A few weeks ago I attended the Startingbloc Institute for Social Innovation in New York. Despite five long days of great speakers, the true stars of the institute were the other 108 candidates in attendance. Stumbling through one striking conversation after another, I came across a true diamond. Idris Bello is a social entrepreneur (prefers the term “Afropreneur” which he wears on his sleeve, going by the beautiful traditional African outfit he wore into a Lower East Side club for the Startingbloc launch party…) and a lead member of the team Libraries Across Africa, a new social enterprise which promises empowerment through access.
LAA, a non-profit and recently winner of the technology prize in the 2011 Dell Social Innovation Competition, is simple concept with complex ramifications. Taking advantage of (and spurring on) the coming explosion in African IT demand—of 1 billion Africans only 10% have internet access; African bandwidth is slated to grow 500% over the next decade from 5.8 Tbit/s to 29.5 Tbit/s—LAA is going to set up libraries that also serve as internet portals and community centers.
Is Africa ready? Like the infamously controversial One Laptop Per Child initiative with its allegedly overly-American and cost inefficient proposal to equip the poorest children in the world with a $100 laptop, one may ask whether Africans are ready for LAA. Put another way, do Africans enjoy the requisite cognitive surplus to benefit from libraries and widespread internet access?
Firstly, it is often overlooked by armchair social entrepreneurs that Africa is a huge place—the second largest continent by population and size with 61 territories—and contains a diverse set of priorities. One community’s bottleneck may be intensive healthcare, another’s may be infrastructure development, and many of them will be stable enough to benefit dramatically from communal internet access and third places. LAA must choose its initial locations wisely to ensure maximum impact and growing momentum to support the mission. The first library will be built in Moree, a small seaside town in Ghana.
Second is the inspiring story of Malawian William Kamkwamba. Unable to afford school and forced to drop out at age 14, Kamkwamba used his spare time educating himself at a local library. His interest was sparked by the sciences and in 2002, after coming across a diagram in a tattered textbook, he built a functional windmill out of scrap material and spare parts to provide the luxury of electricity to his family’s home in Masitala. Journalist Bryan Mealer turned this inspirational story into a book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and Kamkwamba has since gone on to speak at TED—he is widely seen as an emerging young leader in Africa.
Kamkwamba’s story is proof that the effects of information distribution follow Black Swan patterns without any predictable SROI a venture like LAA can have on African development. As stated in the LAA promotional video, “it was [Kamkwamba’s] ability to access information that allowed him to realize the full potential of the resources around him.” I cannot wait to see what unconventional applications a billion inquisitive minds can produce with access to the store of human information through the Internet.
The Architecture The architecture involves three segments: the Anchor Building, the E-Hub, and the Agora.
The Anchor Building, as well as the land underneath the three-part structure, must be supplied by the community creating a social contract for stakeholder buy-in and maintenance—a critical lesson this venture has inculcated from others’ mistakes. It will house the physical library collection, a classroom, as well as a librarian.
The E-Hub, a retrofitted shipping container, is prefabricated by LAA and arrives on-site fully functional. Connecting to an existing Internet connection, it is modular in design allowing for community customization. In this E-Hub, users will be able to purchase books online that will be drop shipped on-demand, eventually resulting in a customized library for each community stored in the Anchor Building.
The Agora is the space created between the Anchor Building and E-Hub. It is covered by metal sheeting and equipped with solar panels to power lighting so that this space can be used to study and meet at night as well.
Lighting Up Africa I was extremely fortunate to have some time to chat with Idris at Startingbloc and get acquainted with this exciting new venture. My biggest reservation at this point is successful monetization. Social enterprise is an evolving field with many corporate structures being tested; there is no true consensus on what the term means or even what this field will evolve into. Although LAA is a non-profit, I see financial sustainability as a requisite regardless of organizational structure to be considered a social venture as opposed to philanthropy.
On its website, LAA claims that “core services” will offset the low operating costs, and “expanded services” rolled out over time will even yield a profit to be reinvested into the community. The key question is how fast LAA will be able to recoup what I imagine must be considerable sunk costs in setting up a location in the first place—this will determine whether the organization will be able to plug into conventional sources of capital to reach enough scale to have a meaningful and lasting impact. I applaud the grand ambition, courageous vision, and innovative design of LAA.
ACTIONABLE STEP: Go the LAA’s Global Giving page and consider donating to help them get started. They have already reached 75% of their goal.
Also syndicated to care2.com.