Transforming ‘Aid to Africa’ into ‘Made in Africa’

By David Sengeh

As a Sierra Leonean living in the country during and after the decade-long civil war, I know the positive impact of humanitarian aid on the economic growth of a country. In fact, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has launched a challenge to encourage people to tell the world that aid is working. On the opposite end of the spectrum, development economist Dambisa Moyo has outlined why aid is “dead” in Africa: She argues that billions of aid dollars have left Africa worse off than if there had been little or no such spending for the past 50 years.

From my perspective, there is a bigger question than whether development aid to Africa is good or bad. My concern lies in the sad reality that many young people in Sierra Leone continually expect either the government or a non-governmental organization to solve their problems.

The culture of aid — embodied by large numbers of influential development organizations — is pervasive in our societies, often leaving many young entrepreneurial citizens unable and unwilling to take action to address local challenges. Continuous aid removes agency from the recipient and often leaves a bulk of those people with limited self-efficacy.

Instead of directly addressing the continent’s socio-economic and leadership problems, many have depended on an ecosystem of unilateral aid that has not had nearly the transformative effects that we need in order to build the 21st-century Africa.
So, mine is a call to try something new.

As a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, I am given an unbridled creative freedom, immense resources and an inspirational network of doers. I believe that empowered young people anywhere can develop solutions for challenges within their communities using tools, resources and networks locally available to them. I believe that strategies which nurture and cultivate talented youth would be formidable, and transformative.

To test this idea, we launched Innovate Salone, the first-ever nationwide innovation challenge in Sierra Leone, implemented by Global Minimum Inc. (GMin), an organization I co-founded seven years ago. We were overwhelmed to see more than 300 young people in Sierra Leone implement feasible solutions for challenges of health, agriculture, education and arts in their communities.
At MIT’s Media Lab, we continually come up with ideas, design prototypes, test them and then iterate on those ideas. (I specifically focus on the design of comfortable prosthetic sockets and wearable mechanical interfaces.)

By the same token, the Innovate Salone platform is an iterative program that gives young people in Sierra Leone the opportunity to impact and enhance community at a local level to promote larger national development. Right now, there is an opportunity to capture the energy of young people around the world to be transformed into active fuel for problem solving.

As we have seen from the exciting activities of young inventors in Sierra Leone, the technology developments of young entrepreneurs in Kenya, and the revolutionary impact of young activists captured by the Arab Spring, with the right set of actors and tools, the paradigm of “aid to” the developing world can be transformed to one of “made in” the developing world.

In a series of coming posts, I will harness this platform to introduce these amazing talents, and to spread their stories of invention. For example, 16-yr old Kelvin Doe, a maker and finalist of Innovate Salone 2012 was enabled to develop a community radio station he built for his community out of recycled materials in addition to his home-made batteries and generator.

Kelvin’s experience captured by a viral YouTube video has been viewed over 4 million times and has continued to inspire other young people in Sierra Leone and around the world. It is my hope that through them, we can imagine a new Sierra Leone, and a new Africa.