to make 3’s against. That is to say that GSW are winning their games on the other end of the court, offensively.

Let us return to our first observation, that the level and intensity of playoff basketball makes it harder for a team to win a series once it is down 3-2. By the same logic, it should be harder to win the championship through four 5-game or 6-game series(es). Cavs have been executing flawless victories against all their playoff opponents so far. Remember when GSW won the last final it was because they had tired out a benchless Cavs. Something had to give then and if GSW don’t sweep OKC fast something will have to give this time too.

Meanwhile in the Western Conference, Game 3 of GSW vs. OKC this coming Sunday night is gonna be lit like a rocket. OKC will be nursing a grudge because of Game 2’s scoreline. GSW on the other will be trying their damnedest to impose the natural order of things. It can only be a tussle of wills and skills, and it will likely be a tiring one. As noted by one astute commentator, the only thing that can beat GSW right now is the schedule. When Bucks beat GSW it was a prior double-overtime game which caused 2 injuries. As a by the way, Western Conference teams are generally better than Eastern Conference teams.

So what is different this time?

  1. The Cavs will be rested while GSW will have been tested.
  2. Cavs are shooting as well as GSW from the perimeter. Their current form has broken records for 3-point shooting in the playoffs.
  3. King James is out of the driver’s seat and is now playing as an offensive forward. It takes the offensive load off him while allowing the Cavs to both shoot and drive which makes them a much harder proposition to defend against.

Homo Oeconomicus – Being a Thing

This will arguably be the most conceited post from me yet. (I’m sorry!!) But it has elements of truth in it.

We will be remembered for 2 things, the problems we solve and the problems we create. Perhaps this is why we are so cherished by our parents. We create such headaches for them as little tykes that they come to cherish us. Think about it; no sleep, constant wailing, a rather insistent appetite and complete dependence. We sure created enough problems for them in order for us to become dear to them J

Off course this principle of problem-solving translates into the workplace. Do you create or solve problems for your boss or clients? Or rather, what problems do you create and solve for your bosses and clients? I used to daydream about the day I would sit at an interview table and tell guys “I am this thing that churns out sick code at 120 lines of code per hour. I have X thousands of delivered source-code instructions under my belt. This code machine also smiles and likes a bit of music after hours. But its core functionality is to code.”

So that aside, everyone has their skill, talent, gifting. Some are musicians, artists, leaders, engineers, designers, financiers and so forth. For some people, they can sell ice to an eskimo. The question they have to answer therefore is what will they sell? Some choose to sell Dante’s Inferno! Some are political operatives, do they go left, right or balance the middle?

The point here is, the sooner you come to the realisation of exactly what your competitive advantage is, the better for all of us. Some realise this gifting after marriage, while others realise it before marriage. For some who realise it before marriage they become eligible. They operate from their area of strength and the market recognises this in them, rewarding them accordingly.

So anyway, the main slant of this article is about eligibility and its effect on certain areas of life. This is not to claim eligibility in any way by the way. Eligibility can also be a pure function of scarcity. (Sad but true in this day of the boy child.)

That being said, society has a rather mistaken view that being an eligible bachelor is fun. It is not. It means that you are different in certain, shall we say, fundamental ways. You become a thing in the one area where you would prefer to be human. You run the risk of getting your wants and needs developed on the run rather than pre-packaged. It sometimes makes you wonder what a given person-of-the-opposite-gender’s motive is in certain contexts. It makes you approach many interactions from the point of view of “I hope we can have a normal interaction.” Being a thing is not easy, but from experience on both sides of the tracks it’s better to have such problems than problems stemming from ineligibility. The problem is more pronounced if you want to do right by the people in your life. In short, eligibility changes the dating game fundamentally.

At the heart of the matter is that eligibility can change the way people around you behave. What this dynamic does is to change who he/she is to suit his/her understanding of who you are and what you want. As a result it strait-jackets your interactions together into certain very well defined pathways. Breaking out of these scripts and pathways becomes an art form. This creates a superficial and unnatural relationship in which best points are fronted while bad points are hidden. The basic premises of compatibility and inter-personal understanding may not be dealt with at all! As a result the foundation of the relationship starts off ‘broken’ so the pieces remain to be picked up after the nuptials. That is when the real work in the relationship begins. Sometimes men wonder why she changed after the wedding. What happened is that she changed before the wedding and no longer needs to keep up pretences!

One of the tenets of male spouse-searching is this concept of ‘growing together’. Past 27 either certain particular dynamics kick in or the girls just want to see the material expression of your dreams. It’s just that much harder to grow together. Either way you are at checkmate bro.

My understanding of growing together means that you can be a boy with her and the girl in her is capable of relating to that side of you. Most importantly you as the dude are simultaneously and privately working on the man who will provide for her and her family, your family together. You should kind of be like the duck that appears smooth and unruffled above water while paddling furiously beneath the water. Don’t get me wrong on this, a man plays a crucial socio-economic function in his family. Emotional support and all that stuff IMO lasts only briefly. At the end of the day the man has to bring home the bread and the bacon! Absent this a family becomes dysfunctional in rather unpleasant ways.

For this reason, cot-napping or cradle-snatching increasingly becomes a viable option. A girl at 24 years feels absolutely no pressure to settle down. As a matter of fact, if the two of you settle down at that age you as the man will be denying her the chance to see the world on her own terms and come to appreciate certain things for herself. More specifically this is the opportunity for her to learn what’s what, who’s who and what is up for herself. By the time she begins to feel the urge to merge, my friend, you are the finished product. Voila! An additional advantage is that by the time you are both ready, you have sufficient relational history to make a serious decision on whether to proceed or not.

Many people think that once you are through with campus then the next goal is to settle down and start a family. A lot of things in me scream out that this assumption is wrong. The other day I was in a deli picking at a plate of fries. At the table next to me some 2 campus students, girls, were discussing an assignment that their lecturer had given them. They were supposed to describe their philosophy of life in an essay. They didn’t know where to start. So I intruded in on the conversation and told them to relax. They would know in the next 5 years or so. It has been said in some quarters that at 25 you know what you want and then at 30 you know what you don’t want. So this is why I think that settling down immediately after campus may not be the wisest of things to do.

This has been especially true for me. Over the course of those 5 years I have learnt to operate from different angles of society. But I much prefer my current niche to mainstream alternatives. Granted it could force me to cot-nap and cradle-snatch, but at least I know my wife would respect me and would not be second guessing my thoughts and actions. This is not to say that I would not value her opinions. On the contrary, they are likely to be fresher, more lively, richer in spirit than those of mtu amekula chumvi kama mimi J It can be easier to be cynical than otherwise.

Yeah so there you have it folks, the tragedy of the commons in present day Nairobi!