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Add this to your good ideas.

13632856_10153802824818366_717357178_oWhen a problem solver meets a creative ace, innovative things happen. Ngum Ngafor meets a cool duo with a game changing tool.

Hello Mitu and Tia. Thank you for speaking to AS. Tell me about your new venture.

Mitu Yilma: Addis ideas is a social networking tool that allows people to collaborate, seek public sponsorships and capacity, as well as project manage. Through it, people can post information, get feedback and work with others to bring their vision to life.

What inspired the concept?

Tia Ayele: It is based on the premise of empowering Africans by enabling them to solve problems that affect their communities. We thought about ideas which we could adapt with technology and that is how the platform came to fruition.

You have previously observed that a lot of aid programmes in Africa are unsuccessful because many organisations lack insight into the problems of the communities they wish to help. How will your work be different?

MY: What we saw from the evidence is that a lot of aid fails because of a lack of contextual knowledge. With Addis Ideas, every project stems from people who know their communities. So we are harnessing and using African innovation from experts on the ground.

Who is your typical stakeholder?

TA: Our stakeholders are twofold. We are looking for African entrepreneurs as well as cosmopolitan Africans who have innovative ideas and would like to share them and possibly receive funding or collaborate with others. Also, we would like to work with highly coveted organisations like the World Bank, bilateral donors and venture capitalists. Anyone who can help make the ideas on our app a reality is of interest to us.

We want to empower Africans solve problems that affect their communities”

AddisIdeas_Event1Your soft launch for Addis Ideas took place in the DMV (Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia) area of the USA. How was it received?

MY: So many parts of the African diaspora were represented. The energy was palpable! People were so excited to collaborate with others and share ideas. At the end, countless event attendees connected and exchanged contact information.

The feedback we got from this event suggests that Addis Ideas is sorely needed. We usually get positive responses when we tell people about our app. It has been really helpful to know that we have built something useful.

Innovations abound in Africa. Tell me of the climate in Ethiopia these days.

TA: There are a lot of great initiatives going on in Ethiopia! They recently built the first subway in Africa. A lot of things also happen on country, municipal and individual levels. Many people from the diaspora are returning to contribute to the local population. We are really excited to be a part of the positive changes!

Which industries attract the most users to your platform?

TA: I would like to say agriculture but I believe it is too early to tell.

MY: Various businesses have reached out to us to see how they can use our application. I think the magic of Addis Ideas is that people can use it in a variety of ways. It works across industries. So we have seen interest from people who are more hard line business to people who are coming up with beauty products. The next few months look exciting!


People can use Addis Ideas in various ways. That’s the magic of it.”

How does your app work?

MY: Users can submit ideas to a live feed. The whole page is a feed of ideas that will look like a Facebook homepage where you see your friends’ posts. You put up a brief description of your project and people can comment on it or express their interest in working with you.

We also have a collaboration feature which allows people to have conversations off the timeline. Our application is so simple because working around our users’ needs is important to us. Also, we wanted to create a minimal viable product (MVP) which would allow us to test features, see what people gravitate towards and develop the product based on their interests.

How did you fund this project? Tell me about monetising it.

TA: Start-up funding always happens to be an issue in the beginning. We haven’t accepted any investors yet as we haven’t found the right fit for us. Thus far, we really want to run Addis Ideas based on individual contributions and fundraisers that we have hosted.

You have such a rich and diverse skill mix. How does this matter to the success of Addis Ideas?

TA: We have a really diverse team, not just in skill set but also in geographic background. I think it brings a unique perspective to our team meetings, to what people pitch, [and] to what we focus on. We each have an eye into a different part of the Africa and I think that helps us immensely. Some people on our team are not even of African origin, but they are very interested in the continent’s development. That is a good perspective as well. I think the diverse nature of our team has been an asset thus far.

AddisIdeas_PartialTeamThe diverse nature of our team is an asset.”

As Ethiopians born and raised in America, you have two cultural sensibilities? Does this give you a unique ability to appreciate how to approach African development?

TA: No. We don’t rely on the assumption that us being from the West or being American is advantageous to looking at African development issues. There are brilliant minds on the continent who are trying to help their communities. I think the problem is not the human capital and the talent and ideas that are generated from Africa but the lack of resources. The only plus of us being Ethiopian-Americans as opposed to local Ethiopians is that we have access to things they may not have. And I think that is what has been aiding us thus far in building connections.

In terms of solving Africa’s development challenges, the people who live there know the problems best.

MY: Nothing about growing up in the United States gives us any advantage intellectually. I would also like to stress that although we soft launched with the diaspora community at the DMV, we are also having really great conversations and building partnerships with incubators on the continent. There is so much innovation happening there! We are excited to take our launch to Africa soon.

Apart from Ethiopia, where you will first establish, which country appeals to you and why?

TA: Kenya. It has high levels of smart phone penetration and a good internet bandwidth. The place seems so set up for an app like ours!


Images courtesy of Mitu Yilma


Welcome to 

New website updating…..


Re-imagining African development

TMS Ruge is trained to think outside the box. Confronted by economic problems in his native Uganda, the Creative Communica tions graduate embarked on an offbeat path to development, blazing trails in the worlds of agribusiness, environmentalism and tech in the process. Even the White House took notice!

                                                                                           By Ngum Ngafor


Hello Teddy. Thanks for agreeing to speak to us. You have been making waves with alternative ideas about African development. What inspired your involvement in this area?
I had a passion to see change happen. And the more I looked at it, the less I was convinced it was going to be the case if the status quo was left the way it was. As a continent, we have become too comfortable and complacent about letting entities like the UN, World Bank or other NGOs take care of our problems instead of looking within and taking ownership of the things that are happening. To me, that is not a sustainable model of development; it is perfect if you want to maintain a dependent state. So I began thinking about solutions from a diaspora perspective. One of the things we do best is sending remittances home. Latest estimates suggest Africans send $5060 billion (2-3 times more than aid ) back to their countries. I wondered what we could do tangibly with that money beyond transferring it to loved ones. Could we invest it? Could we pool it together and be creative enough to make a much greater impact? Although I wasn’t trained in international development, I knew I could make a difference in my corner of Uganda, so I began trying various things and have learnt a lot over the years.
It is interesting you come from a different academic background. Has this influenced your innovative approach to development?
Absolutely! My degree was in Creative Communications (advertising) so I am trained to look at things from outside the box and continually seek creative solutions to problems. My background enables me to see problems as opportunities to do something great and not simply apply learned formulas. I think a lot of projects fail because current discourse doesn’t consider the fact that there is no panacea for the development of this continent. Everything needs to be contextual; from village to village, the dynamics, people, customs and economics are different. That is why I am looking to create effective rather than replicable solutions.


“Latest estimates suggest Africans send

$50-60 billion – 2-3 times more than aid – back to their countries”.

You agree with economist, Dambisa Moyo’s damning verdict on aid. In fact, you both favour a greater focus on business as a more credible path to sustainable economic advancement. What more could Africans do to make this idea a reality?

We need to have pride of self and not be afraid to challenge current dogma. Dambisa Moyo was one of the first Africans to lead that dialogue. She was taken to task for a lot of what she had to say but it needed to be said. We needed to wake up to the reality that aid is not working; the record of 50 years of applying these same old rules, which have been repeatedly tweaked, shows it. Africa has become something of a testing bed for really bad solutions from professionals and Western individuals who just want to do good. It is important for us to reclaim our agency by questioning ineffective programmes and introducing prospects for cooperation with interested external parties on more viable ones.

Africa-Western partnerships seem to be what you are proposing. Do you have any examples of such collaborations that have been successful?

Yes. I had the chance to see some Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in progress while I did some work with the UN. Despite the challenges they face, PPPs can be effective and are probably going to be the best way to tackle really big issues like infrastructure or electricity (supply). There are a lot of PPP energy programmes in Uganda. Some of the projects in the telecommunications sector – especially the undersea cable initiatives were PPPs of which African countries took part ownership and showed leadership. It may have taken a while but we are now beginning to see the benefits of this approach. Private-private partnerships also offer opportunities. Just look at the telecommunications industry. We went from Zero to boom without any aid! What we really need from governments is their creation of enabling environments in which such enterprises can thrive.

“I am trained to look at things from outside the box.

I see problems as opportunities to do something

great and not simply apply learned formulas.

Let’s talk about your organisation, Project Diaspora. How did it come about?

I was curious to find out what other members of the diaspora were doing regarding development. While we are unified by the effort to do something for our communities back home, our projects are usually different. Although no one organisation can do something that applies to the whole continent, I thought it was important to get different groups to communicate and share ideas which could be customised to suit local realities. Since the initiation of the project, around 2007, many other diaspora groups have formed in an effort to bring about positive change either from a country or regional perspective. Thanks to social media, I am able to discover more of them. Having achieved my objective, I now focus on scaling up programmes I started in Uganda some time ago.

One such initiative is your work with the Uganda Medicinal Plants Growers (UMPG). Tell me more about it please.

It is an interesting programme which started with a group of farmers who were looking for markets for their commercial produce. The government had introduced various crops and sold the farmers seeds, with a promise to buy their products for export to the international market. However project after project, everything would fall apart and the farmers would be left with crops but no mechanism for getting them to market. There was also no value addition process toattract international buyers. So I looked at farmers in my community and the crops they were planting. When I examined the global demand for their produce, I was able to pick the best crop to commercialise. Four years on, we have done a good job of creating a business. It is very challenging to start such a venture from scratch – especially if you are working with thousands of farmers. I have learned a lot of lessons along the way especially in terms of the funding priorities of international organisations.

How did you raise funds for the project and what challenges did you face?

The money came from my remittances and a few members of the diaspora who saw the vision, believed in it and decided to invest in it. What is hard is that we sit in a strange space between a start up and a full grown organisation so traditional funding organisations are unsure of how to work with us as we are too small for them. Most want massive impact so they opt to support $3-4 million projects which could generate reports on about 50,000 farmers. I would rather have $200,000 and use it efficiently. If you wrote me a $3 million cheque, chances are within 2 to 3 years, the business would have collapsed because we would have grown too fast and faced unrealistic demands from investors. To get your money back from starting something from scratch in Africa, you are looking at at least a decade as you have to build the entire infrastructure around your business. Most investors are not that patient. So I have had to scale back my ambitions and look at what can be achieved with our current income sources, which have worked well so far. In fact, we just finished building a processing factory in the district of Masindi. This is a huge milestone for us as it will create more jobs and opportunities for us to come up with high quality value added products.

What product(s) do you export and where to?

Our main product right now is a highly marketable crop called moringa. Its leaves are usually harvested for powder which is used as a nutritional additive. We found markets (in Kenya, Germany, Ghana, Canada, USA, South Africa and Finland) for the powder and oil pressed from moringa seeds. I think we have hit a really good niche because both product lines are constantly sold out. Our main challenge is that it takes time for the crop to mature once planted.As the market is not that patient, we are trying to expand as much as possible.

You are a champion of environmentally sound development in Africa. Why does it matter and how can we achieve it?

I worked in partnership with various UN organisations and the World Bank on an initiative called Connect4Climate. It involved us engaging youth on the continent to find out what climate change meant to them. We also looked at Africa’s role in terms of sustainable development. One of the major issues – and it is one thing that I also struggle with as a businessman – which arose is the importance of access to energy. The West used dirty energy to power development at a cost to the environment. But as we work to improve our economies, we need to redefine what it means to be developed. Clearly, we can’t do some things as they used to be done but that is ok because we have an opportunity to be creative and grow cleanly. Therefore it is important to look for alternatives in solar, wind and nuclear energy sources.We also need to improve our infrastructure. In Kampala, for instance, we have about 5 million boda boda (bike) taxis. Could we replace them with a rail system? We could create jobs by placing the drivers in a rail yard instead. I know it sounds huge – especially when we face basic challenges such as keeping the lights on – but we have to be ambitious enough to be able to take on these massive projects. Otherwise, we will never catch up.


“We need to redefine what it means to be developed.”

Hive Colab, Uganda’s first tech incubator is another interest of yours. What inspired its creation?

I got into tech on the continent while writing about the diaspora. One of the things that has made our connection with Africa so much easier has been the emergence of mobile phones, and faster and cheaper connectivity.Technology has been at the core of understanding how we as members of the diaspora are engaging with the continent. But what about the flip side? We have a continent that is fast getting connected to the internet. 50% of its population is under the age of 15. I wondered how these young people who were growing up with smarter phones and cheaper connectivity were using these technologies. A friend and I also came across young developers who were hungry to create something but lacked a suitable space, so we set up Hive Colab as an incubator/coworking space where techies collaborate and create great products. It has been fantastic seeing the kinds of things that they can come up with!

Give me an idea of some Hive Colab highlights.

We have had a lot of participation in regional competitions. One of them was Apps for Africa, in which we had a couple of winners. The World Bank also had Apps for Dev a couple of years ago; we had winners from Kenya and Uganda. Our techies also designed various apps that tapped into the World Bank database. A Hive Colab member also created an award-winning version QuickBooks. The software enables local entrepreneurs to easily manage their businesses online using either a mobile, smartphone or desktop. I think it is a great product because many business owners find things like accounting and doing projections challenging. Such issues can inhibit good financial planning. Another advantage is that Quickbooks helps to digitise the economy and therefore provides a tool for gathering small business data, which could facilitate the Uganda Revenue Authority’s tax collection processes and ability to track activity in the informal sector.

The White House gave you a Champion of Change award in 2011. How did it feel to gain that seal of approval?

It was quite a surprise because one toils away and doesn’t think anybody is noticing. For them to recognise me and a group of my friends for the work we do to make our continent better really legitimised our efforts and pushed us forward. Also, such an acknowledgement inspires others who want to do something to act on their ideas.

Your Villages In Action Project was unique in the sense that it included ordinary Africans in the development debate and empowered them to improve their circumstances. How did you come about doing this and how has the project progressed?

It started out as a twitter conversation where a group of us were commenting on a 2010 gathering in New York and (Washington) DC over the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). One thing I noticed was that nobody brought the microphone to the poor. Everybody talked about the things they were doing for them but no one asked these people what they thought about their own development. I saw too much of Bono, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates talking about their efforts but failing to recognise what aid recipients were doing to help themselves. I thought that was wrong. So through a series of fortunate events, a team of us was able to put in an internet mast in a village (Kikuube, Uganda) and have our own Clinton Global Initiative type panel discussion. Everybody was a panelist and got to contribute to the conversation. We all learned something. The event was globally broadcast. I think it set a precedent in terms of inclusive communication and development. Now we are looking at making it replicable so more communities can join the conversation in 2015 when we celebrate the culmination of the MDGs.

That sounds amazing! Now let’s Imagine this: you bump into Bono or Clinton in a lift. How would you advise them to improve their strategy?

[Laughs] That is really tough because we are in an area where some things are needed while others are not. You could say Bill Gates is doing a fantastic thing in terms of his efforts to eradicate polio but I don’t think he listens very well. He sets his mind on something and just throws a whole bunch of money at it. My advice to him would be: listen more. And write smaller cheques! I think we have had enough of Bono and his speaking for us. So to him, the one sentence would be: thank you very much but we will take it from here.

To find out more on TMS Ruge’s work,
please go to :
Follow him on twitter via:@tmsruge For information on UMPG,
Get regular updates via: @umpg_ltd


African development: 5 reasons to think again

• According to the World Bank, money sent home by migrants in 2012 exceeded foreign direct investment gained by most African countries.
• (Homegrown) businesses such as Celtel have boosted African economies and quality of life. Created by Sudanese, Mo Ibrahim, the company proved a gateway to the mobile explosion which has revolutionised business in areas ranging from agriculture to health care and financial services.
• Zambian economist, Dambisa Moyo, highlights bond markets as a “real opportunity for Africa’s governments to be serious about financial discipline and transparency—and to escape from the yoke of aid.”
• In 2013, the African Development Bank noted economic growth to be faster in Africa than any other continent.
• Africa-Africa trade presents enormous but untapped opportunities.

To find out more on TMS Ruge’s work, please go to :


Science Meets Society


Introducing the Cassava
            Research University

Recently recognised as a potential gateway to food security
in Africa, cassava is gaining scientific and commercial
attention. Even Nigerian pop star, D’Banj is
hooked! Food systems expert, Laura Pereira proposes
a game changing blueprint for a progressive industry
boosted by empowered women.

Africally Speaking: Hello Laura. Thank you for speaking to us. So you are a food systems specialist. What does that mean?

Laura Pereira: [Laughs] Basically, it is about trying to understand food by looking at it beyond agricultural production or what ends up on our plates. The idea is rooted in socio-ecological systems. Over the past 10 years or so, there has been a refocusing around food security. This new approach is more holistic in that it trails the trajectory of food items from the farmthrough to processing, retailing and consumption.

AS: Cassava, a major interest of yours, has been identified as a potential enabler of food security across Africa. Why is it still ignored by governments
and private enterprise?

LP: This problem occurs for various reasons. One is the focus on maize, rice and wheat as the three key crops that feed the world. Thanks to the Green Revolution of the 60s and 70s, technological and scientific expertise was poured into developing these crops at the expense of others like cassava which drifted into ‘orphan’ status. Another consequence of technologically enhanced production of major crops is the easy availability of excess yields, which find markets in Africa from outside the continent. Also, there is a stigma attached to cassava. It is often seen as the famine crop – the peasant crop. While working in Nigeria, it was interesting to note the status symbol associated with being able to afford food from abroad. The perception that foreign produce must be better is embedded within a lot of the African psyche. And it is completely ridiculous because our food could be easily appreciated elsewhere. The States, for instance, is buying novel food items such as quinoa! Cassava also suffers another perception problem. Cultivating the crop is seen as more of a subsistence activity than as a commercial enterprise in many parts of Africa. As such, it is still very much grown by smallholders. This makes cassava a difficult crop to scale up.

“Thanks to the Green Revolution
of the 60s and 70s, technological
and scientific expertise was
poured into developing rice, maize
and wheat. Cassava drifted into
‘orphan’ status.”

AS:That is interesting.Tell me more about these scaling up challenges.

LP: I think the problem is influenced by two major issues, the first one being that small scale farmers do not necessarily have access to various inputs including land space. So cassava tends to be produced in limited amounts as it is usually grown alongside more commercially viable crops like maize. Secondly, it is seen as a crop to fall back on so people tend not to invest in it. In Nigeria, we also realised the need to enable market access for farmers as they were reluctant to grow large amounts of the cassava without guaranteed sales avenues.

AS: Your experiences led you to work on the idea of a Cassava Research University with renowned agriculture expert, Prof Calestous Juma. Please explain the concept. Why does it matter?

LP: The idea is anchored in a food systems approach to agricultural produce. So, one tends not to think of cassava as just a basic food item or erivative such as *garri. It is an entire (value) chain. Quite often, universities focus on agriculture. As such, a lot of research interest and funding go into things like biotech or different farming methods. Other important areas such as storage, processing, drying and safe methods of removing cyanide from cassava are likely to attract less investment. Also, there is a great need to develop better marketing strategies for this product. So we thought that in order to encapsulate the entire value chain, various skills and knowledge required to make it a viable economic endeavour need to be considered. That was where the idea of the Cassava University came from. Our aim is to create a point of confluence for enterprise, scientific research and training in best farming practices which would enable graduates to positively respond and adapt to changing circumstances.


“Cultivating cassava seen as more of a subsistence activity than
as a commercial enterprise in many parts of Africa. It is still
very much grown by smallholders and difficult to scale up.”

AS: Who would qualify to study at such an institution?

LP: The plan is to run courses for a range of people including farmers, entrepreneurs seeking to enter the cassava space and government officials who want to know the best way of creating policies that could benefit this area. It is important to gather the right mix of intellectual capital and knowledge about cassava
for such a university to function effectively. The teaching staff would comprise farmers, scientists and business leaders.

AS: Several agricultural research institutes exist in Africa. Why imagine a Cassava University instead?

LP: Indeed. There are many research institutes on the continent but they tend to attract insufficient interest. We opted for a university because it presents a an ‘easier to embrace’ connotation. Also, when Prof Juma initiated this concept, his aim was to create a space, not just for scientific research but also for community engagement and capacity building. So we envisage the university to have two structures: a main centre, which would have a strong research focus, and spin offs, which, like the main centre, would be transdisciplinary spaces of engagement. However they would address local problems. For example, a spin off centre could be a place where farmers gather to share information on best practice and propose new ideas for research


“We envisage space, not just for scientific
research but also for community engagement
and capacity building.”

AS: Given its position as the world’s largest producer of cassava, Nigeria would be an ideal location for this institution. What has been your experience with the nation’s government concerning this matter?

LP: I found there were clashing priorities at different levels of decision making. Although the governor of Osun State – where I worked for a while – was very interested in collaborating with cassava (and some cocoyam) farmers to set up an institute, it became evident that the private-public stakeholder mix for such a project needed to be negotiated very carefully.

AS: Have any other countries or organisations shown interest in the idea?

LP: The World Bank showed some interest, but we preferred to keep it more in-house. It is all very well having an idea but putting it into practice and ensuring it is done in a way that is sustainable, irrespective of what is thrown at it is really the key. Prof Juma has been in talks with organisations such as the Innovation Institute in Arusha (Tanzania) about possibly implementing the university model, but a concrete set up is not yet on the cards.

AS: How can private investors take advantage of the opportunity of a Cassava University?

LP: There is definitely a space for corporates. Private  investment really needs to happen but from an ownership perspective, the best way forward is through a public enterprise as monopolies on this kind of idea are not ideal. Take the dominance of companies like Monsanto and Syngenta around innovations in GM foods for example. This has been problematic because of the intellectual property that gets captured and its possible social implications. Also, the lack of transparency involved makes people even more wary. One could argue for Non Governmental Organisations such as The Gates Foundation as a possible alternative that can bridge the divide between public and business interests more easily but their work, with Monsanto, on drought resistant crops in Africa, has also received some backlash. Despite such risks, private sector input cannot be underestimated. The Cassava University needs to be not just an academic endeavour but also an establishment with real commercial and economic potential.

AS: Are there any significant new developments regarding this idea? How does its future look?

LP: The Global Cassava Initiative is interested in bringing this idea to fruition. We hope our discussions with them, as well as potential public and private sector stakeholders will ignite a coming together of key people who will take things forward.


way to
empower women

AS: In a recent study, Nigerian academic, Temidayo Apata, observed an overall female dominance of the cassava value chain in the nation’s South West region. What did you make of the gender dynamics in Osun State?

LP: I found that women dominated the traditional value chain of harvesting, peeling, grating and drying cassava. These labour intensive activities mainly happened at village level where the crop is processed at a central point. However milling plants, where cassava was converted into a commercial product for transportation to markets around the country, were usually run by men. They involved very technical processes which took away the hard work that women were putting into traditional methods. Hence, women, as a workforce, became replacable.

“A cassava university could empower women
with knowledge, entrepreneurial and
mechanical skills to enable them compete
effectively and realise financial benefits
from the crop’s value chain.”

AS: Women could empower themselves by upskilling to take on new roles within a more mechanised work place. Why is this not happening enough?

LP: I think it is because processing facilities tend to be owned by people with capital and these are usually men. Also, women are unlikely to apply for factory jobs because they are usually located far away from their families. The interesting thing about village level processing is that women can have their children around them while working. This set up enables them to mix their traditional duties of taking care of the household with this more commercial aspect [of processing cassava]. However a factory situation is less family friendly; rural women are more likely to opt out of it because cultural norms highly value their ability to care for children at home. City women, on the other hand, are usually more able to make alternative childcare arrangements and can therefore enter mechanised work spaces.

AS: How could a Cassava University enhance economic prospects for women?

LP: A place like that could empower women with knowledge, entrepreneurial and mechanical skills to enable them compete effectively and realise financial benefits from the cassava value chain. Unlike an agriculture or economics department, an all encompassing, interdisciplinary space such as a cassava university would present a platform for raising very important questions such as the impact of gender dynamics and how it could be used in an optimal way within this area.


Follow Laura Pereira on twitter via: @laurap18
Images courtesy of Laura Pereira.
*Garri is a grainy product of cassava, which is widely consumed
across West Africa and in the diaspora.


A Root of Opportunity

Cassava cassava everywhere but it doesn’t pay the bills!Two Harvard03  heads have a radical idea that just
might change things. In the first of a two part series, 
Prof Calestous Juma makes the case for a new way. Words by Ngum Ngafor

Africally Speaking: Why is cassava a promising cash crop?

Calestous Juma: Cassava is the world’s third largest source of carbohydrates (after rice and maize). It is a staple for nearly a billion people globally. Cultivated widely in the sub-tropics, it is the third most productive carbohydrate crop in the world (after sugarcane and sugar beets). In addition to being a source of human food, cassava is used as animal feedstock, for beverage production, a source of biofuels and as an industrial crop. As a tuber, it does not have to be harvested at a set time and can therefore be stored in the soil.

AS: Are there any ideal varieties worth focusing on?
CJ: Cassava is a very versatile crop which has been bred to meet different uses. The choice of variety will therefore depend on end-uses.

AS: In what type of environment(s) can the crop thrive?

CJ: One of the main attributes of cassava is that it can thrive in a wide range of environments including dry areas. It is this adaptability that has enabled it to become a major global crop.

“Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava and should be at the
forefront to exploring how to leverage
the knowledge and benefits of every
step in the value chain.”

CASSAVAUNIVERSITY-2AS: Which underexploited opportunities lie in its value chain?

CJ: Cassava has a long value chain ranging from taxonomic work to end products. Each of the points in the value chain represents an opportunity to develop complementary industries. Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava and should be at the forefront
to exploring how to leverage the knowledge and benefits of every step in the value chain. For example, work on sequencing the cassava genome offers new opportunities for Nigeria and other African countries to build up capacity in genomics which is relevant for cassava and many other crops. Nigeria’s current efforts to build a cassava bread industry are another example of identifying opportunities in the value chain. Similarly, other opportunities exist in using cassava in the brewing and biofuels industry.

AS: Which platforms – on and offline – exist to enable joint ventures or collaborations ( for instance between farmers and factories providing value added products such as starch or flour) and which countries do they target?


CJ: There are very few platforms that serve as central coordinators for cassava-related activities. One possible way forward is to establish an International Cassava Research University that would bring all the knowledge regarding the crop under one roof. The university would also serve as a venue to convene the diverse private and public actors interested in cassava. There is no better place to create such a university than in Nigeria, the world’s leading producer of cassava. If such initiatives are not made the centre of gravity for cassava science, technology and innovation will shift to Asia in the same way that palm oil did.


Follow Prof Juma on twitter via: @calestous.
Keep up with his work at:


A geek with a plan


    Award-winning Cameroonian techie, Churchill Nanje was a high school student with a penchant for breaking rules. Today he is causing another kind of disruption. And it is changing Africa! The Google  inspired geek talks innovation, business and big dreams with Ngum Ngafor.

Hello Churchill. Thanks for speaking to AS. Picture this: you are at a cool techie mixer and you meet Mark Zuckerberg. How do you introduce yourself? [Laughs]. I would say I am Churchill Nanje, a young, self taught software developer-turned-entrepreneur based in Buea (Cameroon). I have been been running businesses in technology, web and mobile enterprise applications since 2006. – the job search engine for Africa – is a startup I recently founded.

What attracted you to the tech industry and how did you become a part of it?

It happened by chance. As a high school student, I was into science and computers. This was when the telecoms sector was booming in Africa. My plan was to study telecommunications at university and work in that industry. But I didn’t make it to Cardiff or Sheffield University (in the UK) as I had hoped to. Instead I headed for Trustech Institute of Technology (in Buea, Cameroon) with the view of focusing on computer repairs for a year while thinking of my next step. It was there that I got introduced to web development, which I loved doing. After my training, the school hired me as an instructor. While teaching, I started building websites for people and eventually left the organisation to start my web development and consultancy service, AfroVisioN Group.

Your latest venture, Njorku has caused quite a buzz. What inspired its creation?

Several things. As my AfroVisioN workload increased, I needed to hire staff to manage it. Also, in the technology world, people switch jobs a lot. Another problem we have in Africa is that most skilled young people tend to travel abroad for other opportunities or they leave to start their own companies ( which is a good thing). I always need to hire people very fast because the work is always there. However when I initially tried to do this, it soon became clear there was no one place from which I could source talent, so I decided to build a platform where anybody looking for work could interact with prospective employers.

I understand why you would create such a service to cater for your needs. But what convinced you that others could benefit from it too?

Well, I looked around and realised many people were looking for work. Also, on talking to some companies, I learned that they spent a lot of money and time trying to find the right talent. My research showed organisations were spending about half a million CFA ( $1000) to hire a good engineer or accountant, for instance. The recruitment agencies they were working with also had difficulties managing their data. This mix gave me an opportunity to create a technologybased solution to these problems. Award

Running your own business must be rewarding but also challenging. What are some of the major issues you grapple with?

My main challenge lies in finding the right human and financial capital. Njorku runs on a lot of servers which are costly. As the priority now is to develop the product we need to keep investing in it financially. Getting the right skill mix can also be difficult especially as some technologies I would like to work with in the future are not y et part of learning programmes in our schools here. My way round this problem is to hire young people and train them in these areas.

How did you manage to secure financial backing for Njorku?

I have always ensured that I work extra hard for my clients so they would be so satisfied with my services that they would wish to see me succeed even more. Those who backed Njorku are people with whom I have developed good working relationships. I told them about the project, they liked it and came on board.

What has been the response to the platform from recruiters and job seekers across the continent?

Job seekers are very impressed. There are people using it in Kenya, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mexico, Hungary as well as the UK and US. Generally, recruiters are positive. We’re working on specific tools to meet their needs You are not the only one in this game. How do you plan to keep ahead of the competition? , For now, we are unique in a sense because Njorku is the only job search engine focused on opportunities around Africa. If competitors come, it won’t affect our goals because we will stay focused on what we set out to do. As a team, we will judge our success or failure by our ability to meet these objectives.

“I dream of an ecosystem as vibrant as Silicon Valley’s”churchill2

As a keen innovator, you have expressed interest in building a product that facilitates food processing in Cameroon. Tell me more about this please.

This idea comes from my interest in finding out how things work. Once I had grasped the function of technology, I started trying to procreate things. So when I saw that (the wastage of agricultural products) as a problem, I thought I could use my skills to help people in this area. At the moment, I am still working on a concept. Many ideas spring to mind. For instance, while brainstorming with my team recently, we realised that the problem lies beyond the preservation of food and their products; produce usually decays because farmers take it to market but are usually unable to sell it all or consume the unsold food. It also became clear that farmers sometimes hold on to crops which eventually rot because they don’t know who to sell them to. A potential solution to these problems is to set up whole foods supermarkets around the country, from which we could sell food bought from farmers on a wholesale basis and preserved for resale.

You recently visited the USA for a business exchange programme. How was the experience and what did you find Cameroonian and American techies could teach each other?

I was one of delegates from various countries who attended a programme organised by the US embassy and State Department. We travelled across four states and learnt about business-government relations in the USA through encounters with entrepreneurs, Chambers of Commerce and NGOs. In terms of what we can teach each other, I think Cameroonians ( or African entrepreneurs/ techies) come up with really outof-the-box creations which their counterparts in the US are less able to think of because they do not face the same constraints as Africans. On the other hand, techies in America have advanced systems which we are yet to develop because we are still at the start of the internet (age) in Africa. So we can learn from the decades of research and development they have been working on while they can gain a perspective of how situations they faced many years ago are being replayed in another context. Take the iROKO TV creator, Jason Njoku for instance. When he went to Nigeria (from London) to set up his business, he didn’t assume things would just work for him. He went to Alaba market to negotiate movie rights with producers. Mr Njoku also understood the limitations of the Nigerian legal system, so instead of signing written contracts with the marketers, he recorded their sales of rights to him on video. Now we know that contracts can also be done like that. The constraints in Africa are pushing its techies to figure out interesting things which can inspire their Western colleagues.I recently found out on facebook that some UK banks have adopted the mobile money transfer system which started in Kenya. This is an excellent example of how South-North knowledge transfer can work.

How would you describe the state of your country’s tech industry today and the way you envisage its future?

Allow me to focus on Buea as that is my base. Before I started out there were hardly any developers and most of them left the country. I stayed was because I saw the game changing potential of this sector. In fact, I have always dreamt that one day we will be able to have a vibrant ecosystem, just like the one in The (Silicon) Valley. I am confident that within the next couple of years we are going to have a similar set up in Buea because the community is growing fast. Recently, a young man who has been doing part time work with me, while studying Computer Engineering at The University of Buea participated in a Google competition and won. He just returned from Google’s Head Quarters in California.Things like this will be happen more regularly and there will be many more young people who can write code, engineer new gadgets and build software.

“Constraints in Africa are pushing its techies to figure out interesting things which inspire their Western colleagues”

You enable a selection of university students to gain free access to your facilities. What is the motivation behind this?

It is mainly social. When I was learning, I didn’t have a computer as my parents couldn’t afford one, so I depended on cyber cafes where people would take a shine to me and allow me to use their computers for free. Sometimes I would help the cafe owners sell internet time in exchange for use of their servers. For over a year, I enjoyed free net and computer access. That helped me grow my skills and develop a successful career. So I see what I am doing is a way of continuing that chain of opportunity. I hope the young people I enable today will achieve as much as I have or even more. Also, this programme creates the right conditions for developing an easily accessible talent pool which might be lost if the very bright students I work with cannot afford training fees.

Running a venture like Njorku must be demanding. How do you manage to relax?

[laughs]. I love music! If I wasn’t writing code, I would be a musician. At times I sit on my piano and just play (he’s self taught) or learn a new tune. I like the fact that this has nothing to do with computer screens or monitors, so it relaxes my mind. I also play table tennis and swim. Travelling to new places – preferably with no computers – is another hobby.


What is the future for Churchill Nanje and Njorku?

In a few years, I hope to be able to impact millions of lives around the world with my skills. As for Njorku, I would like it to serve millions of job seekers in the easiest and most convenient way.


The best way to lead is by gaining a sound understanding of your field of expertise and demonstrating best practice (to your team and peers) through action.

As a tech entrepreneur in Africa, micromanagement works best for me because finding the right talent is a challenge. I train my staff and oversee their work until their output meets satisfactory standards.

To lead effectively, one needs a solid vision. That is, an outlook that considers success and failure within a specified period. It is important to sell ideas to one’s team by telling them about the overall plan and identifying its risks and benefits.

Friendliness with team members is a good thing but when in charge, you need to be very disciplined when rolling out necessary changes. Firing, hiring or any kind of change management must be done with the conviction that it is the best way to deal with the given situation. While this is important, it is equally necessary to learn from mistakes and evolve.

A constant quest for knowledge is also vital. I learn everyday. In fact, I feel bad if a day goes by without me learning something new. Prioritising the welfare of users/ local communities is the best way to ensure sustainable growth and development. This is something good business leaders must know.

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