A few months ago, I delivered a talk here in Las Vegas to a room full of tech industry people where I argued that much of what is described as "innovation" in the ecosystem of Silicon Valley startups and venture capital is merely a series of attempts to solve what are often called "First World problems", by people whose economic status has effectively cloistered them away from the harsh realities of the world outside of their startup incubators and hackathons. I argued that true innovation -- true disruptive change -- is bred from desperation and necessity. I talked about the people who live underneath Las Vegas, in the storm drains, who pilfer building materials from the world above and build small, shantytown-like communities, surviving in horrifying conditions through sheer ingenuity.
And I talked about Africa.
* * *
I have been drawn to Africa, through myths and music and art, since my childhood. My whole life, I've dreamed of visiting the continent -- of losing myself in the sands of the Sahara or the rain forests of the Gold Coast, of visiting the ancient library of Timbuktu and Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, the place where our species began. You may call it a form of exoticism of the Other if you like, or the echoes of colonialist dreams in the head of a white American dude, but the hold it took upon me was always very real and almost physical.
A decade ago, I began to hear rumors and stories of a technological revolution beginning there, starting with the rise of inexpensive and widely-available mobile phones in the sub-Saharan region. And not only were Africans able to interface and connect with the global communications grid, they were beginning to build out new ideas using these already-outmoded tools.
In my talk, I spoke about Susan Oguya, a co-founder of the Nairobi startup MFarm, who developed an SMS-based tool that allowed Kenyan farmers to verify the going global value of their crops before taking them to market. Susan told me -- when we met at South by Southwest in Austin, in March of 2013 -- about other startups in her city building apps that allowed rural Kenyans to do their banking via SMS, or to give and receive microloans.
These startups weren't burning through billions of dollars of venture capital, and their founders weren't showing up on the cover of Wired or Fast Company or the frontpage of VentureBeat. But their modest efforts, working with technology that most Silicon Valley companies would find as absurd as telegraphy, were changing the way their country's economy worked -- the way that people lived their lives. Not just comfortable middle-class people, but poor people -- who, as we often forget, make up the majority of humanity's ranks.
As Susan said to me when I met her on that warm day in Austin: the base of the pyramid is always the largest part.
* * *
In the past couple of years, barely a month goes by before you see a headline on some economist magazine like "Africa Rising". Chinese investors and American tech companies have begun to set their sights on sub-Saharan Africa, like popular high school cheerleaders mercilessly eyeing the new girl in school, trying to decide if they want to make friends. They're gauging whether there's enough money in Africa yet to extend their markets there -- smartphones and Facebook and all the baubles of modern consumer capitalism.
But the impression that I get, from the Africans whom I have spoken to and whose blog posts and articles I've read -- is that nobody there is necessarily interested in Facebook or Uber or any of Silicon Valley's other bright and shining stars. In many cases, their cultural values are simply not the same as ours...but they also want to build their own tech startups, their own economy. If they can do this, they'll pull off a trick that has eluded much of Africa for the past four hundred years: keeping money flowing back into their own economies, instead of pouring into the hands of Westerners who seem determined to keep African nations as helpless client states, often run by corrupt regimes who serve as nothing less than pimps for the minerals and other resources they hold ruthless stewardship over.
But as interesting as I find the politics and economics of all of this, I'm far more curious about the actual technology that's coming out of Africa. The smallest startup in the most rural town in America, after all, has access to resources and knowledge and just sheer infrastructure that geeks in great African cities like Nairobi and Lagos can only dream of. But this is precisely why African technology, and the people who build it, are so fascinating to me. If you accept my old friend Jude Milhon's definition of hacking as "the clever circumvention of imposed limits", then African technologists are hackers of the highest water. Everything they do is innovation.
And that is why I'm going to Africa to write this book, and I need your help.
I'm raising $10,000 to travel to and around two main hubs in sub-Saharan Africa: Lagos, Nigeria, and Nairobi, Kenya. From these cities I'll branch out to other places as time and finance permit. I'll also be making my way to rural areas outside of the cities, to try to understand how technology could most benefit those who live in villages or the countryside. I'll be spending a month, total, in Africa.
I plan to interview and talk to technologists, startup entrepreneurs, 419 scammers, and everyday people I meet along the way. I'm traveling without guides, drivers, or bodyguards. As I go, I'll take notes and begin writing the book while I'm there, and complete it when I return to Las Vegas. It will be a minimum of 250 pages and include as many photos as I can take that don't suck.
In addition to the standard ebook edition, there will be a limited edition, which will contain more pictures, notes, Tweets, the text of my travel blog, and any video I manage to take, included in a big ol' honking zip file.
If I reach my stretch goal of $25,000, I will take a professional videographer with me, and we'll produce a documentary, which I will make available first to all of my backers.
I'm not an academic or a theorist; I'm a punk rock technologist, and this is not going to be a pop sociology or economy book. As a writer, I'm closer to Hunter Thompson or Lester Bangs than Naomi Klein or Paul Krugman...and this book will be a combination of big thinking about technology, first-person reporting, and gonzo travel writing. It will get weird.
And maybe along the way I can help celebrate the ingenuity and innovation that's happening in Africa now, and help people from my part of the world figure out ways to get involved with people in that part, and help those folks help themselves.
- $12,000: I will purchase a DSLR camera for better pictures and video than I can take with my iPhone.
- $15,000: I will extend my trip to cover larger geographical areas (including possibly Senegal and South Africa, both of which also have exciting stuff happening, technology wise). This will extend the length of the book as well, obviously.
- $25,000: I will take a professional videographer and film a full-fledged documentary, which I will make available to all backers exclusively before it reaches the rest of the world. In addition to the book, of course.
How You Can Help
I can't do this without your help. I simply can't afford to fund the trip myself. So I need your money, to be blunt about it. My estimated budget is $10,000, which will cover my airfare, food, lodging, and transportation on the ground for a month, as well as roughly $3000 to help cover my rent and utilities at home and any emergencies that might pop up.
But I'd also love your connections in Africa, your expertise, and your advice! I've traveled around the world, but this will be the most far-flung and potentially harrowing trip I've ever done. If you can put me in touch with people I can talk to, I'd love it.
And of course, you can help spread the word! Post this to your Facebook, tweet about it, share it on Google+, tell your friends and family about it. Together we can make this happen.
Special thanks to Brent Holmes for shooting the video and Jesse Carson Smigel for letting me use his backyard as a location!