Silicon Insider: Africa, Land of Entrepreneurs

Constantino Maunga is a combination guide, host, master of ceremonies and chamber of commerce director for his hometown of Kawaza Village, in Zambia. As such, he has become a pretty important figure in his community … something that he hints might not have occurred after he dropped out of school.

Kawaza Village is a real African village, with mud huts and chickens running around in the dirt and old men sitting around a fire talking and women using branches to sweep the grounds in the early morning. But it has one crucial difference: Kawaza takes visitors, mostly from Europe and a few from the United States, and lets them immerse themselves in traditional village life.

Most visitors just stay for the day, but the more adventurous spend the night as well. They can help the women cook the dinner that will be eaten on the floor of the open winter hut, sleep in a hut under mosquito netting -- and best of all, join about a hundred folks from Kawaza and a half-dozen nearby villages -- in a dust-pounding, drum-beating dance at which Maunga serves as emcee.

Even for those who don't stay the night, Maunga puts on a terrific tour -- to an intervillage soccer game, to the medical clinic, to the local moonshiner (pretty good corn liquor, by the way) and a traditional healer (I could taste the male potency powder for the next three days).

The final stop is a visit to the local school. It is a typical southern African elementary/junior high school: underfunded, bare light bulbs, torn books, hard working teachers and proud students voluntarily choosing to wear white shirts and ties. We watched the morning assembly, complete with prayer, the national anthem and a lecture given by a stern headmaster -- a flashback to the way American schools used to be.

The morning assembly completed, we were ushered into the unlit office of the same headmaster. Talking with adults, he was far more affable but just as single-minded. He set out for us a list of the school's needs, from textbooks to sporting goods to a VCR

This, too, was part of the Kawaza Village experience.

Tourism Might Boost Education Dollars

Fifteen years ago, a local tourist lodge and travel company, Robin Pope Safaris, teamed with nearby Kawaza Village in a unusual venture. Pope would promote visits and overnight stays at Kawaza Village. The village would in turn, in exchange for being good hosts, not only earn revenues from hospitality fees but also get a chance to meet with foreign visitors directly (rather than merely wave as they drove by) and, with luck, convince them to make donations to Kawaza School.

The idea not only worked, but it has been imitated elsewhere. Several hundred miles away near Lusaka, Chaminuka Lodge, founded by Andrew Sardanis and his wife, Danae -- he was a major figure in the independence of Zambia -- has also adopted its nearby village. And in the south, outside Livingstone and not far from Victoria Falls, at the Victorian and elegant River Lodge, Natasha Tilley manages a similar program for Simonga Village.

Meanwhile, in the countryside, 75 miles outside Lusaka, one of the living saints of Africa, Moses Zulu, has built Children's Town, a combination school, home and working farm for AIDS orphans. I helped tell Moses' story last year in the PBS miniseries "The New Heroes," and stopping by Children's Town was one of the high points of this year's trip to Africa (my son, Tad, is also doing his Eagle Scout project with Moses).

Just getting in touch with Moses is tough these days -- his rickety old car finally broke down forever, and he has to take a bus two hours into Lusaka just to answer e-mail -- but he soldiers on. And his life's work, Children's Town, is an oasis of hope on a struggling continent.

Moses accomplishes extraordinary things on a minuscule budget -- and the tragedy is how little it would take for him to do so much more: -- just 1,000 feet of electrical cable, for example, would quadruple the production of the farm and make Children's Town almost entirely self-sufficient.

Indeed, the more you travel around southern Africa, the more you appreciate that the real problem -- beyond even the corrupt governments, tribalism and legacies of colonialism -- is a shortage of capital.

Is Africa a Lost Cause?

There seems to be a commonly held assumption in the West that Africa is a lost cause. Battered by poverty, disease, civil war and cultural handicaps, Africans seem to have no hope of ever building the kind of strong economies they need to escape their morass. Every year seems to bring yet another famine or disaster, and calls for rich Westerners to give money -- followed a few months later by stories of how almost none of the aid reached those in need but instead wound up in the pockets of crooked politicians.

Almost every pessimistic thing you can say about the economies of southern Africa is true. And yet, you only have to drive through any city in Zambia or Botswana or South Africa -- or merely drive down any dirt road past the millions of tiny villages like Kawaza -- and you see something extraordinary: Africa, like India or China, is a land of shopkeepers, of small-time entrepreneurs. Anybody who has a few extra mangoes from a tree or a couple pairs of Nikes or a handwoven grass rug -- or even some bootleg DVDs -- will set up a stand by the road and try to sell them. An open field by a crossroads springs up with a dozen wooden stalls selling haircuts, whiskey, T-shirts.

The entrepreneurial urge, often driven by necessity, is everywhere -- and with it all the tricks of marketing, promotion and competitive pricing. It may look pretty skuzzy (and sometimes scary) to us, but it is the real deal -- and the ambitions, desires and attitudes of these entrepreneurs are no different from those found in Silicon Valley or Bangalore. As Moses Zulu has shown, in social (rather than commercial) entrepreneurship, the real innovations take place in struggling economies like those of southern Africa.

I would even argue that, given the obstacles they face, the small businessmen and women of southern Africa are among the best in the world.

Startups Without Investment Capital

The problem is not a shortage of will in Africa, but a shortage of money. And no, I don't mean the Bono/LiveAid give-millions-to-the-hungry approach. We already know that doesn't work. Neither do I mean the World Bank brute force approach, with its emphasis on giant projects and its casual attitude toward corrupt officials.

No, what I mean is investment capital. From the loan of a few dollars to small business people to full-blown venture capital investments in major enterprises -- all of it smart money demanding a real return on the investment. That's what Grameen Bank is doing with small businesses in Bangladesh and India, and it's what should be taking place in Africa. That's only part of what's needed in southern Africa. I had dinner one night with a young British expat who is now running a resort and some other large businesses in Zambia. A born entrepreneur, he'd likely be a tycoon by now if he lived in Palo Alto. As it is, he's been wildly successful by Zambian standards. But it's been a hard road. As he long ago learned, nobody wants to invest in Africa -- the risks just seem too great. So, periodically, he visits his network of contacts in England, borrowing money by promising huge rates of return (which, please note, he's managed to meet) in a very short period of time -- usually just three years. He pulls it off because he's good, but no real economy could possibly be built under those terms.

And thus the tragic dilemma for southern Africa. The talent is there, and so is the entrepreneurial genius. It needs only the one thing we aren't prepared to give: not charity but real investment that demands a realistic return. Africa needs patient money, and patience is something we are short of these days.


Due to interest from readers regarding my three recent columns about Africa, the following is a list of links to the organizations and businesses mentioned. My family's 2006 safari lasted six weeks and covered much of Namibia, Zambia and Botswana. It ranged from elegant lodges to sleeping in tents in the wild.

There were no sponsors for this trip. For those readers wishing to learn more about the venues we visited and the commercial companies we worked with on our trip through Africa, please see the following links:

Sunbird Tours: (Travel arrangements, Heidi is the best)

Children's Town: and (Moses Zulu is a great man and he is doing vital and important work. Please help him any way you can.)

Makadi Safaris: (Our ranch stay in Namibia. The Metzgers are old friends)

Grootberg Lodge: (Spectacular location, rhino game drive)

Sunrise Tours and Safaris: (Kaokoland camping, as well as deep sea fishing)

Luangwa River Lodge: (Elegant setting, fabulous food. Victor, a former Wildlife Ranger commander, is a terrific guide. Ask him to call the crocodiles.)

Kwando Safaris: (Three superb lodges in the Okavango, each different. Mel Leech at Little Kwara is a fabulous hostess. Ask for Charles Sebaga to guide you, especially if you have kids.)

Deception Valley: (The Bushman walk has been one of our favorite experiences).

Pride of the Zambezi: (Modern houseboat on the Zambezi used for tiger fishing)

The River Club: (Elegant Victorian lodge on the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls. For information on Simonga Village, write to, attn. Natasha Tilley.

Kawaza Village: (Good website that gives a complete description of the village, its history, and its hospitality program. Day visits are available, but I recommend overnight stays).

Chaminuka: (This is about as good as it gets. Spectacular main lodge, one of the great private art collections in southern Africa, wonderful crafts and tribal antiques for purchase)

Silicon Insider columnist Michael Malone is on monthlong trip to Africa with his son, Tad.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public-television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.