Bright lights, no city

What the poorest of the poor can teach the rest of us
By MAX ALEXANDER  |  August 22, 2012


I never cared about Africa. I never wanted to join the Peace Corps, raft the Zambezi, haggle in Fez or climb Kilimanjaro. My favorite Ernest Hemingway stories were set not in the blistering Serengeti but in familiar and temperate locations like Italy, France, and Michigan — places where insects are merely an annoyance and steaks are well marbled. I have no interest in a yam-based cuisine. It would never occur to me to attend a benefit concert for Africa. Except for a brief period as a boy after seeing the Howard Hawks film Hatari! I never even wanted to go on safari. Tanzania? I once interviewed Chuck Norris at his home in Tarzana, which sounded close enough.

But my brother Whit was starting this business in Ghana called Burro, renting batteries to people who earn a dollar a day, in a country with annual inflation exceeding 20 percent and a long history of military coups followed by firing squads. It sounded like an exceedingly bad business idea — in the pantheon of turkeys, I pictured it right up there next to the Edsel and New Coke — which intrigued me.

As a young man Whit had lived in Western Africa for several years, first as a student and then working on various aid projects, and he always believed that while many worthy charities are making huge differences for Africans, ultimately the marketplace — not government handouts or benefit concerts — would create lasting solutions to African poverty. Recently that's become a timely, even trendy, idea. From Davis to Seattle, in Zambia and New York, academics and business titans have been talking a lot about how to help poor people by giving them useful stuff to buy, and in the process creating enterprises that are sustainable, thus generating employment.

But talking about bringing business to Africa is not much different than attending a benefit concert — it makes you feel good and requires no sacrifice. Saying good-bye to your family and touching down on an African tarmac with a business visa is quite another matter.

The touchdown is what intrigued me.

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