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Let’s return the beads

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

"Might just be the coolest invention of the decade", gushed an American from New Hampshire. The idea? A soccer ball that generates electricity. For us poor Africans.

What is it with rich foreigners that they think they need to invent things to help Africans?

Kinetic power is certainly a useful niche application for those who do not have access to an electricity grid. A number of useful variants of the idea to use motive power to generate energy exist. They range from wind-up radios, hand-cranked cellphones, shake-powered flashlights, or village pumps powered by children’s roundabouts.

In this long line of “inventions”, the latest entrant, introduced early this year and field-tested in South Africa during the World Cup, is both more daft and more condescending than most.

A bunch of students in an ivory tower named Harvard – Jessica Lin, Jessica Matthews, Julia Silverman, and Hemali Thakkar – developed a football that contains a simple magnet-and-coil generator. They call it the sOccketball (sic). It weighs more than a standard football, but the supposed upside is that it generates enough electricity to power an LED light for three hours.

This, the inventors believe, can replace more conventional sources of light, such as paraffin lamps. Such lamps are slowly roasting the world to death, which is a dark obsession that troubles the minds of many youths in the rich world. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, Africans are contributing to this disaster but can’t help it because they’re pretty backward, so rich white kids should bravely ride to the rescue.

The sOccketball has garnered gushing coverage, and recently won a “breakthrough” award from a respectable rich-world magazine, Popular Mechanics. Given the entirely ordinary nature of the “invention”, and the many similar ideas that preceded it, what constitutes the “breakthrough” is not immediately clear. It is, after all, only a minor (and fairly useless) variation of a well-established idea. Perhaps the fact that it’s supposed to help poor sub-Saharan Africans influenced the judges.

Here’s how it is supposed to work.

Consider, if you will, one of those poor sub-Saharan Africans who lack electricity, who can afford a new football, and who don’t need a ball of regulation size and weight because face it, they’re never going to make it to the big leagues. A one-dimensional stereotype will do for this purpose.

This person will now gather a whole bunch of people – probably children, since child-labour laws are weak in Africa – and get them to kick this thing around for at least 15 minutes. Then one person, the village’s designated reader, will plug an LED lamp into it, so that she can read for three hours. At 10pm, when the light runs out, the solitary reader either goes to sleep, or rustles up some neighbours to get another game going.

Can’t you just hear the village mothers? “Go on, kids, go out to play. It’s getting dark!”

The idea is not only patently ridiculous, it is also deeply condescending.

Africans are perfectly capable of developing their own solutions to their problems. Examples abound, but few are more stark than the story of William Kamkwamba, “the boy who harnessed the wind”. Stuck without access to the electricity grid, the grade 10 student from Malawi developed a home-made solution to turn a windmill into a generator for lights and pumps. He used scrap metal and easily obtainable parts. The idea grew and expanded, and he has been able to link up with charities to reinvest in his community and the school where he was educated. Kamkwamba knew what he needed, knew what he could afford to use to solve the problem, and set to work.

African inventions to solve African problems tend to work. After all, Africans live here. They know their needs and challenges. Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, rich-world students seem to think they need to assuage their guilt by turning their apparently limited creative abilities to solving the problems of a people they don’t know on a continent they don’t understand. So they come up with daft ideas like the sOccketball. One hopes American taxpayers are proud of the results of their investment in their country’s youth.

As for us, poor sub-Saharan Africans, maybe we can trade them some real soccer balls for some beadwork, to say thanks for thinking about us. There’d be some sweet neo-colonial irony in giving back their beads. DM


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