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Sweet Mother, Cape Town’s new assembly, Unipods, Harry & Meghan in Nigeria, Zanzibar’s cool library.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
sunny Yaoundé
sunny Kigali
sunny Abuja
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May 12, 2024


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Today’s Edition
  1. A song for mama
  2. Redesigning democracy
  3. Pods of innovation
  4. Designing a cool library
  5. When Harry met Lagos

Also, parsing a book on Botswana science fiction.

First Word

Hello! Welcome to Semafor Africa, where we’re contractually obliged to acknowledge we celebrate mothers all year round. It’s been a busy week of travel and catching up with US and African policymakers and business leaders at the US-Africa Business Summit. While many of the big panels end up being a bingo card selection of keywords like “AGOA,” “Continental Free Trade Agreement,” and “critical minerals,” there were still some side conversations that were less predictable. In one such conversation. I was intrigued by the evolution of the UN Development Program’s billion-dollar digital fund project, timbuktoo.

Now, I’m still to be convinced it will definitely raise the funds it’s targeting or create 10,000 startups like the Africa director told me, but I’m not the one who needs convincing so they’ll be just fine. I was interested in the focus on universities, which I cover below, as a way to build a wider and denser network of tech hubs across the continent. There’s bound to be a lot of untapped young talent in African universities, particularly in cities without existing tech hubs. My guess is this could have surprising outcomes.

🟡 We had an incredible flurry of news this week, scooping President Biden’s new Africa director and noting the arrival of Amazon to Africa’s e-commerce landscape, while American Express takes a decisive step into Nigeria. In Zimbabwe they’re still working out whether to ZiG or not (sorry, not really), and a Kenya-focused project is selling carbon credits to Netflix and Meta — but not without disrupting local pastoral communities.


The sweetest song ever?

The reported number of albums sold by the Cameroonian-Nigerian artist Prince Nico Mbarga & the Rocafil Jazz, thanks to his one massive hit, “Sweet Mother”. The album, released in 1976, is believed by some to be the biggest selling album ever by an African artist, but it didn’t have a very promising start. Mbarga was turned down by record label EMI and then Decca when he shared his demo. One EMI executive reportedly described it as “childish.” It has since been described as an African anthem even today, nearly 50 years later — particularly in West and Central Africa. At its peak, Sweet Mother traveled far beyond Africa to Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America.The magic of the song is believed to be the adroit blend of familiar Nigerian highlife and Congolese rhumba stylings. The song itself, sung in pidgin English, is a simple love song to a mother and will no doubt do the rounds today in places celebrating Mother’s Day.


South Africa has another go at rebuilding its democracy

National Assembly

When large parts of South Africa’s 150-year old National Assembly buildings in Cape Town were gutted by a fire in January 2022, there was plenty of talk about getting the heart of the country’s democracy back, up and running in no time. As ever with these things, it has taken longer than predicted to get to the stage of seeing a proposed new look for the rebuilt and redesigned structures. This week the secretary to the parliament, Xolile George, provided that update. It included a 3 billion rand ($162 million) bill — up from earlier estimates of 2 billion rand, mainly due to upgrades in the buildings’ new digital infrastructure. The National Assembly building is to be demolished and replaced with a structure resembling a protea, South Africa’s national flower and symbol of parliament. George told parliament this week that the site is now being handed over to the contractors and is expected to be completed within two years.


How to connect Africa’s universities to its tech ecosystems

Yinka Adegoke
Yinka Adegoke

As the African tech ecosystem has grown over the last decade, with founders, startups, and investors laying the groundwork for a digital economy which aims to mirror Silicon Valley’s impact, there have often been questions about one missing element: universities.

Stanford University, for example, is often cited as one of the main hubs that supported the talent that produced Silicon Valley’s early successes, such as Google and Yahoo. This hasn’t been the case in most African tech hubs because few African universities have a close relationship with their local startup ecosystems.

Now the United Nations Development Program’s big bet on supporting African startups — the ambitious $1 billion project it calls timbuktoo — is building out an ecosystem of University Innovation Pods, or UniPods. This is in addition to the hub centers it announced in some of Africa’s leading tech ecosystem hubs like Lagos and Nairobi when it launched in January.

UNDP’s Africa director Ahunna Eziakonwa told Semafor Africa that the idea is to support research and development, enabling “pipeline generation” of talent and ideas. Each UniPod will have a design lab, maker space, and event area on space provided by the university.

The 13 university hosts picked so far are in Benin, Guinea, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia. The timbuktoo African Innovation Foundation was formally incorporated in March in Kigali, Rwanda, with Yemi Osinbajo, Nigeria’s former vice president, appointed as its guardian.

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Staying cool in the library

Parallel Studio

Mariam’s Library, on the East African island of Zanzibar, aims to inspire learning among children in the village of Mwanyanya with its airy, inviting design. It was conceptualized and built by Kuwait-based architecture firm Parallel Studio as part of its Parallel Gives philanthropy program.

The building is designed to capture some of the original Zanzibar architecture and uses sustainable products. It features clay brick walls punctured with holes and a corrugated plastic roof. The clay bricks were chosen by the firm for their high thermal mass which also helps keep temperatures low in hot summer months.

Parallel Studio

The library is internally divided into two areas: one for communal activities, and another for solitary learning. One of its walls is lined with floor-to-ceiling shelving filled with donated books. The library also incorporates circular windows that serve as sculptural reading nooks. A stepped concrete seating area forms a stage for performances and features a pattern of circles in reference to the building’s punctured walls.

Martin K.N. Siele

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Harry talks up mental health in Nigeria

Andrew Esiebo/Getty Images for The Archewell Foundation

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are making a big push to raise mental health awareness while they’re in Nigeria to promote the Invictus Games, a competition the prince set up for wounded military veterans a decade ago.

In separate engagements with children at a local school and military officials, the couple have highlighted the need for more openness in discussing mental health challenges, and learning how to “kick stigma away.” Both Harry and Meghan have discussed their own mental health difficulties in the past.

Members of the British royal family have visited Nigeria more than half a dozen times since Queen Elizabeth II’s tour in 1956, four years before independence. Harry and Meghan are the latest to drop by since King Charles visited in 2018 while still a prince. Meghan can claim a more personal connection with Nigeria — two years ago she said a DNA test showed she was 43% Nigerian.

Their visit could draw attention to mental health in Nigeria as a public health concern requiring deliberate policy intervention. A National Mental Health law, signed last year to replace an antiquated pre-colonial ‘Lunacy Act,’ created a new department within the federal health ministry. It also barred discrimination against people who face mental health challenges. It’s supposed to have ushered in an era of mental health interventions which aim to provide care for those with mental health needs and protect their rights.

Alexander Onukwue in Lagos

Continental Weekend

Weekend Reads

Mother/ Jacana Media

🇧🇼 A reimagined world of African science fiction is presented by Tswana author Tlotlo Tsamaase in her debut novel Womb City, Nedine Moonsamy notes for The Conversation. The author has already helped put her home country Botswana on the literary world map with her short stories, one of which was nominated for the Caine Prize. In Womb City she paints a dramatic picture of a futuristic Botswana where new and old problems abound, despite residents’ ability to “body-hop.”

🇳🇬 In a trip to the southwestern Nigerian town of Igbo-Ora, the country’s self-proclaimed capital of twins, the BBC explores the area’s unique history and cultural relationship with twins. The reported birth rate of twins in Igbo-Ora stands at 45 per 1,000 births, against a global average of 12 per 1,000 births.

🇺🇸 The US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) reportedly fired an employee who raised concerns that a $850 million toll road and bridge between DR Congo and Zambia would displace nearly 10,000 people in Congolese villages, violating the agency’s policy. An investigation published in the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) alleges that DFC was considering the project, set to link valuable cobalt mines in the Congo to the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, when the said employee refused to sign off on it. DFC declined to discuss personnel matters with POGO.

🇲🇿 Fighting in Northern Mozambique is escalating after a lull that lasted most of last year, with conditions worsening for citizens in affected areas, Sophie Neiman reports for World Politics Review. The Islamic State-affiliated Al-Shabaab militant group has waged an insurgency over the last six years that has displaced more than 1 million people in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, with 6,000 lives lost.

🌍 Against the backdrop of last month’s Spring meetings, Zambian economist Grieve Chelwa questions the role of the IMF on African policy making. As Chelwa sees it, the gathering of economic policymakers recommitted to maintaining the current unbalanced global economic order. “In a way these meetings are akin to a religious pilgrimage where adherents renew their commitment to a gospel,” he writes.

Week Ahead

May 13 — South Africa’s Vodacom, which is based in more than 30 African countries, will release full-year earnings result.

Omoeko Media/Creative Commons License

May 15 — Nigeria’s statistics office is expected to release the latest inflation data. It comes as inflation continues to rise with widespread insecurity in food producing areas and exchange rate pressure drives up prices.

May 15-16 — The 17th German-African Energy Forum will take place in Hamburg, Germany.

May 16-17— The 11th Africa CEO Forum will bring together business leaders, investors and policy makers from Africa and around the world to Kigali, Rwanda. Semafor Africa will be there, so email if you’d like to arrange a meeting.

May 16-17 — Kenya will chair the 22nd Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers in London.

May 17 — The $35.4 million money laundering trial of cryptocurrency exchange Binance and its two executives begins in a Nigerian court.

For Your Consideration

May 24 — UNICEF Venture Fund-Gender Responsive Innovation Challenge 2024. This initiative offers startups up to $100,000 to help foster inclusive innovation in Africa. Apply here.

June 16 — Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders Program. Young leaders from around the Atlantic basin and Africa who want to contribute to shaping the regional and global agenda can take part in December in Rabat, Morocco. Apply here.

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— Yinka, Alexis Akwagyiram, Alexander Onukwue, Martin Siele, Muchira Gachenge, and Jenna Moon