Category — Musings
For every one of our failures we had spreadsheets that looked awesome
Scott Cook. Founder and Chairman, Intuit
One of the biggest privileges of working in the technology sector for so long are the number of young entrepreneurs and innovators who approach me for thoughts on their big idea. As I’ve written before, whenever I can add value to someone else’s work I’m more than happy to. Giving back is important.
There’s something of an assumed wisdom in the social entrepreneurship and innovation sectors that “ideas are cheap” and that what it’s really all about is execution. While that’s true to an extent (I’ve only put a few of my ideas over the years into practice) good ideas certainly aren’t cheap. It’s just that sometimes – most of the time, in fact – they’re frustratingly hard to spot. Just to complicate things further, ideas often evolve over time, so could well start off in the lower half of the score card but then rise to dizzying heights later.
We’ll never know what would have happened to the tens of thousands of product ideas Steve jobs famously turned down, but the ones he did pursue were clearly good calls (with the exception of Apple TV, perhaps). For the Apple CEO, turning down a great idea was a price worth paying to maintain his relentless focus on focus.
But focusing on ideas and execution doesn’t give us the whole picture. One of the most effective tools in an innovator’s toolbox is passion and, although it won’t turn a mediocre idea into a great one, being passionate about it will certainly impact positively on their ability to deliver.
Passion is easy to spot, but what about the potential of the idea being communicated? In a recent Co.Design article, Scott Anthony provided a few helpful tips. Before getting too far down the road, he says, ask yourself these five questions:
1. Is it targeting an important problem that customers can’t address because existing solutions are expensive or inconvenient?
2. Does it solve the problem in a simpler, more convenient, or more affordable way?
3. Is there a plausible hypothesis about an economically attractive, scalable business model? Don’t believe financial forecasts, but ensure that there’s at least a sensible story
4. Does the team have the right stuff to course-correct according to in-market learning? Avoid dogmatic teams that will keep trying to prove they are right in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary
5. Can early profitability be a choice? The sooner there is a line of sight to profits, the better. You might make a strategic decision to be unprofitable by investing in marketing, sales capability, and so on, but at least you know that the core part of the model works
One of the key lessons FrontlineSMS taught me was the importance of getting your idea out there as quickly as possible and letting your users shape it. Thanks to the Internet, product launches – in the technology sector at least – are today only a mouse click away. Products can be accessed, used, hacked and abused in no time – or simply not used at all – giving you the quickest and clearest indication possible of its potential. Twitter was, in effect, shaped this way.
In terms of the tools, networks and opportunities available today, it’s never been easier to be an innovator or social entrepreneur. The difficult part has remained the same for generations of innovators gone by – that tricky combination of nailing a great idea, convincing others of its value, and then delivering on it.
Three Ways To Predict What Consumers Want Before They Know It
July 25, 2012 19 Comments
“I lived in Africa for several years. I first went there in 1957. Then, over the next forty years, I returned whenever the opportunity arose. I travelled extensively, avoiding official routes, palaces, important personages, and high-level politics. Instead, I opted to hitch rides on passing trucks, wander with nomads through the desert, be the guest of peasants of the tropical savannah. Their life is endless toil, a torment they endure with astonishing patience and good humour.
This is therefore not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there – about encounters with them, and time spent together. The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’.
In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”
Ryszard Kapuscinski, “The Cobra’s Heart”, 1998
July 17, 2012 5 Comments
Over the past few years I’ve given a fair few interviews, and have been grateful for the continued interest and enthusiasm from others for our work. Most interviews have focused on combinations of my time working in Africa, my technology interests, or the evolution and development of FrontlineSMS. Until now, none had asked me to go way back and talk about my background, family and upbringing, or dig deeply into what drives me and my work.
Last week, Kate Ebner on “Visionary Leader, Extraordinary Life” did just that. You can read the write-up below.
Finding What Lights You Up: The Unassuming Wisdom of Mobile Innovator and Anthropologist Ken Banks
Ken Banks finished up his hour on our radio show and, moments later, tweeted “thanks for the therapy!” with a cyber smile. During his radio hour, Kate invited Ken to tell his life story at length for the benefit of our listeners. The story began in Banks’ childhood — in Jersey, England, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy, France. To date, it takes place in Africa where Banks is bringing mobile technologies to enable effective communications channels for communities in the developing world through his organization kiwanja.net and his free, open-source software FrontlineSMS.
Why did Kate invite Ken to spend so much of the hour telling his story? “Ken’s story is one of overcoming loss, uncertainty and adversity to find his path. He is an optimist with high standards for himself and the world. He hasn’t always been able to see how the pieces of his story quite fit together. We can relate to those feelings and circumstances. How Ken moves through life — the decisions that he has made and how he makes them — is so instructive and inspiring for all of us.”
Here are just a few of the wise nuggets that Ken Banks imparted during his hour on Visionary Leader, Extraordinary Life:
Everyone should be given a chance to maximize their potential. Inspire people to feel they have something to contribute to the world and help them find ways to make it happen. Read Ken’s blog post, “Enabling the Inspiration Generation.”
Just think about how you can help 4-5 people. You don’t need to save the whole world. If everyone helped just 4-5 people, the world would be a better place.
Anything is possible. Regardless of the cards you are dealt in life, pick yourself up and walk on. You don’t need parents in high places, or lots of money to make a difference in the world.
Do something that feels right. Don’t let others dictate your path. Only you will know what is right for you at any given moment in your life. If you feel good about what you are doing, don’t give up.
Make your own opportunities. If you haven’t found the one thing that immediately switches you on, get out and put yourself in the kinds of environments where you have a better chance of finding it. You won’t find it sitting at home and watching television.
Maximize every opportunity. You are only as good as the last thing you have done. It doesn’t matter that you gave a great talk last year – it’s all about the one you are doing now. If you give everything 100%, it will start to pay off and you will build momentum and people will want to support you and your ideas.
This interview was in part dedicated to our Mother, who passed away one year ago last month.
May 6, 2012 5 Comments
If your technology solution turns out to be more complicated than the actual problem you’re trying to solve then you’ve probably fallen into the “over-engineering” trap. The temptation to try to be all things to all people, or to cram in as much functionality as possible, can be the death of many technology-based projects.
In the world of innovation, interesting things happen if you train yourself to “think lean”. In the examples below, less is not only more – it’s the secret to success. Google looked at rivals and stripped back their home page, leaving the one vital component – the search box. Blogger, originally a component of a much larger information management platform called Pyra, was spun out after it proved the most useful feature. And Twitter took one small part of Facebook – the status update – and revolutionised how many of us communicate online.
From: Yahoo!’s “all things to all people”
To: Google’s simple search
From: Pyra’s holistic project management platform
(ValleySpeak screenshot indicative only)
To: Blogger’s simple publishing tool
From: Facebook’s rich timeline
To: Twitter’s simple status update
The lesson? Strip back your idea, get to the essence of what it is you’re trying to do, and drop the clutter. Focus is king.
April 13, 2012 17 Comments
For NGOs and developers alike, the ICT4D space can be a tough nut to crack. While NGOs generally struggle to find the tools they need to meet their particular needs, developers face the opposite problem – getting their tools into the hands of those who need them the most. Attempts to connect the NGO and developer communities – physically and virtually – continue to this day with varying degrees of success. There is no magic bullet.
Of course, bringing together the two parties in one place – community website, conference room or chat room – is only a small part of it. Getting them to understand each others needs, often over a technologically-fuelled chasm, can be another. While one side may approach things from a “technology looking for a problem” angle, NGOs often have it completely the other way round.
One of the earlier attempts to join the non-profit/developer dots took place in February 2007 in the boldly titled UN Meets Silicon Valley conference, where the United Nations met up with a bunch of Silicon Valley companies to explore how technology and industry could bolster international development. Lower-profile events also began to emerge around that time, often in the form of ‘user generated conferences’ such as BarCampAfrica (held in 2008) which aimed to:
… bring people, institutions and enterprises interested in Africa together in one location to exchange ideas, build connections, re-frame perceptions and catalyse action that leads to positive involvement and mutual benefit between Silicon Valley and the continent of Africa
Having worked for many years in the non-profit sector, particularly in developing countries, I’ve seen at first-hand the kind of challenges many face, and their frustration at the lack of appropriate ICT solutions available to them. I’ve also been on the developer side of the fence, spending much of the last six years developing and promoting the use of FrontlineSMS. Unfortunately, despite what you might think, seeing the challenge from both perspectives doesn’t necessarily make finding a solution any easier. Getting FrontlineSMS, for example, into the hands of NGOs has become slightly easier over time as more people get to hear about it, but it’s been largely a reactionary process at a time I’d much rather have been proactive. No magic bullet for me.
Sadly, for every ICT solution that gains traction, many more don’t even see the light of day. While you may argue those that failed probably weren’t good enough, this isn’t always the case. Take Kiva as a case in point. In the early days Matt and Jessica Flannery were regularly told by ‘experts’ that their idea wouldn’t work, that it wouldn’t scale. They didn’t give up, and today Kiva is a huge success story, connecting lenders – you and me – to small businesses in developing countries the world over. Since forming in late 2005 they have facilitated the lending of over $200 million to hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs in some of the poorest countries in the world.
A key turning point for Kiva was their decision to switch from business plans to ‘action’ plans, getting out there and building their success from the ground up. Some of us would call this “rapid prototyping”, or “failing fast”. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s an approach I firmly believe in. In places like Silicon Valley getting it wrong isn’t seen as a bad thing, and this encourages a “rapid prototyping” culture. Sadly the story is very different in the UK.
Some projects – Kiva and FrontlineSMS among them – are based on experiences gained in the field and the belief that a particular problem can be solved with an appropriate technological intervention. Of course, before any ICT4D solution can succeed there has to be a need. It doesn’t matter how good a solution is if people don’t see the ‘problem’ as one that needs fixing. In the case of Kiva, borrowers were clearly in need of funds, yet lenders lacked access to them. With FrontlineSMS, grassroots non-profits were keen to make use of the growing numbers of mobile phones among their stakeholders, but lacked a platform to communicate with them. These two initiatives worked because they were problems that not only found a solution, but a solution that was appropriate and one that was easy to deploy.
The ICT4D space is exciting and challenging in equal measure, and by its very nature practitioners tend to focus on some of the most pressing problems in the most challenging parts of the world. Whether it’s a natural disaster, a stolen election, human-wildlife conflict, a crushed uprising or a health epidemic, elements of the ICT4D community spring into action to either help co-ordinate, fix, or report on events. Interestingly, it can sometimes be the events themselves which raise the profile of a particular ICT solution, or the events themselves which lead to the creation of new tools and resources.
In 2006, Erik Sundelof was one of a dozen Reuters Digital Vision Fellows at Stanford University, a programme I was fortunate enough to attend the following year (thanks, in large part, to Erik himself). Erik was building a web-based tool – “inthefieldonline” – which allowed citizens to report news and events around them to the wider world through their mobile phones. This, of course, is nothing particularly new today, but back then it was an emerging field and Erik was at the forefront. During the final weeks of his Fellowship in July 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon in response to the kidnapping of one of their soldiers. Erik’s tool was picked up by Lebanese civilians, who texted in their experiences, thoughts, hopes and fears through their mobile phones. The international media were quick onto the story, including CNN. Erik’s project was propelled into the limelight, resulting in significant funding to develop a new citizen journalism site, allvoices, which he ran until recently.
In a similar vein, it took a national election to significantly raise the profile of FrontlineSMS when it was used to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections in 2007. The story was significant in that it was believed to be the first time civil society had helped monitor an election in an African country using mobile technology. As the BBC reported:
anyone trying to rig or tamper with Saturday’s presidential elections in Nigeria could be caught out by a team of volunteers armed with mobile phones
Although FrontlineSMS had already been around for over eighteen months at that time, its use in Nigeria created significant new interest in the software, lead to funding from the MacArthur Foundation and ended with the release of a new version the following summer. The project has gone from strength to strength since.
One of today’s most talked-about platforms also emerged from the ashes of another significant event, this time the troubles following Kenya’s disputed elections in late 2007. With everyday Kenyans deprived of a voice at the height of the troubles, a team of African developers created a site which allowed citizens to report acts of violence via the web and SMS, incidents which were then aggregated with other reports and displayed on a map. Ushahidi – “witness” in Kiswahili – provided an avenue for everyday people to get their news out, and news of its launch was widely hailed in the mainstream press. The creation of Ushahidi is a textbook study in rapid prototyping and collaboration.
The interesting thing about all these projects is that they all proved that they worked – i.e. proved there was a need and developed a track record – before receiving significant funding. Kiva got out there and showed that their lending platform worked before major funders stepped in, just as FrontlineSMS did. And Ushahidi put the first version of their crowdsourcing site together in just five days, and have reaped the benefits of having that early working prototype ever since. If there is a lesson to learn here then it would have to be this – don’t let a lack of funding stop you from getting your ICT4D solution off the ground, even if it does involve “failing fast”.
Of course, not everyone can rely on an international emergency to raise the profile of their project or big idea, and it wouldn’t be wise to bet on one ever happening, either. But when it does, an obvious lack of a solution to a problem often rises to the surface, creating an environment where tools which do exist – whether they are proven or not – are able to prosper for the benefit of everyone.
March 27, 2012 55 Comments
A nurse has recorded the most common regrets of the dying, and among the top ones is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”. What would your biggest regret be if this was your last day of life?
Earlier this week I tweeted a link to this soberingly-titled Guardian article on the “Top Five Regrets of the Dying“. Since then I’ve had several conversations with people on the subject. For me, the line between ‘work’ and ‘life’ has become increasingly blurred over the past twenty years. Back in the early 1990′s when I first started thinking about the intersection of technology, people, conservation and development there wasn’t a job anywhere where I’d have been able to blend all those skills and interests. My ideal job didn’t exist, so I had to create it. This long-standing quote on the kiwanja website sums up pretty well where I’ve ended up today.
Of course, I’m one of the lucky ones. That said, like everyone I have regrets, but if anyone had told me twenty years ago – even nine years ago when I started out in mobile – that I’d be where I am today I’d never have believed them. I met too many people in my banking days who were content to spend their lives doing jobs they didn’t like – hated even – so they could “enjoy their retirement” with a good pension. For me it’s always been about the journey, not the final destination. I still don’t know where I’m going to end up, truth be told.
In sharp contrast to death and regret, Paul Lamb from Man On a Mission Consulting sent me a random email two days after the Guardian article on the subject of happiness (happy life = fewer regrets?). Having a job you love may be one way to happiness (or fewer regrets), but not everyone is lucky enough to have one of those. So, for anyone who’s yet to figure out their purpose, journey or destination, here’s a few good “Happiness Resources” gleaned from Paul’s email.
Enjoy. And be happy.
The happy secret to better work
Shawn Achor, TED Talks (2011)
The habits of happiness
Matthieu Ricard, TED Talks (2004)
10 Ways to be happy
From the Happiness Project
Taking a Kindness Day off of work
Huffington Post (2011)
The “social game for good”
The Greater Good Center
The “science for a meaningful life”, courtesy UC Berkeley
The Happy Movie
(In celebration of World Happiness Day on February 11th, 2012)
February 9, 2012 15 Comments
#1: The Amazon Kindle
While growing numbers of people in the development sector get increasingly excited at the potential of tablet computing for health, agriculture, education and other development activities, it’s the Amazon Kindle that’s been exciting me recently. The irony is, without really trying, Amazon have built something which more closely resembles an appropriate technology than other organisations who have specifically gone out to try and build one.
So, what makes the Kindle so special?
- It’s light, relatively rugged, and mobile
- Ten days reading time on one charge
- One month ‘standby’ time between charges
- Solar panel cover option removes the need for mains charging
- Built-in dictionary and thesaurus
- Display can be read in bright sunlight
- Internal storage for up to 200 books
- No need for the Internet once books are loaded
- Text-to-speech for illiterate/semi-literate users
- Costs continue to come down
- Remote delivery of books and materials (local wi-fi permitting)
Of course, I’m not the first person to notice this. A year or two ago the highlight of an ICT4D conference I attended was a short video showing children in West Africa using Amazon Kindles. I’ll never forget how they interacted with the devices, and what having access to one meant to them and their hopes of an education. Not many technologies give us these little glimpses of magic.
Imagine, all the books a child would ever need to see them through their basic education, all packed into a ~$100 device.
The people behind that video were from Worldreader.org, an organisation whose mission is to “make digital books available to all in the developing world, enabling millions of people to improve their lives”.
We often say in mobiles-for-development that today most people in the developing world will make their first phone call on a mobile, and have their first experience of the Internet on one, too. Perhaps children, in the not-too-distant future, will have their first experience of reading on an e-reader?
January 30, 2012 88 Comments
“Two weeks ago, I was staying at a working dairy farm sixty kilometers north of Bogotá, Colombia. I was fiddling around with my iPad when one of the kids that worked in the stables came up to me and started staring at it. He couldn’t have been more than six years old, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that he had never used a computer or even a cellular telephone before (Colombia has many attractions. The vast pool of illiterate poor is not one of them)
Curious, I handed him the device and a very small miracle happened. He started using it. I mean, really using it. Almost instantly, he was sliding around, opening and closing applications, playing a pinball game I had downloaded. All without a single word of instruction from me”
Michael Noer, “The Stable Boy and the iPad“
Two questions scream out at me when I read this. Firstly, what would happen if Apple turned a fraction of its attention to ICT4D? And secondly, why don’t Apple work in ICT4D? In a sector where so many tools and solutions seem to fail because they’re too complex, poorly designed, unusable or inappropriate, who better to show us how it should be done than the masters of usability and design?
The answer to the second question is a little easier to answer than the first. As Walter Isaacson pointed out in his recent biography, Steve Jobs felt he could contribute more to the world by ‘simply’ making brilliant products. He seemed to have little time for philanthropy, at least publicly, and his laser focus meant he saw almost everything other than Apple’s mission as a distraction. Ironically, had he decided to give away some of his ballooning wealth, he’d most likely have funded programmes working in nutrition and vegetarianism, not technology, according to Mark Vermilion (who Steve Jobs hired back in 1986 to run the Steven P. Jobs Foundation, which he was destined to shut down a year later).
Had Steve Jobs decided to pursue his Foundation, and had he decided to fund technology-based initiatives in the developing world, how well might he have done, and what might Apple have been able to contribute to our discipline?
Here’s five initial thoughts on where an Apple approach to ICT4D might be different – or problematic.
1. Consult the user
One of the central tenets of ICT4D is to consult the user before designing or building anything. In business, at least, Apple don’t do this. They certainly didn’t speak to Colombian farm children, yet they managed to intuitively build something that worked for the six year old Michael Noer met. As Steve Jobs famously said:
Our job is to figure out what users are going to want before they do. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page
An Apple ICT4D project would unlikely spend much time, if any, speaking with the target audience, an approach entirely at odds with the one we champion right now.
2. Customer vs. beneficiary
Apple would see people as customers, and they’d be carrying out what they’d see as a commercial transaction with them. This approach would mean they’d have to build something the customer wanted, and that worked (and worked well). Since it would have to sell, if successful it would by default be financially sustainable. Part of the problem with the largely subsidised ICT4D “give away technology” model is that no-one is ultimately accountable if things don’t work out, and regular business rules do not apply.
3. Open vs. closed
The ICT4D community is entrenched in an open source mindset, almost to the extent that closed solutions are scorned upon. Steve Jobs was a strong believer in controlling all aspects of the user experience, all the way from hardware through to software. To him, closed systems were better “integrated” and open systems “fragmented”:
What is best for the customer – integrated versus fragmented? We think this is a huge strength of our system versus Google’s. When selling to people who want their devices to just work, we think integrated wins every time. We are committed to the integrated approach. We are confident it will triumph over Google’s fragmented approach
There is no evidence in ICT4D, I don’t believe, which points towards more success for open solutions vs. closed (however you define success), yet open remains dominant. An early Apple success might give us pause for thought.
4. Time for the field
Although Paul Polak doesn’t work in ICT4D, he is one the biggest proponents of “getting out into the field to understand the needs of your customer”. In his long career he’s interviewed over 3,000 people earning a dollar or less a day to better understand their needs – and the market opportunity. In this short video he talks about the process of spending time in rural villages, talking in depth with villagers, and identifying opportunities for transformative impact.
Apple wouldn’t see the need to do this because they wouldn’t consider the needs of dollar-a-day customers as being any different to anyone else. They’d consider their intuitive design and user interface to be non-culturally specific. People, everywhere, want simple-to-use technologies that just work, regardless of who they are.
5. Appropriate technology
Apple’s product line hardly fits into the appropriate technology model – they’re expensive, power-hungry and the devices are reliant on a computer (via iTunes) as their central controlling “hub”. The systems are also closed, blocking any chance of local innovation around the platform. How Apple tackle this – yet maintain their standards of excellence in design and usability – would probably turn out to be their biggest challenge.
Although it hasn’t happened yet, a post-Steve Jobs Apple might yet develop a philanthropic streak. If they did they could easily turn to their friends at frog design (now branded Frog) for help. Frog, who worked closely with them in the early days of the Macintosh range, have recently worked with a number of ICT4D initiatives and organisations, including Project Masiluleke and UNICEF.
Apple have already reinvented the music and publishing industries. With the talent, capital and resources available I’d bet my bottom dollar on them reinventing ICT4D if they chose to. Steve Jobs liked to “live at the intersection of the humanities and technology”, and that’s exactly the place where ICT4D needs to be.
January 24, 2012 116 Comments
“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to”
Sports players are always told they can “do better”. Even championship winning teams are told they can “play better”. A musician’s next album could always “sound better” and Little Johnny at school could always “try a little harder”. We seem to be in a constant state of attempted self-improvement. Are we ever happy with who we are or what we’ve achieved?
Survival is the main preoccupation for a vast majority of the world’s inhabitants. If it’s not yours then you’re one of the lucky ones, like me. Also, like me, you’re likely instead preoccupied with building a career, or “trying to make something of yourself” as people like to put it. We’re brought up to be ambitious and conscientious, to strive to be successful at whatever we choose to do. Society does what it can to equip us along the way. We’re in a hugely priviledged position.
Personally, I’ve always believed that I need to have fully developed at least three ideas before I consider myself a success. I have no idea why I think I need to be a success, or why I think I need to prove myself three times, or even who I’m trying to prove it all to. But I do know that I enjoy building and starting things, so each time I decide to go through the process it’s because I enjoy it.
Despite what we constantly hear, though, it’s not just the “taking part that counts”. Whatever we do has to succeed – or lead us on to something else that does – if we’re to “reach our potential”.
Many social entrepreneurs live in this world. Life is about taking the seed of an idea, building it into something meaningful, and then ideally doing it all over again. Do it just the once and it might be luck. Do it a few times and you’re smart. The problem with this approach is that you never quite know when you’re “there”. At what point do you stop pushing and settle for what you have? Surely it’s not possible to constantly self-improve?
As someone who’s constantly pushing themselves to improve, I think about this a lot. Looking at the Zen Habits website, I’m not alone. Quashing the Self-Improvement Urge is a wonderfully reflective post on the subject, and is well worth a read if you’re in the same boat. As Leo Babauta himself concludes:
Quash the urge to improve, to be better. It only makes you feel inadequate. And then explore the world of contentment. It’s a place of wonderment.
I wonder how well this approach would sit with today’s social entrepreneurs and innovators?
January 3, 2012 27 Comments
Driven by a curiosity and a strong interest in primate conservation, late one night back in December 2001 I arrived in Nigeria to take up my post as Project Manager at a sanctuary in Calabar, Cross River State. The year I spent there – starting exactly ten years ago this month – turned out to be fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Crucially, combined with my previous experiences working on the continent, it also helped shape my understanding of the needs of local people and local NGOs, a focus which remains a central pillar of my wider technology work today.
I wasn’t the only arrival that December day. A small baby chimpanzee had been confiscated (pictured) from a local market and was waiting to be collected from Lekki, a conservation and education centre in Lagos run by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation. Primate rescue was to be a theme of my time in Nigeria, as was a sense that a large part of the ‘conservation effort’ was really damage limitation and control. Rehabilitating orphaned primates was often the easier part – even though it was hugely challenging and distressing. Changing perceptions, overcoming local politics and trying to shift cultural mindsets turns out to be much harder. Not only that, it takes considerably longer, time that increasing numbers of species simply don’t have.
Primate conservation, bush meat hunting and deforestation are all inextricably linked. Tackling one without trying to address the others simply doesn’t work. In its simplest form, the whole thing goes something like this.
Loggers enter the forest and either blanket cut or selectively cut trees. To help get the logs out, paths and roads are opened up into areas which were previously difficult or impossible to access. Loggers need to eat, and many actively hunt for bush meat while working in the forest. Local hunters join in. As more trees are cut and more roads laid, hunters are able to penetrate deeper into the forest, reducing wildlife populations – primates included – yet further
If I were to summarise what I learnt about these complex issues from my time in southern Nigeria, I would break it down into the following categories.
Although large-scale logging is a significant problem – often carried out by larger (almost always foreign) companies – many poor local people are ‘recruited’ to help in the destruction. Equipped with chainsaws supplied by their employers, they enter community forests and national parks and selectively cut high-worth trees. Roads and paths are cut to remove the logs, which are sometimes cut into large planks before being shipped off. Forestry officials, many of whom haven’t been paid for months, stamp the trees as coming from a legitimate source. I will never forget the haunting sound of distant chainsaws as I walked through those forests.
Speaking with the locals in Calabar, many find it inconceivable that people would ever eat primates. In many communities it’s simply taboo, but sadly the same can’t be said for killing them. As outsiders come in search of work, and as main roads open up alongside the fringes of rainforest, hunters from these communities will go in, track down wildlife – primates included – and sell them at the side of the the road. Bush meat is in great demand, and it’s a brisk trade. If a mother is killed then the infant will be sold as a pet – a double bounty for the hunter. Some of these orphans are incredibly young, and barely alive if they are lucky enough to be rescued, as this picture distressingly shows.
The many Nigerians I met believed that bush meat was much better for you than ‘farmed’ meat, and given the choice they’d rather eat something from the forest than a farm. This is a major challenge for conservation groups trying to ween people off bush meat and more towards livestock of various descriptions. As a case in point, some Nigerians living in London appear to be willing to pay significant amounts of money for illegally imported bush meat, despite the availability of almost any other kind of meat from legal, local sources such as London supermarkets (see this interesting story reported by the International Primate Protection League).
Conservation groups on the ground spend huge amounts of time on education and alternative livelihoods and farming programmes. In the 1990′s there was considerable focus on the potential for “grasscutters” – a widely-distributed cane rat found in West and Central Africa – and how farming and breeding these could help reduce or replace reliance on bush meat for protein. I’m not sure how many of these projects were successful, although some research has been carried out and there has been some success by individuals in Ghana. From my own observations, keeping livestock of any kind (other than chickens or turkeys, which need little looking after) turned out to be a foreign concept to many people, and efforts to promote it largely failed.
Speak with the hunters in almost any rural community and there is almost universal recognition that the wildlife is on the decline. Many fondly speak of overnight hunting expeditions with their fathers, and how they’d return the next morning with a healthy ‘catch’. Evidence of distant permanent overnight camps highlight today’s reality – longer trips, days in length, but ones which still don’t guarantee a single kill. Urban dwellers rarely see this reality. Ask them about conservation and wildlife, and their reaction is one of “the monkeys will never finish” (Nigerians often use the term “finish” to describe extinction). Nigerians clearly have much to learn from each other.
It would have been great to have ended my time in Nigeria with a solution to some of these problems, and even better to be able to outline a few of them in this post. But I didn’t, and I don’t.
What I can contribute, though, is this…
Things you can do
Firstly, take a little time to try and understand the problems – plural. It frustrates me to read blanket condemnation in the western media of local people in African countries cutting down forests and daring to kill cute chimpanzees. Yes, it’s sad and its destructive. I’ve seen at first hand the pain and distress of an orphaned primate who’s had to have an arm broken to release its grip on its dead mother, or the look in the eyes of exhausted villagers struggling to put a decent meal on the table for their children. The problems are complex, but they’re human and animal.
Secondly, join a local organisation working with local communities on the ground. If you’re interested in African primates in particular, a good place to start out is the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), an organisation committed to the conservation and care of African primates through the support of in-situ sanctuaries.
Thirdly, if you’re the volunteering kind, check out the University of Wisconsin’s Primate Info Net, but bear in mind that volunteering is really only productive if the local organisation can’t find, or afford, a local version of you among the communities in which they work. If that’s the case, be sure you have a transferrable skill so you can train a local person to replace you when you leave. Sustainability isn’t always financial – it also has a human element to it, too.
Fourthly, find out about alternative conservation/human strategies such as direct conservation payments – different models do exist. Just as primate species are different, conservation strategies also need to be. One size rarely fits all, and this is true whether you’re an elephant, a forest, a primate or a local villager.
Finally, stay positive. Problems are many and working solutions are few. Something good will happen if enough people commit to conservation in Africa. Many people already have.
December 12, 2011 10 Comments