The thing about African Aid: When help is decidedly unhelpful

“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same”

A very apt quote from Nelson Mandela which resonated strongly as I contemplated this article.

Around 600 million Africans still don't have electricity in their homes. SIX...HUNDRED...MILLION.

There's so much talk about clean energy, & Solar power is the hot topic (no pun intended) even in countries where sunshine is as rare as snow in Africa. Why on earth haven't those worlds collided?

Cue hip-hop artist Akon from Senegal whose solar energy initiative across 14 countries, aims to deliver electricity to millions of people who thankfully, won't have been watching the news reports & wondering why it's taken such an age for this fantastic initiative to materialise. It's not just the convenience, but also the possibilities it opens up. Just think of what you would do if you had no electricity for 24 hours.... And not just you, everyone around you. How would your life change? So imagine that in reverse, and all the things that are suddenly possible for these communities. It's a game changing project for Africans, & so many lives will be saved, least of all from the safer cooking with electricity versus kerosene.

It's significant that Akon, an African himself, has been the deliverer of this project. I've been using #ByUsForUs on twitter to emphasise the importance of innovation and solution creation led by Africans for Africa. Why does that matter?

Loadshedding, boreholes, being sent home from school for non payment of fees, petrol queues, generators, hot sitting. water tanks, medical aid. Chances are, if you're African or have lived in Africa, those are all too familiar. You've lived through them & probably had a few "why can't it just be done like this...?" moments out of frustration. It's that resilience and innovation out of necessity that leads to targeted, relevant, community empowering solutions that matter & make a real difference, because the people formulating them know the impact of the problems & how best to tackle them. I met the board of a large charity last year, that does a lot of work in Africa. Not one board member was African or had lived in Africa. Not one. But they were making the key decisions. Small wonder they'd been in a single area for decades delivering a 'solution', & yet the issue persisted.

Priscilla Higham is a British journalist who grew up in Botswana & set up ASAP - African Solutions to African Problems - in recognition of the above. She witnessed the same innovation out of necessity in the context of AIDS and orphans. Speaking of aid, she said "the purpose of aid was to make women self-reliant and independent by the generous supply of appropriate intellectual gifts of relevant knowledge and the methods of self help". NOT creating dependency.

I could go on forever here, but the point is hopefully made. Well, there are 3 main ones actually:

1. People in the comunity are best placed to identify the issues affecting them & how best to tackle them. What they need is support in implementing those solutions in the most sustainable way;

2. There are SO MANY Africans who have experienced the problems - imagine what would happen if we collaborated to deliver solutions? The lightbulbs that could go off!

3. The solutions to all Africa's problems are already out there. Look at the solar initiative. It's not new. What we need to do is tap into the diaspora network and collectively take what we've seen & learnt from countries we've moved to, & match those solutions to African problems.

The principle doesn't just apply to Africa & Africans. Any organisation that wants to succeed or identify solutions to its problems needs to tap into its own talent pool & provide them with meaningful opportunities, time, space AND SUPPORT to be creative & innovative. Governments would do well to try the same - possibly minimise the sense of disconnection between leaders and the electorate.

The more Akons we have, the brighter the light will shine that will encourage more people to follow suit.

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