Are New Technologies Really Helping Poor People? The Bottom Billion People Debate

Few years ago while in the doctoral engineering program of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, I received a fellowship from Jay D Samstang for ‘outstanding performance’. It was more money in the pocket and that enabled me to fund a critical project related to African Institution of Technology, my non-profit organization. But there was something really interesting about this fellowship. It helped me to be invited to a dinner hosted by Prof Nicholas. P. Jones, the engineering Dean, along with other top management of the university. In that dinner, I met some of the most passionate alumni of Hopkins.  It was a great atmosphere. The memory is second only to the day the six professors in my dissertation committee congratulated me after deciding that I passed my PhD defense.  Hopkins is a great university and sometimes I wish I am still a student there. But it is life; I need to grow up!


Back to the dinner; wine, assorted food, they had all. This brings another fun experience to memory last year when High Chief Gabriel Igbinedion, the Esama of Benin Kingdom (Nigeria) invited me to a breakfast. It was another good one because I enjoyed the early morning on the same table with two Nigerian federal ministers and couple of deputy governors. I had given a Keynote address during Igbinedion University 10th year anniversary celebration the previous day. The Hopkins dinner was great; American legends were in attendance. That great autumn evening with happy birds singing in harmonious glory and splendor turned out giving me a feeling of justification for resigning a lucrative bank job in Lagos for exploration in America. In absolute and relative terms, there was nothing I would have gotten in America that Lagos would not have offered, except quality engineering education.  I was happy, the risk is paying off!


And then I was asked as one of the Fellows to give a speech. It was a short one, but it was long enough to thank them and then reminded them that the ‘most effective aids America gives to Africa are education fellowships and scholarships to African students’. I made a point that IMF and World Bank could be wasting billions of dollars in Africa through our corrupt politicians, but at least, America is anchoring a new generation of African leaders through these scholarships. I have always believed that if half of the aids that go to Africa are channeled to education, Africa will be aids-free faster. It was a great evening. We took photos and I appreciated these Americans for their generosities.


While in TED2010 conference few weeks ago in Long Beach, California, I met two people during dinner that told me that Singularity University was holding an event. I was a TED Fellow and they reasoned that I was a trailblazer (yes, I agree with them). I was invited to the event and I went. Right there, I met innovators and thinkers visioning exponential growth technologies with potentials to affect a billion people. The energy was infectious because that was like being in graduate school again where you think you can solve all problems on earth by coming daily seating right inside that small cubicle. I made immediate contacts; the guys were nice and we just connected. That week was so good because I had one and one with Vice President Al Gore during a breakfast. Yes, I asked him a question and he answered me. What a feeling!


After TED, I took time to visit Singularity University website. I noticed a model. They wanted to solve problems with their resources that would affect the world, and I will add especially developing world since the billion people ambition cannot come without a good part of the developing population. What they did is very ingenious. They bring people from ALL over the world and ask them to work together to solve the problems. For an organization to do this, it means it is humble and understands that breakthrough knowledge can come from any place.


Unlike the model used by most aid agencies, which stay in US, France, UK and develop solutions for Rwanda, Nigeria and Cameroon, without consulting the people. They miss the point that what works in London most likely will not work in Lagos because in Lagos, the traffic can reduce an eight-hour workday to two hours.  And when you finally get to work, there might not be light for the two hours. So Singularity University understands the need of bringing people that can benefit from their ideas to help shape the solutions.  For me, that is redesigning the way the western world has approached global problems, especially the ones affecting developing world.


To back it up, they award scholarships to these students, from any location on earth.  I have a student coming from Nigeria to attend a ten-week expense paid summer scholarship ($25,000 value). It is simply marvelous. There are others from other parts of Africa. They are coming to solve problems, and be part of the value chain for solutions. This is putting and elevating these students to become creators, right inside the NASA campus where the school is located.


Let me close by thanking Singularity University for providing a model that makes sense in the quest to solve global problems. For any $25,000 you spend on any of the African students, I am confident that they will work hard to justify these investments. At AFRIT, we are proud to be part of the process to link these minds to your institution. To all the students, prove yourselves and let’s change the bottom billion people which include most in our continent. And remember your community, always.


Dated April 2010

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